Studio Profile: Q-Games
Key staff Dylan Cuthbert (founder and president), Tominaga Shouichi (PixelJunk director), Kentaro Yoshida (studio director), Maeta Kazushi (chief planner), Paul Leonard (chief artist), Yutaka Kurahashi (chief artist), Jerome Liard (chief tech programmer), Ryuji Nishikawa (chief game programmer)
Selected softography Digidrive, Starfox Command, Digidrive, Reflect Missile, Starship Patrol, 3D Space Tank, PixelJunk Racers, PixelJunk Monsters, PixelJunk Monsters Encore, PixelJunk Eden, PixelJunk Eden Encore, PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe, PixelJunk Shooter, PixelJunk Racers 2nd Lap, PixelJunk Shooter 2, PixelJunk Sidescroller
Current projects PixelJunk Lifelike, plus additional, as-yet-unannounced projects
Q-Games is not a normal Japanese game developer, and not only because it’s situated in laid-back Kansai rather than workaholic Tokyo. Where Japanese development is often a fairly rigid heirachy, led by the distinctive voice of one auteur (or, very occasionally, two), Q-Games favours a collaborative approach, attempting to channel the creative energies of all its staff in one direction. Its 44 employees work out of a lively, open-plan office (with an extra-large massage chair) on the third floor of a small building just outside the centre of Kyoto. No cubicles, no grey furniture. But it’s perhaps the studio’s comfortable mixture of Japanese and foreign contributors that most distinguishes Q from its peers. It’s that confluence of Japanese and western development approaches that infuses its products – the PixelJunk series most famous among them – with their one-of-a-kind spirit and artistic direction.
“It’s a great place to work for many reasons,” says Shouichi Tominaga, who began working at Q about seven years ago and is now director of the PixelJunk games. “I particularly like that, because it’s a smallish company still, you’ve got a lot of feedback coming from the bottom up. That doesn’t happen in larger Japanese organisations. We work as a team, there’s a lot of trial and error, and that’s how the end game, or product, gets improved – through this cycle of feedback. As a company, they’re not afraid at all of trying to make something new, and that’s unique in terms of Japanese game development, especially. I don’t think that what you have running out there is something you’ll find in any other Japanese game company.”
The studio was founded in 2001 by Dylan Cuthbert, a Brit with experience at Sony and Nintendo, and it maintains close ties with both of those Japanese giants. As well as its PixelJunk series of quirky downloadables, Q-Games created a lot of the tech for PlayStation 3’s XMB and music visualiser, developed DS game Starfox Command, and contributed three games to the BitGenerations series and DSiWare store. Those relationships are enduringly fruitful for Cuthbert and his staff. Working on PS3’s visualisation elements gave the firm a head start on PS3 technology that formed the genesis of the PixelJunk idea.
Q-Games founder and president Dylan Cuthbert (left) and PixelJunk director Shouichi Tominaga
“We have an R&D team here, three or four very talented programmers, and because of our links with Sony they were given the task of working with PS3 system software development,” explains Tominaga. “So we were a little ahead of the curve compared to other companies because we knew early on about the possibilities of the PS3. We thought: ‘How can we harness this technology with our originality and publish it ourselves?’ We didn’t want to do what other companies were doing, and so the idea was to do a series of games – not just one game, a series – under the PixelJunk label, which would all be very much infused with Q-Games-esque gameplay and content.”
“It all started with the idea of 2D,” Cuthbert elaborates. “Initially, we took a HDTV into the office and the first thing I noticed was how crisp the colours were over HDMI. And I thought: ‘Back in the day, we’d play these old 8bit games on an SDTV, and the colours would be all washy, there’d be lines on the screen, but now we’ve gotten away from that’. Suddenly, it’s all very crisp and clear, and I thought: ‘Here we have a good chance to take those old 2D games and see how they expand onto that big screen’.
“What we did initially was take screenshots of C64 and Spectrum games like Spy Vs Spy, and we tiled them on the HDTV to see what they would look like. You can fit at least 17 of them on an HD screen at original resolution. They looked like a completely different game immediately – it looked really cool, and that was the beginning of our 2D push. We’ve got all this extra resolution that we can use to create old-school graphics, and they can still look wonderful. If just tiling an old screenshot looked that good, imagine what we could make!”
That idea developed into the first PixelJunk game, Racers, and 2D has been the series’ aesthetic anchor ever since. That, in itself, has made it eye-catching from the start – the games’ two-dimensional artistic direction, particularly Eden’s, marked them out as different from the competition. “A lot of people were focused on creating fantastic 3D worlds just because of the amount of power that you could get out of this thing. We wanted another direction, our own way – and in a way that made it easy, because going 2D when everyone else was going 3D made our games have their own flavour,” Tominaga says.