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Pixel Toys: Bringing Warhammer to life and adapting to the mobile ecosystem

Pixel Toys is a member of a pretty special club alongside the likes of Creative Assembly, Fatshark and Cyanide Studio: the Games Workshop video game developers club. While Creative Assembly for instance focuses on triple-A PC titles, Pixel Toys has made its name with mobile games based on the various Warhammer licences, starting with 2015’s Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade.

“The company is about six years old,” marketing director David Solari tells MCV. “We started with Andy [Andrew Wafer, CEO] and Alex [Zoro, COO], who both came from a console background. Andy was at Codemasters with me and Alex was at FreeStyle. We wanted to bring console production values and fidelity to mobile. So that was the real drive. We started off with a mobile touch screener called Gunfinger. That evolved into a VR game called Drop Dead, which has done very well.

“And then we made Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, which is a third-person rail shooter, graphically really strong. Apple featured it on stage [during the iPhone 6S launch] which was huge for us. Apple supported the game a lot which was a big step.

“Next step on, the company is more than 70 people – we’ve grown pretty rapidly over the last couple of years. And we’ve partnered with Games Workshop again with Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realm War.

While some studios would dream to work with Games Workshop on the Warhammer licence, things were more pragmatic at Pixel Toys and the push came from the fanbase first and foremost.

“We got a lot of people saying they love the IP and they can be quite persuasive,” Wafer says. “I’ve grown into liking it. I wasn’t a hardcore fan but some people in the management team are like obsessed by it. I’ve definitely developed an appreciation of it. I think the great thing for us is a really dedicated fanbase. It’s a quite big audience. I think that Warhammer, interestingly, has been growing a lot over the last few years. Warhammer Age of Sigmar specifically is something different in the fantasy space and it adds a huge amount of content for us as game developers.”

Having learnt to love the IP, Pixel Toys then wanted to make sure it would do it justice.

“We’re a relatively big developer, we’ve worked on the licence in the past, we take it very seriously, we want to produce something that everyone at the licensor is happy with but also, importantly, the fanbase,” Wafer continues. “We need to make sure everything is as the fans would have liked because if they don’t think it’s right then they will let us know. We’re very particular about the content that we produce and that makes the approval process a lot smoother.

“We made [Realm War] for the mid-core mobile strategy gamer, but I think Warhammer players like it because they’re strategy gamers at heart.”

ANYTIME, ANYWHERE

With Pixel Toys’ mission being to bring console quality to mobile, and with the team having that experience of console development, they had to adapt to a new way of envisioning a game as the two experiences differ drastically.

“[Realm War] is our third mobile game now. Like everybody, we thought that we knew what we were doing the first time around but I think in hindsight we had a lot to learn about,” Wafer says.

“There’s a lot of information out there from people who have been doing it for a while so we’ve been paying attention to that. Obviously things like the play sessions, the core loops, the cycles, are shorter… You have to make an experience that someone can have in five minutes or less. And have that experience multiple times a day, wherever they are, whether it’s a business show floor or in the queue for coffee. That’s basically the main difference as opposed to ‘I’m going to go home tonight and at 7 o’clock after dinner I’m going to play on my console for 2h’.”

However, Pixel Toys wanted to be sure that its game stood out and Wafer insists once again about how high production values are at the core of everything they do.

“Some people do casual games, we invest into bigger products that take longer to make, bigger teams, which means more expense. Arguably both strategies have risk but we’re making rich 3D games, that’s what we do, that’s what we know how to do.”

He continues: “For me personally, making a great game that people play is really rewarding, especially when there are hundreds of thousands games around the world. That’s one of the reasons we started the company because you can’t get that playerbase on consoles.

“We know how to make console-style games but I think you can embrace a mobile business model while still producing great-looking rich experiences.”

Realm War, which released in September, is full 3D and Pixel Toys really wanted to push the boundaries of mobile development.

“The goal was to push the [graphics] as far as we could go and we got to work with the new [Apple] hardware as well, a little bit earlier, in order to do that,” Wafer explains. “But I think with this game as well we definitely try to push the technology, incorporating a lot of software and hardware technologies. For example, there’s a whole bunch of ARKit 2 features, which released for the new iOS 12 version.

Freeblade was a single player experience whereas this has been designed to be a realtime PvP experience from the ground up so we had to develop gameplay and technology around that initially before we could even build the game on top.”

THE BIGGER THEY COME

Regardless of the project, working on any Warhammer licence brings some similar challenges, such as having to recreate actual physical miniatures on screen.

“With Freeblade, it hadn’t been a game before. So those things had never been animated before,” Wafer recalls.

“So it was actually very interesting to work with Games Workshop, with the creators of the Imperial Knights [of which a Freeblade is a type of] to talk about their thoughts about how they would move, collaborating on the weight behind it, rather than our animators just inventing it. In that game, because the Imperial Knight units’ huge scale, a lot of time you’re fighting very big creatures and monsters and those creatures haven’t featured heavily in video games before. So it was quite interesting to bring those to life.”

Freeblade was the basis for parts of Pixel Toys’ approach to Realm War, including it’s free-to-play model, as the team realised premium would not be manageable even with the huge Warhammer fanbase.

“In fact, all the mobile games we’ve released are free-to-play,” Wafer says. “Freeblade we initially [thought] of as a premium game back in 2014. But after 18 months of development, it became clear to us that if we were going to make it work commercially, we were going to have to make it free-to-play.

“So we actually converted the game in the last few months to free-to-play. Which was definitely the right decision. We took the licence on the basis that there’s an audience there, and if you make something that’s good then people will be happy to spend money on it.

“But I think it became clear in 2014/2015 that that business model is not viable. Even for a huge franchise like Warhammer – there is a market there but if we wanted to get millions of people playing the game…” he smiles.

Luckily for Pixel Toys, free-to-play was definitely the right approach as Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realm War has met both commercial and critical success since its release. We can only hope that the studio will continue its partnership with Games Workshop, as the mobile market is definitely in need of more of these high production values titles.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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