Interview by Adam Riley :: Friday, 15th February, 2007
The Pickford Brothers have an illustrious career in the gaming industry and have recently formed a new company by the name of Zee-3. Cubed3 was lucky enough to catch up with Ste Pickford for a quick chat.
Cubed3: First of all, can you give our readers a little bit of an idea about how far back your gaming Industry roots go, please?
Ste Pickford: John and I have been making games for over 22 years. John started out as a 'bedroom code' in the early 1980s, writing games for his ZX Spectrum while still at high school, and we both worked at an early development studio in Manchester called Binary Design in the mid 1980s, which churned out dozens of 8-bit home computer games.
C3: How did you feel after the seemingly unfair treatment and eventual demise of Zed Two? And how good does it feel to be back?
SP: I'm not sure I'd want to call what happened to Zed Two unfair treatment. Business is business. I do think we've never really had a lucky break though. We've done quite a few pretty decent games over the years, any of which might have been a big hit if the wind had been blowing in the right direction for us or we'd had the rub of the green, and one big hit would have given us the clout and the cash to get much better games made from then on. We've certainly seen worse games than ours, and worse developers, do very well by being in the right place or having the right game on the right platform at the right time. But that's life. We're always optimistic that our next game might do well, but we've never really been chasing commercial success, we've always just been trying to make the best games we can. Although without commercial success it's hard to be able to afford to make great games!
It doesn't feel like we're back, as we've never been away, although Zee-3 and The Pickford Brothers feels like a bright, fresh start. We've given up on trying to continually pitch new game ideas to publishers who are only interested in copies of last years hits, and are just getting on with making the new game ideas without interference. It means the work is ten times more enjoyable now than it ever was, but it's tough to pay the bills! We're enjoying making games more than we ever have, and I think our first indie game -- Naked War -- is the best game we’ve ever made.
Q: After a considerable time in the Industry you will have witnessed a remarkable amount of changes in terms of leadership in the market. What are your thoughts on the current state and do you feel that Nintendo can win its share back with the DS and Wii?
I’ve always been a big fan of Nintendo, because they make the best games, so it was a bit sad to see them sidelined a little with the GameCube, especially as they were still making brilliant games for that system, and the success of their rivals seemed to be down to dull sports games, brown FPSs and boring realistic driving games.
As a fan of video games I think what’s gone wrong with the industry can all be traced back to the introduction of CD Roms, and the rise of ‘content’. The work of a game developer or game designer used to be all about game mechanics and gameplay -- new games were generally about refining or inventing new game mechanics to delight the player. Levels and graphics were often secondary. When CD Roms appeared we were suddenly expected to fill half a Gig of storage space with content when previously we had less than a 10th of that. This led to the formation of standing armies of artists, level designers, modellers and cut scene animators being needed. When you have a massive team of content creators hungry for work, and a deadline to meet, its very hard to experiment with game mechanics as a tweak here or there might mean throwing away man-months of lovingly crafted, hyper realistic, beautifully textured corridors. Consequently, as games have got bigger and more beautiful on the surface, they’ve got more and more conservative and safe in their game mechanics. With almost every publisher and manufacturer trying to compete on the size and production value of their games, everything has been focused on content rather than gameplay. For somebody who designs games this has become a very difficult industry to work in -- nobody wants game designs, they want flashy new content hung around existing game designs.
What Nintendo have done with the DS, and are now doing with the Wii (and, to be fair, Microsoft to a certain extent with XBLA), is to make smaller scale games, games based around gameplay and game mechanics rather than graphics and content, commercially viable again. With new input methods they’ve virtually forced players to demand new game mechanics to utilise the touch screen or the Wiimote, and by stepping out of the high-tech race have shown that you don’t need them most expensive graphics to make great, fun, entertaining -- and most importantly, successful - products
The world of PlayStation and Xbox is the world of the Hollywood summer blockbuster movie. They’re great, and we all love them in their place, but to have to watch nothing but big dumb blockbuster movies would be dreadful. Nintendo are helping to create some space in the market, and awareness, of other types of product; smaller, cheaper, quirkier games, and putting gameplay ahead of production value, which I think is a great thing for the whole industry.
Q: On your website it is stated that you wish Sticky Balls would have been a DS project rather than a PSP game. Do you still hold the rights to the game and if so will you be considering starting such a project?
We don’t hold the rights to the game. One of the great tragedies of video games is how so few creators hold any rights in their work. We plan to return to the core ideas which inspired some of our past games, like Sticky Balls and Wetrix, and create new games which build upon and refine those ideas, but which we retain ownership of. Without a proper commercial release, Sticky Balls is the ideal candidate to get this treatment first.
