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.