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Indie kings – The Pickfords win with Magnetic Billiards

Monday, 15 August 2011 08:01 GMT By Stace Harman

Following the release of their first iOS game, we sat down with John and Ste Pickford to pick their brains on 28 years in the business and how to outwit expensive lawyers.

Pickford Bros.

Between them, John and Ste have worked on 85 unique titles over 28 years, including the much loved Wetrix and Plok!.

They once created a prototype of the ultimate videogame match-up: Worms Vs Lemmings.

The brothers’ latest release, Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint, is their first iOS game and available now via the App Store for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

A PC version of Magnetic Billiards, subtitled Seriously Casual is also in development.

The pair revealed to VG247 that an iPad version of Naked War is on its way, launch date unconfirmed.

The origin of the John and Ste Pickford’s first iOS game, Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint, is steeped in lore 123 years in the making. An aged, barely legible blueprint – the forgotten legacy of a long-dead ancestor – depicts the physical specifications of a wondrous machine with the potential to entertain patrons, but that was so volatile it might just have been the death of its creator.

There’s an alternate history, of course. One that speaks of an experiment begun some ten years ago with a Verlet particle system and the desire to teach a little girl to use a computer mouse by way pinging inanimate objects around a play area, but that’s nowhere near as romantic.

Whichever history you subscribe to, the result is a game with a simple premise: fire balls of various colours around a table with no pockets. Hitting balls of the same colour sees them cling together resulting in clusters and creating a big enough cluster will remove it from the table, awarding you points which contribute to you overall graded score for each table. Bonuses and multipliers are awarded for trick shots, as well as for the number of cushions hit prior to connecting with the target ball and for creating aesthetically pleasing cluster patterns.

It’s fun and maddening, as time and again you foil your own perfect run with a botched shot caused by a rush of blood to the head. Each improbably strung together cluster and shot of multiple bounces elicits a hand-drawn depiction of one of the bearded Pickford brothers giving you a thumbs-up. It’s a neat triumph of sound mechanics layered in charming, indie stylings.

Magnetic Billiards. Quirky and fun. Why would you not
want this?

Since releasing last month, the game has topped several iOS charts, including the UK sports league, placing above Football Manager. An accomplished first Mac outing for the Pickford brothers, then, but one that they were warned against making.

“We talked to a lot of developers to pick up tips for how to reach the biggest audience on the App Store,” Ste, the younger of the brothers, recounts. “And the majority of people we spoke to told us to make a different game: one with cute animals or without so much depth, and to knock it out in three months as that’s the only way to make any money.

“We’re driven to make the games that we want to make and I don’t think we’ve ever felt like those games are part of any current fashion. To be honest, we generally lose out a bit [commercially] because we’re slightly out of step with what other people are doing.”

Looking at the brothers’ development history through the all-seeing eye of retrospect it’s apparent that being “out of step” has at times equated to being quirky and at others, innovative. Wetrix, Plok and Naked War, none of which set the charts alight in their day, were all well received critically and will be remembered fondly by those that experienced them.

A question of convenience

Some 28 years of developing games gives the brothers a point of authority from which to discuss gaming trends. John believes the reason for the explosion of quality mobile gaming in recent years and subsequent creep into core-gamers’ consciousness can be succinctly summed up.

“It’s all about the convenience,” he says. “The fact that you don’t have to go to it, it’s just right there – especially where the device is a phone so is something that you carry around with you all the time. That, plus a very simple purchase process coupled with relatively low prices make it just all very tempting. The convenience trumps everything, really.

“That said, there’s a lot of games that just don’t work on a touch screen – anything in which you control an avatar is generally disappointing with a virtual stick, so there’s a huge swathe of traditional games that aren’t really suitable.

“Personally, I love the challenge – which perhaps sounds really pretentious – but I love the challenge of designing a game that will work without those conventional controls. It’s fascinating to do that: to make a game that feels right and doesn’t make you think ‘I wish I had a joypad’.”

“Loads of devs bemoan the fact that certain types of games don’t fit these devices,” adds Ste. “Sure, [touch screen devices] exclude certain types of games, but they also open up new types of games too.

