The new bloom of Q-Games

Every spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, people in Japan gather to celebrate in an ages-old tradition known as hanami. It’s a celebration of nature’s beauty, and a chance for friends and family to get together in the first blushes of spring. This year, Q-Games has assembled alongside its Kyoto compatriots on the banks of the Kamo River, laying a blue tarpaulin down beneath the tree that boasts the most impressive blooms for miles (a spot that a junior member of the team was sent down to secure some hours before the event started) before piling into a supply of beer, wine and other assorted booze.

Galak-Z creators 17-Bit are in attendance, as are Vitei, the studio headed up by former Nintendo EAD man Giles Goddard. And watching over it all is Goddard’s one-time colleague back in the days of Star Fox and Argonaut Software, Dylan Cuthbert, cutting a fatherly figure as he slices into an improbably large leg of ibérico ham. The party goes into the night, the drinking until sometime the following morning. A couple of days later, I catch up with Cuthbert at his Kyoto office – a neat, warm little studio that looks out over the neat, tidy little streets of the city – at what feels like a fitting time. After a couple of years of relative quiet, it feels like Q-Games is about to break into bloom once again.

The studio’s last high-profile release, The Tomorrow Children, was perhaps the developer’s most ambitious project to date. It was certainly its hardest to parse; a strange, nebulous and arrestingly beautiful waking dream of a game, it struggled to define itself upon launch in 2016 and ended up being shuttered just over 12 months later.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been turbulent,” says Cuthbert of the last few years. “It’s certainly been busy. Making The Tomorrow Children involved quite a big team. We made that, and at the end it was a small team maintaining it – so it was fine from our point of view. In general, I don’t think Sony was ready to do a free-to-play game. It wasn’t our idea to do a free-to-play game – around halfway through development, they said we want to make it free-to-play, and I said, well, do you know what that takes? It takes a lot of marketing, data, research, analysis – and, for me, I felt that they didn’t really do that. It always felt they hadn’t quite got the grasp of that, and I think Sony is much more efficient at making a game and selling it. It’s not a big shock – their whole engine isn’t geared for that.”

Indeed, Sony’s track record with its own free-to-play titles hasn’t been great – take KillStrain, another effort that released with little fanfare and was just as quietly closed down a year after its own release. For Q-Games, the end of The Tomorrow Children saw a five year chapter at the studio come to a close, and it now sees the developer returning to what it does best.

“We went back to the way we worked before,” says Cuthbert. “The Tomorrow Children was a fairly big team, and it was actually kind of fun – the game itself was very experimental, it had all kinds of sections that were fun to work on with the weird systems in place. As a game creator it was so much fun being able to work in that sandbox set-up. After that we just went back to multiple smaller teams and experiments – which was exactly what we were doing before.”

That new, old approach is manifesting itself in PixelJunk Monsters 2, a follow-up to perhaps Q-Games’ most beloved title, and the best received of the PixelJunk series. The sequel will have been in development some 18 months by the time it comes out next month – a fairly typical schedule for previous entries in the PixelJunk series, but a mere fraction of the amount of time it took for The Tomorrow Children to see the light of day.

Why choose now, then, to return to PixelJunk Monsters? “Because it’s the 10th anniversary, really,” says Cuthbert. “And because everyone asked for it. Last year when we started the project, we thought let’s see if we can do it in 3D, and see how it looks. And our first tests, we nailed the look really nicely – it looks like PixelJunk Monsters, and because we found that look it kind of spurred us on.”

It feels like a good time, too, to return to the PixelJunk Monsters’ formula. Releasing in the midst of the heady year for video games that was 2008, it came at a time when downloadable, digital-only games still felt like something of a novelty on console. It came, too, when the tower defence craze was truly heating up.

“It was kind of just before it,” says Cuthbert of a concept that began by attempting a modern remake of Sabre Wulf, Ultimate Play the Game’s ZX Spectrum adventure that first released back in 1984. “When we came out there was only one or two other tower defence games. The main difference, for us, was that when we first saw the tower defence genre, we looked at it and thought it’d be great to have on console on HDMI at 1080p – and tower defence as it stood was very simple, mouse-controlled and very PC-oriented. And we thought if we’re going to do a game based on these dynamics, we want to make it more Nintendo-like.”

With the sequel, that Nintendo-like feel has only deepened. You’re still controlling Tikiman, and still partaking in a characterful spin on the tower defence genre, but it feels so much more alive; the visuals, with their tilt-shift focus effect and an emphasis on textures that feel like wood and clay, give it all a hand-crafted look that’s all the more gorgeous when you zoom in for a closer look at the field in play (a view that, unfortunately, it’s hard to play effectively from, but good lord is it great for screenshots). On the Switch’s portable screen on which PixelJunk Monster 2 is demoed, it simply pops.

There’s something warmly nostalgic, too, in playing a game whose genre feels like untapped territory these past few years. “Yeah, it’s like you’re getting a nice modern remake of the genre,” says Cuthbert. “It’s ten years on, so it should feel nostalgic really. I’ve played a few of the popular tower defence games, and they don’t seem to have evolved at all.

“There’s a lot of content in there – it’s what they call triple-I.” Triple-I? I admit, that’s a new one on me. “Yeah, it’s like triple-A overall quality, but not the same level of content as triple-A,” Cuthbert explains. “Indie, but that level of quality. And I think Monsters 2 has that – it looks like a really nice polished Nintendo-quality game, and it plays really solidly. But it doesn’t have loads of story cutscenes and all the other trimmings triple-A products have.”

PixelJunk Monsters 2 is coming to PC, PS4 and Switch towards the end of next month – courtesy of publisher Spike Chunsoft this time around – and beyond that there’s plenty more on the horizon for Q-Games. Eden Obscura, a mobile game, is being dated soon, while Monsters Duo – a mobile take on the PixelJunk Monsters formula – is also being worked on. There are other, more secretive projects, and now that the team that worked on PixelJunk Monsters 2 is free it’ll soon be put to another game.

“In the theme of Monsters 2 what we’ll primarily do is try to keep that triple-I feel to our games,” says Cuthbert. We don’t want to go on the retro bandwagon too much – in general, one of our skillsets is that we do have experience in 3D, making the games look really nice, and I think we can keep finding new ideas. They won’t be long projects – a maximum of two years, and we’re doing multiple ones at the same time. In the next few years, you’ll see some really nice boutique quality games from us.”