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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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  • GTA 5 PC: modders poking around the files find Army Cavalcade, Feroci and SuperGT textures

    More GTA 5 information has been posted by modders poking around in the files of the PC version. This time, instead of zombies and horses, textures for the Army Cavalcade, Feroci and SuperGT vehicles have been found. New leaked vehicles Barbarian, Detonator and Tampa are also mentioned in the thread. A screencap of the files […]

  • Sony leaks: Uncharted movie similar to National Treasure but more “intense” and not as “silly”

    Sony Pictures wants the Uncharted film to be similar in tone to the National Treasure franchise, but not as soft or silly, and with deeper romantic storyline than the Nicolas Cage films. The information on the upcoming film was pulled from emails and database files derived from the Sony Pictures hack last year by North […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront isn’t just a “big-budget Battlefield mod,” says DICE

    DICE boss Patrick Bach has promised Star Wars: Battlefront isn’t just a “big-budget Battlefield mod,” as the game carries the Battlefront title for a reason. Speaking with Eurogamer during Day 2 of the Star Wars Celebration yesterday, Bach said the team stayed true to the “core ethos” of the Battlefront series by adhering to what […]

  • New Steam policy restricts accounts to protect users from phishing scams and spam

    Valve has implemented a new policy on Steam which limits user accounts which have spent less than $5 through the store. The new policy is to protect users from phishing scams and spam. If the users hasn’t spent anything on the store, they at least have to have $5 sitting in their Steam Wallet. This […]

  • Latest Flash Sale on the US PlayStation Store discounts action games and movies

    Sony is hosting another Flash Sale on the North American store with plenty of action games, and some films, to help get your weekend started. The list is super long, so here’s a few highlights: Army of TWO The Devil’s Cartel Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Bayonetta Beyond Good & Evil HD Castlevania: Harmony of Despair […]

  • A new expansion for Postal 2 called Paradise Lost was released today

    It appears Postal 2 has a new add-on available. No, it’s not for the 2003 version, but the Complete Edition which was greenlit on Steam 10 years later. Called Paradise Lost, the add-on stars the Dude and contains a new single-player story campaign and new areas featuring free-roam gameplay. The original voice actor for the […]

  • GTA 5 patch 1.01 is now available for PC, fixes launcher and framerate issues

    Rockstar has released patch 1.01 for the PC version of GTA 5 and along with a fix to the character’s facial features changing when transferring to PC, the launcher will no longer drain your CPU and crash. Here are the full patch notes: Fixed an issue where the GTAV Launcher would use an abnormally high […]

  • Ultra Street Fighter 4 will arrive on the PS Store for PS4 in May

    Ultra Street Fighter 4 will be released on PlayStation 4 in May, Capcom has announced. All characters, levels and previous DLC will be included in the PS4 version, including a fix to input lag found in the PS3 version’s controls. The fighting game will be released digitally on the PS Store May 26 for $24.99 […]

  • Upcoming Dark Souls 2 patch to fix weapon degradation glitch

    Weapon degradation wan’t an intentional feature in Dark Souls 2, and now that it has carried over into Scholar of the First Sin, the glitch will be patched out in an upcoming update. The glitch also affected the framerate of Dark Souls 2 on PC, and on all platforms with Scholar of the First Sin. […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront is now available for pre-order on Origin, Amazon, others

    Star Wars: Battlefront is now available for pre-order through EA’s Origin service as well as Amazon and GameStop. Star Wars: Battlefront pre-orders, as previously reported, will include early access to the free Battle of Jakku DLC. The planet is included in the upcoming film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and finds the New Republic coming […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront – watch the lovely reveal trailer here

    The first trailer for Star Wars: Battlefront was released today after much anticipation. Watch the lovely game reveal below, all captured on PlayStation 4. The trailer was revealed during an EA panel today at the Star Wars Celebration, and featured Lucasfilm concept artist Doug Chiang, the game’s senior producer Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, and other members of […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront has 40-player battles, play as Darth Vader and Boba Fett

    Star Wars: Battlefront will take place during the original film trilogy’s timeline, according to a report from the Associated Press. It appears the information was posted ahead of time, (via Kotaku) as the report is written in past tense. According to the report, players will take part in “frenzied shoot-outs between up to 40 players” […]

