HOT PXL Interview: Jonathan Choquel

Earlier this year, Atari announced a new game called HOT PXL, developed by media software company zSlide. Like Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' WarioWare series, HOT PXL is comprised of hundreds of mini-games strung together in quick succession, requiring the player to quickly recognize and execute a number of tasks that are simple on their own but engaging in the context of a larger structure. HOT PXL, which was announced for PSP but has now been revealed as heading to PC as well, puts a twist on the formula by theming the game around skater culture as well as modernizations of classic Atari games.

The games are divided into themes that have to do with the cultural influence on each game rather than the gameplay, with names such as "Underground," "Cyberdude," "Struggle," "24/7 Music," "Kidult," and so on. As is necessary in this sort of title, the mini-games have varied gameplay, ranging from playing a few seconds of a revamped Breakout to using the d-pad to wipe dried paint off of your hand. There is also an interesting but difficult to describe subset of games called "Magneto" games. These games are based around the concept of magnetism. In one of these, the screen is filled with many large black pixels and a few pink pixels, and the player controls a blue pixel that exerts a magnetic attraction on the rest. Each pixel reacts different to the blue pixel; some are strongly attracted, some are weakly attracted. To win the game, the player must completely draw in all of the pink pixels without touching any of the black ones, which requires some clever timing and finesse. Of course, most of the games are significantly simpler, consisting of a few quick button presses or directions with the d-pad, as befits something inspired by WarioWare.

The man behind the game's visual aesthetic is French designer Jonathan Choquel, a games industry newcomer and self-professed casual gamer who been skateboarding for decades and has headed up several skateboarding and street culture magazines. In a bizarre move, Choquel actually appears in the game as its protagonist Djon. He directs and stars in the game's short live action cutscenes, is represented in stylized form in the gameplay itself, and is at the center of the game's skate culture narrative. During a recent Atari press event, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Choquel about HOT PXL as well as how he became involved with the industry.

Shack: Could you start by just explaining what your title is on the team and what that entails?

Jonathan Choquel: My name is Jonathan Choquel, and I'm the creative director on this game and I'm also the hero. So, I put it in the universes of street culture and digital lifestyle, which are the two bases of the new globalized culture that we're experiencing worldwide. That's why they ask me, because I made some magazines about these subjects before.

Shack: How did the idea come about to use that type of culture as a background for a video game, and then more specifically for this type of fast paced mini-game type of thing?

Jonathan Choquel: Well, you have to choose in what universe you're going to do it, and that makes it more relevant or more logical to people and they can relate to it more than if you have just dripping nose stuff [ed.: one task in the mini-game-laden WarioWare series features a rather epic runny nose]. Also, for this kind of format, you have two hundred games; you need to find two hundred situations or private jokes that people will understand and can relate to. So that's where I come in.

Shack: In terms of a game like this, what specifically does the creative director do in terms of your interactions with the team?

Jonathan Choquel: I worked on all levels, especially because it has my face on it so I insist on having creative control and I'm checking everything. With the game designers, I go in regularly to see what they're doing. It's little stuff. Like they want me to drink beer and it makes my belly get bigger, and maybe I'll just change one thing and have something else, just make it a little bit different to make it appeal and have a private joke that they couldn't find. I tune the thing a little bit. We're kind of on the same line, we've got the same cultural background, but it's just to make sure that everything that's in my taste. In terms of marketing, I work on the ad campaign, the packaging, really on every aspect of the game. I'm also working on doing my podcast, which is linked to the game, small videos telling stuff about the same culture, the same universe. That's all my journalistic background there that I use for the game too, to get a buzz going.

Shack: You have obviously played the WarioWare games. What do you think about those? They must have had some impact on you.

Jonathan Choquel: Well, they were the innovators doing this new kind of format. There are not so many kinds of games on the market, and they pulled out a new one which is interesting for the casual gamers. But they were just the first step, and nowadays we're seeing a lot of those types of games coming out, and hopefully HOT PXL will be more relevant for more people. Plus, it's being done on the PSP, and that's something that you cannot compare to other consoles or other games on the market right now. We have a game for casual gamers. The fact that it's easy gameplay, the fact that it's fast paced. You're never caught up in something too big, so if you have to stop to get on the subway you can always pause between two games, that's for casual gamers. We also offer a multimedia experience. We try to break boundaries between audio/video and gaming; that's only possible on the PSP as far as portable devices.

It's also coming out on PC so you're going to see that there too. We have a built-in PC tool that lets you synchronize all your audio/video media and games onto the PSP, like iTunes but for the PSP. Let's say you want to play the game listening to your own tunes, you can do that. If you buy the game, you can go home and you plug into your computer and download 50 extra games. That's very new and fresh, and we'll try to put new games up every other week, so once you start this game you're never going to finish it. The fact that it's a multimedia experience, the fact that we've got the retro games from Atari--that's perfect, because it fits very well with this format that's fast paced, because not so many people will play half an hour of Breakout and half an hour of Asteroids. Here, you play eight seconds of each. We put them in their original form and also revisited versions where we put it more up to date with street culture graphics and aesthetics. Also, we've got another kind of set of game which are pixel art oriented but very organic feeling with magnetic fields. That's why it's "HOT" and that's why it's "PXL." HOT PXL.

