Local studio Celestial Games has been dormant for years but recently surprised many gamers by announcing that they’re almost done with work on Toxic Bunny HD (which is launching at our very-own rAge Expo this weekend) – a remake of the game that made them one of the most famous game development studios in our tiny local market many years ago. We caught up with Celestial’s founder Travis Bulford to find out what he’s been up to, what he thinks the SA market needs to do to grow up, and what’s coming next from the studio.

It’s been ages since we’ve seen the Celestial logo! What have you and your team been up to all these years?

Each of us has been following different paths. Still very much in touch since we all knew each other long before we started Celestial. Caleb being in Oz makes staying in touch a little harder. Nick, Brian and I have all in the IT industry doing various different technologies. And of course, playing a lot of games.

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: why remake Toxic Bunny, instead of developing a new game?

We never really asked the question as we started the remake accidentally. I think we really decided to relaunch Celestial some time in 2009 as indie was no longer a swear word in terms of product value and the international markets were far more open to products from South Africa. At that point there was a remake of Toxic Bunny firmly on the way and it made sense to complete that before we started anything new. So we made a plan to expand our efforts and add a lot more value to the product and call it Toxic Bunny HD. Also we still love the character and really wanted to bring him more to life this time. I hope to see us doing more with him in the future too.

Congratulations on securing Apex as your distribution partner! What has the response been from the rest of the local companies, media and public?

Thank you; we are pleased with Apex as our distribution partner. They in fact contacted us about the product and we are very grateful that they did. The fact they got in touch with us should tell you how forward-thinking they are about local product and market space.

As for the local response we have been amazed at how positive and supporting everyone has been. South Africans today really back local initiatives. The public have been great one real surprise for us has been how many people remember the original and even more surprising has been how many didn’t know it was local back when they played it originally.

Any plans to take Toxic HD to Steam, XBL, PSN or any other international digital distribution services?

We have a few deals in the works with physical distributors as well as digital. Also we have been evaluating other platforms that would be convenient for a port of the Toxic Bunny HD. We will certainly let people know.

What’s your perception of the local game development industry now as opposed to when Celestial was first formed?

There is a lot going on as there was back then. We might be the best known from then but there were a lot of people working towards the same goals in 1996. Mobile platforms have made access to mainstream international markets easier and from that there seems to be a fair number of studios publishing into mobile. Some of the main challenges still remain. Funding, for example, is still really tough; unlike musicians who can gig and make a little living plying their trade until their CD sells, games development is a long stretch before you can reap rewards. On the other hand distribution and access to technology has got a lot better and the global perception of a small indie team has improved.

You’re obviously more experienced in this industry now than when you started; how has the way you do business changed between then and now?

Well I would say in that we can actually do business now. Both Nick and I have a great deal more experience in terms of making a business out of games as opposed to simply been enthusiastic about building them. It’s an unfortunate requirement but ultimately if you don’t make sales, people never play your creation. What we ultimately want is for people to play and enjoy the games we make. Also I would say our options have got a lot better. We now have the possibility of purchasing game engines as opposed to having to build one ourselves. That is more a change in the industry than in us to be fair. Lastly I would say that before we had a vision of building an internal team to do everything we need. Today we can see that a healthy market of segmented businesses that tackle specific niche requirements is better. Of course we still would need a core team on the games, but the idea of outsourcing segments to other teams that deal specifically in those areas is very attractive. Such a market would only exist of course if there are multiple businesses building computer games in South Africa.

What do you think needs to change in the local industry to support more and larger game development studios?

There are a few things that could help. Business growing confident in computer games as an emerging industry that needs to be stimulated, for one thing. We see a lot of support for local musicians and film producers, yet both those industries are financially smaller than the games industry. Where is the financial investment and support to help South Africa get a footprint in the largest electronic entertainment industry in the world? Also channels and access to international sales pipelines from locals would help. Right now it’s great to have your game on your hard drive but how do you sell it – how do you reach the market? Hopefully projects like Steam’s Greenlight will help with that. Of course the most important thing would be for South African games developers to step up and be counted. At the end of the day the rest won’t mean much if teams don’t step up and start building things. One fortunate thing is it takes a PC some love and time to build a game. In that fashion it’s like music. No one can stop you from building a game at home.

Hypothetical question: You’re given all the resources you need to build a game; what would you do?

First I will sleep for a day or two just to recover from all the hard work, have four cups of coffee and then plan. I would look into building smaller business units that do various things and drive three of the projects we have in concept phase through those units. Exact details not really been available but you could expect about three very different games from us in the next two years and at least one additional Toxic Bunny game. Of course that’s all hypothetical.

After Toxic HD, what does the future hold for Celestial?

We certainly will look at another Toxic Bunny game but that’s more medium term. I expect for the next few weeks we will be focused on Toxic Bunny HD on other platforms and marketing opportunities. November is put aside for some concept work and stock building for a new game. We hope it won’t take as long as Toxic Bunny HD did since we’re already at full tilt we certainly plan to have a larger graphics pipeline to get all the assets done in time.