Alex Neuse: Gaijin Games Co-Founder Moves Forward with RUNNER2A game interview article by: Nick Boisson
One of my favorite game series of the last few years has been the BIT.TRIP games from Gaijin Games. The six titles in the series (BIT.TRIP BEAT, BIT.TRIP CORE, BIT.TRIP VOID, BIT.TRIP RUNNER, BIT.TRIP FATE and BIT.TRIP FLUX) were all released on WiiWare and have since made it to platforms like Steam, 3DS and even Android. But luckily for us, Gaijin Games decided to create a new game in the series, a sequel to my favorite of the series (BIT.TRIP RUNNER), Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Not only is this a new game in a beloved series, but it has a completely new engine and new characters!
Because I just had to learn more about the game, I decided to go straight to the source and speak with Gaijin Games' co-founder and creator of the BIT.TRIP series, Alex Neuse. Below is a great conversation about the series's roots, the company's future, the future of digitally released games and the handsomeness and intelligence of Gaijin co-founder, Mike Roush.
Nick Boisson for Comics Bulletin Games: Hey, Alex!
Alex Neuse: Hey! How're you doing?
CB: I'm all right. How are you?
Neuse: Pretty good...pretty good. A little tired. We're trying to get all these games approved and it's insanity!
CB: [Laughs] That's right. You guys are launching on everything with this one!
Neuse: Yeah! It's definitely the most ambitious launch we've ever done and I'll tell you what: I don't know that we'll ever do it again. [Laughs]
CB: [Laughs] Really?
Neuse: I mean we'll launch on everything again, but I don't know that we'll submit all the versions at the same time, you know?
CB: Oh, yeah.
Neuse: Yeah. But other than that it's pretty good.
CB: Awesome! So, let me get this started. And forgive me if I'm nervous. [Laughs]
Neuse: Oh, don't be nervous. You shouldn't be nervous. Just a couple of idiots talking. Speaking of idiots, Mike [Roush, Gaijin Games' other co-founder] couldn't join us.
CB: Not a problem. He was busy?
Neuse: Well, he just had a baby. So, he's kind of in and out. More out than in. But he wanted me to tell you just how handsome and intelligent he is. So, for the record, he is very handsome and very intelligent.
CB: [Laughs] I will be sure to note that.
Neuse: That would be so awesome if you did.
CB: Oh, it's totally happening.
CB: All right. Let me get this going...
Neuse: Let's get it going.
CB: So, let's start at the beginning. What were you doing before starting Gaijin Games?
Neuse: Before Mike and I started Gaijin Games, we were working at a small independent development studio called Santa Cruz Games. They did a lot of work-for-hire with licenses and we both basically decided that we wanted to have more creative freedom. So, starting our own company seemed like the right answer. I had been in the corporate video game world for a while by then. I was at LucasArts, then Activision, before Santa Cruz Games and even though those companies were great, I was kind of sick of not being able to call the shots myself. Then, when I met Mike, he and I both resonated so well with what we wanted out of our careers so well and it seemed like the natural thing for us to start our own company.
CB: How did you guys go from the decision to starting Gaijin? How did you get funding for it?
Neuse: Well, we funded it ourselves. We never had any investors or any seed money or anything. We just boot-strapped it the whole way. At the beginning, there were three of us. It was me, Mike and a fellow named Chris Osbourne and the three of us had decided that we could work for X number of months without pay. And, if we couldn't figure out how to make a game that we felt could make some money in that amount of time, then it wasn't worth doing. So we said, “Let's strike out and do this”. We started prototyping and got a game idea, which was the BIT.TRIP series, and we approached publishers with it. Back then, the whole indie games scene was just starting to take off. So the idea of self-publishing, while certainly available, wasn't as standard and it certainly wasn't what we were familiar with. We went the publishing route and signed on with Aksys Games for BIT.TRIP BEAT and that's basically how it all started.
CB: And what led you guys to create the BIT.TRIP games? There are a lot of notable aspects to each game. It's not just the gameplay, but it's the art and the gameplay and the music. What led you guys to pull it all together and create that series?
Neuse: I think we had a love for the classic games that we grew up with. I especially had a love for the Atari 2600. So going by that old inspired by the games of yore was attractive to us because we felt that there was so much potential with the limited tech, if you will, that hadn't been realized in the '80s. And we wanted to take it to the next level a bit. The primary reason that we decided to give the idea the green light is because those kinds of games – BIT.TRIP BEAT essentially being a one player version of Pong – were simple games that three guys could make in three or four months. So, that's what we did. It was this marriage of theme versus simplicity and versus style, as well, that seemed to match.
CB: And I know that with BIT.TRIP BEAT, once it was complete, one way you guys had decided to market the game was using viral marketing. Can you talk a bit about what you did and how that ended up working for the game?
