John and Ste Pickford are local computer games developers and entrepreneurs. Their game app Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint has been nominated for a BAFTA GAME British Academy Video Games Award in the Mobile & Handheld category.

This is a major achievement for a small independent publisher. Winners will be announced on Friday March 16th 2012 when the ceremony is streamed live from www.bafta.org.

I first met the Pickfords at computer games related knees-ups in and around Manchester in the late ’90s; they were very popular and their reputation preceded them (in a good way)… but I was always confused about which one was which.

Then Ste interviewed me about ten years ago for an artist job at their company Zed Two, in central Manchester, which I didn’t get… but atleast I found out who was who. John (left) is the coder and Ste is the artist… and they’ve worked in games since 1983.

Their most well-known, well-loved games include Plok (1993 Super Nintendo Entertainment System), developed at Software Creations in Manchester and published by Tradewest (U.S.), Activision (Europe) and Nintendo (Japan) and Wetrix (1998 Nintendo 64), developed by Zed Two and published by Ocean/Infogrames:

Plok – Intro to first boss (1993)

Wetrix – Ice Layer A (1998)

Zed Two was eventually sold to another local company (Warthog, now also gone); the Pickfords were made redundant and went on to form Zee-3 in 2004.

Ste explained:

“…we’re Manchester based still. We’re an ‘indie’ self publisher, so how it works is John and I work together as ‘The Pickford Bros’, and we both work from home… Then we’ve set up Zee-3, which is our digital publishing company, which publishers and promotes the games we make (and games we work on with other people).”

Zee-3’s first ‘indie’ release Naked War (2006) is an on-line 2-player game, developed for PC. It’s now free to download and was listed as Number 4 in the Top Ten free games by The Sun in summer 2011.

Naked War – Entire turn (2006)

Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint was developed for the iPhone, and has enjoyed a warm reception following its release in 2011. Crowned App Madness Tournament Champion in September 2011, it was also named one of the 100 Greatest Apps Of All Time by Tap! Magazine and has received a Pocket Gamer 2012 Award and Gold Medal.

Magnetic Billiards – Unedited Play

The Guardian’s Nick Gillet describes the object of the game as:

“…to clear tables full of coloured pucks by knocking them so that they hit and stick to matching colours. Bouncing off the sides of the table and passing close to other colours ratchet up your score multiplier, while creating geometric shapes with your increasingly complex puck clusters adds to your combo, giving rise to some truly absurd scores once you’ve got the hang of it.”

The game is similar in some respects to Sticky Balls which John developed with the Pocket PC’s touch screen in mind, while still at Zed Two in 2002. In 2005, a version of Sticky Balls was released for the disastrous Gizmondo handheld games console, by Tiger Telematics (who bought Warthog, who bought Zed Two).

In November 2011 Ste was invited to write an article about the BAFTAs for spong.com. His advice for the BAFTA Game Awards organisers was sound common sense:

Ditch the old-fashioned genre and platform based awards.
Formulate new award categories that reflect the skills and talents of game developers…
Look for more ways to recognise specific examples of excellence within games, not ‘achievements’ which revolve around a massive development spend.
Improve the submission process so that developers or BAFTA members (or even gamers themselves) can spot and nominate examples of great work for award consideration, rather than requiring the actual developer or publisher to pay to submit their finished games.
And maybe even give some awards to actual developers, rather than just to games.

After all, the British Academy uses skill-based and named-person categories to define many of its Film & TV awards… why would it NOT do this for Video Game awards? And why must all companies, regardless of size, pay £475 up-front to be considered for nomination? It makes the BAFTAs appear pompous, greedy and out of touch.

And Ste’s parting shot makes Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint’s BAFTA nomination all the more unlikely and noteworthy:

“Where does this leave our low budget, original, critically acclaimed but non-award-winning iOS title? After a couple of days weighing up the pros and cons of submitting we decided to save our £475 and not bother this year, which is why Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint has no chance of winning a BAFTA.”

Shortly after this was published in November last year, Ste wrote in his blog:

“…almost instantly a couple of people directly involved in the video game BAFTAs got in touch…

It was tentatively suggested that maybe I join one of the judging panels this year, but I declined this offer…

Finally, we were told that as our game had already received ‘committee recommendation’ (along with quite a few other mobile games, apparently), we were allowed to enter with only the developer registration fee to pay (£145), rather than the full fee of almost £500 that we’d initially baulked at. We’ve taken up this offer as well, and entered the game after all…”

So it would seem that Ste’s genuine and articulate on-line whinge has proved to be an unexpectedly effective marketing tool… Meanwhile the British Academy are clearly keen for some of The Pickford Bros’ ‘indie’ credibility to rub off on their organisation.

A fairer way to achieve this would have been for the BAFTA GAME Awards to waive the higher fees for all small publishers… but then that might involve financial loss and would increase their workload. So they’ve taken a short-cut… and will be hoping to have acquired good-will ambassadors to the industry grassroots into the bargain!

The Pickford Bros career is a tale of dogged persistence amid a constantly shifting back-drop of new technologies, market whims, financial manoeuvres and corporate politics. They have stayed the course and deserve all recognition and plaudits that come their way.

But in spite of the great good will which the Pickfords rightly enjoy, some industry watchers may consider the fuss around this particular game to be a case of the emperor’s new Sticky Balls.