Name a major video game developer in Japan, and Dylan Cuthbert just might have a connection to them.
How about his former colleague and "Mario" creator Shigeru Miyamoto circa the early '90s? "He was learning English at the time, and he needed someone to learn English with ... we taught him a lot of words. I can't remember which ones. We actually gave him most of his vocabulary back then."
Fumito Ueda, the guy who oversaw "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus"? Cuthbert knows him.
Star game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi? "A couple of months after he quit Sega," Cuthbert said, "I sent him an e-mail from my Q-Games dot com address. And he sent an e-mail back saying, 'Oh dear. Keep it quiet, but I just [decided to start] a company called Q Entertainment.' I said, 'As long as both try to make the best games we can, I'm OK with it.' "
PlayStation inventor Ken Kutaragi, for whom Cuthbert used to work? "He knew my name and I think that's about the level of it. He's not that hands-on."
Cuthbert, whose Q-Games released "PixelJunk Racers" for the PlayStation 3's downloadable PSN games service last week, is among the most tapped-in non-Japanese game developers to ever work in Japanese game development. Last week the British-born Cuthbert jumped on a Skype call with GameFile from his home in Kyoto, Japan.
He proudly discussed the new game, which is the first of a planned "series of series" designed to do something very different than any other game made for the PS3. He said the "PixelJunk" line will be "a little bit off the common garden path. Stuff we want to make, basically."
But he made it hard to stay on that topic as he demonstrated his trove of insights about the inner workings of legendary Japanese game companies. "PixelJunk Racers" might be cool, but what about working with the 40-member Miyamoto EAD "Mario"-making team, one of three Westerners brought in to help Nintendo learn to program 3-D games at the end of the Super Nintendo days? What was it like being seated at the far end of the EAD Nintendo office, seated near the bathroom where the rest of the team liked to smoke and test out their English?
"They had very strong personalities," Cuthbert said. "All very interesting." How interesting? "They were not the sort to go drinking every night, that kind of flamboyant. They were more very fun and outgoing ... a lot of that comes out in the game. If you've played 'Zelda,' the various postman characters tend to be based on people at Nintendo." What about Tingle, the most eccentric of the "Zelda" universe characters? "That's not someone I know. Someone told me he is based on a person at Nintendo. Where else are they going to get these crazy ideas?"
What was that about "PixelJunk Racers" again?
It's a downloadable, top-down racing game that sells for $7 for the PS3. It's been made to be played with three buttons, two of them used for steering. It was made in six months, a period that ended a couple of weeks ago when the title was finished and Cuthbert got chicken pox. Like the other "PixelJunk" games, it was supposed to be made by three people: a programmer, a designer and an artist. But the team swelled to a whole six or seven people. The game has more than a dozen racing modes. And while it's flat-looking, it's as eccentric as a "Zelda" postman: One mode makes the race car drive faster the more it passes other cars; another makes the car inflatable, like a balloon, propelled only by the release of its air; another allows the player's black car to absorb other black cars when it's black and then switch to white to absorb white cars; one is a race against other players in really slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Cuthbert said he didn't plan to just make "PixelJunk" games unusual, but to use the PS3 hardware in an unusual way. When the system was announced, he assumed most developers would use it to make great 3-D games. "How many people will push 2-D stuff and all the fun ideas from the '80s and '90s [that] got swept up under the carpet while we're in a 3-D craze at the moment?" he said. "I felt a need to go back to my roots and try out some of those old ideas again, but to do them in HD."
The second "PixelJunk" game, subtitled "Monster," will be unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show later this week. A screenshot of "Monster" on the line's Web site suggests it is a strategy game. The third title — also pictured on the site — is "a weird thing," Cuthbert said. It's a collaboration with an artist in Kyoto, a "crazy plant-growing thing." He said it looks amazing in HD. "That's all I can tell you."
If the whole endeavor sounds odd, that's OK. Cuthbert's career has had him on the experimental edge. It's not just that he may well be the first Westerner to work for both Nintendo and Sony in Japan. He also had the privilege of making odd projects like a tech demo of rubber ducks in a bath that was among the first demonstrations of the PlayStation 2's power and, in 2006, worked with four others at Q-Games to make a more-fun-than-it-sounds "organization game" for the Game Boy Advance called "DigiDrive." He helped make "Star Fox 2," a Super Nintendo game that was completed but never released.
Then, a decade later and with his Q-Games team, he made "StarFox Command," which Miyamoto requested to include as many ideas from "Star Fox 2" as possible. Before "PixelJunk," Cuthbert's most-recently released unusual project was the Q-Games-developed official background of the PS3 user interface. It's a flowing bit of silk that flutters in the background of every PS3. He even has another one of those coming: "Fingers crossed, there should be something going in the new version of the [PS3's operating system] version 2. But I can't say what our contribution will be yet. You won't be able to miss this."
In his Nintendo days, Cuthbert learned a lesson from Miyamoto. He describes the designer as "a funny guy. Very, very critical, in a good way. He has a very sharp eye for detail. Any minor problem can be a major problem to the game." Cuthbert has now set up "PixelJunk" to benefit from that same consistency of criticism. The first "PixelJunk" series is set for an initial six-game wave, rolling every couple of months through the summer of next year — an intentionally rapid, repeated cycle of creation and release. "We'll get a load of feedback, good and bad. Hopefully, that will allow us to refine our ideas and feed it back into our next one."
The second "PixelJunk" game is expected for release by the end of the year.
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