Pixel Games
Image: Pixel Games

Over the last few years, the one-person indie studio Pixel Games has made a name for itself as the developer of some amazing arcade throwbacks.

We first heard about the developer, thanks to 2022's Donut Dodo — a Burger Time and Donkey Kong-inspired platformer that sees players running, jumping, and climbing through levels, as the Baker Billy Burns, to try to steal back their donuts from a mischievous bird. And we were equally blown away by its 2023 follow-up Cash Cow DX — a Mappy-style arcade platformer that sees players taking control of a cow on a quest to retrieve her missing money from a greedy pig named Pig Pockets.

So when we saw that, earlier this month, the studio had announced that was hard at work on Loony Landers — yet another arcade-inspired title — we thought it might be a good opportunity to get in touch with Sebastian Kostka, the person behind Pixel Games, to get to know him a little bit better and pick his brains about this recent run of titles and what players can expect from this latest project. You can read our conversation with him below:

Time Extension: A lot of people will probably know you best at this point for Donut Dodo, but you’ve been making games for decades now. Could you give us a little summary of your background in game development and how you originally got started?

Kostka: Sure! It all started in the early 80s. My dad came home one evening after work, with an interesting box under his arm. It was a ZX Spectrum with 48k of RAM, and it could display up to 8 colours. Not that it mattered, as our family TV at the time was black and white.

The computer had no tape or disk drive but came with a little book of type-in games in BASIC. Interacting with what was happening on the TV screen, which up until that point had always been a passive experience, was fascinating to me. That’s how I got started programming as a kid, and I've dreamt of making games ever since.

Fast forward to the mid-90s, when I joined UbiSoft and the dream became a reality. There I worked on a bunch of titles, the better-known ones probably being Rayman 2, Tonic Trouble, and TIM7, mostly as a 3D animator.

While overall it was a great experience, I did miss the magic of the early 8 and 16-bit titles, and went on a 10-year hiatus from making games from around 2001 onwards, during which time I was mostly doing modeling, animation, and concept work for film and publicity.

But then something incredible happened. The arrival of smartphones paved the way for a new generation of indie developers and I was determined to take this opportunity as I had always wanted to be a bedroom programmer, as they were known back in the 80s.

Fortunately, this turned out to be a viable decision, as the independent gaming scene has transitioned over to PCs and consoles and has been growing ever since.

Time Extension: A lot of your games like Donut Dodo, Cash Cow DX, and the upcoming Loony Landers obviously pull inspiration from the arcades. We're wondering, what was your own experience of the arcades like growing up? Was there a particular arcade you remember visiting often?

Kostka: I very much have a soft spot for early Namco arcade titles and I think this is reflected in my own games.

Sadly, as a child, there were no arcades nearby, so I usually only got to play home conversions of the arcade originals on the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64. When going on summer holidays with my parents, we would usually stop off for the night at a hotel about mid-journey. In the hotel lobby, they had what I later found out to be a Pac-Man Cabaret arcade cabinet. One of those smaller machines with wood grain side panels. Each time, I was allowed one game, and since I had no idea what I was doing, those rare sessions were really short. So every year, I patiently waited for our next holidays to have another go.

But once emulation became a thing, I did a lot of catching up on all the arcade classics I had missed out on growing up.

Time Extension: Let’s talk a little bit more about Donut Dodo. What was the initial idea for that game? Had you been hoping to do a single-screen platformer for a while?

Kostka: Yes, I had been wanting to move closer to making classic arcade games for a while, with short but intense loops and deep scoring rules. It’s a format I’m passionate about and is in line with my programming and pixel art skills, so it’s a good fit.

I was playing around with testing different mechanics on a single-screen layout, and the project sort of grew organically from there. I had built this gameplay loop with ladders and flashing objects to collect, and while it was fun and engaging, it was missing a bad guy.

That’s when the idea of this silly but affectionate Dodo bird appeared, and it all came together.

Time Extension: You’ve previously told us that Donut Dodo was inspired by games like Donkey Kong, Popeye, Space Panic, and Burger Time. We’re wondering, what are some of the more unusual influences that had an impact on its development?

Kostka: An obvious influence would be Bombjack, where collecting the flashing objects grows the score-combo and offers more points. This really adds an extra layer of fun once the mechanics are well understood.

A less obvious inspiration, particularly for players outside of Europe, are games like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, which I played a lot back in the day. I have many fond memories of being chased by rogue toilets, so in hindsight, I suppose this is where the idea for Stinky the Toilet character came from. I’m sure there are many more games that subconsciously influenced Donut Dodo, without being able to point them out specifically.