Q: Plok seems to have reached legendary status amongst a select group of the gaming community (myself included). Do you look at a character like Rayman and wonder what might have been?
Hehe, yeah. Something like Rayman is what I was talking about earlier when I said we’ve never had a lucky break. I don’t think the first Rayman was an especially great game, but it was released by a publisher with a long term vision, with faith in its designers and developers, and with had the courage to continue with the series. Now they’re rewarded with a world famous successful franchise, a launch game on Wii etc., and good luck to them -- they deserve it.
We were always in the position of trying to get original games off the ground with publishers who didn’t have a long term vision, who were just looking at this quarter’s bottom line, or who were looking for the cheapest devco they could hire, so we’ve never been fortunate enough to have somebody stick with us and fund us for a second or third version of a game, and give it a chance to grow an audience. We’ve been starting from scratch over and over again and never been able to build up any commercial momentum.
Q: And will you fulfil the desires of the many by resurrecting either Plok or Fleapit at some point, be it on the DS, Wii or Virtual Console?
That’s unlikely at the moment. We’ve stepped out of the mainstream console development business because, unless you’ve got a lot of cash or a successful franchise behind you, it’s not an easy business in which to design video games. To become a licensed console developer (getting access to devkits & tools) with any of the manufacturers you need offices, and staff with good track records. To support staff you need to pay their wages, obviously, and to pay them you need work. So independent console developers have to take on work to survive, and because pitching original games is rarely successful, this work is inevitably conversions, sequels or license games. I’ve spent years running dev studios making license games just to fund the occasional shot at making an original game like Wetrix or Future Tactics, and it wears you down. Especially when the original game - the game you really want to make - has to suffer to get the licensed game out on time. So we’re not interested in forming another console dev studio and taking on more license games or conversions, just so we can maybe have a shot at doing one of our own games a few years down the line.
Instead we’re going to make our own games ourselves on PC, and sell them online. If we can then license them to other publishers or developers for console versions, we’ll do that.
Plok is definitely a game we want to come back to, but its about 4th or 5th on the list (and that’s not counting new game ideas we have), and we’d probably come up with something fairly new, rather than just convert the old game to DS, or make some new levels.
Q: What about the Virtual Console aspect of the Wii in general? What are your thoughts about bringing any games you hold the rights to onto the system?
I don’t know what the situation is regarding development access to the virtual console. On the face of it it’s a potentially great opportunity for developers like us to bring smaller scale games to an audience, but as with XBLA, I’m not aware of Nintendo actually making devtools available to non-licensed developers, so it doesn’t seem like an open door yet
Q: Or even the idea of creating something new for release on the VC, since Nintendo is trying to push the idea of more creative titles that may be too much of a risk to publish at retail being launched through the service? It seems to be a perfect fit for what you talk about on Zee-3.com.
Yes, it would be great to get a game on there. Naked War would be perfect for Nintendo’s online service as well, as a messaging game like ours would go well with their concept of leaving your console permanently connected to the internet and feeding you new content overnight. Naked War would be fun with your own Mii characters in there as well!
Q: In fact, surely the idea of something like WiiConnect24 would appeal to you as well, with gamers signing up just the once and then receiving a steady supply of updates whilst they sleep?
Yep, it would be great. It all depends on whether Nintendo will allow access for people like us who aren’t large, licensed development studios.
Q: Nintendo is very keen to work with a variety of developers nowadays, especially British ones, handing out large franchise names such as Mario and Metroid to Fuse Games, as well as Advance/Battalion Wars to Kuju. Is there any chance you would contact Nintendo about working on a similar deal? Kid Icarus is crying out for a creative comeback…
We’ve spent so many years knocking on people’s doors with game ideas or development plans, and getting knocked back because we weren’t pitching clones of last years hits, that we’re all pitched out. Our focus now is to get our heads down and make some great games of our own, which we can be proud of, and which we own, and to get them in front of an audience. If somebody came to us and asked us to work on a game or a concept then we’d certainly listen, but we’re not out there trying to grab work or contracts -- we’re just focussed on making our own games at the moment.
Q: Ste, looking through your eight favourite games, it is quite clear you are somewhat of a Nintendo fan. What do you feel gives that company the edge over its competitors?
From what I understand of how they make games, it’s the development method they use which is the key. In the west, and in all my experience of working as a developer for hire, the method generally revolves around either designing the game first on paper, getting that approved by your publisher and then developing that design, or making a sample level, getting that approved, then making the rest of the game in accordance with the sample level.
