From the sunny shores of Scotland, John Common speaks to TPG about his retro zombie shoot’em up, Dead Pixels. The one-man show discusses how Dead Pixels came to be, the successes and failures in development, learning to accept criticism and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Dead Pixels.
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. For the most part I’m self taught when it comes to all of this, but I love what I do, and wouldn’t give it up for anything.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Originally I was an Xbox live Indie Games (XBLIG) dev. When Dead Pixels came out I started to receive large amounts of messages from people asking about a pc version. Since the game was made using the XNA framework, the jump to pc was possible. So I became a PC developer. I got into XBLIG development after seeing an article on Kotaku talking a massager games on XBLIG, and all I could think was that I could make better games than that. I then started to teach myself how to make games using the XNA framework.
Where did the idea for Dead Pixels come from?
For a long time the number one selling game on XBLIG was James Silva’s I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1, and because of this people would make similar zombie games. These games would make a little money, but not much, and for the most part they were not good games. I remember looking at one that had walking skeletons in it, and thinking about how these games are not made by fans of zombie media. This got me thinking about making a zombie game myself. The plan was to make a game that fans of zombie films would like. Dead Pixels came out of that.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Dead Pixels?
Dead Pixels wasn’t my first game, but I am still fairly new to games development. Dead Pixels was my most complex and largest project to date, and as a result it’s the one I’ve learnt the most from. If I had to name my biggest success, it would probably be starting playtesting early, and using 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.
Biggest failure would probably managing my time and keeping myself motivated. There were points over the past 2 years where I was completely unmotivated to do things, and then other times where I was too stressed and only getting 4-5 hours sleep a day. I’m hoping that 2013 is going to go better than 2012 in this respect.
In its current form, how close is Dead Pixels to your initial vision?
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. The original idea was also simpler in some ways. You were only going to be able to go in some buildings, and they all had a specific purpose. Butchers would give you food, gun stores would give you ammo, and there would be a specific save store.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Dead Pixels and if you faced a similar challenge.
Dead Pixels went through a large amount playtesting before release and I found most playtesters wanted the game to be easier than what I wanted. Early versions of the game were fairly brutal and would result in players playing for hours without an opportunity to save. Through listening to playtesters I decided to add auto saves and have a guaranteed store every street and this helped a lot. After the Xbox release I added in a hardest difficulty that brought back much of the challenge of the early versions for those that wanted more of a challenge.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Dead Pixels would run on the various PC system configurations?
Because Dead Pixels was made to run on the Xbox 360 I found most modern pcs have few problems running the game performance wise. Post-release I have ran into the odd hardware specific bug, but none of them have been too bad. Overall I’ve been fairly lucky.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Dead Pixels.
I went with pixel art inspired by 8-bit games because it was something I could do by myself. Early on I felt my sprites were a little too plain, so I experimented with adding a slight film like grain to the game similar to Mass Effect’s one. Around that time I watched a documentary on grindhouses and exploitation films, and as an experiment I decided to push the film grain idea further. I then added other grindhouse elements to it. This means Dead Pixels has an odd mix of being inspired by films from the 70’s and 80s and games from the 80’s and 90’s, but it works and most people like it.
I don’t have a musical bone in my body and because I had no money to put towards music at the time, I ended up using music I could get for free or very cheap. Most of the music I used, I had picked out for another game that fell through. I had permission to use the music and it was music I liked, so I went with it. If I could go back I maybe would have used music that fit the art style a bit better, but it ended up pretty good for free.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Answering support emails post-release. Because I’m in the UK, around 1am I would start getting support emails from people in America, and if I wanted to get their problem sorted quickly it meant staying up to 5am most nights. Also dealing with people was sometimes hard. Some were nice about it, and saw I was trying to get the game working for them, but others grew frustrated that it wasn’t working, and the first few things I suggested wouldn’t always work. There was also a language barrier with some users which made just trying to talk to them hard. Google Translate became a site I visited daily.
How did you go about funding Dead Pixels and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Dead Pixels had a budget of pretty much zero. What friends did help with, that I will forever be thankful for is playtesting coop. Developing a coop game as a one man team was not an easy task and while I could test that it worked, without friends that were willing to help with playtesting and recreating bugs I don’t think the game could be as polished as it is now.
Tell us about the process of submitting Dead Pixels to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Getting the game on XBLIG was easy. All I had to do was stick to Microsoft’s rules and pay the fees. About a day or two after the XBLIG release I was contacted by someone from Desura saying that if I made a PC port they would like to have it on Desura. While working on the pc port I was contacted by a representative of the Indie Royal who wanted the game to be the bundles exclusive game which meant launching with the bundle.
