By Quentin H. / May 1st, 2023
At GDC 2023, I sat down with Ana Ribeiro, the creator and director of the Pixel Ripped franchise; Ricardo Justus, the founder and CEO of ARVORE Immersive Experiences; and then later on David Lowey, the senior director of games, sales, and distribution at Atari. In the second part of our two-part interview, we talk about how ARVORE recreated the 1970’s Atari Sunnyvale Studio, what sets Pixel Ripped 1978 apart from prior games in the series, and more.
If you missed Part One of our interview, you can catch up here first!
You can wishlist Pixel Ripped 1978 on Steam and on PlayStation now.
I also demoed Pixel Ripped 1978, and you can check out my thoughts on it here.
You can visit Atari at their official website, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, and on YouTube.
You can visit ARVORE at their official website, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Discord.
You can find out more about Ana Ribeiro on her Linktree and about Pixel Ripped on its Linktree.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Operation Rainfall: One of the features touted about this game is that you can revisit an authentic recreation of the Sunnyvale Atari studio in VR. How did you go about re-creating that studio? Did you ever talk to any of the old Atari employees from that time?
Ricardo Justus: Yeah, they gave us access to some of the Atari employees to talk to. They showed us a lot of pictures of the office. We based the colors – we designed that sort of cubical space for the purpose of the gameplay, first, because it needs to serve the purpose of the gameplay. Again, it’s not supposed to be a history lesson. But we used all the colors of the actual office, what it actually looked like to try to recreate it.
Ana Ribeiro: The desk, the cubical. The walls-
RJ: And they did give us access to talk to some ‘OG’ people. And also, like I mentioned, access to consoles that weren’t released and were prototypes and in production cartridge lookalikes.
AR: They had the arcade team working inside the office [too]. So I was like ‘cool’, and I asked the sound designer ‘[c]an you do some sound of arcades in the background?’ And that’s something I didn’t know that [Atari] had the arcade team working in the office. We did a big change after we signed with Atari in the office. The computer – it was like ‘Ah, we can use the Atari computer!’ and so we changed to that. I think it has been fun.
“This is, I think, the biggest difference in this game- that we’re giving players the opportunity to go inside [Atari and Atari-like] games, to explore, and [Pixel Ripped 1978] became a much bigger game because of that.”
OR: Can you get up and walk around the office and check it out?
AR: No. You can, illegally [but] there’s nothing there.
RJ: Beyond a little bit, there is nothing there. The idea is that the real life portions are still static. You’re still sitting down, similar to the other Pixel Ripped games. You’re [only] moving around inside the 3-D game. But you do go to different places.
AR: If you leave the chair, you’re going to see an empty office.
RJ: You go through her childhood home – I’m not going to spoil other places, but her dorm room in her college. In the office, it’s her cubical but the cubical changes as well as the game evolves.
OR: I want to follow up on something – you kept saying that this is not a ‘history lesson’. Why did you choose deliberately to not make it like a ‘love letter’ as historically accurate as possible?
RJ: It is a love letter, but Pixel Ripped has always been more about the feeling and nostalgia than doing a pixel-perfect recreation. For us, the appeal is not – if you want to play those games, you can play those games. There is literally a VCS console. You can buy it and play those games. There is an Atari 50, which is just launched and is a great history lesson. That’s not the intention of Pixel Ripped. Pixel Ripped is about the memories that we loved [while] growing up. It is a bit of rose-tinted goggles of ‘[h]ow do we remember these games?’ So we do embellish them a little bit – we’ve always done that. If you look at Pixel ’89, no GameBoy game looked like that. But if we put a legit GameBoy game there, it probably wouldn’t have that much appeal with modern audiences. We have rose-tinted goggles when we look through the past.
AR: There are many design decisions that we make. Atari wouldn’t play music in a loop. The memory was an issue. So you don’t have music looping through the whole thing. We tried to make it, as much as we can, as close to the system. But if people cannot understand [for example] that it is the same bear inside the game [that you were playing outside of it] – then these are a little higher graphics and resolution. We wanted to look exactly like it, and we were really careful. But if something goes against the design or narrative, we chose making a better game. Bump up the realism a little bit to make a better game.
RJ: We’re trying to make a better game. We’re trying to invoke the past, and that feeling. It’s always been a balance of ‘[h]ow do we invoke that and still keep it cool and fresh and funny and fun and engaging?’ while respecting the past. We’re not disrespecting the past, we’re trying to recreate it in all that context and not just emulating. We could easily put in the games in there. We had access to the games, we could put Atari games inside the game. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. It’s not supposed to be a game emulator.
