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Interview with Bit Blot

The CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

This year's highlighted game, Aquaria, has been nominated for four awards: Seumas McNally Grand Prize; Design Innovation Award; Excellence in Visual Art; Excellence in Audio. I chatted online with its developers from Bit Blot to find out more about what makes this game so compelling.

Who are you and how were you involved in Aquaria?

Alec: I'm Alec Holowka... and I'm writing the code and music.
Derek: I'm Derek Yu, and I'm the artist. I also handle a lot of the mapping duties. Game design is a team effort, though!

Congrats on your multiple nominations. Is this the first game you've submitted to the IGF?

Alec: For me, no. I was part of a team a few years ago, as a junior programmer, that submitted a 3D fantasy combat game. We didn't get nominated for anything, as the game barely worked at that stage.
Derek: This is the first game I've submitted, though. It was a nice surprise to get so many nominations!
Alec: Yeah, I think it floored us for a while.
Derek: For me, literally!

Where did the inspiration for Aquaria come from?

Alec: I was messing around with doing a game called "Aquaria" at least 2 years ago. I had worked on an underwater project before, and thought I could do a better job by making more of an epic. The initial inspiration was basically taking what really got me excited about games as a kid and translating that into an underwater environment. The games that made me fall in love with game development were the ones that created a whole world for the player to explore and lose themselves in, and that spirit of exploration in Aquaria has continued and grown since then.
Derek: Alec and I were trying to work on another idea and it wasn't coming together, so he showed me his Aquaria demo and asked if I was interested in working on it with him. It was a pretty basic demo, but I thought it was pretty cool! And I like a lot of the same types of games as Alec and I think we draw a lot of our inspiration from the same kinds of experiences we had as kids.
Alec: I came up with a prototype early on, but ended up shelving it pretty quickly. It laid dormant until after I knew Derek for a while.
Derek: The underwater theme is great, there's just so much to draw from.
Alec: There's really no end to what you can add. When Derek decided he was interested in the project, it certainly shifted in a whole new direction, and it hasn't really stopped shifting yet. I'm constantly surprised at how organic the game is. Any time we set out a plan, we end up going in a different direction shortly after. Its definitely one of the reasons why this is so much fun to work on.

What can you reveal about the non-linear gameplay? both how it affects the game design and how it was developed technically?

Derek: Well, since exploration is an important aspect of the game, we wanted to give the player as much freedom as possible. Of course, there's a balance that has to be met between allowing the player to do as they please and presenting compelling challenges that further the story (which is also integral to the experience, we feel).
Alec: The game started out as a more linear experience and moved towards being more open. From a technical perspective, the engine naturally supported open exploration more than adding constraints to keep the player on a certain track. This also made the game feel a lot more fun to us. So on both ends of the spectrum, it felt like the game wanted to be more open than not.
Derek: Yeah, definitely. It was really important to us that everything feels natural. In games you often have something blocking your path that very much feels like it was placed there artificially to prevent you from moving forward. In Aquaria we tried to avoid that.

And the control scheme - was that an original goal of the project or did it just end up fitting best for what you wanted?

Alec: Like most things in the project, it went through a few phases. In ye olde prototype it was mouse control, but we shifted to an FPS style once we revived it. It was actually Derek's dad who inspired us to bring back the mouse control scheme with a vengeance.
Derek: My dad plays a lot of Diablo, so it makes sense!
Alec: Definitely the mouse is the best way to convey the feeling of gliding around underwater, and you can add a lot of cool stuff, like spinning the cursor around Naija to make her roll etc.
Derek: Yeah, "fluid" is the right word, I think. ;)
Alec: You'll definitely feel wet after using it.
Derek: I still don't know what that means, but alright!

What inspired the visual art style?

Alec: Derek being a genius.
Derek: Haha, no... the visuals took a while to get right, and like the rest of the game it was an evolutionary process. My primary goal was to make the game look like an illustration. I noticed that I would look at conceptual art for games and wish that the actual game looked like that. Many times the concepts are so much more lively and fun to look at than the game itself. The ocean also has such a unique atmosphere to it. The colors, the lighting, the movement... Alec and I spent a lot of time looking at underwater pictures. I have a collage I made of strange sea creatures that's really fun to look at. It really is a whole other world down there, and it's perfectly suited for a video game. You really have to see the game in motion, though, to really appreciate the visuals. The animations and effects are superb. And that's Alec's doing, not mine. :)

What was used to develop the game and what tools aided in the development?