  • Microsoft confirms departure of Xbox Europe VP Phil Harrison

    Microsoft has confirmed the departure of Phil Harrison, its corporate VP of Xbox in Europe. According to a statement, Harrison left to pursue interests outside of the company, Xbox boss Phil Spencer told GI.biz. “Following a successful tenure as Corporate Vice President in Xbox in Europe, Phil Harrison has chosen to pursue business interests outside […]

  • Battlefield Hardline Rent-a-Server option coming to both last and current-gen consoles

    Battlefield Hardline players will be able to take part in the Rent-a-Server program, similar to the one in Battlefield 4, when the first patch for the shooter is released. Rental servers will come to both last and current-gen consoles, and CPU issues will be addressed in the patch as well, which PC players will be […]

  • Chip’s Challenge and unreleased sequel Chip’s Challenge 2 arrive on Steam next month

    Chip’s Challenge, the 1989 top-down tile-based puzzler created by Chuck Sommerville, is heading to Steam along with the unreleased sequel Chip’s Challenge 2. After the release of the first game, Sommerville spent two years developing the sequel, only to find the trademark had been sold. The trademark’s new owners wanted him to fund the publishing, […]

  • Pillars of Eternity patch betas hitting Steam, update 1.05 to drop in May

    Patch 1.04 for Pillars of Eternity dropped yesterday, and according to Obsidian Entertainment, players can expect the next round of fixes to arrive in May. According to a post on the Kickstarter page, patch 1.04 contained quite a bit of fixes, and going forward, the team plans to continue squishing bugs, adding additional polish and […]

  • Goat Simulator comes to Xbox platforms

    Goat Simulator continues its plan to dominate all platforms under the sun by releasing on Xbox consoles. Goat Simulator has been released on Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The store page for the Xbox One version is now live, but the 360 one is lagging behind. Don’t know what this game is or what it’s […]

  • Alienation: first co-op footage revealed

    We have our first look at gameplay footage from Housemarque’s Alienation. Housemarque has finally given us a look at their upcoming shooter project, Alienation. The twin-stick shooter will feature co-op and the new video shows it in action. It’s a short one but still manages to demo several environments. The game was shown off at […]

  • ReShade SweetFX supports GTA 5, user-made presets begin popping up

    GTA 5 modders started making presets for ReShade SweetFX as soon as they realised the tool supports it. To the modding community’s delightful surprise, shader-altering tool ReShade SweetFX was discovered to support GTA 5. What this means is that anyone can download the tool, mess around with the post-processing options, and inject them into GTA […]

  • Project Cars goes gold, full track list revealed

    Project Cars has finally gone gold. Project Cars developer Slightly Mad has announced that the racer has reached gold master milestone. “We know the wait for the game to be released was worth it, as we’re confident the quality and realism level we have achieved will provide our fans with the game they are all […]

  • Dragon Quest Heroes has a stupid subtitle in the West

    The Western release of Dragon Quest Heroes has been given the most absurd subtitle. Square Enix announced a while back that Dragon Quest Heroes will come to North America and Europe this year. Unlike in Japan, it will launch only on PlayStation 4. Earlier today, the Japanese publisher revealed what the game’s logo will look […]

  • Minecraft vulnerability allows users to crash servers remotely [UPDATE]

    A security flaw discovered in Minecraft’s code that could give perpetrators the ability to crash servers remotely has been fixed via a patch by Mojang. Update: Mojang has released an update to Minecraft patch 1.8, listed as version 1.8.4, and it is available now. It fixes reported security issues, in addition to some other minor […]

  • Official Bloodborne merchandise now available, including a limited edition statue

    The PlayStation gear store has added a new section dedicated to Bloodborne merchandise. The first set of items is as good as you’d expect. If you’re a fan of Bloodborne and want to make sure everyone around you knows it, you’ll be happy to know that Sony has added a few pieces of Bloodborne-branded gear […]

  • Destiny Xur update: should you buy The Last Word?

