December 23, 2009 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In this interview, our own Christian Nutt talks with Gaijin Games art director Mike Roush about the studio's popular retro-inspired WiiWare series Bit.Trip -- now in its third iteration -- the Santa Cruz company's vision, and the indie landscape.]
Mike Roush, director of art at Santa Cruz, CA-based Gaijin Games, has made a splash with the retro-influenced aesthetics of the Bit.Trip series -- Beat, Core and Void -- all released for WiiWare by Aksys Games.
The company, has only three staffers -- Alex Neuse on design, Chris Osborn on programming, and Roush -- yet has shipped three downloadable titles and built a community of fans.
In addition to the series' hip, retro style, we talked to Roush about the company's history, philosophy, and influences -- and how he sees the landscape of the digital download gaming market for indies.
(And if you're looking for more Gaijin, you can read Gamasutra's postmortem of Bit.Trip.Beat, the studio's first game, which ran earlier this year.)
What made you decide suddenly to start doing this?
MR: Well, Alex is a great talker. It's kind of an interesting story. I was going to move to Oakland and be with my girlfriend, and try to get a job up in the San Francisco/Oakland area.
When I was going to join Gaijin Games, Alex's pitch was, "We're going to make Pong with music." So, it's not a very big selling point, but Alex's enthusiasm won me over and essentially made me stay there, in Santa Cruz, 80 miles from Oakland.
So your girlfriend wasn't happy?
MR: No. Well, she wasn't happy for six months, but then she moved down to Santa Cruz, so it all worked out. But essentially he was like, "We'll make a company. We're going to make great games. We're going to have a lot of fun." It's basically my trust in Alex.
Bit.Trip became a series very quickly. Was that always planned?
MR: Yes. The six-game series was planned from day one. We wanted to do the series, because there is a giant story here with all six games, and they all tie in. So we planned the series from day one.
We were a little concerned about doing a big series, just because people lose their interest. But the games are so different that we're not losing people's interest. And I think it's going to make a set of games stronger. Also it gives us a chance to make, essentially, a game with almost a two-year development, in stages, and that was really appealing to us, too.
You stake out this aesthetic and basic concept, but then you can just build around it. What are the advantages of doing it that way? Are there, for example, tech advantages or art advantages?
MR: Sort of. Having the basic beat system in there is something that carries over. For the most part, I don't really reuse any of the art because I want it to remain fresh for the player, because the player is what we really care about. So I would say in a lot of ways it's sort of a disadvantage, because each game is so different that we don't really get to reuse a lot of our tech or the art.
We're sort of rethinking. I mean the basic principles are there, but there's not a huge advantage to it, especially the way our next three games are planned out. We want to keep everything different, so there's not a whole lot of advantages to that, I don't think.
That's funny. And honest.
MR: Well, we want to keep quite a bit of transparency with what we do, and that honesty and interaction with people, I think is why people like Gaijin Games.
How's your relationship with Aksys? I'm sure there has been a lot of discussion whether to go direct or whether to work through a publisher.
MR: Yeah, we are very happy with Aksys. It's rare for a publisher to be so flexible. They put a lot of trust in us. When they put that trust in us, we perform better. We don't want to disappoint. We don't want to have deadlines that we don't meet. That is something that was very important to us. If we would have gone with a more well‑known publisher, we feel that our artistic vision would have been compromised. Working with Aksys is absolutely fantastic.
I think part of the danger with working with a large publisher is also that you are a smaller piece of their pie. Do you find that to be the case, also?
MR: Aksys wants to have a relationship with us. They have BlazBlue, obviously, that they've published, but they give us all of the attention that we ask for.
Why did you start with WiiWare rather than Xbox Live Arcade, or multiplatform even?
MR: Essentially we all just got off of a Nintendo project, so we were all very familiar with Nintendo's process and tools. That was a main selling point for Nintendo. Also, Alex is a huge Nintendo fanboy. So, it has been a dream of his to work for Nintendo for a long time.
Above and beyond that, they have really good tools for indie developers to get their game and their vision out there quickly. We were able to make Beat in three and a half months and start a company. Now, that isn't to say that we couldn't do that with another platform, but in Nintendo a lot of the things were set up for us already, and we had the knowledge.
Are you happy with the performance of the games commercially?
MR: We are happy with the performance of the games. We have had some critical success which is very pleasing. WiiWare -- I think it's a great service. I'm seeing a lot of very good games coming out for Wii.
Super Meat Boy, I think is something that's very exciting and that's kind of like [representative of] Nintendo's openness. Having something like Super Meat Boy on WiiWare, I just think that's really exciting, because Nintendo is a very open company on that aspect. They don't mess around with your creative vision.
Xbox Live Arcade pioneered the downloadable games model, and it also still seems like XBLA gets the largest share of attention relative to WiiWare -- what do you think?
MR: I think WiiWare is still a young service, for one thing. We do a lot of work to promote our game. And we have a lot of interaction with the public. If a kid in Ohio emails us, we respond instantly. It is not to say that these other companies don't do that, but we really push the game. We try to really make a presence out there.
Also another thing that helps us is we do have a series. It's not like this, "oh we made one game." We always have something. Every couple of weeks we have something to share with the community, and that's really helped.
When it came to now making Core and then Void, were the development cycles the same length? Or has it changed as you got into the process of making these games?
MR: So far, the development cycles have all pretty much been the same. Beat was three and a half months, but we were also building our company. We started development on Void in the first week of E3, so that whole week was out of the development process. I can't recall if we went over and made up that extra week, but I think that they've all been relatively the same.
