Bit.Trip Flux, the latest WiiWare extrusion from Gaijin Games, doesn't look like anything all that special in screenshots. But once a controller's in hand, Bit.Trip Flux becomes one of the most immersive and thought-provoking gaming experiences I've had on a console, from its trance-inducing beginnings to its minimalist-yet-moving conclusion. Reviewing it had me engaging with the history of modernism, the inner workings of binary code, and the common structures of music and math—quite a rumination-bank for a game that's basically an arty version of Pong!
Like the best indie designers, Gaijin makes games that possess tremendous individuality, leveraging their smallness to give their work with the unmistakable stamp of an auteur's vision. So I was thrilled to interview Alex Neuse, CEO and founder of Gaijin Games, via the appropriately detached-yet-humanistic medium of instant messenger.
I've heard that Bit.Trip Flux is the swan song for the Bit.Trip series.
It's over, baby.
So the next game is not a music game? Not a 2600-style game? Not the CommanderVideo story?
All of the above. I'm sure music will play a big part, but it won't be overtly musical. Is this part of the interview?
I was just debating that...I assume talk of the next game should be off the record?
Nope. Everything is fair game.
What, no NDA?
Screw NDAs. Everyone lies about 'em anyway. I won't answer something if I don't feel like it. Let's start this interview up!
All right then! Your title is CEO of Gaijin, correct?
Yep! I'm the CEO at Gaijin Games, as well as the primary director of all of our projects.
So what does that mean? What's your average day at the office?
Well, I guess it means that when the hard decisions need to be made, the buck stops with me. Mostly, though, I just coordinate everything and keep the company moving forward. Lately, an average day at the office sadly has a lot of emailing and very little video game making. Running a business isn't the same as making games. But I do a lot of deal brokering and business as well as working with our development teams to coordinate the progress on our projects.
I know Gaijin's a super-small team. Last I heard it was just you, a programmer, a designer, and one minion. Do you all take part in the programming and music end of things, or are duties pretty strictly divided?
Currently, the Gaijin team is about nine people working relatively full-time. We have a few full-time employees, but most of us are contracted. I tend to deal with the design side of things as well as the business stuff. My partner in crime, Mike Roush, handles the management of all things art-related. Our programming team is coordinated primarily by me, but they're very good at managing themselves.
You've expanded fast!
Yeah, we really have. With our recent acquisition of Robotube Games, we've got a lot on our plates.
Was that in response to all the new platforms on your release list, or in anticipation of the next game?
Kind of both. We have two projects under the Gaijin brand at the moment—one for the 3DS and one for the Wii. We also have two projects under the Robotube brand for the iOS devices. And of course, it will be totally awesome once all of the Bit.Trip games show up on Steam—among other places. Our goal is to ship 12 SKUs this year—hence the growth.
That's quite a shift from the last couple of years! I take it the expansion to Steam and the App Store is going very well, then.
It really is. Our hope is that we will continue to grow our fan base as we release on more platforms. There are more Bit.Trippers out there to be found, I'm sure of it.
You may be the first indie developer I've heard mention 3DS development! Is that something you can talk about?
Right now, all I can say is that we are working on a project for the platform. We're not ready to reveal any details about it quite yet. Soon, though.
So one more business question before diving into the games. In an interview last year you mentioned that "I had tried to start Gaijin Games back in 2004 and failed once, so I know a lot of pitfalls to avoid." What were those avoided pitfalls?
Don't run before you've learned how to walk. The first time around, I assembled a team of nine people right off the bat, designed an epic game in a genre that doesn't sell epic amounts of units, and asked for huge sums of money from publishers. But by going through all of those steps, I learned how to make pitches, how to talk to publishers, how to develop concepts & prototypes, and on and on. It was a huge learning experience, and I suspect that had I not gone through that back in '04, we wouldn't be as successful as we are today.
Dare I ask what the genre that doesn't sell epic amounts of units was? Was it another music game?
It was not a music game, although since PaRappa the Rapper came out, I've been dying to make music games. The first game I pitched was a vertical scrolling arcade-style shmup.
Not so different, really, from what Bit.Trip would become!
I suppose not. I have a soft spot in my heart for very difficult retro games.
It does seem like the kind of trance state that non-representational 8-bit games can induce is really central to the Bit.Trip effect.
Definitely. Our goofy little tag line is "get in the zone and ride the vibe" and it's very true. That's what you have to do when Bit.Tripping.
Was that "ride the vibe" idea part of the thinking behind debuting your games on the Wii? Was motion control central to the desired effect, or was it more a matter of WiiWare being a relatively uncrowded channel?
