Dead Pixels is one of those indie co-op gems that serves as an example for why this feature got started on Co-Optimus. Six months after Dead Pixels made its debut on the Xbox Live Indie Games scene, the 8-bit styled zombie shooter found its way onto Desura and eventually Steam. That is a quite a successful run for a small game that, as one-man development team John Common put it, "had pretty much a budget of near nothing." To get a little further insight into some of Dead Pixels' success, the road it traveled, and the man behind it all, we recently spoke with John about the game and what's next for his development studio, CSR Studios.
Co-Optimus: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into game development.
John Common: My Name is John Common, I’m from rural Scotland, and I’m the one man team behind CSR-Studios and Dead Pixels. I do pretty much everything, from marketing and editing trailers to games design, programming and art. I got into games development because it was something I wanted to do, and I hoped it would lead to something, or at least give my CV a boost.
Co-Optimus: Dead Pixels was your first game to have seen a major surge in popularity and has been out for a little over a year now; first on Xbox Live Indie Games, then Desura on the PC, and recently on Steam. All told, how long was the game’s development cycle? How did you manage to sustain its development/handle the costs?
John: Dead Pixels was actually my 4th released game, it’s just no one remembers the flops. There’s also been 4-6 unfinished or unreleased games that few people know about.
Development on Dead Pixels started in February 2011, about 7 months before the release on Xbox. After that it became hard to track how much time went into development, and what went into things like working on marketing, the website and other things. At this point I estimate it’s taken 13-14 months to get the game where it is now. When it came to money, Dead Pixels had pretty much a budget of near nothing. Anything I couldn’t do myself I would try to get for free or as close to free as possible. During development I was constantly reminded of the Steve Martin and Eddie Murphie film, "Bowfinger," where a director is trying to make a film on as little money as possible.
Co-Optimus: From a big picture view, what do you feel you got right with the game? What about what went wrong during its development? Are there certain things you wish you could go back and completely change?
John: I think what I really done right was taking in feedback from playtesters and adjusting the game so it was what they wanted, as well as fitting my vision for what the game should be. A lot of things like the speed the player walks at were tweaked multiple times during testing to get it at just the right speed where both I and playtesters were happy. I think If I had made the game without playtesting it would not be the hit it has became.
The thing that went really wrong for me was probably managing my time after the xbox release. I ended up pushing myself way too hard trying to add more content, and this lead to a lot of stress and some depression. This meant that some of my work I put out at that time wasn’t as good as it should have been. I still haven’t found the perfect balance between work and rest, but hopefully it’s something I will crack in the near future.
If I could go back and change anything I probably would have coded the game with online coop in mind. It’s the number one asked for feature on both PC and Xbox, and because of the way the game was coded, it’s just not possible to add it in without rewriting the whole game.
Co-Optimus: When the game was first released, it only had the campaign mode with promises of additional content, which you delivered, should sales of the game hit certain levels. Was your plan from the start to get this game out there and see what kind of reaction it would get; a sort of test case game? Did you have another plan in place for what to do next?
John: Basically, the reason I decided to do it that way was that after spending 7 months working on it, I was beginning to worry that I had became too close to the game, and couldn’t see that it was a bad game. It’s something that happens all the time to developers, but I was coming up with more ideas, and I decided to not work on them until I knew if the game would be a flop. I remember the first goal was 3,000 sales, and I hit that in a few days. The second goal was to get 10,000 sales which was my lifetime sales target. It’s funny to think the game has now over 60,000 sales on Xbox and it still gets an average of 100 a day over a year after release, but back then I just hoped to get 10,000 before people forgot about it.
Co-Optimus: What was involved with the game’s transition to those other (i.e., Steam and Desura) digital platforms and how did it happen? Were the sales on XBLIG good enough to make something like that easier, or did you know you’d move to the PC no matter what?
John: The coding wasn’t too painful. Dead Pixels was coded with the XNA framework so it could already run on PC. Most of my time went into adding support for 3rd party pads and mouse control of menus. It was time consuming, but not particularly hard.
When it came to getting on Desura and in the Indie Royale, I didn’t need to do much. I was basically contacted by them, and the process was pretty easy. Getting the game setup on their services wasn’t too hard either.
Getting on Steam was a much slower process. I applied to the old system around May. I basically gave them sales numbers for the xbox version, links to reviews (including the Co-Optimus review) and a beta copy of the game. I submitted this about a month before the PC release in the hopes that would be enough time, but the release came and went and I still hadn’t heard back. I decided to email them to check if their silence meant they weren’t interested, and was told the game was still in their review process.
Around July I finally heard back with their acceptance. After that there were quite a few delays due to Valve’s switch to the Greenlight application process. People often joke about Valve Time, I kind of feel like I experienced it as I applied in May and it was December when the game finally launched. It meant I had to work on other things while waiting, and then return to the game once things got moving again.
