On Friday, Microsoft will launch its next-generation console, the Xbox One. If you’ve been paying attention to the games industry at all this year then you already knew that, and you also know all the blah, blah about TV features, the new UI, the improved Kinect camera, upgraded graphical power and the like. But if you’ve ever purchased a games console before — and since you’re reading XBLAFans, chances are fairly high that you have — then you know that none of those things really matter when you get down to it. Sure, all of that stuff might be exciting, but games are what really matters.
One of the developers that’s helping to round out the Xbox One’s launch lineup is Twisted Pixel, a former indie studio now owned by Microsoft known by XBLAFans readers for bringing several great games to the XBLA platform. Twisted Pixel’s launch title, LocoCycle, would have been an Xbox Live Arcade game had it been an Xbox 360 exclusive title; instead, it’ll arrive first on Xbox One Friday before coming to the Xbox 360 at an unspecified future date. And since there is no XBLA on Xbox One, Twisted Pixel’s goofy action game, which stars a sentient motorcycle with wheels that dish out martial arts attacks, will be sold in the Xbox One dashboard alongside of every other Xbox One game — not just those that sell for $20 or less.
XBLAFans caught up with Twisted Pixel Studio Director Mike Wilford and asked him what it was like working on a game for the Xbox One launch. “It’s been cool! We obviously love console gaming and have been making console games for a long time now, but none of us have been involved in a launch before,” Wilford tells XBLAFans via email. “It certainly has its challenges, but it’s awesome to be a part of it.”
We asked him if anything felt different about releasing a game alongside a major console launch, or if LocoCycle was a game release like any other. Although he called this release “a special occasion,” he took care to point out that, of course, Twisted Pixel takes all of its game releases seriously. “But as a kid I would always be so excited to bring home a new system and spend hours with each launch game that celebrated the dawn of a new era of gaming with untold potential. Now we get to contribute to that feeling and it’s so awesome!”
For developers of independent or smaller video games like Twisted Pixel, the Xbox One launch is different than the Xbox 360 launch, though. When Xbox 360 launched, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved achieved a tremendous amount of success for itself by releasing on XBLA. So successful was the twin-stick shooter that it, in fact, made the entire concept of XBLA more of a hit than likely even Microsoft ever dreamed. But, as mentioned, you won’t see XBLA games on your TV if you boot up an Xbox One on Friday; you’ll only see games.
Wilford isn’t worried about the change. Not one bit. In fact, he’s excited for it. “I’m a supporter of the ‘Arcade’ branding going away,” he says. “Having our games show up alongside Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto just means we have to release cool stuff that catches people’s eye and makes them want to check it out. I think, and hopefully you’d agree, that we’ve been doing that already.”
Working for The Man
Complaints from the indie studio community about XBLA’s visibility issues have popped up frequently over the last several years, and those complaining have seemed to grow louder and fill their complaints with more vitriol every single time Microsoft has updated the Xbox 360 dashboard. When Xbox One owners download the mandatory system update on Friday, they’re once again going to see a vastly different user interface. It’s impossible for outlets that have reviewed final Xbox One hardware this week to say what this latest iteration will mean for game discoverability, simply because there aren’t nearly enough Xbox One games out yet for it to be an issue.
Whether the new UI ultimately proves itself an upgrade or a downgrade in this regard, it won’t be perfect, because no system is. Games need help getting found. For Twisted Pixel, LocoCycle will be its first new game release since being purchased by Microsoft a little more than two years ago. Does being a first-party studio entitle Twisted Pixel to preferential treatment in the dashboard? According to Wilford, only the Xbox team knows the answer to that question. For him, though, the issue “just comes down to making cool stuff that people want to see.”
Microsoft Studios, then, is up in Washington doing its own thing. Meanwhile, Twisted Pixel is down in Texas, also doing its own thing. It’s already public knowledge that the catalyst for LocoCycle‘s creation was a crazy dream Twisted Pixel Creative Director Josh Bear had after watching the movie Torque. Wilford implies the game’s creative direction is also entirely his studio’s, with Microsoft having no involvement in that aspect. “Dude, we made a game about sentient, karate master motorcycles that drag human beings behind them. Then we had the motorcycles made for real and hired Robert Patrick, Lisa Foiles and Robert Patrick to play a part,” he says, seemingly weary of answering questions relating to what it’s like to live under Microsoft’s roof. “If that doesn’t tell you that we’re still running our own shop then I don’t know what does.”