Shack: Those features such as downloadable games and custom soundtracks, are those going to be available on the PC version as well?

Jonathan Choquel: Yes, yes. I can't be too specific on the PC version, because that's still fresh. That's why we pushed the release day to the end of February 2007 for both formats. The online capabilities I think are the biggest assets of this game, because it's brand new. Most games just use online to play against somebody who's not in the same room, but with this we are doing everything possible so people will have a changing and upgrading experience as they go on. They can also make their own playlist of games once they've unlocked them. The PC tool will enable them also to create a smart playlist where the computer will look at which games you're good at, or which games you're bad at, or if you're better with [games that utilize your] left hand or right hand. It will custom build a playlist just for you, at your level, so you can upgrade your skills from there. Then you can put your playlist that you like online for other gamers to see how good they do.

Shack: How long do you plan on supporting it after launch with new games?

Jonathan Choquel: I can't be too specific, but right now we're approaching major brands about doing their own sets of mini-games that will be available only online, not on the UMD, and we've had a pretty hot response from them. It could be very interesting to see. It's groundbreaking so we'll see as time goes by.

Shack: Are there any multiplayer features?

Jonathan Choquel: There's a multiplayer feature with the local network ad-hoc. [There's a feature] where let's say you're playing against an opponent with the same playlist of games and you're successful with one mini-game, then you will send a level up difficulty upgrade for his next mini-game.

Shack: Would you like to speak a bit on what you did before you got involved with this game's design, and what connects you to this culture so strongly?

Jonathan Choquel: Well, I started skateboarding after seeing Back to the Future. That was some twenty years ago. Skateboarding is a way of looking at the city that affects your way of looking at everything. You want to see potential, you want to see things that are groundbreaking, and to rethink everything. So after that, I started a skateboarding magazine in 1997, and I started a lifestyle magazine about street culture, graphics, and music in 2001. Right now I'm onto the next thing which is podcasting, video podcasting. There is already one podcast online called, and you can subscribe with iTunes or the RSS feed. There's a second podcast that will be released in a couple of weeks called That's going to show the making of HOT PXL, so you'll be backstage with filmings of the meetings, the developers, every aspect of the making of the game. This game is about street culture and digital lifestyle, but it can appeal to a lot of people.

Shack: And all of your work in those areas, that has been in France, right? How about game experience?

Jonathan Choquel: Yes, it was in France that I was doing these magazines. I created them, I was chief editor. As far as gaming, of course I had the Pong at home, then I was a lot into Mario Kart and Killer Instinct and the Tony Hawk game when it came out. But I'm selectively addicted. Let's say for two weeks, I will stay addicted to a game, then I won't play video games for three months. So, that's relevant, that's logical if you are doing a game for casual gamers, to have a creative director who is also a casual gamer.

Shack: Would you consider doing another video game in the future?

Jonathan Choquel: Of course! It's very promising and the development of this industry is incredible, and the technology is going up. We're just in the beginning of the revolution of portable devices, in terms of video and gaming. It's really going to go even further, and more people are going to be attracted to it, so yeah. I'd love to.

Shack: How has your experience in the industry been so far, maybe more from a business perspective?

Jonathan Choquel: Well, you have to realize last time I was touring in the States was as a skateboard reporter sleeping in the car and in forty dollar motels. Now, with being in the gaming industry, it's unnatural. Atari treats us very, very nicely. It's a whole different dimension. I love it, of course. I mean, look, we're in the Hot Pink Suite [at the Palms in Las Vegas], with HOT PXL. [laughs]

Shack: There you go.

Jonathan Choquel: It's called HOT PXL because it's very fast paced and it's going to heat up your thumbs, and also it's about pixel art and retro games. The retro games are also pixel art looking, and we made new modern games that are two dimensional and pixel art-oriented. They meld pretty well together. It's a whole new experience for casual gamers, but also a multimedia revolution. No other game was using the PSP to its full potential, and as we want to break the boundaries between gaming, audio, and video, it's only possible on the PSP as far as portable devices. So there you have it.

Shack: How did you end up inside the game?

Jonathan Choquel: Actually, it's my brother who is the CEO of the company developing this game, and as I did these magazines before the team over there trusted me to put it in the universe of street culture and digital lifestyle. This is my lifestyle. I did my first fanzine on an Apple in 1984, I showed it at the Apple Expo and got it signed by Steve Jobs. Then I started skateboarding a few years later, and that saved me. So I'm not just a nerd, I'm also a skater nerd. I did a pimped out skateboard that has a plasma screen on it; you can check that out in my podcast. I'm a creative person, and they saw that and they knew me, and I have my credentials of doing the magazines before. It's a family thing. It's a young company, with maybe 30 or 40 people. I'm working with my best friend and my brother, so it's really cool

Shack: Thanks so much for talking to us.

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