Inside Job: Interview: Aquaria Creators Derek Yu, Alec Holowka

Continuing on the theme of the role of independent games in the future of the games industry, I caught up with Aquaria developers and 2007 IGF Seamus McNally Grand Prize Award Winners Derek Yu and Alec Holowka. They recently released the full version of Aquaria, which, with its stunning visual presentation, classic charm, and innovative control system, has been described as closing the gap between games that are identifiably “independent” and “professional.”

Erin Hoffman: Derek, you’ve mentioned that you’ve always had a love for Metroid-style games. What were your influences for Aquaria? In comparison to many indie games, yours had a very traditional approach – what were your goals with the game that led you to choose the format you did?

Derek Yu: I’ve always been a big fan of the Metroid, Zelda and Castlevania series of games, and I’m sure players can see how each of those influenced Aquaria.

Alec Holowka: For me some of the main influences were Final Fantasy 6 and Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, oddly enough! I don’t think our development approach was very traditional, though. We restarted the process of making the game a few times before we figured out what felt right, experimenting with different game play ideas each time.

Derek Yu: Yeah! Ultimately, I think, more so than any other game, we were influenced by our own development. A lot of the game’s storyline mirrors that experience, which had a lot of ups and downs for us. I also think the core experience is more influenced by more vague notions of exploration, loneliness, self-discovery, love, and so forth. These are, of course, common themes in some of the games we’ve mentioned, as well, but we tried to make them more personal to us and to our game’s characters.

EH: Alec, how much did the game change from whatever future game vision you had when you showed Derek your prototype?

AH: We did a lot of “prototyping”; although we didn’t realize many of the versions of the game that we worked on were prototypes until it became obvious that they weren’t very good and we threw them out.

The original prototype was quite different. I was originally intending to do everything myself, so it had my own pre-rendered 3-D graphics. The character had white hair, but she was more of a traditional mermaid. You couldn’t do much but swim around and interact with a couple of objects. Strangely enough, most of that original movement code ended up in the final version of the game.

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EH: Derek, you have a computer science degree, but your primary role on [i]Aquaria was producing the art that gives it its extremely professional polish. Why did you decide on the CS degree, and had you always intended to be an artist?

DY: I’ve always wanted to be an artist in some way or another! I started drawing when I was really young (I drew a lot of monster fish as a kid, actually!). I also got into videogames pretty early on. My parents bought an Atari 2600 for my mom when she was pregnant, because she couldn’t move around too much.

So I knew to some extent that what I ended up doing would fall somewhere between drawing and making videogames. The CS degree seemed to be more practical, and in hindsight, I think it was the right choice to make. I ended up getting pretty burnt out on programming after my four-year program, and I can live with that. But I’d be pretty crushed if art school had taken any joy out of drawing for me.

And I still find that the technical knowledge I gained in university gives me a broader understanding about how the games I work on are made, and that’s always useful.

EH: So why don’t you guys work for regular game companies?

AH: I’ve always been partly interested in working for a so-called regular game company, but every time I’d apply some cool indie project would come up and I’d end up being busy. I think now it’s hard to imagine working for such a company, because it would be so restrictive creatively. Since we’re a small team of two people, we have a ton of flexibility and our voice actually gets heard in the final product of the game.

DY: I’ve gotten fairly cynical about making games for companies. Or making art for companies. I did freelance artwork during the early development of Aquaria, and, quite frankly, it sucks to have to be creative for someone else. At one point I was literally tracing Spongebob Squarepants for a living. … I mean, I’m glad I did it. It’s really amusing for me to think about now. But yeah, if you can get away with being indie, do it. I’ve heard some real horror stories about working for big game companies. I know it’s not all bad, but …

EH: Yeah, I’ve heard some of those, too. What was it like being only answerable to yourselves? What tensions arose between you during the game’s development, and how did you overcome them?

AH: I think the hardest part for me was working over the internet. I started to feel really lonely after a while. We managed to work together in person in the states a few times, and that was a lot more fun.

The problem with being answerable to yourself is that you can’t really be your own boss. We also don’t like to boss each other around. Neither of us is the “team leader”, we just discuss stuff and decide what to do. We got into some nasty arguments over the course of Aquaria‘s development, but now we have a better understanding of each other, so I think on this next project we should be able to avoid those crappy moments.

DY: A lot of times we realized we had the same opinion of something, but we were just approaching it in a different way! We’d argue for hours before we figured out we were on the same side.

To work with someone closely on a project like Aquaria, you have to trust them. Building up that trust is always difficult, and it’s made even more difficult by having to work primarily online. But we’re slowly figuring out how to make it work, and it’s really rewarding when you do.

EH: You guys really leapt into the breach, borrowing money to fund your efforts in a style more comparable to entrepreneurship than a hobbyist approach. Were you always iron serious about Aquaria, and had you always intended to submit it to the IGF?

AH: We were always serious about it and intending to submit it to the IGF, but once we got the money invested in us it changed our outlook on the game. Before that we were just kinda messing around, trying different interesting things out. When the money came in I remember feeling like “well now we actually need a plan that will deliver”. It led to a pretty major redesign and a refocusing on what was really important in the game, which was good.

