The Making of...Dead Pixels

The Zombie horde is threatening to take over XBLIG. It feels like not a week goes past without undead reinforcements shuffling onto Microsoft's online service. This is partly down to the success of I Maed a game with Zombies (or however it's written); and partly due to gamers' fascination with this genre, heightened ever since Resident Evil first appeared 15 years ago. With its slightly unusual title, however, Dead Pixels caught my eye, so after a brief play of the demo, I ascertained this would be a game for me and parted company with another 80 MSP. I spoke to developer cantstraferight, aka John Common about the idea and development of Dead Pixels and started by asking him about the odd name for his development company.

"It's a name I've used for many years," John begins, "and takes some explaining. The short version of the story is that whilst drunk once, a girl bit my left index finger. At the time I was playing a lot of Unreal Tournament online and my finger hurt if I strafed right." Must have been some bite, I comment, and John proudly adds that he was still able to win most games despite his disability which encouraged him to adopt the unusual moniker.

John lives in rural Scotland and learnt to program at school and then college. After several failed attempts and efforts to learn how to produce games on a variety of platforms, he came across the XNA framework and has since made eight games, of which four have been released. However, he considers Dead Pixels to be his first proper game. "I had the idea for the game from the start and this was maintained all the way through the development process. Certain things changed, but the basic idea stayed the same," confirms John, "as it was always going to be a side-scrolling RPG with zombies and an 8-bit look."

Dead Pixels took John around seven months to complete, much longer than he originally intended: "My first estimated released date was the first of April 2011 but it kept getting pushed back as the scope of the game changed." I ask him if at any point he was worried about the game's reception given the high number of Zombie titles present on XBLIG. "A little, perhaps," says John, "although as it turns out our customers don't seem too bothered, but I often get the feeling websites have ignored it thinking it as just another zombie game." Dead Pixels also contains a fair amount of referencing as John acknowledged the various influences on his game. "Game-wise the obvious ones are River City Ransom, Metal Slug and RPG's in general," he says, "and these influenced the design of Dead Pixels. I also looked through my collection of 8-bit games and took little bits and pieces from games such as Alien Syndrome, Chakan, Ax Battler and many more." So it appears Dead Pixels has a fine pedigree in gaming influences and this is echoed with references to the films Dawn of the Dead and Zombieland as well as the classic undead franchise, Resident Evil. "I included Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in the soundtrack," tells John, "which was used in one of the puzzles in the original Resident Evil. I'm surprised at how many people get that reference. Perhaps it shows gamers' love for zombies!"

Going back to the design itself, I wonder whether John considered expanding the RPG elements? "I did consider adding helmets and armour but that would have meant changing the character's sprite," he notes, "and the amount of time needed to draw all the new graphics would have driven me insane. I decided I had enough to do as it was!" So with further gameplay advances abandoned, John concentrated on creating the very strange "old movie" effects that are utilised in Dead Pixels. "Originally the plan was to add a little noise to hide how plain and clean my sprites were," he explains, "and then I started watching trailers for seventies exploitation films and decided to go over the top with it." John was partly worried players would hate it as they would find it distracting (hence the option to turn these effects off), but says the response to this sheen of 70's authenticity has been universally positive.

Is there any part of the game that John feels could be improved? "The thing that bugs me most is the walking animation of the zombies." he says ruefully, "I'm not very good at animating and feel that maybe I should have had another attempt at drawing their legs!" Despite this, is he proud of the game? "Very much so. The amount of comments about how polished the game is makes me feel I've really achieved something. People are out there playing it and that's all I really wanted."

Finally, I ask John what the future holds for Cantstraferight? "I'm currently working on two new game modes for Dead Pixels which will be added to the game for free," says John excitedly, "and I have many new ideas for a sequel as well. I think I'd like to take a break from zombies for a few months though!" John is also programming a version of Dead Pixels for the PC which he hopes will see the light of day early next year.

Check out Dead Pixels on Facebook here
Cantstraferight Studios on Twitter here
And John's own website here