Livin’ in a box

A deformable mud system that John created at Zed Two back in 2000 – a similar system later appeared in an iteration of Sega Rally. Unfortunately, publishers of the time wouldn’t commission the brothers to create a driving game due to their lack of experience in the genre – “There’s a tendency for the industry to box you in and label you as a particular type of company,” muses Ste.

“It seems odd to be in the games industry and be a bit of a Luddite who doesn’t want to try new things. Most of us got into the games industry in the first place because games were fresh and new and different.”

Of course, the opportunity to be fresh, new and different along with the low barrier for entry has attracted a great many new developers to the mobile development scene. The challenge has shifted from simply making a good game to actually getting noticed amongst the cacophony of worthless tat and hidden gems that flood the App Store each and every week.

So, what master plan do the Pickford brothers have for combating the threat of obscurity? How do experienced veterans of the industry make their game stand out in the cornucopia of apps and rise serenely to sit far above the madding crowd?

“I was going to ask you that question!” responds Ste.

“This is our first iOS game so we’re still learning. It’s interesting because when you get noticed by appearing on a website or in a magazine you’ll see these spikes in downloads, but then it fades away over a couple of days so you’re constantly scratching your head thinking, ‘Bloody hell, we know that if we put this game in front of people there’s a good chance they’ll like it,’ but it’s possible to not get it in front of anybody if we don’t shout about it.”

“It’s the challenge at the moment,” adds John. “We’re no longer coding all day, now we’re trying to get people to pick up the game.”

Can’t buy me love

The lightening remains unbottled for now, then, but in searching for the magic formula the brother’s turned up some dubious practices by those claiming to have the answer.

“What came as a bit of a shock to me was people or companies offering varying bundles of five star App Store ratings for a few hundred dollars,” Ste reveals. “We spoke to some other developers and they acknowledged that it does go on, along with the practice of paying for negative reviews for your competitors – it’s not a common thing, but it does go on.”

“One thing that’s worried me,” interjects John, “is that we’ve had really positive reviews on the App Store: we’ve got over a hundred five star ratings in a relatively short space of time and I was thinking that that’s our biggest asset, something that we can talk about – that people like the game – but after hearing about this I was concerned that people might think that the reviews are fake.”

“What was actually worse, though,” Ste continues, “is the responses we got from a number of websites that review iPhone games. The majority of responses that we received came with a price list for the different types of review that the site offered. So, maybe $30 for the small review, $50 for a video review etc. On most of these sites there was nothing to tell readers that the reviews are paid for. I was pretty shocked by that, shocked and depressed”.

Abhorrent as these practices are, they’re indicative of the well-publicised problems of a bloated mobile market and are just one of many challenges that indie developers face. John is quick to dismiss the notion, however, that the bulk of a major publisher standing behind you guarantees higher market visibility, regardless of the market.

“A few years ago, we worked on a game called Wetrix and right at the end of development the publisher decided that they weren’t going to promote it very much,” he remembers.

“As a developer beholden to a publisher, there’s nothing you can do about that. I mean, the game did OK and lots of people seem to remember it, but none of that was because of the publisher’s marketing budget. The game had a publisher and still didn’t get promoted.

“So, working without a publisher can be a challenge for indies, but it’s also an opportunity.”

“Working without a publisher is how we make good games,” declares Ste. “I don’t mean that to sound self-indulgent but when you work with a publisher you can run the risk of having the marketing budget but being constricted in what you make.

“Now, whether that’s because you have to include certain fashionable features or you have non-designer interference or whatever – you can find that you end up with the marketing budget but you’ve had to create a ‘me too’ game to get it.”

“Indie development lacks the committee-led design, I think,” ponders John. “With Magnetic Billiards we made all the decisions and every single thing that you see in the game is there because we’ve made a decision to put it there. So, good or terrible, it’s all our work.”

Stop, collaborate, listen

Something in the brothers’ approach is definitely working for them, and it seems their creative vision is now inspiring others. The brothers have begun receiving offers from developers looking to work with them, have them consult on projects or develop games based on their back catalogue.