AR: It’s difficult choices we make in every game we do. We always prioritize ‘[o]kay, let’s make it legit and if we get to a point that it’s better for the game, it’s better for the narrative’, then we do a decision as a team and we talk about it. Even the joystick with two buttons – I was super worried about it: ‘Can we put two buttons on the joystick of Atari? But it’s the original, we want to keep the one button.’ So, we worry about even putting two buttons on, and it was a big thing. And we talked to Atari. We are concerned and aware, but we need the freedom to do some things that wouldn’t happen in an Atari game.
RJ: We prioritize the gameplay and the fun. Immersion and the feeling of nostalgia. We consider it very much a love letter to the past, even if it is an effective memory and a sort of embellished vision of the past.
[At this point, Mr. Justus had to leave the interview for another meeting]
OR: This is the third game in the “Pixel Ripped” franchise: There was first Pixel Ripped 1989 and Pixel Ripped 1995. What can fans of those prior games expect to see in this newest franchise entry?
AR: I’m really excited to answer this question! In 1989 and 1995, it’s all about a game within a game – you’re playing the ‘game’ while being distracted in the ‘real world’. We didn’t want this game to be the same – we wanted to keep it so [it still is] Pixel Ripped, but we wanted to innovate. There was a feature cut from 1995, and it was a big thing for the team. We had planned to give you the ability to go into the [game] world in first-person. And then we had to cut this from the game. And it was a really difficult time for the team: ‘[o]h, we’re cutting this and we’re so excited about it.” When we released 1995, many reviews were like ‘[o]h this game is great, but I wish we could be dodging in first person. I love being inside the game world, I wish I could walk around, explore the game world, talk to NPCs, go inside the houses, do some combat, choose some powers.’
We were reading those reviews and we were like ‘[w]e know, we wanted to do it too!’ And so, it was a big wish from the team for a long time – and from the fans. And in the previous games, you’re passively there – just watching things. So, we made sure when we started this game, we were like ‘This is going to be the main thing of this game.’ Because we don’t want it to be cut out. This is, I think, the biggest difference in this game – that we’re giving players the opportunity to go inside [Atari and Atari-like] games, to explore, and [Pixel Ripped 1978] became a much bigger game because of that. We had the platformer game, and the VR world – and now you can explore in first-person. And it was a hard thing to do. Pixel Ripped is famous as [being playable while] seated as a comfortable VR experience. So doing the first-person walk as a first-person shooter and combat – it’s a hard choice for us, because we don’t have the time to focus on just the first-person game. We’ve got all the other games inside of this game.
We’re concerned: ‘[w]hat if players, when we release this game, [find] walking to be too much?’ But we tried to make combat that is comfortable and not too heavy like an accurate first-person combat game. It’s more about ‘I’m exploring, does any NPCs have things to do that are fun?’ It’s easy, and I think the coolest thing about this game, also, is a mechanic I wrote.
The first mechanic I made about Pixel Ripped, when it was a student project – which gave the name of the game, 10 years ago – this mechanic is [that] you can break the world into pixels. The whole world is made of pixels, and imagine you can cure an animal [by] dropping pixels on them. You save those pixels, and you can add pixels to other objects. So that’s the moment you add the pixels to the bridge. This is the first mechanic of the game, and I am happy that we can finally use it. When we started the game, I was looking back into the files and I drew a picture of this mechanic and I was like ‘[o]h my God, I never used this! Let’s use this, this is so cool!’ And it’s the name of the game, and we finally used it.
The biggest power of Dot- Dot has [is] the pixels inside of her. This is also something we wanted to use, because it’s innovative of the franchise, it’s not just about being the shooter – so you can effect the world as Dot by adding pixels to objects, adding movement, and fix some stuff. You gain three powers in the game – Dot powers.
I’m really excited!
“I want to make a game for my own audience- people who like to sit down and enjoy the experience.”
OR: When is Pixel Ripped 1978 going to be released, and for what platforms?
AR: We don’t have the date – but we can say Summer this year. We are now in beta, so we are going to feature freeze and polish [it] really soon. For sure, it’s going to be on PlayStation VR2, Steam VR, Quest 2 – all major platforms.
OR: One thing I noticed while playing – how did you decide upon the locomotion for the game?
