I knew Hyper Light Drifter was going to be a big game. It was one of those games that caught your eye as you walked past Heart Machine’s booth. The neon colored pixel art of the game should be rote and dismissable as it’s become a go-to indie aesthetic, but Hyper Light Drifter makes it feel new. Like they invented the style. If the art doesn’t grab you, the breathless gameplay will. An action/adventure RPG with twitchy, dodge-heavy gameplay, the game is deviously difficult, but a joy to play. The kind of game that makes you turn to the person in line behind you and say, “I promise this is my last try.” I wasn’t the only one enamoured with what I was seeing, the line to get your hands on the game was growing deep.

We’ve been waiting for Hyper Light Drifter for quite some time now. When the game was pushed from 2014 to 2015, it wasn’t surprising (in 2014, it felt like every game was pushed to 2015). But late last August, a week before PAX Prime, Heart Machine announced they would be pushing the game into early 2016, which was a surprise. In a Kickstarter post the game’s director, Alex Preston, talked about his battles with health issues. In 2013, Preston discussed his genetic mutation that led to multiple issues with his health, including a heart condition with Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

When I arrived at the Heart Machine booth, I found it much like it was a year and a half ago, filled with people who were waiting to stand in line to simply get a chance to play in Preston’s world. Preston wasn’t waiting for me when I got there, but arrived with the frazzled expression PAX is wont to give anyone. We hid in maintenance room to find some peace and quiet. Finally away from the rancour, which defines the PAX floor, I had an opportunity to ask aboutthe game’s delays, the illness that has plagued both Preston and development and pick the brain behind the highly anticipated title.

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Indie Haven: You guys were scheduled to talk about Hyper Light Drifter at the PC Press Conference at E3, that seemed like an exciting opportunity.

Alex Preston: We were gonna be in that, then we decided to just put our heads down and develop. We were in a pretty deep spot at that point. It was like, “Well, do we actually go out on stage and do a presentation? Are we ready for that at this moment? Or do we just focus on the stuff that we’re doing right now?” So we decided just to focus — and it was good, it was very beneficial.

 

IH: Do you find that you start with ideas and core concepts of a game, but aren’t indicative of where you’ll end up?

AP: Kind of. Yeah. I think that happens with a lot of game development unless you’re a super seasoned veteran and you know all the ins and outs and you’ve been making the same kind of game for ten years or whatever. But for us we made mistakes, we had ideas and tried that, and three months later they turned out to be bad ideas. Or [stuff] isn’t quite up to par, why didn’t we do it this way? It’s part of the process, I think it’s part of every game’s process. You figure out what works and doesn’t work. You can have a great idea on paper, but it sucks when you actually put it in this game. You have to make all the pieces fit, you have to make it cohesive, you have to make it polished. You have to play it with people outside of your little bubble too. You see thing when other people start to playtest your game that you don’t see and it’s like, “Oh, right, I should not do that at all!” Or you get stuff like, “Oh no, I should lean into that, that was a really good idea.” So luckily we’re at the other end of the spectrum now, we’ve gone through all the dumb ideas or mistakes or stuff that didn’t quite work or figuring out the systems. We’re in a good spot now and we’re just barreling through content.

 

IH: Do you ever feel like through that giant process it’s easy to lose focus?

AP: I think it’s a bit of a give and take — push and pull — in any long-term creative process. You’re gonna have weeks where you gonna feel like [you] didn’t get that much done and other weeks where it’s like, “Holy shit, we just burned through most of that, or all of that, and we thought it was going to take a month.” I think with game development in particular it’s very difficult to judge, because you have so many components.  You estimate it takes three weeks to finish [something] and it takes two, or it takes double the time. So, it’s because of many factors. It’s not like we’re bad at estimating, it’s more we got to playtest things and it doesn’t work as well or it doesn’t function as much as we wanted. It’s part of the creative process and games in particular are extremely complicated.

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IH: Between the Kickstarter and positive early showing, there’s been a groundswell for this game. Has that made it difficult to push back your release date?

AP: It’s always hard. But it’s always easy too. I don’t want to release a bad game, I don’t want to release an unfinished game. So I’m not gonna release it until it’s finished and it’s good. And we feel like it’s been a pretty good game for a while, it’s just not been finished. We have a lot to do and we’re making a big game and we’re a small team. I’m like a mostly broken human being. So it’s difficult but I don’t function on the same level as most people. And it’s a complicated game. It’s not like, “I’m Tetris.”

There’s a lot of things to consider and we’re building an entire world. When considering anything, it’s easy for me to make the call to say we’re not ready yet. It’s always difficult to talk about that stuff. Now I have to present it to everybody and tell them what’s going on. We like being open and transparent with everybody — and that part can be difficult because you have to word it the right way. You have to express [that] we’re not trying to screw anybody over, we’re not holding out on anything. We’re genuinely excited about this stuff and we want to make a good game.