Neuse: Well, the whole viral marketing thing is that...we didn't know what we were doing. We didn't have a marketing team or a marketing budget or anything like that. We thought about what we could do that could get people's attention. So, we started getting silly with the Commander Video stuff and the viral marketing thing. I think that's one of the things we did pretty well, actually, especially on BEAT. We really raised awareness for something, even though people may not have known what it was early on. That was nice. So, it was really born out of not really knowing what to do and really just trying stuff out.
CB: And since BEAT, the BIT.TRIP series has exploded into a huge franchise. Not only do you guys now have seven games, but you and Aksys have ended up publishing two physical releases of the first six games – one on Wii and another on 3DS – and even the soundtracks are popular. I know that you guys are doing the Game Music Bundle right now. When you were starting out, did you envision the series taking off as much as it has?
Neuse: Oh, we certainly hoped it would take off. We were never sure of how much it would take off and how popular it would be. From the beginning, we planned for six games and had a storyline for six games. We were definitely committed to making all six. But it wasn't until game four or five – BIT.TRIP RUNNER or BIT.TRIP FATE – that we started to think about what we were going to do when they were all done. And doing the compilations – BIT.TRIP Saga on 3DS and BIT.TRIP Complete on the Wii – seemed like a nice thing to do and our fans were asking for something like that, as well. So we approached Nintendo about that. Nintendo is usually a bit dubious of collections like that, but Nintendo has been really good and I think they believe in what we are doing. We talked it over with them and we all felt that it was something worth doing.
Then, after all the games and compilations were done, we realized that the next game we wanted to make was a side-scrolling platformer and had gotten requests from fans to do a sequel to BIT.TRIP RUNNER. It then dawned on us that, as a development team, we had had the most fun working on RUNNER and it was the easiest game for us to make. And by easy, I mean that it was the easiest for us to conceptualize and understand right from the get-go. All of the other games were so...experimental or abstract. So, we then figured, “Who's to say that we can't make a sequel to a game that already has a sequel?” So, we decided to make Runner2. And I think Runner2 is going to be the swan song of the series. It might not be the final game in the BIT.TRIP series. Who knows? We might revisit others or make an entirely new BIT.TRIP game. But, for now and the foreseeable future, we are going to be done with BIT.TRIP.
CB: With the BIT.TRIP series being rhythm-based games, they rely heavily on music, specifically on chiptune and chiptune-inspired tracks. Was it the music that inspired the games or the gameplay that inspired the selection of chiptune music?
Neuse: In the beginning, we basically wanted to marry simplistic graphics and gameplay with chiptunes. Chiptunes were always in the original design. But we didn't want to do straight up chiptunes. We wanted to do chiptune-inspired, as you say. Because the games industry and gamers' tastes have evolved, regardless of what we want to believe, you know? If we were to make a straight up Pong game and limit our tech to similar to what they had on the Atari or NES, I don't think people would have liked it as much. It wouldn't have had the same charm. But instead, we took our inspiration and planted the seeds from those places but let the game grow into something more modern. And that's what we wanted to do with the music, as well. That's why you can see that the music in the BIT.TRIP series has its roots in chiptunes, but they're not entirely chiptune. So, since all that was planned on since the beginning, what we would do is get a rough gameplay idea down – a rough prototype – and see if it could be cool. We'd usually just put a metronome to it – just a beat – and see if that was fun to play. Then, we would work with our composer, Matt Harwood, to find the aural landscape and make the game and the music in tandem. Sometimes, we would get the music first and that would inform gameplay. But other times, we would get the gameplay first and that would inform the music. And sometimes, it would just happen at the same time.
CB: The BIT.TRIP series had started on Nintendo's WiiWare and Runner2 will be the first time that Gaijin releases a game simultaneously on multiple platforms. Why did you choose WiiWare to release BIT.TRIP BEAT versus Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network or even Steam?
Neuse: The main reason we chose WiiWare was because we had just come off of several Nintendo projects and we really felt proficient with their rules, their tools and their whole process. So that was like a slam dunk. We were kind of Nintendo pros already. That was one issue. The second issue, even more importantly, was we started prototyping different control schemes. We started with BIT.TRIP BEAT, which is a paddle-based game. And for a paddle-based game, you really want a spinner controller. But they don't make those anymore. So we tried D-pad implementation, analog sticks, even the analog triggers and everything felt crappy. It wasn't until we messed around with the accelerometer on the Wii controller that we found something that worked perfectly. It felt right; it felt simplistic and good. So we basically said, “All right, we're doing this on the Wii”. WiiWare had just started pretty much around the time we had started development, so that was an exciting and new venue to release our games on a console.
CB: As we've already discussed, you guys have a new BIT.TRIP title, Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Where is Commander Video at the start of this game?
