Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. At PAX East 2012, I was quite simply gobmacked by the teamwork behind the Indie Megabooth. It represented everything that the independent gaming scene should be about: innovation, imagination, and emancipation from their big-league counterparts. That many of the games on display at the booth drew so much attention and praise was even greater to see. Inspired by this, I have set myself the task to return to the expositional origins of the Sunday Sidebar, and to endeavor to successfully get to know each of the teams behind the Indie Megabooth – sixteen in all. This week, ladies and gentlemen, Gaijin Games!
Who are you guys?
I am Alex Neuse, co-founder of Gaijin Games, who are the totally awesome development studio behind the BIT.TRIPseries of video games, and we’re most recently hard at work on BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien!
That is quite the title! I’m intrigued by the name of your company name, too. Why ‘Gaijin Games’?
We chose the Gaijin name because we have admired and loved Japanese games ever since we were short. We aspire to make games that are as high quality as the Japanese games we grew up with, but we are definitely on the outside as Americans. We are, as it turns out, a bunch of Gaijin. [Editor's note: "Gaijin" is the Japanese word for "foreigner"]
How did you get into game design, and when?
We all come from various backgrounds in the industry. Some of us started in QA and worked our way into our current positions while others entered the industry right out of college. Several of us have worked for more mainstream video game studios, and all of us had worked in the independent scene before establishing the team we have now. Our industry history goes back to 1997, and if you combine all of our years of experience across all team members, we’ve been working in this industry for 80 years.
Eighty years?! Holy moly. So when you look at how things have changed since then, how does it make you feel?
Well, as we age, we get smarter, make fewer mistakes, and are able to make decisions better; so we have definitely learned a few things along the way, which feels nice for sure. Also, having gone totally independent, we’re able to pursue any wacky ideas that come to mind, and that’s not something you can do in the AAA studios. It’s liberating to be doing what we’re doing. And back when we all started out, there really was no such thing as an independent video game scene. The industry seems to have matured. It’s great.
”Being independent means freedom. We can take more risks.”
Do you believe that the perception of ‘indie’ vs ‘mainstream’ gaming is the same in this industry as that of others, such music or film? What makes it different, if anything?
I suppose it is. By definition, being “independent” means that we are able to think and act for ourselves. I think that’s largely the same in the film and music industry as well. Once a big studio/label signs on, they’ve got their own corporate agendas, which is fine, but that means that they are only able to take the risks that THEY want to take. And if you want to do something other than their vision, they will not allow it. It’s the same in the game industry. Being independent means freedom. We can take more risks.
Does that risk factor make it an exciting time to be an indie developer? What sort of challenges do you face because of it?
I think any time would be an exciting time to be an indie developer. Lots of the challenges that indies face revolve around the ability (or inability) to make games of a larger scope. Since most indies don’t have grillions of dollars like the big boys do, we have to be more creative in how we spin our yarns. Yes this is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. Humans can do so much with so little, so long as they’re willing to try.
The BIT.TRIP games have been celebrated for their unique approach to musical interplay. What was it that inspired you?
There are a lot of things that inspired us as we made the BIT.TRIP series. We have been big fans of rhythm/music games over the ages, and we’d always appreciated the emotional impact that music can have on human beings. So telling a story that is about one human’s life, from beginning to end, didn’t seem right to do without having it be incredibly musically charged.
Do your backgrounds lie more in programming, or the storytelling side of things?
Mike Roush and I, the two founders of Gaijin Games, have backgrounds in art and design, but each of us would definitely say that we are storytellers – especially when forced to choose between programming and storytelling. Creating games with a legitimate emotional impact is one of the things that we strive to do, and doing that requires a certain amount of storytelling, whether it be through art, design, gameplay programming, or musical compositions.
What are your team’s most prized geek possessions?
Jason Cirillo’s is his AdventureVision game console.
Mike Gonzales’ is his Valve shirt that the Portal team gave to him once. It’s got someone being killed by a toilet on it.
Andrew Hynek’s is his copy of the first game he ever worked on.
Danny Johnson has a copy of Portal 2 for the Xbox 360 that’s signed by the development team.
Chris Meyer loves his Bionic Commando lunchbox.
Erin Pearce-Zuazua’s is a secret.
Mike Roush’s is probably his 1st Edition Redline Club Hot Wheels car with the 1/5000 Red Stripe Camero.
As for mine? I think mine might be my Galaxy Explorer LEGO set or – wait – my E.T. prototype Atari 2600 cartridge!
Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
Right now, we’re hard at work on BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, or simply Runner2 for sanity’s sake. You can keep up to date with the development at www.runner2.com where we’re trying to have an incredibly open development process for our fans, enthusiasts about game development, or just curious bystanders. Please visit and leave a comment or two!