Insights: Case Studies

The Making of Pixel Ripped 1989

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Jesus Fabre | PR Manager | Arvore

01 Mar 2019 | 9 min read

Pixel Ripped 1989’s Humble Beginnings 

Pixel Ripped 1989 was the culmination of the dreams of a true gamer at heart: Ana Ribeiro. She faced a number of hurdles into the world of game development, having to break through glass ceilings to realise her aspirations of first, entering the industry and then, creating imaginative and evocative games.

With her first project, Ana wanted to teleport players from all over the world to a very specific time and place. She wanted to faithfully recreate that feeling of magic, wonderment and childlike-awe that was unique to playing games in the 80’s with its midi and pixelated technical limitations. The aim was to pay homage to the great games of 80’s, while at the same time, making use of the innovative technology of the future: virtual reality, to break the fourth wall and create a game that was underlined by a sense of imagination and adventure.

From Pies to Pixels

The story of Pixel Ripped 1989’s development dates back to 2010, when Ana had never even considered game design. Instead, she was working for the Brazilian government and nurturing a growing side business selling pies. But as she prepared to take her pie business full-time, she experienced a sudden change of heart. She soon realized that her true passion was game design but was confronted with the reality that she had no formal education in the complexities of computer programming. This lead Ana to move to the UK and enroll in the National Film and Television School’s Game Development programme.

The Making of Pixel Ripped 1989

The National Film & Television School – Oswald Morris Building

The NFTS would prove to be crucial to the development of Pixel Ripped. It was here that Ana conceived the initial idea of Pixel Ripped, as part of her final course project, and where she met her original team of development partners: Terrence Dunn, William Rodrigues and Stef Keegan. Terrence had a background in music and worked on the soundtrack, while William was tasked with creating the game’s pixel art aesthetic, and Stef worked on the project’s special effects.  

Forming the Studio and the Challenges on the Road to Market

Fast forward to the end of 2014 and Ribeiro and her team decided to join forces and create a bonafide games studio that would develop Pixel Ripped from a promising concept to a fully fledged VR game. Suffice it to say that the process of developing the project, and readying the game for market, was exceedingly difficult.

The team had to overcome a number of barriers in order to make the project a reality. Not only did they have to contend with the usual challenges of indie game development, chiefly a lack of funding, hundreds of investor meetings that were ultimately fruitless and a failed Kickstarter campaign, they also had to overcome the logistical issues of working remotely and having to navigate thorny immigration laws. A more humorous challenge was a band of people on Reddit who insisted the team were, rather bizarrely, not game developers but a bunch of actors and actresses. 

The Power of Social Buzz, Development Progress and Partnering with ARVORE

Amidst the growing pains of the studio, Ana worked tirelessly over the span of a few months to create a short demo of her vision. The demo was subsequently released on the Oculus Share platform and it quickly garnered rave reviews from the press and the public. As momentum for the project continued to grow, with Youtubers and journalists singing the demo’s praises (the game prototype amassed 5M views in 3 months), Ana looked to start developing the game full time.

Pixel Ripped was born out of a passion for the 80’s, the history of video gaming and an earnest belief in virtual reality technology, and these three key elements endured throughout the development process. Celebrating the history of video games, the power of VR and the culture of the 80’s all informed the studio’s design ethos.

In the next four years, from 2014 to 2018, Pixel Ripped 1989 evolved into a much larger experience packed full of nods to 80’s culture, but even with the rapid evolution, Ana and the team’s philosophy has never wavered. The philosophy can be summed up with three simple principles: do what you love, make cool stuff and try to spread a bit of happiness along the way.

That drive and optimism culminated in a powerful partnership with ARVORE, a Brazilian VR Studio and Publisher that helped with every aspect of the project. ARVORE provided expertise and support in a number of areas from funding, Q&A and marketing to providing more highly qualified hands to help polish the game. The most important thing that ARVORE provided however, was a supportive network where everybody takes care of one another.

From Concept Demo to a Fully-fledged Game

The game was actually created originally for the DK1, and at that point in time, it was only a student project. That version was very different from what we have now, since then, we recreated the game entirely from scratch to create Pixel Ripped 1989. That original game was only 15 minutes long and today would only represent a fraction of the first level of the current game, which has 4 levels each with its own unique boss fight. Also that version didn’t have many fun features – you couldn’t even distract the teacher – and it didn’t have tracked controllers to move the “Gear Kid” console around, as the Oculus Touch had not even been announced yet. The game evolved tremendously from those early days, but seeing the response people had back then was what initially gave us the strength to keep going and improving the project.