Can you squeeze more out of that period of time, or has it been a pretty consistent production process?
MR: Well that's actually, back to your other question, one of the things that making these games in a series has done, is we know it better. And we know the process better. So, we are able to do things faster. The process is getting faster and faster because we can get results quicker, just because we know the series and we know the style. We know what the gameplay is like.
I feel like there is some inherent cleverness to this series concept. Teasing out what the advantages are is actually pretty interesting.
MR: Well, when we first pitched it to our friends, one of our friends, who works for a pretty big company, he sat there and he looked at us and he laughed. We're like, "What's going on?" He basically told us that this might be the most brilliant thing he's ever seen.
Because part of our philosophy is, we're going to design a game that's fun in the time we have. We sort of designed this game around our limitations. And it's also a tool. It's going to be a two-year dev process for the whole series, and we're building on to the bigger and better games that we want to make as Gaijin Games.
Is the ultimate goal to stay in download, or to move on to larger projects? I mean, by the time you finish this series, the landscape is going to have evolved in terms of from where it is now.
MR: Yeah, for sure. We want to continue making bigger and better games and Gaijin Games is going to evolve to do that. We're very careful how we're going to do this. Basically, we don't want to make products that suck.
Now, does that mean we're going to stay with Nintendo? I don't know. My guess is we like Nintendo and Nintendo treats us very well. But one of our core philosophies is we want to be a semi‑green company and having digital downloads is a green practice.
That is to say, are we ever going to release a disc game? I don't know. Maybe. If disk games are around in five years and we have to make a game that's going to be four gigs then we might release a disc game. But we do want to stay a digital distribution as much as we can.
Well, the scope of what you can do digitally, also even on the console side, is evolving. Obviously, Shadow Complex came out and was the biggest XBLA launch ever, and it's a really sizable, full‑featured game compared to what the service started out with.
MR: That game's 800 megs. Well, I'll tell you right now, we were downloads of 40 megs. So we kind of chuckled around the office because, as an artist, I will take up all the space. Like, if you were to give me 39 megs of that 40 megs I would fill it up in a month. And so we are very interested in making bigger, better games. But we're cautious about it and we want to take the right steps. Our priority is the end user.
Does the retro art approach feed well into the size limitation or is it a pure aesthetic approach?
MR: We get this question a lot. You would be surprised how much space I was able to fill up with this retro look. We get reviews that people say, "Oh, it's just all 2D." I mean, the whole thing is 3D. I did the whole thing in 3D.
If you sort of look at how much is going on in all the animations, which aren't super stellar animations, but if you look at all the stuff that's happening with camera fly‑throughs and stuff, it didn't really help the download size -- if that's what you want to know. And also we are music games and music takes up a lot of space.
The retro aesthetic is a totally valid aesthetic, and it has a lot of cachet right now.
MR: Yeah, and that was another thing I wanted to try to get away from. Right off the bat we were like, "Oh, we're going to go full Atari‑style." And I was like, "That's cool but there's a lot that's in that style now." I wanted to have an individual style that was kind of bred from the Atari style but was sort of uniquely ours.
It's funny and fun in Beat, when you get down to the low level and it's completely black and white.
MR: Yeah. It's scary. It's funny too, because people say, "Oh in Bit.Trip you only get one life" but it's just not true. When you level up, you get a new life. You've earned a life.
Well it's like Rez. Don't know if you intentionally modeled it on Rez...
MR: Yeah. We definitely did. Rez was one of our main influences actually. We definitely drew from Rez and Guitar Hero. We drew from them because they're super badass games.
It's funny how it seems like Rez didn't get its due back when it originally came out but then it seemed so in sync when Rez HD arrived on XBLA. It seems like the aesthetics of games have sort of also caught up to what Rez was trying, because Rez was really different, aesthetically, when it came out.
MR: Yeah. It was so far ahead of its time. I mean it is kind of funny. It's like all of a sudden there was sort of like, this retro backlash, and then Rez HD comes out and it just hit.
How many people are in Gaijin now?
MR: It's still just the three of us.
Is it your goal to keep it tight‑knit?
MR: My guess is that we will remain relatively small. We definitely have plans on growing. My vision for an art team, even if we were working on a bigger title, would be to have four artists that are super tight and super in sync with each other. I can't speak for Chris or Alex, but I definitely know that Chris feels the same way.
For Alex, I think, he's so open with getting input, that having the whole team help out with the design and the making of the game, we're able to remain small, because we all have so much input. I think we will grow, definitely, but we will always remain a small studio.
What I find interesting about Bit.Trip.Beat is that it's a really simple core gameplay concept. Does that help from an audience standpoint?
MR: Yeah. Alex has the philosophy of working from the controller to the television. He also wants players to sort of play out his vision that he's designed for them instead of just having them make their own experiences.
Having a simple mechanic is just so much more beneficial because it limits the process, and by limiting it in some weird way you can be more creative. And the funny thing about Beat is there are really only like five places that you need to be. I have watched people just freak out -- but it's like you only really have to be one of five places at one time.
It is hard to be that analytical as a player.
MR: Well, I will let you in on a little secret. I have never finished Beat. I can't beat my own game. Then with Core, I am just terrible at Core. So, it is to say that I made the game, and I still have problems processing it and figuring this stuff out.
Does that ever worry you, or do you think it's just because of your personal skill?
MR: Well, it doesn't worry me personally. I feel that even not being able to complete Beat myself, I still have so much fun with it, and part of that fun is that I can't beat it. It's still just a challenge. I will beat it someday, absolutely.