AR: Yeah, the locomotion – we have a teleporting option that you can choose in the game. We’re still polishing, still working. Many people prefer going without [teleportion], so we leave it deactivated. It’s a challenge for us, because it is the first game that we’ve done with first-person movement. Pixel Ripped was always static [before]. Teleport is old now, but we need it because some people are new to VR and people get dizzy. We were watching the testing – a few people, really few, maybe 20 people – used the teleport. So we’re still deciding what is best, but it is pretty standard that we’re not innovating [locomotion], we’re doing something standard. The first games – they were adventure style, they were not like the big shooters like Population – I love Population – but, Pixel Ripped isn’t that. We had to do a lot of QA – that’s where we are now, QA, QA, QA. A lot of testing to improve the most that we can.
OR: It’s different than previous [entries] in the series.
AR: Yeah, we worried that sometimes – we have these combat ideas and we’re like ‘Oh, let’s make it so you have to do this, and you have to do powers, and move around.’ Our audience – I just want to sit down and play a game, I want a challenge. I played Beat Saber 10, maybe 15 minutes and I’m tired. I feel like I wanted to make a game that is also accessible. Not many people can be standing around a bunch of stuff. Sometimes, there’s a boss battle that you’re throwing a lot of paper. And we create this feature where you can use the trigger to throw stuff.
Because, we’re like, ‘[n]ormal people would be tired throwing stuff’. I want to make a game for my own audience – people who like to sit down and enjoy the experience. I have many people say ‘I love that I can sit down and play a VR game.’ There are a lot of games where people are standing and stuff. It’s like ‘[c]ome on!’, [especially] when it’s a long game. It also [fits] the narrative and is immersive. You’re playing the game like you used to play – we play sitting down, so it helps with immersion.
We just worry that when we start testing, a lot of people in the real world are sitting down while playing the game. A lot of people, when it goes to the alternate world and they start walking around, they start walking around in their office. And it’s a confusing design choice, because we’re making one world that you move in. And that’s an expectation that we are aware that people have, because while you’re moving in one world you’re not moving in the other one.
I want to put something [in the office] that if you look [outside of boundaries of your walled cubicle], you’re ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be over here!’ while we’re working on the next Pixel game and we close the curtains. I would like to do something fun like this [for] people walking around, sneaking and looking where they are not supposed to be.
[David Lowry had entered during Ms. Ribeiro’s prior answer and sat down with us.]
OR: Could you introduce yourself, please?
David Lowey: I’m David Lowey, I’m with Atari, I run PR and distribution.
OR: To someone who may not have picked up the Pixel Ripped franchise before and this is the first time they are picking it up, what do you have to say to them?
AR: Go for it. If you want to be transported back in time, have a blast – Pixel Ripped is going to blow your mind. It’s a fun experience, and there is comedy – it’s a chill experience. We know that the main audience is around 35 to 40, but every age enjoys this game. It’s a game made for gamers, to celebrate video game history. It’s to celebrate also to be a gamer. There’s many things that all gamers relate to, like trying to play a game on the TV and your brother is in front of the TV. So yeah, I would say: ‘Pick it up, you don’t have to play the previous Pixel episodes.’ You can play Pixel Ripped 1978. It’s not out yet, so you can play Pixel Ripped 1995 and 1989 on Quest, PlayStation VR, and Steam VR.
It’s a different game – it’s kind of niche. So, if you want to try something different in VR, and you don’t want to do too much exercise – it’s really chill trip back in time with history of gaming.
DL: It’s a franchise. And franchise don’t get that way if the core of it isn’t good. There is something about the first game that led to the second game. I know part of this is just Ana’s vision that goes back to the original assignment in school, but also the success has led to the opportunity to do even more and explore different things. Not only different periods of time, but different elements of gameplay, and it’s sort of fun being part of that, certainly for us. And we know it will go on beyond us, but we’re glad that we have this moment [with them].
AR: Such a great fit.
DL: Super fun.
AR: It’s just perfect. Like, a perfect match.
OR: Thank you.
You can wishlist Pixel Ripped 1978 on Steam and on PlayStation now.
What do you think of Dot’s powers, and are you excited to see Atari’s Sunnyvale Office from the 1970’s?
Let us know in the comments below!
Ana RibeiroAtariDavid LoweyGame Developers ConferenceGDCGDC 2023Meta QuestPixel RippedPlaystationPlayStation VR2PSVR2Ricardo JustusSteamSteam VRvirtual reality