As their new game approaches the final stage of development, we talked with Alex Neuse and Mike Roush, co-founders of Gaijin Games, about Runner2 to hear how the game is shaping up as well as the gaming industry and Nintendo’s new home console.
NOTE: the interview was held in November, before Wii U launch.
Gaijin Games is the studio behind the BIT.TRIP series, six different rhythm-games subtly inspired by the Atari 2600 era for the WiiWare service; some of them later got ported to other platforms, and wherever they landed they got a warm welcome by gamers. The studio, based in California, grew months ago welcoming Robotube’s staff, another indie realty. Today I am joined by studio co-founders Alex Neuse and Mike Roush to talk about their new project as well the gaming landscape. I would appreciate if you could introduce yourself and tell us the current members’ tasks.
There are now 8 of us working full time at Gaijin Games, and we’re all working very hard to make our new game, BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien the absolute best that it can possibly be. Mike Roush and Alex Neuse are the co-founders, and while we keep everything moving, it’s more like steering a big ship where everyone has their own important part to play. Andrew heads up the tech department, handling almost all things engine-related, and Mike works alongside him, dealing with a lot of the gameplay programming. Danny and Alex focus mostly on design tasks, both big and small. Chris and Mike are responsible for making the game come to life through the art. Erin animates mostly everything 3D in the game. And Jason is responsible for the majority of the 2D art. For Runner2, we’re still working with the same composer from the original BIT.TRIP series, Matt Harwood, and we’ve got a few industry friends to help out with odd tasks here and there as well.
Let’s start with your new project, which your blog reminds us has a lengthy colourful title, Bit.Trip presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. It’s a crazy platformer where the protagonist cannot stop run; he must jump, kick and dodge various obstacles to reach the end of the level, and if the player hits an obstacle he quickly goes back to the start and the whole process starts anew. Even though it’s a sequel that shares something in its name, Runner2 is not a game within the BIT.TRIP series and represents a big departure from the flashy 2D sprite-based style adopted in the first games. Previous BIT.TRIP titles actually had 3D elements in the background, but in Runner2, everything is made with polygons, from the environment to the characters. Compared to your previous games, it certainly required lot of work considering the game’s engine is aimed at high definition consoles. Can you explain how you approached this new challenge and if it allowed you to achieve something you were not able to do before?
Well, with Runner2, we wanted to set the game in an entirely new world. This is why in the opening cutscene, CommanderVideo and his friends are zapped with a reality un-fusion beam which warps CommanderVideo, who takes the full force of the blast, to a different realm. It’s a realm where there are smooth edges and strange environments. Tackling art like this was a risk, because while we didn’t want to alienate die-hard BIT.TRIP fans, we wanted to extend CommanderVideo’s world. One of the best things that this new art style has given us is the freedom to get even stranger with our art style but also remain somewhat grounded in our reality, even if it isn’t CommanderVideo’s normal reality. Not sure if that made sense, but basically, it’s freed up our creative juice glands.
The protagonist of your games is an entity, an alien, called CommanderVideo. This time it seems there will be other playable characters: on September you showed a half-fish half-naked runner that is as funny as it is creepy called Reverse Merman, but we suppose there will be new and weird characters other than the main protagonist or the aforementioned Reverse Merman, correct? Is there’s a story which connects these aliens? Do they have different abilities to allow different approaches to levels? Who is to blame for the existence of Mr. half-Fish?
Just like in BIT.TRIP RUNNER where CommanderVideo encounters the Junior Melchkin, Radbot, and CommandgirlVideo, in Runner2, CommanderVideo encounters new friends as well. Only this time around, you can play as them once you unlock them. So far, we’ve talked about CommandgirlVideo, Unkle Dill, Whetfahrt Cheesebörger, and Reverse Merman. In the end, there will be 8 playable characters. There is a story that connects all of these characters, but that story isn’t the focus of Runner2. Let’s just say that each of them had their own realities un-fused and have ended up in the worlds of Runner2, alongside CommanderVideo.
You’re developing Runner2 at a time when the gaming industry is evolving and, more importantly, is facing an economic crisis with many studios closing or heavily resizing their employees; from Zipper Interactive to Studio Liverpool and from Popcat to Zynga, many difficulties have arisen for studios owned by companies only looking for fast and high profits; they decide what you do, how you do it, and when it’s time to dismiss you. Independent developers have a different business model but are still developers all the same that live in this ecosystem. Can you provide your vision, an up-to-date vision, from someone who works in the industry and sees what happening around him?
The interesting thing is that a lot of people think of independent studios as super unstable, but when we look around at our indie colleagues, we see the same faces working for the same companies year after year. While when we look at our big company counterparts, folks are losing jobs and changing companies constantly. We may not be as big or pull in as much money as the big boys do, but we have found our little niche, and as more game industry people are spurned by the big companies, they’ll start their own smaller companies, and in time, we’ll all be independent. And we’ll be making as much money as the big boys used to–or more.
We talked about the different business model of Indies, less strict and mostly free from heavy scheduling but of course with different economic resources. Independent developers can now rely on new methods to help their project thanks to crowd-funding sites which are rapidly increasing in usage and popularity. They allow smaller studios to promote their idea and ask the gaming population to donate money for that idea. How do you relate to these opportunities? In a growing scenario where small developers are less forced to join a publisher, do you see a foreseeable future where this mechanism will ignite a strong difference between big-budget studios and smaller ones?