“Something that I’m not sure we’ve mentioned to anyone yet is that Naked War is coming to iPad,” reveals Ste. “That’s as a result of working with another company who are coding it right now.”

“I think we made Naked War just a bit too soon,” John says of the turn-based game’s original 2004 release. “If we’d made it for Facebook I think it would have done well, it needed a friends list to add that social element. Naively, we thought it would work because there was an email side to it that would give it a chance of spreading virally but it didn’t work out so well because a lot of people thought they were receiving spam!”

Lest they forget:

The Pickford brothers’ excellent website stands as testament to their contributions to the industry and contains some fascinating insights and honest appraisals of their past, present and future work. It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon and highlights the importance and need for the wider industry to better archive its past.

“It’s not an unusual story for us: the people that played it, loved it – but we just had to find a way of reaching an audience … With iOS 5 we’ll have a turn based mechanism built into Game Center and we can package the whole map, including the damage, into each iOS turn file which means we don’t need a server to run it.”

As we wrap up our discussion I ask in passing about the company name, Zee-3, and their previous studio Zed Two, commenting that one sounds UK-centric whilst the other could be construed as an effort to reach across the pond.

“The name is actually the result of a joke!” Ste laughs.

“We knew we’d be working with Americans so the spelling out of the word Zed was perhaps the first part of the joke,” John clarifies, before Ste resumes.

“We sold [Zed Two] to another company and they made us redundant. As part of the redundancy package they had legal documents drawn up by these expensive £250 per hour lawyers and, because at that point we had no money, we had no choice but to sign them.

“There was a clause that stipulated that we couldn’t set up another company called Zed-2 or that contained the word Zed or the number 2. It took the sharpest legal minds to come up with that clause and we duly abided by it: we set up a company called Zee-3.”

It’s this offbeat humour that makes indie development and Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint a refreshing place to be.

Magnetic Billiards is out now for iOS devices. It’s available for 69p with 20 standard play tables, £1.49 for an additional 20 more challenging tables or £2.49 offering all 40 tables plus 3 additional play modes and free access to all future content.

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3 Comments

  1. GamezIdiot

    Great read, magnetic billiards is brilliant. More articles like this please as long as it’s not angry birds!

    #1 4 years ago
  2. JPickford

    It’s Angry Beards!

    #2 4 years ago
  3. Jimaroid

    Now there’s an idea! You fire facial hair at walls of people and see which ones stick. It’d be like a cross between Guess Who and Tanks. Neckbeards act like smartbombs, obviously.

    Solid. Gold.

    #3 4 years ago

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    Microsoft has announced its latest Deals with Gold discounts for Xbox Live Gold members. Franchises on sale include Far Cry, Call of Duty, along with individual titles Assassin’s Creed Unity and Bioshock Infinite. The full list is below. Bioshock Infinite discounts are available for both Xbox Live Gold and Silver members. Xbox One Far Cry […]

  • Wolfenstein: The Old Blood has released, watch the launch trailer here

    Wolfenstein: The Old Blood has launched on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. You can watch the launch trailer for it below. Boxed copies in Europe arrive from May 15, and in Australia/New Zealand on May 14. You can grab digital copies from the following online services: Steam, PlayStation Network, Xbox Store.

  • GOG’s online service GOG Galaxy is now in open beta

    GOG Galaxy, the DRM-free online gaming platform from the folks at GOG, has left Alpha and is now in open beta for all to try. As previously announced, the online service, similar to Steam, is option. Players do not need to play online as all games are stored by the service and can be played […]

  • DayZ-inspired Goat Simulator DLC GoatZ is out this week on Steam

    Goat Simulator players can download DayZ-inspired DLC this week called GoatZ. According to Coffee Stain Studios, GoatZ is “the only survival game on Steam that isn’t in Early Access.” Jokingly of course. The DLC features: Mandatory crafting system because everyone else is doing it. Zombies that bug out. There’s a pun here about actual living […]

  • No, Far Cry 4 is not currently free on PSN

    You may have seen a few Tweets from people saying that the PS4 version of Far Cry 4 is available to download from PSN for free. This is not true. A few readers have tipped us off to what looked like a glitch on PSN that allowed players to download the full version of Far […]

