As an online multiplayer game with platforming, RTS and tower defence elements within, PixelJunk Inc may be Q-Games’ most ambitious title yet. And at the heart of it all is a steaming bowl of soup. Just as mankind mined for Unobtainium at the expense of Avatar’s indigenous aliens, PixelJunk Inc plops you on a hostile planet where you generate matter from the plantlife, monsters and environment to build and automate a soup factory. Profits unlock blueprints for new components, or upgrade parts of your factory or your defences, making your empire ever more lucrative and efficient.
Due for PC (via Steam) later this year, and with Mac and Linux versions to follow, PixelJunk Inc will run in Big Picture Mode with controller support. Most importantly, you’ll be able to build your souperpower with friends – at least four players will be able to fashion their base together, with a shared pool of money, matter and lives. The dynamics of your team will determine whether you spend your cash on strong defences, profiteering technology, powerful generators, clone factories for extra lives or whatever else.
“It’s a decision everyone makes together,” says lead designer Rowan Parker as he gives us a first look at BitSummit in Kyoto. “When you’ve earned that money from shipping your soup you can say, ‘OK guys, what are we gonna do?’ And someone’s like, ‘We need more recipes and more robots,’ and someone else is like, ‘No, we need guns because we’re getting attacked’. I’d love to watch them sort it out; diplomatic things, that’s what we want to happen.”
Though its base-building cues are pitched somewhere between SimCity and The Incredible Machine, with the tower defence strategy of PixelJunk Monsters, the moment-to-moment gameplay of Inc is more like a platformer. Exploring procedurally generated landscapes in Metroidvania style, our spacesuited protagonist packs a multi-purpose laser that can build on the environment or deconstruct it into matter, useful for building elsewhere. “You’re like a little platform guy, but you’ve got to be thinking at that meta level for RTS, managing your base, managing your resources and stuff,” says Parker.
So you can physically walk (or ride a pogo stick, hoverboard or other vehicle) to a location to harvest mushrooms or dead monsters, then walk back to your soup production factory to drop off ingredients for a fresh batch of broth, or mine for crystals and carry them to a generator to keep the power going. Or you can automate these processes with robots, whose blueprints you can choose to unlock and upgrade as you play.
“Robots will do anything a player wants to do if you invest in the research for it,” says Parker. “Robots that will collect mushrooms and bring them back to your pipes, robots that will cut them for you, put them in the factory, ship them… If you build your base with a good design you can automate everything.”
The persistent environment continues to live and breathe so long as someone from your team is logged in. So even when they’re off screen, monsters and plantlife continue to interact. Mushrooms grow and shoot out spores, and different enemies will eat different mushroom types. You might return to your base to find it wrecked after an attack, or an area might change as a vine takes hold and monsters come to eat it. It’s up to you to build durable defences and to automate efficient workflows to keep up.
Parker insists that this persistent world won’t gobble system memory, as it’s been programmed from the ground up to cope; he describes an experiment with a map that featured millions of tiles and thousands of monsters interacting without a hiccup.
“Rather than have singular complex interactions on one monster, we chose to have very simple behaviours on all the monsters and plantlife and let the interaction of a large number of simple things create complexity,” he says. “And that’s where you get emergent gameplay. I want this living, breathing world that you can explore.”
Speaking of living and breathing, most of Inc’s gameplay takes place underground, as the planet’s air is toxic. Poison gas seeps down through cracks, aggravated by certain destructive monsters and noxious vegetation, and you’ll need to deploy air purifiers and fans to clean things up. Venture down this research tree and you could even terraform the surface, creating a dome of breathable air – so long as your generators don’t run out.
Supplementing the efforts of Parker’s team – one programmer, one artist and Parker himself on game design – Inc is likely to support player mods through Steam Workshop, empowering the community to create and share new enemies, buildings and vehicles. Parker also promises regular updates after the game is released.
The simplistic visual style is made with vector art, allowing the camera to zoom without losing fidelity and hopefully making life easier for modders. A parchment-texture overlay and vignette effect lend a painterly feel that adds warmth. The game is filled with the sort of quirky touches you’d expect from Q-Games, with playful soup names, monsters that turn into tomatoes when they die and utterly inefficient (but cute) ferris wheel turrets. It’s a return to the series’ signature vibe that abstract music game Pixeljunk 4am rather lacked.
PixelJunk Inc will clearly demand an investment of time as you build and maintain your soup operation over countless hours as you might a Minecraft world, though you could hop in with a spare five minutes for maintenance – tend your farm, pop out a few cans of soup, fiddle with a research tree, and log off. “I’m sure there are people that can do that. I can’t. If I log in, I’m there for the next two hours,” says Parker, an Australian native who worked at Tecmo Koei’s Tokyo office and a small Aussie developer before joining Q-Games in Kyoto in 2011 to work on PixelJunk Shooter 2 (boss design and multiplayer) and 4am (lead design).
Just one question remains: what’s with all the soup? “Soup,” smiles Parker, “is awesome.”