INTERVIEW: Vitek Goyel, PixelTek and Phoenix Online

Vitek Goyel has been a busy man. He helms successful 3D game art outsourcing company PixelTek; he’s the vice president of a truly global game development studio in Phoenix Online; and he’s also the frontman for folk/punk rock band Slow Down Clown.

Phoenix Online’s first commercial release – Cognition, is set for release later this month, so we took the opportunity to catch up with Goyel to find out more about the new game and his journey through the Indian and international game development industries.

MCV: What made you start PixelTek in 2004? What sort of experience did you have with gaming prior to that, either in the industry or as a gamer?

Vitek Goyel: I studied electronic media, arts and communications at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY (USA), and while there I was fascinated with interactive arts of all disciplines. Upon returning to India after graduation, I was looking for something artsy and interactive to sink my teeth into. I have always been a gaming fan since as long as I can remember! At the time, in 2004, things were really hitting the roof in the Indian IT sector and it made sense to me at the time to try to investigate and see how we could push the game development side of things in India. Gaming seemed to make the most sense to me as a business model, and I was eager to dive right into it.

When I started PixelTek, I had just turned 22 and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I learned as much as I could about what was going on in the industry, familiarised myself with the environment and talent available in India, and visited as many gaming conferences as I could to see what the demand was. I finally decided that PixelTek should focus on 3D art outsourcing, specifically in the areas of 3D modelling and texturing. It was very tough to get going initially because of limited funds (virtually none) and limited experience, but we ploughed ahead steadily and things got much easier after we got our first contract.

MCV: What sort of work does PixelTek do and what’s the team size?

Goyel:PixelTek is purely a 3D graphics outsourcing company that focuses on 3D modelling and texturing. We’ve stayed away from animation work and decided to carve out a niche in the modelling/texturing space. The team size has pretty much hovered around the 20-person mark for the last few years, and I actually like it that way. It’s easier to manage and get more personal with the team. But it looks like we might have to scale up due to high demand for our work!

MCV: Can you name some of your clients and some recent games you have worked on?

Goyel:Since we started, we’ve worked on several games. To name just a few, we worked on Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines (PSP), Assassin’s Creed 2: Discovery (NDS), Ghostbusters (PS3), TimeShift (PS3), World in Conflict (PC), Marvel Super Hero Squad (NDS), Anno 2070 (PC), SpellForce 2: Dragon Storm (PC), among many others. We’re currently working on a fantastic project called iRacing, which is an online racing simulation.

Cognition is a cinematic point-and-click adventure game

MCV: How did your association with Phoenix Online come about?

Goyel:While we were busy working on outsourcing projects, deep down inside, I was itching to be able to make my own games. I am a totally creative person, so I wanted to see what we could do from a creative stand point – writing, development, etc. I had decided early on that if I was to make a game of my own, it would most likely be an adventure game. I am a huge fan of the genre, and I’m drawn into the storytelling aspects of it, and also the puzzle solving. Mostly, the fondness with which I remembered all the adventure games I grew up playing, like Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island, The Dig, Full Throttle, etc.

Phoenix Online existed before I came on board as a group of fans of King’s Quest, an old school adventure game. They were working on a fan project called The Silver Lining that I found fascinating,. TSL was in development for a few years already, and I was keen to help them see it through to a final release. I got to know the team and I felt that my industry experience and PixelTek’s talent, combined with Phoenix Online’s game development skills would make for a great combination. I came on board as a partner in Phoenix Online a couple of years ago. Since I joined the company, we saw the release of TSL to great fanfare. It was on the front page of CNN, Joystiq and Kotaku, to name a few! I also used some of my connections to try and get more meetings for Phoenix Online and to push its development services. Through those contacts, we ended up working on Cognition, our latest project.

MCV: What role do you play at Phoenix and how does it work with you located in India while the rest of the team is in the US?

Goyel:I basically play two roles at Phoenix Online. I am the vice president of the company, so I handle all the business stuff, both internal and external. I also handle the production side of things on the Indian front. Phoenix Online is a truly global company, and we usually have meetings with people from all over the world on a single call! We don’t have a physical office, so everyone works from home, which makes it pretty unique! So I spend my day at the PixelTek office, and then I am up till usually 2 or 3 am on conference calls with Phoenix Online folk. A few weeks ago, I was on a conference call which included people from about six different states in the US, Canada, Finland, Italy, Hungary and myself in India! I thought that was very cool.

