An academic trial-by-fire brought five young developers together to create one of the most celebrated student games of 2012, Pulse. Drawing strong inspiration from games like Journey, and with burgeoning professional careers in game development, Team Pixel Pi has reformed as a part-time entity (that is, if you can really call the award- and buzz-filled interim from their graduation to the present a split for the team).
Pixel Pi Level Designer, Richard Harrison, dishes on the process of growing from student to indie and the unique benefits and challenges of pitching a first-person game concept where the main character is blind.
The Team and the Games
Isaac Calon: What’s the Team Pixel Pi origin story?
Richard Harrison: The five of us originally come from drastically different backgrounds, but closely shared interests that ultimately led us all to the same place: the Vancouver Film School Game Design program. We became close friends during our time as classmates, which played a large part in forming the team for our final project in the program, called Pulse. The game took off after school finished, and so did we—in many different directions in the games industry—but we’ve all remained in Vancouver and have decided to bring the team back together for our next big project.
Team Pixel Pi
Isaac: Pulse is your first game as a team, existing currently as a short demo you created as your final student project at Vancouver Film School. Why not give us the elevator pitch?
Richard: Pulse is a first-person experiential journey in which you are blind. Using a process similar to echolocation, you are able to use sounds in the environment to create a mental reconstruction of the world around you. You’ll encounter cute little creatures called Mokos whose noises provide additional “vision” when in need, and some help when confronting other, more terrifying creatures. The world shifts and becomes clearer based on the information provided by your senses, which means that there is often a distinct difference between what you “see” versus what is actually there.
Isaac: Pulse was, is, and may continue to be enormously successful, providing your student team with buzz and attention for nearly a year now. Why did people key in so readily to Pulse as a project? Was it hard to sell early on?
Richard: Ironically, Pulse’s core concept was both the strongest and toughest thing to sell. On the plus side, there was a lot of intrigue that arose simply when we mentioned that the main character is blind. Based solely on that, most people took the time to find out how that’s possible in a first-person game, which meant we already had a foot in the door. It also garnered a lot of attention from people who don’t normally play games—they saw it and played it more out of curiosity than anything else, which was amazing!
On the flip side of that, it was hard to convince people that our character was actually blind when they’re seeing things on the screen. It raised a lot of questions about the game, but once people actually got their hands on it and used the “echolocation” mechanic, they usually had those questions answered. We took a lot of creative liberties in creating a blind experience, but it really plays with your senses, and that’s ultimately what we were aiming for.
Isaac: Independent game development studios are popping up all over the place, and some are starting to rival small triple-A studios in size. Most, however, start small, like you guys. What are the most common pitfalls of working as a small, independent team? Are there differences for you guys between working as a small student team and now working for yourselves?
Richard: As the industry shifts, the line between independent and triple-A studios gets very thin. There are some key differences, but many of the struggles are shared between both. As you can probably imagine, project scope is a dangerous beast. Making sure that you’re planning a project that your team can handle is immensely important, especially for small studios, and even more so for those that are self-funded.
When we were in school we didn’t have to worry about funding, but with a fixed (very short) development time, we did have to worry about project scope. We learned a lot from that experience and had the opportunity to take big risks, which is invaluable now that money has become an added factor. Collaborators and tools aren’t at our finger tips anymore so everything has an added weight to it.
An early prototype gameplay trailer for Pulse
The Indy Touch
Isaac: What's the best thing about being an indie shop and/or what's the best thing about working in an indie shop?
Richard: Pants are optional. Also, creative control is a huge draw, and not just in game design but also in production. We weigh our own pros and cons and decide if we’re going to put in the extra blood, sweat, and tears to make it work. Even if those choices lead to significantly more work for the team, having that kind of freedom ensures that we’re doing what we’re doing because we love it, and the whole environment is happier for it.
Isaac: Where do you see indie gaming going? Is it the new big thing? Alternatively, where do you see triple-A gaming going?
Richard: The industry is changing, there’s no doubt about that. The barrier to entry for making games was all but torn down with the introduction of new gaming platforms, and as a result, triple-A games had some of their audience diverted elsewhere. However, the barrier to entry for playing games has also crumbled, and now the gaming audience has changed even more than the industry itself.
Indie gaming is a volatile substance right now, currently at a very high point. It’s got good crowd appeal, and is carving out a nice permanent spot in everyday gaming. As a percentage, triple-A studios hold less of the market than they once did, but they’re not going anywhere. Both will coexist for long enough that eventually the products will become hard to differentiate. We’re already seeing it happen in some places.
The best result of all of this change is the broadening of gaming genres. With more diversity in gamers there is now more diversity in games themselves. For us, this is an opportunity to explore beyond the “fun” in games, and experiment with more emotionally engaging experiences.
Isaac: What was your scariest moment as an indie developer?
Richard: Realizing that your job depends on the whole team, and the whole team’s jobs depend on you. Every day. It’s like having five people cook the same steak, and if somebody burns it you’re all fired. As a positive side-effect though, we all trust in each other more than we can possibly express. We’re tighter for it, not just as co-workers, but as friends.
Isaac: What was your most rewarding moment as an indie developer?
Richard: That definitely has to be the moment when we discovered all the “Let’s Play” videos of Pulse on YouTube. Witnessing the totally candid reactions people had to our game was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives, never mind just as an indie developer. When somebody we don’t know has an emotional response to our game, we’ve accomplished everything we ever set out to do.
Isaac: What’s next for Team Pixel Pi?
Richard: As a student project we took Pulse as far as we could, but there is so much more to explore. The game has lived with us since its completion almost a year ago, and now we want to take it to the next level. We’re treating what we have as a prototype for what will ultimately become the full Pulse game. However, there are a lot more strings attached to the project now that we’re not in school anymore–purse strings–which is why we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. We’re hoping to raise the funds we need to build the Pulse we’ve always wanted.