  • Metal Gear Solid: The 1984 Collection confirmed to be a clothing line

    Konami is teasing a Metal Gear Solid thing called “The 1984 Collection.” The Metal Gear Solid Facebook page posted this image about an hour ago: The caption reads, “Step back into the 80′s with our new MGS collection coming very soon! Stay tuned!” This is supposedly in reference to the clothing line that was announced […]

  • Portal, The Simpsons, Jurassic World & Scooby Doo packs listed for Lego Dimensions

    Lego Dimensions is likely getting a few unannounced content packs. One of which is themed around Valve’s Portal. A set of unannounced content packs for the upcoming Lego Dimensions have been revealed by US retailer Walmart. The listings include packs for The Simpsons, Scooby Doo and Jurassic World, and most interestingly, Portal. The listings have […]

  • This is the most authentic recreation of GTA 2 in real life ever

    Affordable drones have many uses. Most of them are not nearly as exciting as recreating GTA 2 in real life. I am surprised it took us this long, but someone has finally captured footage using a drone that resembles the protagonist’s experience in the classic GTA 2. These aren’t just shots of cars from a […]

  • PlayStation 4 sales reach 2m in the UK

    Sony has sold 2 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the UK, faster than it did with the PlayStation 2 – the company’s best-selling machine in the country. MCVUK is reporting that as of last weekend, 2 million PlayStation 4s have been sold in the UK. The data is based on GfK Chart-Track estimates. This makes […]

  • H1Z1 gets female characters, skin colour options planned

    In an effort to improve diversity in the game, H1Z1 developer has added female characters. Female survivors can now be found throughout the world of H1Z1. Developer Daybreak added the new feature in a patch released last Friday. You will be able to choose a female avatar in the main game and in Battle Royale. […]

  • Possible teaser site for Castlevania creator Koji “IGA” Igarashi’s new game opens

    Either Castlevania creator Koji “IGA” Igarashi is working on a soon-to-be-launched Kickstarter for his new game, or someone is pulling an elaborate prank. At PAX Prime last year, during Keiji Inafune’s Mighty No. 9 panel, a flyer was handed out to attendees that showed what appeared to be a 2D game of some sort with […]

  • Destiny weekly reset for May 5: Heroic and Nightfall strikes detailed

    Tuesday is here and Destiny’s weekly reset is also here. Bungie announced that your weekly Destiny grind has now begun. The Nightfall and Heroic strikes are now live too. This week’s strike is Winter’s Run. Rainbow burn is back for the Nightfall, which means you do more damage with all elemental weapons, but also receive […]

  • PC version of Project Cars delayed in Australia due to severe weather

    Recent weather conditions in Sydney, Australia are responsible for a slight delay of the PC version of Project Cars in the country. Sydney recently suffered from storms that caused flooding in some areas. One of those is the place where publisher Namco Bandai was storing PC copies of Project Cars. The stock was “severely damaged,” […]

  • Twitch’s new process makes it easier for streamers to appeal flagged content

    Twitch has updated its appeals process concerning videos that have been flagged by the audio ID system. Towards the end of last year, Twitch introduced a new audio recognition system that scans archived streams and automatically mutes the audio whenever copyright music is identified. The system has been in-use ever since and Twitch has today […]

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a day one patch, but it’s not a major one

    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will indeed have a day one patch, to make the first-time experience as smooth as possible. Like many modern games, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will have its day one patch. According to the developer however, it wasn’t born out of necessity. Miles Tost, level designer at developer CD Projekt […]

  • CoD: Advanced Warfare owners get free pistol today

    Advanced Warfare developer Sledgehammer Games is adding a new pistol to the game, free to all players. The M1 Irons is a new pistol that comes to Advanced Warfare starting today. The weapon is offered as a thank you gift from the developer. Sledgehammer says the Irons is good at range and packs a punch. […]