Really it was just a goofy thing I said in an interview once, and Mike [Roush] kept making fun of me for it. Now it's kind of a tag line. As for "why Wii"...we were working on a prototype for Bit.Trip Beat, and we knew that the game truly wanted a spinner controller, but since no one makes those anymore, we started prototyping the controls. Everything except a Wii Remote felt pretty lame. So Wii it was! We kind of let the game tell us which platform it wanted to be on.
In Beat and Flux, when I really get into it, it almost feels like dancing with my hands. The movement control aspect makes that music/body connection much more intense than more abstract controls would.
Yes, I feel the same way, especially in the later levels while nailing a difficult part.
Do you put a lot of thought into the physical movement the player will do, or are you largely guided by the visuals and sound?
We are definitely more guided by the visuals and sound than we are by the physicality of the movement. However, if we feel that asking the player to do something physically would be uncomfortable, we definitely change it up. We threw out a few control schemes for the other games because of that.
Speaking of uncomfortable...one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Bit.Trip games has been their intense difficulty. Do you have a set of principles that helps you distinguish between hard-fun and hard-unfun, or do you go on instinct and playtesting?
Mostly, we just follow our instinct. Although at times, the team has had to intervene and save me from myself. There were several portions of the Bit.Trip games that we toned down after seeing regular humans play them.
A lot of what makes them difficult is that you—unlike just about every other designer I can think of—seem to love changing the rules moment-to-moment…
Do I? Within each game, you're pretty much doing the same thing throughout.
Sure, but the beat behavior is constantly changing. The physics, the left-to-right progression, the response to hitting your paddle, it all changes without warning. Usually games teach the player how the game world works and stick to it; like when I'm playing Halo, I know a Grunt isn't going to suddenly split into four slower moving Grunts. But Bit.Trip is all about simple visual elements that could do anything, and a lot of the humor of the Bit.Trip games comes from that kind of surprise attack.
Yeah, we'll kick you in the nuts if you have expectations, I guess.
I'm just struck by how that's the opposite of how game design normally works—the desire to thwart player expectation, rather than confirm it.
I suppose it is. In regards to that particular idea, I think that sometimes you can get away with doing that, and sometimes you can't. I also think that sometimes we got away with it just fine, and in other cases, we shouldn't have done it. For instance, I should have created patterns that repeated more throughout the series. Reinforcing the player's skills that way would have felt very good. Instead, we constantly throw new patterns at players, and that can be tiring.
You're sounding almost elegiac about the series. Are you looking for lessons that you can take into Gaijin's next phase?
Yes! We are constantly trying to use lessons we've learned in the past to make the products better in the future. We are constantly learning. Once you stop maintaining a learning attitude, you're going to be left behind. We move at such a rapid pace here, tw0 years ago is like our 15 years. I mean, we've shipped seven games in 2.5 years. We're like freaky little nerd hummingbirds.
So you're looking for ways to keep things difficult with a little less sadism?
Um...I'm not so sure. I like difficult games for sure, but I think that our next game is going to be less challenge-centric and more experience-centric. Mind you, there will be some difficulty in it, but sadism isn't appropriate for all games.
Interesting! I admit, I've played all the Bit.Trip games, but finished none of them, because they were so hard. Which made me really sad, as I love the experience. So I love the idea of making them just a bit more accessible…
You can do it! Play two-player! We call two-player easy mode.
I have been!
But the boss fight at the end of level two [in Flux] is even harder with two players!
Oh yeah. That level two boss is insanity in two players. That's one thing I'd change if I could.
So now that we're on the subject of Bit.Trip Flux, it seemed like in terms of art style, the Bit.Trip games had been moving from abstraction (Beat and Core) toward a more representational style (Runner and Fate). But Bit.Trip Flux returned to the abstract style—what was the thinking behind that?
Well, that's a spoiler for Fate—should I say it anyway?
Sure! Let me just warn our readers…
CommanderVideo is no longer alive in Bit.Trip Flux. Nor was he alive yet in Bit.Trip Beat. He is killed at the end of Fate.
Ah, so it's all part of the grand narrative. Beat and Core were before he existed, Fate and Runner were his life, Bit.Trip Flux is his afterlife?
Close. Beat is before he was alive in a corporeal form as a human. Core is his formation and exploration of the physicality of being. Void is an exploration of the intangibleness of physical/emotional space. Runner is CommanderVideo feeling empowered by the mastery of all that has come before, and his exploration of the world. Fate illustrates the conflict that we all must face and overcome, lest it destroy us. Bit.Trip Flux shows CommanderVideo returning home—to the source—smarter, bigger, and better now that he's lived. And then, he transcends.
Wow. So the homecoming theme is why you resurrected mechanics from a previous game, making your first "real" sequel?
Yes. It's the first time in his existence that CommanderVideo has done anything familiar. Everything until that point had been a new experience for him. Finally, after his strange Bit.Trip into what we know as "life", he gets to go home.