This seems sensible, but is actually a terrible way to design a game. It’s that way for business reasons; for the benefit of a publisher who doesn’t trust the developer (usually with good reason), and who is looking for proof, guarantees of ability, of what the finished product will look like etc.
It means that developers have to make all the key decisions about gameplay and game mechanics right at the start, either on paper (the worst possible way to design gameplay), or in the rushed first level which basically has to have the full game working in a fraction of the development time, and which is generally judged upon appearance, so the graphics always come ahead of gameplay when making this first level. Then, the rest of the dev time is spent mechanically making content, with the designer desperately trying to tweak and improve the gameplay as much as possible within the bounds dictated by the expensive content already built.
The Nintendo method, as it’s been described to me, is much more focused on how to make a good game, with content secondary. The programmers and designers work on game mechanics and gameplay. Say, with a Mario game there might be somebody working on Mario’s core control and moves, someone working on Yoshi and how he controls, someone working on different ideas for moving platforms, or different ideas for baddies. They’re not making level 1, and level 2, etc from the beginning, but working on a collection of fun game mechanics. Then, about half way through they collect together what they have, maybe throw away what doesn’t work, maybe remove some great ideas which are incompatible with others and save them for another game, and look at the collection of game mechanics they have left. Then, with these -- a collection of 20 or 30 playable features -- they plan a game around them, plan the levels and the content that they will need, and set to work with a big team building it all. What’s unusual here, compared to the western method, is that the plan of the whole game -- the content -- doesn’t exist at the beginning. They wait and see what game mechanic ideas they come up with, and only design the content around the successful ones that have proved to be fun. Although there is less time making content, all the content is based around fully working and fun game mechanics (so little needs to be thrown away and redone as mechanics are revised), and there is time to experiment with new mechanics, which isn’t possible when you have to start making content from day one.
Q: Currently you are working on PC titles that will be distributed online, such as with your new title Naked War. Is this a long-term stance or will you be venturing into the console world once more at some point?
We don’t see this as stop gap before returning to consoles, we see this as the best way to make games and to experiment with new game ideas. The industry is constantly changing though, so who knows? We just want to make good games, and will work in whatever environment allows us to make the best games with the fewest compromises. Currently that’s the world of PC indie games.
Q: How do you think the gaming community will respond to your new business approach and how do you plan to get yourselves heard across the Industry?
Well, obviously I hope we’ll be well received, and our games noticed and played, and we’re talking about what we’re doing to everyone who’ll listen, but most of our energy is going into making games not doing PR. Hopefully the games will speak for themselves, and find their own audience.
Q: Do you feel sometimes that gaming is in actually going backwards rather than progressing? For example, with the idea of including advertising within games could we be harking back to the days when games actually took longer to load due to the adverts placed on the actual loading screen itself?
Heh, yeah, there are some very unpleasant, anti-customer ideas floating about, but that’s life I suppose. I think games in general took a massive step backwards when we switched from 2D to 3D. Although graphics and realism levels zoomed forward, 3D was so hard to develop in, and the tools were so poor, than gameplay took about three steps backwards when we went from the SNES / Megadrive to the PlayStation / N64, with only the odd special title like Mario 64 being comparable with the games of the previous generation. Some games look incredible now, but I think we’re only just catching up with the SNES era now in 3D, in terms of gameplay.
Q: Overall, who do you think the big winner will be in the next generation of systems?
I’ve no idea. The only thing which seems certain in this industry is change. Atari were top once, and now they’re gone. Commodore were top once, and now they’re gone. Nintendo were top once, then they lost that crown to Sony. I think that simply being top already, and having the best loved and most well known brand isn’t enough alone to guarantee you’ll stay top, as those companies listed above prove, but beyond that I don’t really know. I hope it’s not about winning or losing next generation, but of widening the market to allow different types of games, small and big, original and safe, to flourish side by side. I don’t think Nintendo see themselves as being in a war; the only war is between Sony and Microsoft, and I wouldn’t like to call that one.
Q: Where do you both see yourselves in the next ten years?
In my most optimistic moods, exactly where I am now; sat at home designing and developing games all day with my brother, but with a couple of successful games behind us and enough money to pay all the bills.
In my most pessimistic moods; sat at home in the evenings designing and developing games in my spare time with my brother, but working on the bins all day to pay the bills!
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
Sorry for the delay in answering!
Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions -- it has been a pleasure!