Time Extension: Out of interest, how much did Donut Dodo change during its development? Were there any levels that never made the cut? Or any scrapped ideas for characters or mechanics that you can maybe talk about? Anything you wanted to do, but couldn’t for time, budget, etc?

Kostka: Generally speaking, I tend to over-engineer my projects during production, only to discard mechanics, enemies, or levels that do not contribute to the overall concept in a meaningful way. In these types of games, I think that simplicity is important, and more content or variety just for the sake of it can be detrimental to the final result.

Interestingly though, for Donut Dodo, while the level layouts and visual designs went through many iterations until things felt right, there were no major changes during development, and as far as I remember, nothing was discarded in the process.

That said, I would have liked to include a practice mode like in Cash Cow DX but ran out of time before the launch. I plan on backporting this option in a future update when I find the time. Other than that, my greatest regret was not adding a perfect combo bonus to each stage completion, when collecting all the flashing doughnuts in order. This would have added a compelling extra layer of high-score chasing to the game.

Time Extension: After the release of Donut Dodo, you made an expanded arcade version of the game for exA-Arcadia called Donut Dodo Do, which has an exclusive 2-player mode. How did that come about?

Kostka: I was messing around with prototypes and just about to start on Cash Cow DX when exA-Arcadia somehow found out about Donut Dodo and got in touch to discuss the prospect of publishing an expanded version of the game on their arcade system.

It did seem like a massive undertaking that would require a lot of time and resources, so while the opportunity was appealing, I did give it some thought before committing to Donut Dodo Do! and delaying all other projects. In the end, it turned out to be quite a challenge and the arcade port actually took me longer to develop than the original game, but overall, I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Time Extension: Your next arcade-style project after Donut Dodo was Cash Cow DX, which is another excellent platformer but more in line with something like Mappy than Donkey Kong, Popeye, etc. What inspired you to pursue this type of game? How did your approach to design change between the two projects? If at all.

Kostka: I had been wanting to make a Miner 2049er style game for quite a long time. In fact, I had worked on early concepts of what was then called Bounty Miner before moving on to Donut Dodo.

The design hook for Cash Cow DX was: fast, classic arcade platforming without ladders. This led to the vertical warp mechanic, where if you want to go up, you have to drop down. The stage layouts, mechanics, enemies, and visuals were all based around this central idea. It turned out to be more challenging than I had thought, and I struggled quite a bit with the flow and pacing in the different stages.

Also, the scoring system is much closer to that of early 90s shmups than of classic platformers and has several layers of depth to it for those willing to dig deeper. And finally, I wanted the player to be able to dispose of enemies, with something akin to the power pill in Pac-Man.

So all in all, while still a platformer, Cash Cow DX plays very differently to Donut Dodo, and casual players are likely to find it less accessible, at least initially.

Time Extension: Earlier this month, you shared a teaser of a new arcade-style project (Loony Landers). Is there anything you can tell us about this project? What are your goals for this project?

Kostka: Loony Landers is a short, very silly party arcade game, for one or two players, mixing mechanics from titles like Sky Diver, Sky Skipper, and Peggle.

The game, again in an early 80s classic arcade style, started off as a technical experiment. It is being custom-built from the ground up, without any external tools or engines. In many ways, I’m going back to the roots.

If things go as expected, and so far so good, working this way will give me better control over the deployment of games going forward, the choice of platforms to support, and less volatile conditions for maintaining source code.

What this means, in theory, is that the same source code could be ported to legacy systems like the Sega Dreamcast or Nintendo 64, or could be lightweight enough to consider things like a dedicated JAMMA board or FPGA device.

Whether anything comes out of it remains to be seen, but I do find the prospect of these possibilities to be really exciting and in line with future plans and ideas.

Time Extension: Finally, what is your opinion on sequels? Would you ever consider making a sequel to any of your games like Donut Dodo or Cash Cow DX? Have you considered any ideas for what you would do if you were to make follow-ups?

Kostka: Sometimes, I have a let sleeping dogs lie approach here, but I generally quite like the notion of sequels if there is enough time between them for ideas and concepts to mature. If after a couple of years, the urge to revisit a game is still strong, I think it’s probably worth considering.

But it very much depends on the game and its potential from a design perspective. Were any stones left unturned in the initial title? Would it be worth expanding the existing concept and would players be curious enough to want more?

What I can say for now, is that two of my games have fully designed sequels waiting to be made if the time feels right and the stars align. Whether that happens, and what those ideas would be, remains to be seen, but I think it’s more likely than not.