    Xur is selling one of Destiny’s top hand cannons today: The Last Word. Is it worth grinding the coins for? The answer is a resounding YES. The Last Word is one of Destiny’s best Exotics, and one of the best Hand Cannons in the game. Our Destiny expert Alex notes that it’s one of the […]

  • Destiny: Xur location and inventory for April 17, 18 – The Last Word edition

    What did our good buddy Xur bring for us this week? Xur: Agent of the Nine, Destiny’s weekend vendor is back with more Exotic offers. Xur is your guy if you’re after Exotic weapons or armour, provided you have the Strange Coins for them. Head over to the lounge in the Tower Hangar, you’ll find […]

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt discounted for Gold members, pre-load now live

    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt files are now live on the Xbox Store. Xbox One owners with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt pre-orders can start downloading the full game to be ready for launch. The file size was confirmed earlier to be just over 25GB. Those who have yet to pre-order can do so at […]

  • GTA 5 files accessed by modders, reveal horses, zombies, more

    Modders have managed to pry GTA 5′s file lock open and expose many of its interesting innards. GTA community modders have gained access to several of GTA 5′s archives on PC. These files were previously believed to be inaccessible. Popular modding tool OpenIV, which was used in editing files in GTA 4 (hence the name), […]

  • Bethesda’s E3 invite features Dishonored, Doom, Wolfenstein… but no Fallout

    Bethesda is going first at E3 this year with a showcase of games on Sunday night. What clues can we see in the press invite? Skyrim publisher Bethesda has sent out confirmation of its E3 showcase, taking place Sunday June 14. The invite includes a number of Bethesda game characters including Wolfenstein’s BJ Blazcowicz, a […]

  • Here’s Crytek’s VR demo, because dinosaurs

    Dinosaurs! This is precisely what virtual reality is for. VR demos are all over the place and CryEngine developer Crytek has produced one of its own, showing off how the engine is flexible enough t- Look, let me level with you: I don’t care. I only care about dinosaurs. Hush now and watch the dinosaurs. […]

  • StreetPass update adds birthday collecting, VIP Miis and more

    StreetPass collecters should take advantage of an optional update. It’s International StreetPass Week, so now’s the time to break out the 3DS and go hunting. Don’t leave your home network without first checking out a new optional update, though. Kotaku reports the update prompt is available from the leftmost icon in your StreetPass Mii Plaza. […]

  • Massive Uplay sale offers cheap games in time for the weekend

    PC gamers can grab a sweet saving or two in Uplay’s Spring Sale. Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Alien: Isolation are all on sale as part of Uplay’s Spring Sale, among many other titles. The sale offers discounts of up to 85% off digital […]

  • Fix for GTA 5 PC Windows install bug releasing today

    Rockstar is set to release a patch today that will fix a bug preventing players from installing the game. The bug is tied to Windows usernames that use certain characters not supported by Rockstar. There’s already a workaround available on the Rockstar Support site, but those waiting for an official update will be able to […]

  • Prey 2 dev’s new mobile horror Lost Within out now on iOS and Fire

    Remember Lost Within, that mobile survival horror erstwhile Prey 2 developer Human Head Studios was making with Amazon Game Studios? It’s now available on iOS and for Amazon’s Fire devices, through the appropriate App Stores. There’s a little bit of extra info on it on the AGS blog, if you’re keen; unfortunately the blog doesn’t […]

  • Let’s take a look at Blood Bowl 2′s Chaos faction

    Blood Bowl 2: The Chaos Theory is only the latest in a much loved series of games based on a game based on two other games. Blood Bowl is a popular Games Workshop tabletop game which blends the fantasy universe of Warhammer with a fantasy sport drawing inspiration from American football and related games. It’s […]

  • “Second-person” shooter Screencheat coming to PS4 and Xbox One

    Goldeneye players should be familiar with the concept of screencheating, which is what this new indie is all about. Screencheat has been on our radars for a while but has now been confirmed for PS4, sparking a new wave of interest with a trailer and PS Blog post. However, it was one of a number […]

  • World of Warcraft Timewalking will make old dungeons fun again

    World of Warcraft will soon introduce a feature called Timewalking, designed to make you feel young again. When WoW players participate in a Timewalking event, they’ll be transported to a randomly selected classic dungeon. Upon entering, their level and gear will be scaled way, way down to the Dungeon’s Heroic level – so they won’t […]

  • Bloodborne and Dark Souls messaging – in real life

    Soapstone is a cool little app that mimics the messaging system found in Bloodborne, Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. Bloodborne and Dark Souls fans will surely agree that the asynchronous multiplayer side of things, with players leaving anonymous tips, encouragement and jokes for each other, is one of the cooler aspects of the From Software […]