How a group of Pixar employees created gaming's hottest startup | Cult of Mac

How a group of Pixar employees created gaming’s hottest startup


The Steel Wool Games team. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
The Steel Wool Games team is studded with Pixar talent. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

With a cutesy, one-eyed protagonist named Zak and colorful graphics aplenty, upcoming game Flyhunter Origins looks like it could be a big-screen animated movie.

That’s not too shocking, since the game was developed by Steel Wool Games, a San Francisco Bay Area-based startup composed of Pixar employees past and present. But while the story of a space janitor who becomes wrapped up in an intergalactic insect-catching adventure sounds like it could come from the next Brad Bird movie, what the team has crafted is a compelling 2-D platformer that owes as much to Super Mario Bros. as it does to Toy Story.

“What we admired about those early games is what they did with very limited technology,” says Andrew Dayton, a 20-year veteran of computer visual effects, whose day job sees him working as senior technical director at Pixar. “Back then you couldn’t hide bad gameplay with pretty pictures. Playability was everything for us.”

Could Zak be gaming's next breakout star? Photo: Steel Wool Games
Could Zak from Flyhunter Origins become gaming’s next breakout star? Photo: Steel Wool Games

Decades after Mario ventured into the Mushroom Kingdom, graphics have improved but the desire for great gameplay remains the same.

Early sketches by the team. Photo: Steel Wool Games
Early sketches by the Flyhunter Origins team. Photo: Steel Wool Games

“It was for sure a passion project,” says company co-founder Josh Qualtieri, who worked on Pixar movies Ratatouille and Brave. “As developers, we don’t like to get too bogged down in demographics. There are some universal themes and stories that can appeal to everyone. There [are] always interesting new ways to put your own spin on those themes, too — which hopefully transcend age, gender and all those other things folks get too concerned about.”

In the same way Pixar’s graphics spurred a revival of feature-length animated film, Flyhunter Origins could help re-establish the 2-D platformer, a genre that looked on the verge of disappearing a few years ago but has thrived on iOS thanks to titles such as the excellent Leo’s Fortune.

“We wanted to create something that had a lot of historical reference to it,” Dayton says. “It gave us a chance to look at different games and ask, ‘Why does that work?’ Our touchstone was Super Mario Bros.

Jason Topolski, the most encyclopedic gamer of the Steel Wool team, came armed with a constant stream of references to everything from Castlevania to Battletoads.

Pixar's technical director by day, games design whiz by night. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Andrew Dayton: Pixar technical director by day, game designer by night. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Just as Pixar arrived at a fortuitous time when computer graphics were maturing, traditional animation was needing a shakeup, and a post-Apple Steve Jobs was willing to pour money into an exciting new field, so too is today’s mobile gaming golden age fueled by numerous factors converging at once.

“You couldn’t have done this five or six years ago,” Dayton raves. “There were things that needed to land in place for this opportunity to present itself. The concept of how games are distributed has radically changed for one thing. It used to be that you had to go through the process of manufacturing an actual physical game, getting it certified, and all of these different elements. It was incredibly daunting. Once mobile gaming opened up, it revolutionized everything. Now it’s just about how good your game is. You can bring something to market with just one person involved. And everyone can access it.”

Steel Wool. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Josh Qualtieri, co-founder of Steel Wool Games. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

When he says “everyone,” Dayton really means it. Flyhunter Origins was originally supposed to arrive last summer, but was pushed back when the team agreed the game should debut on mobile, PC and other (as yet unannounced) platforms.

“We decided, with our publisher Ripstone’s support, to expand to a larger number of supported platforms,” says Steel Wool’s Qualtieri. “We had to ensure not only that controller support was dialed-in well but also that touchscreen mechanics felt natural. We wanted to make sure each version got the proper attention required, so we could tailor the experience to each platform.”

The game has now finally landed in the iTunes App Store, where it can be downloaded for $2.99

The go-for-it startup mentality behind Steel Wool Games is infectious. Although you can tell the team members love their day jobs, the idea that a small group can create something great (as opposed to the hundreds needed to make a movie) is definitely part of the pull for all involved.

“It’s one of those things where you have the opportunity to build something from scratch that’s your own, and that’s always appealing for anybody creative,” Dayton says. “We’re really lucky to work at what I consider the best feature film studio in the world, but there’s also something neat about creating something that is 100 percent yours.”


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