So what sort of involvement has Redmond had in the game’s development, then? None, from the sounds of it. “Some people find this surprising, but being a part of Microsoft Studios hasn’t changed how we run our studio. We originally made a name for ourselves by being able to make a lot with very little,” says Wilford, “but more importantly, by always pushing ourselves to make something a little bit better than before. LocoCycle isn’t any different. It’s definitely our most ambitious project, and there is a ton of content packed in there especially considering that we’re still a small team of 25 people.”
Xbox 360: There and back again
One thing that Microsoft absolutely does handle for Twisted Pixel is marketing. The console holder made the announcement in June that LocoCycle would be an Xbox One launch game in addition to releasing on Xbox 360. That meant there was a need for something else that Microsoft handles: the provision of studio development kits (SDKs). It’s commonly believed that the big three home console makers distribute next-gen SDKs to their internal studios and select favored partners before everyone else. In Twisted Pixel’s case, at least, that was not the case.
“Once LocoCycle officially became an Xbox One launch title, we were given access to all the information and hardware that we needed,” Wilford explains. “But before that, it didn’t matter that we were a Microsoft studio — we didn’t have access to dev kits because other teams needed them. Working with the hardware was straightforward for our team.”
Delivering a launch game that takes full advantage of what a new console offers is a near-impossible challenge for any developer — especially if you’re a small team of 25 working on a game that was first planned for a different, eight-year-old platform. Though Wilford describes the Xbox One’s architecture as being similar to the Xbox 360’s, he readily admits that LocoCycle isn’t breaking any new graphical ground thanks to the Xbox One’s upgraded technical capabilities. The game’s official website states that it is instead using all of that next-gen power to get the game running in 1080p at 60 frames per second.
“The system represents a large evolutionary jump rather than a paradigm shift in the core architecture,” says Wilford, “so once we got the game up and running it instantly benefited from the added power. Doing new things with all that power is another matter, however.” Gamers will have to wait for Twisted Pixel’s next release for that sort of thing.
Not every Xbox 360 owner is making the jump to Xbox One with Twisted Pixel, of course. Those gamers staying behind in the current generation of gaming will still be able to play the studio’s latest — but they’ll have to wait. When it does arrive, it will be the same game One owners get; it just won’t look as pretty. And although LocoCycle will look better on the newer hardware, it is an Xbox 360 game at its core and “it doesn’t represent Twisted Pixel’s attempt at Xbox One graphical fidelity. But the game was never intended to be a graphical ‘tent pole’ title for the platform. It was always supposed to be an action-packed ’90s-era arcade-style brawler with a unique buddy-comedy storyline that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers something different from everything else out there right now.”
Twisted Pixel is still unable to provide a release date for the Xbox 360 version of its brawler and cites the need to focus on getting the Xbox One version right as the reason for the 360 version not coming until some unknown future date. With development on the One port complete, the studio is now refocusing its efforts on the Xbox 360 version it began with.
Is different good?
Now that LocoCycle — or one version of it, at least — is finished, Wilford can look back on the game’s development and reflect on whether or not it lived up to the team’s original vision. Though he says that Twisted Pixel doesn’t “ever start a project with 100% clarity for how it’s going to end up,” he does believe that he “can say that we succeeded when we set out to make a game about a motorcycle that punches and kicks people with its tires while flying down highways at 200 mph. And also in creating something different that you can’t really find anywhere else. Unless you just hate fun and comedy, you will have a good time with LocoCycle.”
During the course of this feature being created, reviews started rolling in for the game. It seems there are many fun-haters among reviewers, as the game is sitting at a 51 Metacritic score as of this writing. Since Microsoft did not provide us with any way to review Xbox One games pre-release, XBLAFans is unable at this time to weigh in on whether or not LocoCycle is the game Wilford makes it out to be, and we cannot say whether or not the game is deserving of the low scores it has received.
Having seen the game firsthand at several games conventions, however, we can confirm at least one of Wilford’s claims: LocoCycle is different. Tomorrow, we’ll find out if different is good.
Good or bad, it is finished. And as it is with all artists, Wilford tells us that Twisted Pixel could have done more with its art had it been afforded more time to create it. “But at some point you have to make the call that it’s good enough to put out there and move on [to] the next thing. Or else you’re Duke Nukem Forever.”