  • Fall down the Skullgirls Big Band music video rabbit hole with me

    Skullgirls is a pretty amazing fighting game, but did you know it’s also a passable music creation suite? Earlier today I was idly perusing an episode of PlayStation Underground showing off Skullgirls 2nd Encore, a re-release of the indie fighter packing in loads of new features and coming to PS4 – with full cross-play! – […]

  • The many uses of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood’s pipe weapon

    Wolfenstein: The Old Blood adds a sick new weapon to BJ’s arsenal: a pipe. In Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, a pipe is not just a pipe. Not only can you bash nazis with it, you can use it to climb walls, reach hatches, and even break through some walls. Plus? You can dual wield it. […]

  • Mortal Kombat X teaser gives first look at Predator

    Mortal Kombat X’s next celebrity guest was teased during the latest Kast. Today’s Mortal Kombat X Kast was mostly about all about Jason, but also included a very brief nod to Predator. You can watch the full livestream to see the tease in situ if you’re really keen, but IGN shared this convenient edit: There’s […]

  • Rock Band 4 has count-ins, drum fills and vocal harmonies

    Rock Band 4 will more closely emulate the feeling of being a real musician with some neat personalisation touches. For Rock Band 4, Harmonix elected to double down on player ownership of their experience rather than technical precision. To this end, it has implemented a number of cool new features. I am wildly envious of […]

  • Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, Lost Planet 3 developer shuttered

    Spark Unlimited has gone down with all hands. The Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z and Lost Planet 3 developer has been shuttered and all staff laid off. Chief technical officer John Butrovich confirmed the news in a statement issued to IGN. “Spark Unlimited is closing as a video game developer. The ongoing opportunities for smaller mobile […]

  • PS Now subscription available on PlayStation 3 this month, Vita coming soon

    PlayStation Now’s all you can eat service has finally been dated for PS3. Subscriptions to PS Now, Sony’s cloud-based gaming service, will be available on PS3 from May 12 in the US. The all you can eat package will also be made available on select Bravia TVs and Sony Blu-ray players on the same date. […]

  • GTA 5 is even better with a gravity gun

    GTA 5 modders have made a dream come true, adding a gravity gun to your arsenal of mayhem-causing weaponry. GTA 5 isn’t ready for this. It looks like a heck of a lot of fun, but the poor old Los Santos po po can’t deal with the resulting carnage at all. If Rockstar were ever […]

  • “Mod makers should be able to make money from their creations,” says DOOM creator

    DOOM co-creator John Romero has weighed in on the paid mods debate. Paid mods are a hot issue right now. For years, Valve has been enabling content creators to make money from their work on Counter-strike: Global offensive, Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, but when it partnered with Bethesda to offer the same for […]

  • Watch WRC driver Kevin Abbring smash through a DIRT Rally challenge

    WRC driver Kevin Abbring has been participating in Dirt Rally’s daily events – and kicking ass. Dirt Rally seems to have ticked one of the most difficult to attain boxes of racing development – creating something professional drivers like to play, and which rewards their years of experience. Codemasters published the video below showing Hyundai […]

  • Mortal Kombat X patch to bring PC version up to console standard

    Mortal Kombat X PC will be fixed tomorrow, NetherRealm has promised. The PC version of Mortal Kombat X has come under fire for poor performance, including stuttering frame rate and bugs as plenty. About 45 minutes into a recent Twitch stream, NetherRealm boss Ed Boon said an update will drop tomorrow to address many of […]

  • Destiny House of Wolves: all new Crucible maps detailed

    Destiny’s House of Wolves DLC will add four new maps to the Crucible, the game’s competitive multiplayer mode. Let’s take a look at all of them. Alex brings you new footage showing all of the four maps that will drop with House of Wolves. He goes over the layout, landmarks, gameplay styles, and other important […]

  • Custom Xbox One Star Wars controllers look very tempting

    Microsoft is celebrating May 4 by showing off concept designs for Star Wars-themed Xbox One controllers. May 4 is of course Star Wars Day and the controller concepts you’re about to see are just that, concepts. Or at least that’s what they said they are. There are four designs and they don’t look very practical. […]

  • Project Cars launch trailer is an anthology of race cars, set to the beats of Deadmau5