The Making of Pixel Ripped 1989

Capturing the spirit of video-games in the 80’s

The evolution during the development process happened during 4 long years, within this time we were lucky enough to be able to show the game to a lot of people, at expos and events, as Pixel Ripped continued to grow and design was tweaked and influenced by player feedback. An awful lot of funny and outlandish things happened at the events where we were showcasing Pixel Ripped.

Some of our highlights from player’s first reactions to the game include, people going nuts when the 2D world characters invaded the 3D world, and people apologizing to the teacher as if she were really there, we saw all sorts of strange and fun reactions. There was a little kid who did not want to stop playing and actually peed his pants. His dad took him to clean up and 10 minutes later he was back to play some more. A guy at an event asked for Ana’s hand in marriage when he found out she had created the game. Once, a guy took off his Oculus and started crying his eyes out, telling us that he was ready to give up on games entirely, but that Pixel Ripped had rekindled what he liked and remembered about games from his youth. All these reactions and moments were great fuel for long nights of coding and bug fixing.

Celebrating a Fantastic Reception from Critics and Players

Pixel Ripped 1989 received critical recognition from a number of areas of the industry, it has been considered one of the best VR games of 2018 by critics and players. Here are some of the more relevant accolades the game got so far:

  • Best VR Game at GDC 2018 – Tom’s Guide
  • Best VR Game Selection 2018 – VR Awards
  • IndieCade Selection 2018
  • Most Innovative Selection 2017 – Proto Awards
  • Best Original Score Selection 2017 – Proto Awards
  • Best Virtual Reality App or game 2015 – AMAZE Festival
  • IndieCade Selection 2015
  • Team Choice Award at PAX East 2018 – Marooner’s Rock
  • Team Choice Award at PAX East 2018 – Sidequesting
  • Game of the Year 2014 – Geração Gamer
  • Best Demo Pitch 2014 – Intel

We think the reasons behind the game’s success are actually rather simple. Pixel Ripped was born and created from the ground up in VR to be a distinct VR experience. We don’t think it would have been feasible in another medium, the game relies so heavily on the uniqueness of the VR experience, that it’s impossible to port it across to any other platform. This is because the point of the game is to transport you through time to special moments that a lot of us share in our childhoods.

From a game design perspective, the immersion of VR was absolutely crucial to the fidelity of the meta aspects of Pixel Ripped. The whole design of the game within the game simply would not work the same way on a computer or TV screen. Also having to focus on something you are used to doing in real life – such as playing a 2D video game – while in VR heightens the immersion a lot, as that layered experience makes you quickly forget you are actually in VR.

Reliving Video-game History with Pixel Ripped 

Video games let us live in imaginary worlds and allow us to embody all kinds of characters while we are put through a really diverse set of situations. Throughout the years, many video game players have felt, at least to some degree, that barrier-breaking illusion of pure imagination. A feeling of physically jumping into those worlds. Relating this back to Pixel Ripped, we strived to create that feeling by utilizing a look-based mechanic which is still underused in VR, controlling the handheld game within a game feels natural as players strive to address challenges in multiple realities (the classroom, the handheld game).

The Making of Pixel Ripped 1989

In the making of Pixel Ripped 1989, we completed significant amounts of historical research in order to be faithful to aesthetics and culture of Britain in the 80’s. The game’s graphics blend two worlds, the 3D virtual reality world of a school in London and the 8-bit world full of charming and thick pixels. This combination creates a very unique atmosphere of fantasy and a simulation of daily life that surprises and delights the players, and takes them back in time and allows them re-interpret what’s going on as if they were kids with magic powers.

Pixel Ripped 1989 is obviously much more than a nostalgia trip. It breaks barriers, mixes gameplay styles, era’s and technologies, and at its core, is a compelling and fun game. It is an ode to and celebration of video-games as a medium and a true tentpole of gaming in virtual reality, with the mission of challenging and uniting generations of gamers to celebrate the pure joy of video games.

A Final Tip for VR Game Developers

The main lesson for us was watching people playing the game while it was still in active development. Test it and test it again with as many people as you can. VR games are new and no design decision should be taken for granted – there are no rules that are set in stone. So try out things with as many users as you can. The reactions are always unexpected. Simple things have people react in ways you never imagined. In the early days there was a scene where we darkened the room and people would start screaming almost as if it was a horror game, while other things we expected people to react to would go by unnoticed. You have to forget all the pre-established rules and watch people play!

About the author:

Jesus is the PR Manager for the Pixel Ripped franchise, working primarily for ARVORE. His work focuses on communications and business strategy for independent game developers. The projects Jesus has been involved with cross platforms including mobile, console and PC. He has worked on a number of exclellent projects like Monument Valley, Horizon Chase, Ballistic Overkill, Nihilumbra, Starlit Adventures and Pixel Piracy, to name but a few.

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