But Steam was not as easy to get on. I applied to the old system back in May before the Indie Royal launch in the hopes of having the game launch on Steam at the same time. The launch came and went and I didn’t hear back, so after about 6 weeks of silence and asking other developers for advice, I decided to email them asking if the game had be rejected, or if it was still in their review process. I was surprised to find it still was under consideration. It was the beginning of July when I next heard back from them with an acceptance email. It then took until December to get the game onto steam because of delays.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
When Dead Pixels was originally on XBLIG it was 80msp. This roughly translates to $1. This is not possible on PC. Most distributors have a minimum price, or they may not be interested in your game if the price is too low for them to make money. While many users tell me they would pay more for the game, I made the decision to keep it as close to the $1 price as possible, and try to have more features at launch than the Xbox version did. Looking around it seemed 3dollars/£2 was the lowest price PC games on platforms like Steam go for, so that’s what I went with. Most people see it as still cheaper than a cup of coffee, but unfortunately a minority see it as a 200% price increase.
Can you tell us why you chose to not release a demo for Dead Pixels?
As it’s a requirement of XBLIG the Xbox version had a demo, but it relied heavily on the demo having an 8 minute time limit which Microsoft imposes on all XBLIG demos. I then disabled loading the game in the demo version, and it made a good demo or the game. But the big difference is that the Xbox version unlocks, and this wouldn’t happen on a PC demo. Meaning those that liked the demo would have to re-download everything again if they bought the game. In the end I decided to risk not having a demo and hoped the game was cheap enough, and users would go to YouTube to see the game if they needed to know more.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Dead Pixels from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
One of the things I’m really proud that I done was to make a Facebook page for Dead Pixels, and put a link to it/URL on the main menu. It’s given me this really good way to communicate with fans. Not only do I get feedback from them, but it gives me an easy way to put out announcements. Before I had it, users would find me on all kinds of sites I used personally and leave comments, but the Facebook page gives them a place to go.
When the Steam version launched, the game’s Steam forum has become great for getting player feedback, and finding out about bugs. Normally I’ve had a kind of prime directive (it’s from Star Trek) when it comes to forums. Basically it meant I would read them, but I wouldn’t interfere with them in case I look like a stalker. With the steam forums people expect me to be there, so I don’t feel like a stalker when I post in a thread there, but I still try to let people talk amongst themselves.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Dead Pixels professionally?
When the game first came out I really valued the reviews and the high scores, but as time has gone on, what players say is what I value more. I still read the professional reviews and I’ll take notes about things I can improve, but the scores no longer matter to me. I think it’s just that I’ve reached the point where I know what most people think, so one more persons opinion doesn’t matter as much.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
I actually have been in one already. As I mention earlier, the PC version of Dead Pixels launched with an Indie Royale back in May. On the good side, financially it worked out for me, but on the bad side, I got the feeling that only a small percentage of people that bought the bundle played my game. From the creators point of view there is a certain sadness to that.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I’m never really sure what my opinion of piracy is. I’ve always tried to keep Dead Pixels as DRM free as possible because I know there is nothing I can do to stop piracy and I don’t want to inconvenience legitimate users. It makes me a little sad that users would pirate my game when it is so cheap, but at the end of the day I have a roof over my head and food on my plate so my life can’t be too bad.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Dead Pixels?
I love it. The business man in me sees it as free advertising, and the game maker in me sees it as evidence people are enjoying the game. I don’t watch many of them myself, which I think is just down to me not liking to watch the game being played, because I see the flaws no one else sees.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Just like most things, some is good and some is bad.
I think the best paid DLC is stuff like the Fallout 3 DLC, where it adds new content that gives you multiple hours of new experiences, similar to expansion packs 15 years ago. This extends the life of the game and brings players back for more. On the other hand I have a dislike of small DLC that just adds new equipment and gives it to the player at the start of the game for free. You get this kind of stuff with pre-orders and to me this makes the game easier, which is not what I want. I see a game as a challenge and I don’t want it to be made easier, I want more things to do. But at the end of the day if there are people that want that kind of thing they are free to buy it, it’s just not for me.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Dead Pixels?
For a long time when I was at school I would maybe get 5 new games a year, and what kept me busy was mods for the original Half-Life. So I have a lot of fond memories with mods and making my own levels. As time has gone on, I’ve not played as many mods as I used to. I think last year’s Day Z and Black Mesa mods were the first mods I’d played in a few years. Dead Pixels is not the most flexible of games. Large amounts of it are hard coded, but players could still edit a lot of the games data which is storied in simple text file.
Going forward mod support is something I would like to include in all my future games. When it comes to Dead Pixels 2 I’m putting time into making tools to edit and add things to the game, and I’m making sure it will be flexible. I don’t expect complete conversion mods to be possible, but I expect players to be able to change up the game and make something interesting.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I think the biggest piece of advice I can give new 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. Also try not to make excuses when something isn’t polished.