The Xbox Live Indie Games service has kicked out some brilliant titles over the years, and whilst there’s a lot of flak to wade through, there’s some true gems hidden in there that are well worth picking up: Miner Dig Deep, Avatar Legends, Beat Hazard to name just three.
Into the mix steps Spooky Squid Games with their retro gothic platform fighter They Bleed Pixels, due for release soon. We spoke to Miguel Sternberg, who, alongside Andrij (Andrew) Pilkiw, is one half of the team behind the game, about what inspired this wicked looking game and what he thinks about how the Indie Games platform is handled by Microsoft.
That’s not really the case though, we’re told. “The platforming aspect of the game is actually more inspired by this amazing PC freeware game Knytt Stories,” says Miguel, “which emphasizes precise double jumping and being able to stop on a dime rather than being about building up momentum like Meat Boy.”
I mention N+, another similarly styled title. “We love what those games do, but wanted movement that has a different feel from what people have been playing on the Xbox so far. The N+ folks are actually good friends of ours and we’re both on the board of the Hand Eye Society. HES is a gaming arts and culture organization here in the city that does a lot of cool live events.”
The control scheme was influenced by a title called Nidhogg (which Miguel rates as “outstanding) but the combat is unique. It looks especially deep in the video, despite claims that there’s only one button. We ask Miguel to explain how it works.
“It’s two over all: one button for jump and one for attack,” he says. “The girl does a different move depending on the direction in which you’re pushing, if you’re in the air or on the ground, how long you hold the button etc. For instance if you don’t push a direction when you hit B you’ll do a quick side kick, hold it longer you do a high kick. If you push forward and B you’ll dash into an enemy and start stabbing them.”
“There’s something about that kind of control scheme that I really like,” he tells us. “It takes a moment to acclimatize to but after that I find it makes players think of the moves as very distinct and deliberate actions rather than just a random mashy mess.”
Pixel art is like marmite, except better. It's not for everyone, sure, but we're big fans.
And speaking of cool, I can’t help but gush about the game’s chunky pixel graphics. “I toned down the amount of detail I use for the art in TBP compared to my usual style used for our other games or the Scott Pilgrim vol.4 back cover I did,” replies Miguel. “That means I can really up the amount and fluidity of the animation used in the game. I think it’s paid off. The game ended up looking really unique and has a wonderful sense of motion.”
I ask him why he thinks there’s still relatively few throwbacks to old school visuals out there.
“For some reason pixel art seems to be really divisive,” he says. “A lot of people absolutely love pixel art but there’s a vocal minority that seem to hate the look for whatever reason. I’ve also heard from other pixel artists that many of the large game companies are nervous about using pixel art in their games.”
“It’s mostly because there’s a misperception that it’s cheap to produce and gamers will assume it was done just to cut costs,” Miguel explains. “The actual facts are that it can be a very time consuming art style to do well and there are only a handful of experts in the style compared to vector or 3D art. So it’s not too surprising there aren’t more pixel art games out there.
The music, too, is rather distinctive – 8 bit in style but less so than most takes on retro soundtracks. “We knew we were going to be doing this low-fi pixel art game when Shaun (DJ Finish Him) approached us at a Hand Eye Society social and asked if we were interested in having him score a game,” says Miguel. “On hearing his stuff I knew he’d be perfect. Just like the game’s art, he has this sort of modern take on classic gaming chiptunes.”
The full screen view, complete with all important 'combo' meter in the top left - essential for high scores.
But what about the elephant in the room – the age old question of how Microsoft are handling the whole Indie Games service with regards to promoting key games and helping developers stand out from the rest. “I don’t think anyone’s happy with how they’ve handled promotions,” says Miguel candidly, “because they basically haven’t done any (with some very minor exceptions).”
“Gamers are losing out on some great games like Sequence and Protect Me Knight because they don’t know about them,” he says. “Wading through the huge amount of amateur games on the channel to find the gems is a daunting task. That in turn means the teams creating those games aren’t always making the money they need to keep creating awesome games.”
What could they do? “They really need to take a page out of Apple’s playbook and put up an XBLIG game of the week on the dashboard,” comes the reply. “All that said, I feel the like the quality games on XBLIG are starting to reach a critical mass so it may break out despite Microsoft’s lack of attention.”
Let’s hope so, because games like They Bleed Pixels deserve your attention. We thank Miguel for his valuable time, and wish the studio all the luck when the game releases soon.