Neuse: Well, Commander Video and his courageous contingent of charismatic compatriots are all flying into the sky in pursuit of the nefarious Timbletaunt from the end of BIT.TRIP RUNNER. So this game takes place between RUNNER and FATE. They're flying up and chasing Timbletaunt, who evades them, and Commander Video is hit with a reality un-fusion beam, which was meant to hit his whole gang. But he blocks the blast and takes the full force of the un-fusion beam. At that point, his reality becomes un-fused. That's basically the setup for the whole game and why it looks different, why it sounds different, why there are different characters. You've probably seen some of our characters. We've announced Uncle Dill, Whetfart Cheeseburger and Reverse Merman. Those are all characters we presume their realities have also been un-fused. Who knows how they got there? But they are these new and crazy characters that Commander Video is going to interact with. And Commandgirl Video – being the closest to Commander Video – also took a bit of the hit, so she is a playable character too.
But that just sets the stage. In pursuit of the Timbletaunt, Commander Video is basically sucker-punched and that's how he ends up in Runner2.
CB: One of the most iconic things about the series was its pixel art look. [Gaijin] has a new engine now that is running Runner2 in 3D (or 2.5D, if you will). It isn't just the landscapes that are different; Runner2 is a completely different looking game from Gaijin and the rest of the BIT.TRIP series. Why such a new look for the new BIT.TRIP game?
Neuse: Well, there's the story aspect. If we're trying to tell a story about how his reality got un-fused, we can't really have it looking the same. Then it would feel like his reality is unfazed. We wanted it to look and visually feel different. So, that was one motivation. Another motivation, you might think, is using more 3D and all that, but that isn't really it. Because all of our other games are in 3D. They were made in Maya using a 3D engine. So that wasn't a motivation. But one motivation that honestly did play a part was that we had been working on that same style for over three years and we were sick of it. It's great and we love it, but once you do something that is the same for so long, you ache to do something else, you know? And this was a way for us to stay within the world and within the franchise with integrity, but also get to do something new.
CB: Since you are releasing this game on multiple platforms simultaneously, did the new engine help that process?
Neuse: Oh, definitely. The new engine, which we got right after starting the project, is a multi-platform engine, all developed in-house. Gaijin Games owns this new engine, so we're not paying royalties to anyone. Which is nice! It has definitely allowed us to release the game on all of the platforms we're going for. So far, the only platforms that it doesn't support are Vita and Android, but we're working on both of those. It is a really versatile engine and without it, I think we would be releasing on one platform now and maybe later, port it to other platforms.
CB: And this will be the first Gaijin game to hit Nintendo's new console, the Wii U. Since the Wii U has a number of differences from the other platforms, is there anything different about the Wii U version versus the others?
Neuse: It's pretty much the same as the others. I think the biggest differentiating factor is that you can play the entire game on the gamepad alone. So you don't have to have you TV on if you don't want to, which is great for people who want to play while on the pooper. [Laughs] In fact, I prefer to play the game on the gamepad only. That's the cool feature. Plus, the Wii U has some modern functionality that the Wii just didn't have. You get a nice depth of field, so no blurring if you don't want it, and beautiful HD. It's a modern platform that is totally rad. I really like the Wii U version.
CB: Now, you've said that this will pretty much be the last BIT.TRIP game, at least for the foreseeable future. While we all love Commander Video and the BIT.TRIP series and with your new engine, will we see a new series or a non-BIT.TRIP game from Gaijin Games soon?
Neuse: Oh, you definitely will. Yes! Our next few games are going to be very, very different from what we've done in the past. You might remember that we are working with a company called Robotube Games; we've got that brand. We want to exercise that one a little bit, so you can probably expect to see a Robotube game within the next year. Also, the next big Gaijin game will be very, very different from the BIT.TRIP world. We're just now starting on pre-production with that. It's still in the earliest phases that have ever been early. But yes, you can expect a few things from us that are very different.
CB: Gaijin Games has been prevalent in the digital games world, but you have dabbled with retail releases with your compilations. Will you continue doing digital releases over physical?
Neuse: Yeah, we definitely are. There's really no reason to do a physical release when you're the size studio that we are. Just the barriers of entry to do a physical release are so massive. One, we couldn't do it without a publisher's support, because there are all these hoops you have to jump through to get your game into retail stores and we're always between eight to ten people. So we don't have that all set up. We don't have the money to do all the manufacturing and all that.
And also, there's really no point. It's 2013: let's move on! Physical is old and crummy. Let's do digital. Gaijin Games wants to self-publish every game we do moving forward unless we're really excited to move forward with a publisher in particular. Because of that, we are going to stick to digital only.
CB: Awesome! Well, thank you very much for speaking with me! I really appreciate it.
Neuse: Definitely welcome. And be sure to mention Mike's handsomeness and his intelligence.
CB: Definitely will do!
Check out our FIVE STAR review of BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner2, only on Comics Bulletin!
You can learn more about Gaijin Games at their website, and more about Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien at the developer blog. Also, be sure to follow Alex Neuse on Twitter at @AlexNoisy.
And if/when you want to get the game for yourself, go ahead and grab it on Steam!