Alec: The code is written in C++ and uses OpenGL to handle graphics; using 3D hardware acceleration to do funky things with the 2D graphics. The major tools we developed were the animation editor, which uses a 2D skeletal system, and the level editor, which is very free-form. LUA scripts are used to define the behavior of all the entities and events in the game... there ended up being a ton of different creatures. (and we're still adding more)
Derek: For the graphics, I use Photoshop and a Graphire2 tablet. Pen and paper were also used fairly extensively for sketches and map prototyping! For communication (Alec and I live in Canada and the U.S., respectively), we use Google Talk and maintain a project wiki.
Alec: Copious amounts of caffeinated beverages were also harmed in the making of this game.

What was a major design issue that arose and how was it solved?

Derek: When the project started out, we had a lot of NPC's in the game that you could talk to and interact with... it took us a while to realize that having to talk to all these people was just distracting more than anything else. Once we stripped a lot of that away, we were able to focus on Naija and her story, her emotions.
Alec: We still have some really old builds kicking around that we can go back and take a look at. (and laugh and cry over) A number of them start off with you going down a very linear path, with a mentor character telling you how everything works. It just didn't feel fun to play through. It was more satisfying to be able to stretch your legs and swim off in any direction right at the beginning.
Derek: Generally, these design problems have tended to solve themselves. That is, at a certain point, the game starts to decide which direction it wants to go and you have to let it. For us, that meant stripping down a lot of unnecessary game mechanics.

How about the combat system? How'd that evolve?

Alec: That changed a lot when we shifted away from FPS controls towards mouse based, since you don't have as much freedom to aim when you need to be pointing where you're swimming. So we developed a number of simple ways to target enemies without having to aim at them directly all the time.
Derek: Once we committed to having mouse-only controls combat became a tricky design problem to solve. But it feels really good now, I think. It becomes less of a challenge of aiming and more about how you move, how you position yourself. I think it's more tactical this way.
Alec: Its also worth noting that you can switch between using the mouse, a gamepad or FPS style controls on the fly to accommodate your playing style, computer setup and in some cases, your carpal tunnel syndrome. : ) We're also developing a very experimental form of control that involves singing into the microphone to control Naija's song ability. Its shaky at this point, but its been fun to play with. You just don't want to get caught playing the game that way in public.

That voice input sounds very cool. Anything else in the works for Aquaria before release?

Derek: I think at this point, it's just more content and polishing what we already have. As we've said before, there's just a lot you can do with the underwater theme. We also have a lot of fun "extras" that we're saving for the end to implement.
Alec: I think we're both looking forward to the period where all of the major stuff is completely set, and we can nitpick over little details here and there until the game really shines.
Derek: And at some point we'd like to set up a blog where we can discuss the development of our game further! And generally we're looking forward to interacting more with people who are interested in playing the game. :)

Is there anything else about Aquaria you'd like to reveal to other developers?

Derek: I feel bad that we haven't already mentioned Jenna, our talented voice actress. The addition of voice acting was a pretty big decision for us. Thankfully, it turned out to be a really great one! Not only does the voice work free the game up from dialogue boxes, but it really allows us to convey Naija's emotions in a way we just couldn't otherwise.
Alec: It may not have been a very cautious choice to record dialogue as we developed, but it worked out really well. Jenna totally got into the project and gave it a very personal touch.

Any idea what's next for Bit Blot?

Alec: Once Aquaria is done, I'm going to be devoting a lot of my time to a little project called "Sleep". I think I'll enjoy it.
Derek: Yeah, that's something we can both work on. But I'd prefer not to work on that one together!
Alec: We'll see what happens after the IGF awards
Derek: We have other game ideas in the pipeline, but yeah, we'll have to see how things go after we release Aquaria.
Alec: We've thrown around a few ideas for the "next game", but it’s hard to plan beyond the release of Aquaria because there is a pile of work to be done before we can really move on to other things.

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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