Pixel Hero Games’ Art Director Nader Alikhani on Indie Game Development

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Pixel Hero Games’ Art Director Nader Alikhani shares his experiences in delivering high-quality, multi-platform content as an Indie game developer. In this interview from GDC 2015, Nader and Steve Waskul discuss the technology behind creating a multi-platform game, as well as some of the unique challenges Nader and his team have come across so far as Indie game developers.

As the conversation opens, Nader discloses that he is from Guildford, a small town south of London. One of 14 development studios in the area, Nader says he started the company with another colleague after working in the industry for several years. Their first project came out two years ago. After enjoying success with “Spiral,” he continues, they partnered with Games Workshop to create a new game for mobile and PC entitled, “Eisenhorn Xenos.” It’s “a very cinematic 3D action adventure game,” Nader enthuses.

So you have some unique challenges with the keyboard and mouse versus touch then? Steve wonders. Nodding, Nader explains that their first project was easier because it involved just the touch interfaces on mobile devices. Trying to recreate the PC feedback experience of playing a game on a mobile device has been “a tricky challenge,” he says. His team also found a need to invest in technology that would allow the game to scale well across both PC and mobile platforms while maintaining high quality images.

“So you wanted a very cinematic experience, which is difficult to deliver on a small screen,” Steve clarifies. Thinking about this, he wonders if the game can be switched from the mobile version to the TV. Nodding, Nader shares that this is definitely a possibility and the experience of playing this way rivals that of playing on PC. “We’ve done a really good job on keeping the look consistent and the quality really high… and people have been particularly blown away by the mobile version,” he smiles.

Steering the conversation in a different direction, Steve asks what kind of engine Nader used when he first started Pixel Hero Games. Nader shares that they used and are still using Real Engine 3, although they’ve added some upgrades like Physically Based Rendering. This particular technology, Nader continues, “actually came to life towards the end of the last console generation,” but most games are now taking this approach. Utilizing Physically Based Rendering, they’ve been able to use some of the 4K images in their pipeline and scale them down for mobile without detracting from the quality. “The level of detail is just ridiculous!” he enthuses.

So how will the game be delivered to the consumer? Steve wonders. Both will be digital, Nader replies, and once the game is downloaded it will live on the device, although there will also be a cloud data support to enable the game to be transmitted to multiple devices. For PC, he continues, “We’re looking into distribution by Steam, which is also a digital platform.” Nader believes that they will offer an initial download package as well as the option to upgrade with a high- resolution package.

How many textures are you utilizing? Steve must know. “Thousands,” Nader laughs. Each character has between 6 and 8 textures, “and those are all potentially 4K textures.” With appreciation, Steve remarks, “It’s amazing you can think about it in those terms now and be able to deliver that experience to the user.” “Absolutely,” Nader agrees, emphasizing the role of advancing technology in that capability. For example, he shares that the use of cloth physics has enabled them to create a more immersive and believable look and feel to the their current characters, who often wear heavy cloaks. “Some of the interesting development we’ve done with Intel with the multi-core technology has been unbelievably impressive with that,” he says, acknowledging that this technology is largely responsible for how immersive and real they’ve been able to make this game.

“So you’re working with Intel on the Iris and Iris Pro side of the world?” Steve queries. Nader shares that they’ve been working with the Haswell multi-core GPUs. How about the DX12? Steve questions. Although they haven’t used DX12, it may be a tool they’ll utilize for the future, Nader hints. He shares that they’ve greatly appreciated how the technology has allowed them to deliver the kind of increasingly more realistic experiences their audience craves.

“You’ve had about a 5X growth in your company in a very short time period,” Steve comments. “As one of the co-founders it was probably a lot easier at first for you and your partner to run the business.” Nader nods in agreement. What advice would you give to Indie developers now? Steve asks.

“Everything takes a lot longer than you’d imagine,” Nader insists, “Especially all the admin stuff.” Great communication has also been important in helping him manage his time and budget, he remarks. Although it’s been great for the game development to have an expanding team, Nader finds that a lot of his time is spent coordinating between team members to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

But that’s a big part of Indie game development right? Steve asks. “Absolutely,” Nader confirms. It’s worth it for the freedom to not participate in the typical game developer hierarchy. “Managing our own resources is a really freeing and great experience. It’s my favorite part of the whole thing,” he confides.

In closing, Steve wonders where they are now in production with their current game. At the present, Nader shares, they are just polishing up the content and have released demos to the press. So far the reaction has been positive, and his team is looking forward to returning from GDC to “get the game out there.”