From Gunfinger to Warhammer: The rise of Pixel Toys

We speak to founder and CEO Andy Wafer about the UK start-up's success
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Leamington Spa-based studio Pixel Toys only began life in 2012, but it is rapidly becoming one of the region's most successful mobile games studios.

The developer is best known for Gunfinger, a mobile shoot-'em-up that has proven popular enough to drive the studio's revenue growth up year-on-year and raised its profile enough to attract the attention of Games Workshop.

Pixel Toys is also something of a success story for Creative England, having been supported by the organisation's GamesLab West Midlands programme. This initiative is designed to nurture creative businesses in the region, and is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Government's Regional Growth Fund.

Today, Pixel Toys announced a new partnership with Games Workshop that will see it develop and release Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, an action-packed mobile game based on the 40k universe's Imperial Knights.

We spoke to studio founder and CEO Andy Wafer to find out more about how this deal came to be, as well as lessons learned from the success of Gunfinger.

How successful has Gunfinger been for you?
There’s lots of different success 'vectors'. We’ve gained a ton of invaluable experience in free-to-play and making games for touch screen devices – that’s possibly the most important thing.

Gunfinger’s been downloaded millions of times, has a pretty good user rating and has been well received, but if you’re asking if it’s made money for the company, it has. And we’ve reinvested every penny of that into the team and our next project, Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade.

What has its success meant for the studio? How many staff do you currently employ?
Importantly, success means we can pick up own projects and get to shape our own destiny. But it’s also helped establish Pixel Toys as an indie studio making quality mobile games. A reputation that is helping us attract developers who want to push the boundaries but don’t necessarily want to work in big teams.

When we first released Gunfinger, we have about six team members. We’ve now got a team of 20 full time, the majority of which are employees, but we have some contractors too, and together they make a very talented bunch.

How has the Creative England Gameslab funding helped the studio?
When we first started thinking about what we wanted to do after Gunfinger, we realised that it was going to need a lot more resource to reach that vision. Gunfinger enabled us grow the team, but if we wanted to reach further we’d need more capital in a short in a relatively space of time to produce bespoke music, professional sound, design, more animation and so on. The support we’ve received from GamesLab has been an important part of achieving that vision.

Success means we can pick up own projects and get to shape our own destiny.

How did the Warhammer partnership come about?
We connected with the Games Workshop licensing team at the Develop conference in Brighton last year. We have a few big Warhammer fans on the team, so given the opportunity to pitch a few game ideas we jumped on it.

What lessons did you learn from Gunfinger that you've been able to implement in Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade?
I think we learned a lot about making games as a service. We’ve spent more resource continuing to develop and support Gunfinger post release than we did in the run up. Authoring content is resource intensive, so with Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade we’ve tried to create more dynamic and procedural systems to help reduce that overhead.

Will shooters ever really feel completely at home on a touch screen device?
Part of our mission is to take the experiences we know players love on other platforms and reinterpret them for touch screens. Touch screens are an amazing interface but not really suited to run-and-gun style shooter. Virtual twin sticks do not work, I find the very concept of them ridiculous.

When we approach a control interface we do it very much with platform appropriateness in mind. So Freeblade isn’t a shooter in that traditional PC or console sense, it’s much more of an arcade experience like Panzer Dragoon. It’s about prioritising targets quickly with the appropriate weapons and blocking attacks, and that’s a shooting experience we can make at home on mobile.

Virtual twin sticks do not work, I find the very concept of them ridiculous.

Can mobile shooter's be better than their console and PC counterparts?
I think I’d be shooting down myself if I tried to claim they can be better. A shooting gameplay experience on mobile is going to be different to one on PC or console. It’s potentially for a different audience, to be played at a different place or when time is short. We don’t want to try and compete or replicate the exact console or PC experience. But I think they can be just as fun in a different kind of way. You can’t take a console game onto a crowded bus and play it on the way to work. Well you could try, but I doubt it would be much fun. 

Does the sheer number of licensed Warhammer video games concern you? Can one bad game affect the entire video game franchise? ?
No. I think if you love a sci-fi fantasy world it’s not a problem to have more choice in the ways to engage with it. The mobile Warhammer games all pretty different, and the recent releases as well as those on horizon are all looking great. It’s a great time to be a Warhammer fan and Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade provides a different experience in the 40k universe.

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