Co-Optimus: Looking at the game itself, how did you achieve that film grain effect? It’s a really nice touch that invokes the classic zombie films of the 70s.
John: It started off as an experiment. I added a little film grain, because I felt my sprites at the time were too plain. I then decided to take it further after watching a documentary on grindhouses and exploitation films. So I then added pixilated scratches that were placed randomly on the screen, and the vertical scratches. I also made it a little darker at the edges to make it look like a projection. It looked good at that but still wasn’t quite right. After watching some old films I tried adding a slight green tint to the finished image, and that completed it. Originally I was worried it would annoy people, so I included the option to turn it off, but so far I’ve only had one person tell me they used that option.
Co-Optimus: Speaking of the classic zombie films, I lost count of the number of nods, winks, and other tips of the hat to not only zombie movies but zombie video games as well. Did any of these influence the overall design of the game, or did you just want to make a little shout out to them all? Anything that was a specific source of inspiration for you?
John: It was kind of 50/50. The gameplay, and art style was heavily influenced by films and zombie games. I don’t think the game would be the same way if I wasn’t a fan of zombie films. When it comes to nods to zombie media, I’m the kind of person that loves references. Some of my favorite comedies are the ones like Spaced that are filled with references to movies and TV shows. I think it’s just down to the fact that I’ve watched a lot of TV growing up, so I get more references than most people. So because I had full control of Dead Pixels, I decided to fill it full of references, just because I could. I really like when someone points out a reference that no one else has mentioned, and I love looking through the thread on the Dead Pixels Steam forum that lists the references people think they have found.
I think the thing that got the most obvious references and inspired the gameplay the most was the Resident Evil series of games. I’m a big fan of the original Resident Evil, and I felt if I was including references to zombie games, Resident Evil had to have a big place within my game. Nearly all the guns within Dead Pixels are named after Resident Evil characters from the first game, and there is a bit of an order to the names. It’s probably the reference most people get as all players read the names of the guns to know which gun they just found.
Co-Optimus: Was the decision to make the game cooperative made early on in the development, or did it come later? What were the challenges of going from one player to two?
John: I’m the kind of guy that owns quite a few games consoles, but most of my friends don’t. When they come round, local coop games are what we usually play. From early on I knew I wanted Dead Pixels to have local coop, but I was probably 3 months in before I actually added it. I wanted to make the game fun single player before worrying about coop, but I kept it in mind when working on things like the UI. I think the biggest challenge was being a one man team, testing coop was a problem. A lot of the time I would test with 2 control pads, and a hand on each. This allowed me to make sure things worked, but I needed to wait for friends to come round to test things properly. Most of the coop bugs came from the store and problems with one user buying something which affected the other player.
Co-Optimus: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during this whole process? Anything you’d like to share with other indie developers?
John: I think the best pieces of advice I can give other devs is to learn from your mistakes, and listen to other people. I’ve seen far too many devs get too close to a project, refuse to the see the flaws, and as a result they never improve. You have to know when you are wrong to be a good game dev. One of the biggest lessons I learned was to start playtesting early, and use it to make the game as good as possible. I always tried to take in what all testers were saying, and find a compromise between what they wanted and what I wanted the game to be, and I feel it worked out really well.
Co-Optimus: At the end of it all, how close were you to achieving/matching what you had set out to do?
John: The original idea for Dead Pixels was much closer to rogue-like games. It would have had permadeath and a more serious tone. You had to find food to survive, and the goal was just to survive as long as possible. Like most games that changed over time. A lot changed over development, but I feel like most of the big stuff, like making a game for fans of zombie films and making it fun in both coop and single player, I did succeed in doing. There were some ideas that I would have liked to have done, but didn’t get round to for one reason or another, but they all went into a note book, and may appear in future games.
Co-Optimus: What’s next for you? I know you’re currently working on a sequel to Dead Pixels, Dead Pixels 2; how far along have you gotten on that? Is it easier going with Dead Pixels under your belt?
John: This year most of my focus will be going into Dead Pixels 2, but do I have 2 smaller projects I’d like to work on too. I have put some time into Dead Pixels 2 already, but it’s still early days. I had to put it on hold while I worked on the steam version, but I’m hoping to get back to it in the next week or two. On one hand it is easier working on DP2 because I have the original game as a sort of pattern to look at and recreate, but on the other hand I’m having to rewrite everything and I’m having to be a little more forward thinking than I was when I made the original. With the original it was a learning process where things were being added as I went, but with DP2 I know a lot of things I want from the start, and I’m planning ahead for them.
We'd like to thank John for taking the time to answer all of our questions and sharing some of his trials and tribulations with us all. We eagerly look forward to his next project, Dead Pixels 2, and whatever else he may have in store. Dead Pixels is available for XBLIG and PC via Desura or Steam.