So that stuff can be difficult to express in a way that comes off in the best possible manner because we’re tired. I could easily just put blinders on and not talk to anyone — I have all these Kickstarter backers and all these people anticipating it — and just focus for a year and not do anything else, not engage, just go into my hovel. But that’s the part, like coming out of my shell and sharing the experience, [that] can be really difficult. It takes time to word it, it takes time to express all the thing I’ve been feeling without screaming or yelling. There’s all these emotions when making a game and sometimes that can give you the wrong impressions. Even in my worst times in making this game, even when I feel shitty about [certain] things, it doesn’t mean I feel bad about the game. I feel great about the game. But people can misinterpret stuff or quotes can be taken out of context. At one point I said our game is low resolution — it’s like 480p or 270p, and that turned into a whole long thread about me saying that nobody gives a shit about 2D game resolution. Well, I was actually talking about our game, and I was talking about how it scales, so 1920 x 1080 doesn’t matter because whatever resolution you use it’s a block pixel game. Again, being careful with words so people can receive [the message] and can understand clearly what you’re trying to communicate can be a big task, especially when you have a lot of stuff to share. I’m happy to do it, it’s just like, that takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes I’m already burnt out on development. But I kind of love doing it at the same time, it’s a huge conflict. I wanna share stuff, I like talking to people, I like seeing the comments, but also holy shit I’m tired. And I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.

 

IH: You talked about how you’ve been sick, making a game about a sick character. Can you talk about that?

AP: I’ve talked about it pretty openly. It sucks having long-term illness. Yeah, that’s it, it fucking sucks. I think a lot of people are fortunate that they don’t have to experience that stuff — disabilities of any kind or chronic illness or disease. I have a whole long list of stuff that keeps coming down on me. I’m limited by it, I cope with it. It can be really, really brutal and super fucking depressing, but I do the best I can. The thing that keeps me going is making a game, and having that creative outlet to focus on and distract myself from my body which is always trying to kill me. It’s always good to do that stuff and of course it works its way into my game and how the story plays out and how I feel about things. It’s a very personal project to me so I want to express very personal emotions.

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IH: To jump off that, ownership in video games is different from creator to creator and project to project. Does having such a direct connection to your game strength you or make development harder?

AP: Again, it’s super personal so embrace it fully. This is what I do all the time, this is what I focus on the most. I go to sleep, I dream about it, I wake up, I go to work all day, and I watch some shitty reality TV before I fall asleep — or cartoons. This is everything that I’m doing right now — that I’ve been doing for the past two years.

 

IH: Are you to the point where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel or do you not even want to look at the light?

AP: I think you gotta do both. You gotta look at the delivery day you set for yourself internally and ask: Can we make that? Are we excited to make that? Yes, we are! Then you gotta look at the smaller stuff and the tons of work you gotta do before that. [You’re] balancing an end goal you know you can make and then making that happen. Then you gotta focus and not even think about that stuff. But [it’s important], reminding yourself that goal is there, it’s attainable, here’s things we’re doing every couple weeks to reach it, focus on it when working and don’t discuss outside of that.

 

IH: Do you have to manage your own expectations? Try to keep your own excitement under control?

AP: We can be excited internally because we know we’ve announced a window for ourselves that we feel very strongly we’re gonna make. It, in of itself, is exciting and it’s good to get excited because it motivates you to do stuff better.

 

IH: The indie game scene has grown. We see indie games at E3, the Indie Megabooth here at PAX is packed. Is it scary or exciting to see all of this emerging competition?

AP: I think it’s super exciting. If you’re confident in your game, if it’s something that you’re proud of, if it’s something that you know resonates with other people, don’t worry about it. There’s plenty of creativity to tapped. I don’t feel like it’s so much competition as it is camaraderie. If you talk to any of the other indies it kind of feels like summer camp at the Indie Megabooth. Everybody knows everybody for the most part. For the most part we all converse and we all hang out, we’re all very supportive of each other. Everybody has different ideas and opinions about what they want to make and what they want to show to the world and you just have to embrace that and be happy for other people’s success. Trying to be supportive.

I don’t think it’s so competitive as maybe the triple-A stuff is where it’s like Street Fighter vs. Tekken. Or Street Fighter vs — well back in the day — SNK. Where it’s like, “Yeah, we’re gonna fuck you over, Capcom.” Where I don’t think anybody in the indie scene is trying to fuck anybody over, we’re just trying to make the games that we love.

 

We’d like to thank Alex for his time and eagerly look forward to Hyper Light Drifter in 2016.

 

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • PanurgeJr

    I’m happy that this game ran its kickstarter during that brief moment when the press gladly covered every game and readers gladly pledged to just about all of them. This is easily my most anticipated indie title (and is probably top five among all games period).