Posted April 5, 2015 by Peter in Development

The story of A Pixel Story

A Pixel Story logo
A Pixel Story logo

A Pixel Story launched at the start of last week, a modern-yet-retro platformer that doesn’t hide meta-knowledge of its sources of inspiration. There was also a launch party held at Channel 4′s headquarters in London, and Games Fiends was there, able to pick up some of the story behind A Pixel Story.

The evening had a Q&A session hosted by Colin Macdonald, Channel 4′s Games Commissioning Editor since the post was created in 2011. Pixel Story was originally an entry in Dare to be Digital in 2012, being well enough received to get recognition from both Channel 4 and BAFTA.

Dare to be Digital is a games development challenge, with around a dozen teams of five game development students hosted and supported by Abertay University between June and August; their goal is to develop a prototype game, which is then played and judged by a mixture of industry veterans and general public.

However, there is one problem. “I can count on the fingers of one hand how many games have come out,” Colin told everyone. The teams make prototypes, but the games rarely progress beyond this, which Colin wanted to change.
A Pixel Story screen
As such, in 2012 (and in 2014 – no contest ran in 2013) Channel 4 offered an additional prize fund to one team, with the goal of taking it beyond the concept right through to release (and hence Channel 4′s hosting of the evening).

Lamplight Studios won. Well, Loan Wolf won, the name the team ran with in the contest before deciding to change it (“It just made it look like we didn’t know how to spell”). The game’s name changed too, albeit more subtly, from Pixel Story to A Pixel Story, although the underlying concepts were clearly there too (as this teaser from the contest shows).

The pixel in question is the ball in a Pong-like bat-and-ball game, which glitches out of its game and is given a more humanoid form. This is needed to complete an adventure, progressing through a computer system made up very knowingly of game genre clichés, moving ever closer to the system’s core. However, the levels move through eras of gaming – basic 8-bit, more polished 16-bit and so on, representing the more processing power available.

The 8-bit section reminds me of the Master System palette, lots of flat colours and everything being basic shaped platforms; the 16-bit levels adding more detail and resolution, as well as additional physics. The next progression brought back memories of 32-bit era platformers – I specifically name dropped Oddworld to team member Martin Cosens, but he named Braid as a visual inspiration, a game the entire team credit as a favorite.
A Pixel Story screen
Development has clearly been a learning process for the team, with this as their first released title, and this has led to some slipping of release dates. When the team were asked if they’d known how long the game would take to make, the answer came quickly – “yes – it was going to take three months!”.

More than two and a half years later, I asked how they’d kept motivated during development, and was told this was countered with meetings “every two or three months.”

“And after those meetings we’d feel like there’s a deadline, it feels like the goal’s in front of you. You attack that goal… and then we’d kind of do a mind job on ourselves where as that deadline came, and we just drifted straight past it, we’d be all right with that for two or three months. [...] And then it’d come to a head again because people… obviously we’d run out of money again or frustrations would boil over, and then we’d have another one of those meetings and that’s kind of the odd cycle we’d done from start to finish.”

When Colin was asked how Channel 4 had felt about the slippage, he was generally positive. As there was no deadline required on the project – compared to items needed for transmission, for example – he’d been ok to let the team work. His reply carried a degree of watchful concern, more worried that they might go out of business in the process and suggesting he should have set a more firm deadline “for [their] own good, not necessarily because it would have helped me.” But as a bottom line, he is pleased with how the extra time went into the game. “I look at the game we’ve got and it’s amazing, it’s ten times better than the game we had a year ago, and forty times better than the game two years ago. So it depends how you look at it.”

The core element of gameplay, beyond basic platforming, is the “magical teleportation hat” (as the trailer describes it). This can be dropped wherever you are, and warped back to with a button press – ideal for making it through closing doors, as a safety precaution when exploring, a means to perform double jumps (as momentum is preserved when teleporting), and other tricks.

This wasn’t the only major mechanic during development, with the team often adding things due to worry the game needed more of something. “We threw a lot of mechanics out,” we were told by the team during the Q&A. “I remember one conversation where we kind of threw out all the ideas for different mechanics and had to trim a lot of them down because it was just insane. Like, we’ve already got far more mechanics than we originally intended.”
A Pxiel Story screen
The team received advice from the Pickford brothers, veterans of the games industry since the early 80s and still making games now. It was advice from them that helped regain focus on the core game. “When they came in we were naively thinking about what we wanted to say to them, we were saying “we’re a bit worried we’re light on mechanics.” And we showed them the game as we had it at the time, and he just sat there and said “You’ve basically got seven or eight games. What are you doing? The hat is a mechanic; everything else [...] isn’t necessary, you can make another game.””

The team funded the game with the award from Channel 4, and supplemented with money from second jobs, as well as continuing tricks to live cheaply from their student days – a lot of noodles were eaten in development. Kickstarter was discussed, but emphatically dismissed – stories of projects ending up costing more than they gain due to imbalanced reward tiers was off-putting, as was the time it would take arranging things such as boxed copies. Running a Kickstarter was deemed to be “more effort than making the game.”

Early access was also skipped, with a more mixed opinion. While not desired for funding, in retrospect the team regretted not getting people playing the game earlier in development. “There’s a line between early access and getting some people testing the game and playing it early. The biggest piece of advice I would have given to myself three years ago is “get as many people playing your game for as long as possible.””

The team held off showing the game until it looked more presentable, and when looked back on “we were essentially waiting for a finished game, which is not how games work.” The first public showing was at Insomnia in April 2014, letting them see how players got on with it. “It hits that the way you intended people to play the game is not the way they’re even slightly playing it! And that thing that you think was great and was really obvious… isn’t even slightly obvious. That’s exactly the kind of thing that comes up from exposing it to people.”

Nevertheless, all of these elements were pulled together, and A Pixel Story was released last Monday. As Johnny Mitchell explained at Rezzed, starting making a game is easier than finishing it, and this is clearly how Lamplight Studios found it too. But on completion, the sense of struggle was clearly appreciated. Looking back, development was summed up – “a lot of the time you’re thinking “well, yeah – we’re making it but is it ever really going to come out?” And then it does. And it is. People are playing it. People are actually playing it! Carl said this yesterday – “we have actually made a game.” And that sounds like a pretty banal thing to express, but to our team members it felt like this is just some random thing we were doing and it’s come together and now it’s actually a game.”

A Pixel Story is available now via Steam.


Peter can be described as an old, hairy gamer, a survivor of the console wars of the 1990s, and a part-time MMO addict. He has an especial fondness for retro gaming and observing the progressions in long running gaming series. When scandalously not caught gaming, he can also be found reading comics and fantasy fiction, or practising terrible photography.