MCV: What made you (Phoenix) decide to make a point-and-click adventure as your first commercial release?

Goyel:For Phoenix Online, point-and-click adventure games are deeply embedded in our DNA. It’s simply what we do best. We have some amazing writers, who really bring these characters to life and create emotional bonds with the characters and their situations. We also like our games to be very cinematic, and the genre lends itself extremely well to that. What I personally like about them is that pretty much anyone can play them. You don’t need to be an expert button masher to play a point-and-click adventure. Another thing I love about it is that it appeals to a wide demographic. You might find a 13 year-old male who plays these games alongside his forty-something mom!

MCV: You’ve gone the episodic route with Cognition. Why so?

Goyel:We made it episodic for a few reasons. One was that we believe in the episodic model that was popularised by Telltale Games. It keeps people involved in the game over a long period of time and keeps them coming back for more. From a development standpoint, it also made sense to do it in chunks as opposed to putting out one single full length game. That being said, Episode 1 of Cognition is a good 6-8 hours of solid gameplay and each episode is self-contained while at the same time having an overarching theme and storyline that extends throughout all four episodes.

MCV: Cognition has so far been announced for PC and Mac. Are you planning to release it on other platforms?

Goyel:We’re also going to be releasing an iPad version in the near future. Point-and-clicks lend themselves really well to tablets, and I think it will be a great platform for Cognition. After that, we will investigate other platforms that we can release on.

Cognition will be spread across four episodes, the first of which includes 6-8 hours of gameplay

MCV: How do PixelTek and Phoenix collaborate, and do you make a conscious effort to keep both companies separate?

Goyel:PixelTek helped out with a lot of the artwork and 3D characters/environments/props. We’re working to integrate both teams, but for now, both companies will remain separate. We dedicate a portion of the PixelTek team to work on Phoenix Online’s projects and the rest on our other projects. We treat Phoenix Online like any of our other clients, and we focus on creating quality artwork for all of them.

MCV: Despite having been in the industry for a while, at the helm of a successful company, you’ve kept a low profile. Why is that?

Goyel:I’m not sure why. I guess I’m not big on self-promotion, although maybe I should be more proactive on that front. Honestly, I’ve just been so busy with managing and running the company, I never got around to it.

MCV: As someone who’s based in India but is involved with a game development studio abroad, how do you view India as a market for games, both developed by you and in general?

Goyel:Well, ever since I got into the industry, I’ve been hearing about how the gaming market in India is waiting to explode, but we haven’t seen it yet. I think there’s a few reasons for that. Firstly, there’s cultural reasons that will work themselves out in time. As more people are exposed to gaming, hopefully people will think more creatively in terms of development. Hopefully it will become a viable career option that parents can encourage their kids to pursue. Secondly, there just haven’t been any quality games to come out of India. I personally like games that are edgy, and I feel Indian developers need to take more risks. It seems like they find it very difficult to get out of their comfort zones with development. I’m not sure if that’s for financial reasons or not, but it’s a shame. Developers should focus on hitting a global market and not just the Indian one. I really believe that if you make a game that resonates throughout the world, it will automatically be a success in India as well. Whether I am right or wrong on remains to be seen.

MCV: You’re also the frontman for the rock band Slow Down Clown. How do you manage to run two companies and still manage to find time for music? What takes precedence – gaming or music?

Goyel:That’s a very interesting question. Sometimes it is very difficult to manage both, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. I travel abroad quite often, and I am in meetings almost 3 or 4 nights every week. That makes it difficult to coordinate with my band mates sometimes. But when it comes to music, we are very disciplined. We practice diligently before gigs, and we work hard at crafting the music. For me, music has always been a creative outlet and gaming was more a recreational outlet. But, truth be told, as time goes on, I find that the lines between what’s creative and what’s recreational start to blur. At the end of the day, I feel incredibly blessed that I can make a living doing the two things I love. I only hope I can continue to do both for a long time to come.

Phoenix Online’s episodic point-and-click adventure game Cognition is now available for preorder.

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