It makes sense that smaller studios use these methods of funding because bigger studios tend to have more cash in the bank to fund their projects, but there’s not really any reason that bigger studios shouldn’t use these same tools to fund more experimental stuff. Why not? But if people are willing to put money down for a project that they believe in, it’s nice for developers to know that there’s interest in their projects before they begin, so yeah, we think that with the potential audience backing projects, we’ll see a decline in publishers as necessity – especially for downloadable games.
While some fund-raising sites provide a “tier-system” to redistribute part of the finished game’s incoming to the crowd based on how much they’ve pledged, there are also sites without this mechanism where crowd-funded developers usually adopt a “reward system” to encourage funding, sometimes in the form of a digital copy of the game or something more bizarre. In your opinion, can this progressively lead to more-organized developers looking for greater funds who spend most of their time trying to convince funders instead of making a fun game? Could this start a new cycle of “less independent” Indies?
Who knows if they’ll be called “less independent”, but the risk of developers getting a lot of funding and having to live up to their promises while managing their rewards, etc, is definitely something that developers have to be aware of. From what we have heard, it takes a lot of effort to even run one of these fund-raising campaigns, let alone make a game on top of that. So finding the balance of convincing people to pledge versus focusing on making a good game is something that must be taken into consideration.
Runner2 will be available on PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U but we know your publisher, Aksys Games, will manage the publishing duties only for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It really is a brave decision to commit to self-publishing Runner2 for Wii U’s eShop even before its debut. Was it the enthusiastic welcome by Nintendo gamers to the Bit.Trip series that justified this choice? Was it a decision entirely made by your team or, as we’ve heard from other developers, did “someone” walk into your office and ask for your game on Wii U?
When we first started working on Runner2, we were working with Aksys on the PS3 and Xbox 360 version, and there were no plans to release on the Wii U. We were always going to do the PC/Mac/Linux versions ourselves, through Steam. But once we started seeing what the Wii U had to offer, being Nintendo developers, we started to get excited. Since we’d self-published with Nintendo before with lilt line, we were confident that we could handle it with Runner2, and made the decision to go in that direction for the Wii U version.
From your blog and from other interviews we already know some key features for Runner2 on Wii U such as retro challenges playable on the GamePad. Can you summarize what we already know and maybe tell us something we don’t know yet?
You pretty much know it all. The Retro Challenges appear on the GamePad in the Wii U version, and they look awesome on that thing. But since our game is multi-platform, we didn’t want to tackle too many special-case features that would only work on the Wii U.
Nintendo stipulated many agreements to integrate into the WiiU’s SDK some of the most famous and powerful gaming middleware platforms such the ones from Autodesk, Havok and Unity. Obviously they’re aiming to deliver a platform to developers that is productive as soon as development begins with the highest possible value coming from highly optimized tools. This can ideally raise the bar for developers, with a common set of tools available to everyone to help reduce costs for a new project. Do you think Nintendo’s intent is to create a more competitive ecosystem where developers can use otherwise expensive tools as a means of attracting developers or are these incentives just based on what industry needs? Do you think developers, games, and gamers could really benefit from such standardized high starting point?
They’re probably offering these tools, etc to woo developers of Xbox 360 and PS3 games to their console. Now that their console is more competitive insofar as their tech goes, they have to play a little bit of catch up with the big studios who stopped making games for the Nintendo platforms due to the Wii’s lower performance abilities. We’re very pleased that Nintendo is doing this.
You knew it was coming, a short question that hopes for a long answer: how’s the Wii U? How do you feel the machine from a technological perspective? Did you use some of the aforementioned middleware software to speed-up the developing/porting process?
All in all, we’re quite impressed with the Wii U. It’s much easier to develop for than the Wii was, and because of Nintendo’s focus on making it easier to use, we’re right on track with delivering the Wii U version alongside all the other versions when we release early next year. If there were anything to complain about, it would be that their online stuff still isn’t as robust as Sony or Microsoft’s, but it’s WAY better than the Wii, and in the end, easy enough to use once you get used to how they do things. Also, at first, we had some load time issues that were really gnarly, but we’ve since figured out a workaround using our own internal engine. We like the Wii U at least as much as any other console we’ve developed for, and more than some.
Two years ago the first BIT.TRIP game debuted for the WiiWare service on Wii. While working on following games in the series, some of the six were ported to Steam and iTunes and now are even available for some Linux distros; what are Gaijin Games’ future projects after Runner2? Are you aiming to make it available to as many platforms as possible or there is already a new idea, a new seed, that the team wants to explore?
From here on out, Gaijin Games is going to release our games on as many platforms as possible, depending on the project of course. If it’s a project that can work on all platforms, it’ll be on all of them. We have tons of new ideas, but at the same time, we think there’s value in continuing to make games in the BIT.TRIP world. But rest assured, that’s not all we’ve got up our sleeves.
Our interview has come to an end. We are all looking forward Runner2. It can’t come soon enough! Thank you for the time you spent with us, I’m sure readers enjoined your thought and experiences.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk to you! And pick up a copy of Runner2 in early 2013 on your platform of choice! -Mike and Alex
Readers interested in Runner 2 can follow game’s update via the official Runner2 blog, through the Runner2 Facebook page or the Twitter accounts @BitTrip and @GaijinGames.