    Project Cars comes out this week and there’s just enough time for one last trailer. Project Cars, Slightly Mad Studios’ ambitious racer that has been in development for ages, is finally coming out this week. The racer received plenty of changes throughout its development based on community feedback and the final product will be in […]

  • Star Wars Battlefront dev reveals planet Sullust

    Sullust, a planet that has not been previously shown, will be featured in one of Star Wars Battlefront’s maps. Star Wars Battlefront developer DICE revealed today that planet Sullust will be one of the game’s locations. The planet was mentioned in the films and other Star Wars works, but was only shown today. DICE posted […]

  • Destiny House of Wolves: Tower vendor changes

    House of Wolves will change the inventory of some of Destiny’s vendors and add new roles to others. Here’s everything that has been announced so far. You know that House of Wolves will bring a new social space to the game in the form of The Reef. But did you also know that the good […]

  • Nintendo apologises for Amiibo shortages, will reissue some out-of-stock figures

    Nintendo released a statement today to apologise for fan’s frustrations in finding some Amiibo figures and promised to handle distribution better going forward. Nintendo has been criticised recently for its lack of communication when it comes to new Amiibo figures. Something which has lead fans to not know if certain figures are limited to some […]

  • Halo: MCC “a black eye for us,” Halo 5 won’t suffer the same fate, says franchise director

    The development of Halo: The Master Chief Collection was of an “outrageous complexity,” which was one of the reasons it suffered a horrible launch. None of that will happen with Halo 5: Guardians, according to Frank O’Connor. Frank O’Connor, Halo franchise development director opened up to Xbox Achievements about the difficult task of developing The […]

  • Destiny House of Wolves: weapon Reforging explained

    When House of Wolves drops in a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to change the stats of some in-game weapons. This process is called ‘Reforging’. Alex goes over all the details Bungie revealed about the new Reforging system. This covers the materials you need, the weapons that can be reforged and much more. Make […]

  • GTA 5 PC: control the in-game phone with your iPhone using this mod

    GTA 5′s latest mod lets you control the in-game phone with your real-life iPhone. Reddit user Planetleak wanted to see if he would succeed in getting his iPhone to control the phone in GTA 5. He did it and has a video to prove it. It’s not a mod per-se, but it emulates mouse and […]

  • SoulCalibur dev wants to know fans’ favourite characters for “something huge”

    SoulCalibur developers are probably working on a new game, because they’re asking fans to vote on their favourite characters. Project Soul, the longtime developer of the SoulCalibur series is soliciting feedback on fans’ favourite characters. The developer said as much in a post on its Facebook page. “Calling all SoulCalibur Fans! Project Soul would like […]

  • Jason Voorhees doesn’t look out of place in new Mortal Kombat X trailer

    Jason Voorhees comes to Mortal Kombat X starting tomorrow and it’s time to celebrate his arrival. Jason Voorhees, the first DLC character for Mortal Kombat X has been given the trailer treatment. Jason is part of the game’s Kombat Pack, owners of which can start using him tomorrow, May 5. Being an iconic horror character, […]

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition – Dragonslayer DLC announced, free to all this week

    Dragon Age: Inquisition is getting a multiplayer expansion this week. BioWare has announced that all owners of Dragon Age: Inquisition will receive a new multiplayer expansion, for free. The expansion is called Dragonslayer and it’s centred around fighting dragons, hence the name. Three new playable characters will join the roster as you explore an all-new […]

  • Sonder is still happening, and this is the best news of the week

    Sonder is a really interesting-looking new indie adventure, which I am quite excited to remember exists. We first heard about Sonder in late 2013, when its debut trailer introduced us to a Kamai Media’s ambitious vision. In the intervening months Kamai has been hard at work on its space station management sim slash non-linear narrative […]

  • Twitter axes playable Internet Archive embeds

    The dream has died: Twitter has disabled Internet Archive game embeds. Remember how for a few days you could tweet a link to an a game on the Internet Archive and it was playable direct from that tweet? Well, Twitter has cancelled that. All those tweets now just show links. GamesIndustry suspects it has something […]