DY: I’ve always been serious about every game I’ve worked on, but I don’t know, this one really felt extra-special. I could tell that Alec was serious about game-making, and the timing of everything made it feel almost fated, in a sense. Not to say I didn’t have doubts during the development, but it was pretty early on that I more or less committed myself to getting this out.

EH: A good majority of indie game projects never make it to the finish line. Why do you suppose that is? What made you guys different?

DY: I think the number one reason that most indie projects never get finished is because most people underestimate what it takes to make even a simple game.

AH: We didn’t give up and we cared passionately about the game. I think it helped that we had both completed projects before, and knew that things are never be 100 percent perfect.

DY: Yeah, there’s always a point mid-development where you question the project. “Is this good enough? Well, I could do something better/more interesting if I started from scratch…” It’s a pitfall that you either learn to escape or you don’t. Having a team member who is committed to getting their part done also helps.

EH: What do you think of ventures like Gamecock where angel investors support independent development teams?

AH: I don’t know much about it, but the name Gamecock is pretty … interesting.

DY: I think the basic idea is sound, so long as the business model is right for the developer, and creative control stays in the hands of the team making the game. Gamecock, in particular, seems to have a penchant for being “zany” and throwing wild parties where Caligula would feel at home. Which is nice and all, but what in the hell does that do for their developers?

EH: One could say that about much of the circus surrounding entertainment businesses as a whole. Speaking of which … Dogs and Ferraris, really?

DY: Yeah, no. Well, probably not!

EH: Kidding aside, it’s been a very successful journey for you guys. What were the hard parts? Is indie game development the fantasy dreamworld it sometimes seems to be, and is presented as? What’s the down-side?

DY: It’s nice to be your own boss and it’s nice to really feel like the game is “yours” as opposed to just contributing a small part. (I’m reminded of the visual joke where a huge string of credits that you can’t read scrolls by very quickly at the end of a TV show or movie.) The game really is an extension of you, in a certain way. So creatively, I’d say it’s a total fantasy. When you step back and think about what we’re doing, it’s hard not to be excited about it. It’s an artist’s dream, really.

That said, it’s no walk in the park, and there all of the inherent challenges with making a game (or any big project) rest squarely on your own shoulders. When things go wrong, you have no one to blame other than yourself.

AH: It’s very enjoyable most of the time, but since we live in different countries, communication and motivation are sometimes an issue. I think the main downside to the way we do things is that we don’t just have an office somewhere that we can both go work at. We kind of have to motivate ourselves all the time, and that can be difficult.

On the other hand, working at home allows you to wake up whatever you want, wear pajamas all day if that’s what you like to do. There are certain benefits, I suppose!

DY: I’m actually in my pajamas as we speak!

EH: This question applies more to Derek, living in the U.S., but do you guys have health insurance? Do you have retirement plans?[/b]

DY: Yes, I’ve got health insurance! My premiums aren’t too high, because I’m fairly young and healthy. I try not to let them know about the late-night pizzas and Jack n’ the Box runs …

Regarding retirement plans, no, I have no idea. I imagine we’ll be making games until we’re old and grey, whether we could retire or not.

AH: Mmmm … smell that? No, it’s not maple syrup – it’s free health care, baby.

EH: Would you recommend the path you took into game development to other dev hopefuls? If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently, and what would you do the same?

AH: I think we learned a lot by making Aquaria, and I feel really “sexy” going into the next game because we’re a lot smarter now. I feel more confident in what I’m doing, and we know more about each other and what we want our company’s style to be.

DY: I’d definitely recommend it. It’s totally doable, and it’s getting more doable by the day. It wasn’t long ago that the concept of “indie game” didn’t even exist, and now it seems like you hear about it everywhere. It’s exciting to feel like you’re in the middle of something that’s just starting to get noticed, and that you can make a real difference in shaping its future.

Not only that, but the friends I’ve made while doing this are some of the most amazingly bright, creative, and funny individuals I’ve ever met. I don’t think there’s much I’d do differently, because we learned and gained so much by stumbling through it. The indie route has been really good to us, and it’s just so much fun.

EH: So what’s next for you guys? Do you plan to expand your enterprise or do you see yourselves working as a duo or singly, without additional direct and regular employees of Bit-Blot?

AH: Eventually it’d be cool to expand the company, but we’d have to find some really talented people – which isn’t that easy.

DY: Not only that, but we need to find people who understand our vision and who we can work with on a personal level. We’ll know them when we see them.

EH: Where do you see yourselves in 10 years?

AH: Dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun – an empty bottle of Canadian whiskey lying nearby.

DY: Making a game about dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun. I also hope that I have some sort of pet – a cat or a dog. My current apartment doesn’t allow them and I don’t know if I’m ready for the responsibility. But I miss having fuzzy things worship me at home.

EH: Derek, Alec, thanks again for the interview, and congratulations again on your recent release.

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