Interview With Pixel Hero Games’ Nader Alikhani

Pixel Hero Games stormed into the Game Developers Conference in March with a demo of their epic action/adventure title, Spiral. We chat with studio lead Nader Alikhani to find out more about the game and the Pixel Hero crew.

Let’s learn a little about this team of industry veterans who combined their powers to form Pixel Hero Games. What were some of the projects you worked on before founding your own indie studio, and how much has the team grown since?

More so than a lot of industries, games creation is a highly collaborative experience — usually banding together a bunch of crazy people who express their creativity in vastly different ways. Between us at Pixel Hero Games, we’ve worked on quite a wide range of projects and platforms, from Snoopy Flying Ace and South Park for digital download, to boxed products like House of the Dead: Overkill, Invizimals, and Lord of the Rings. It’s been interesting internally, looking at how certain projects and experiences have contributed to how we are developing Spiral.

My first project in the industry was Dungeons & Dragons: Tactics for PSP at Kuju back in late 2005. I was hired as a Junior Artist, and most of my work consisted of prettifying the designers’ block levels. It was a bit of a baptism by fire, but I still have fond memories of the project and what it taught me regarding the realities of game development.

As for Pixel Hero, well, we started off as a very small team initially. In fact, it was just me at the beginning! By the time we officially started prototyping in September 2011 I had convinced Aaron Ruiz-Mora, our Technical Director, to join (having previously worked with him at Doublesix). In the intervening months between September and GDC we took Benni Lodge on as a highly talented design intern, and were so impressed with his work we gave him a full time contract.

We’ve also had Janssen Pangilinan (an ex-colleague from SmartBomb Interactive) work for us on a freelance basis, and the ultra-talented Joshua Olmos pitching in from his audio lair in California to help out with sound and music. The number of friends in the industry we’ve had offering support and helping out has been incredible, and I do think it is one of the best things about being part of the games community.

Since GDC we’ve added two new full time team members: our new gameplay programmer, Marc Veiga Nogues, as well as our specialist animator, David Campbell. For Spiral we were always aware we’d need a team of roughly this size (five to six), so it’s been great to get everyone on board as we ramp up our production levels to hit our Q4 release. It’s definitely become a very cozy little office now!

When you founded Pixel Hero, did you know an epic action/adventure like Spiral would be your first project or did you guys start out with a huge brainstorming phase?

When I was in the first stages of setting up the company I was debating which development path to take. There was already a burgeoning market for “casual” and “arcade” style games, but my background had always been on bigger budget, more technically complex games. I strongly felt that there weren’t enough console quality experiences in the market that were specifically designed to maximize the strengths of touchscreen devices.

Once I decided on a larger game, I pretty much knew that Spiral was the project I wanted to make. In truth, it was THE game idea I’d had before I even joined the industry. It was that project I’d always come back to every once in a while, adjusting the look of characters or rethinking gameplay mechanics based on the knowledge and experience I’d accumulated at that particular time. So when it came to choosing a project that would hopefully offer this more “console-like” experience, it pretty much leapt out of my brain screaming and shouting as the project I needed to do!

Luckily for me, the other guys on the team also enjoy action/adventure games, so twisting their arms to get them on board wasn’t too difficult. That said, there was still an awful lot of brainstorming and planning to do, due to the specifics of the project, its platform, and what we’re trying to achieve with the game. Considering all the gameplay elements we’ve had to handle, it’s probably a good thing that we at least knew what the project was early on.

Did the idea of doing a smaller-scale game ever cross your mind, considering your platform of choice?

Only momentarily! Most of the team had been working on console games, and we felt that with the growth of smartphones and tablets worldwide, an audience craving more sophisticated games and experiences was already appearing and likely to get bigger. At the time, premium games like Infinity Blade had already come out that were technically glorious and monetarily successful even though the gameplay was relatively simple. Then you also had games that were more complex in terms of gameplay but were hampered by a stubborn insistence on virtual sticks and buttons. However, there still hasn’t been a game that has balanced the best of both worlds, which is something we’re trying to achieve.

Obviously a lot of people have made smaller-scale games and done extremely well, but at the same time you could argue that it makes it an even bigger pool of games for us to compete with as a small, new company. Working on a larger game has had the positive effect of automatically helping us distinguish ourselves in a crowded mobile development market.