This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 19, released in December 2007.
Bit-Blot, comprising of indie developers Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, is the force responsible for the IGF Grand Prize winning game, Aquaria, which was released on 7 December 2007. We chat them up and ask them about their exploits and their future prospects. You can visit their developer website athttp://www.bit-blot.com.
Q. Firstly tell us more about yourself. Who are you and where do you come from?
A. I’m Alec! I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada which explains why I have terribly low self-esteem. My dad was the guy who first got me into making games (he thought it would be more creative/productive than just playing games all day!) with a book called BASIC Fun when I was eight years old. Ever since then I’ve been writing music, making games and taking names.
D. I’m Derek. I was born in California, in the United States of America. Needless to say I always carry at least a dozen guns on me at any given time. Hey, it’s a dangerous world out there!
Q. What is it like collaborating a game across the internet? Don’t you sometimes get lost in communication?
A. Sometimes it can get confusing, but overall it’s worked out pretty well. We’ve also worked together in person a number of times, so we now have a better understanding of where the other person is coming from.
D. There was definitely some difficulty in the beginning… for the most part Alec and I have similar ideas about how to do things, but for times when we don’t, it’s much easier to communicate over the phone or in person. I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you trust who you’re working with completely!
That said, it does work out pretty well for us.
Q. Tell us briefly what your latest project, Aquaria, is about.
A. The cool thing about Aquaria’s story is that its layered; there’s a surface story that is engaging the player, but there is also a deeper story – and beyond that there are fundamental themes about relationships and creation. I’m hoping that players will be able to fully immerse themselves in the story and the exploration and just get lost in the world we’ve created!
D. We worked really hard to make sure that Aquaria was a “complete” experience. That is, every part of the game – graphics, sound, level design, controls – works together to ensure that the player is always engaged. The mouse-only control scheme came from that line of thinking… as did our choice to go with voice acting instead of text-based dialogue. I think one of the unique things about this game is how it marries these various concepts together. We wanted everything to be very elegant.
But the short answer is that Aquaria is a massive underwater fantasy world. As the player you get to explore it and uncover its secrets.
Q. How did you decide you were going collaborate on something like Aquaria?
A. I was doing some music for Derek’s game I’m OK, and we just started talking about games and game ideas, and realized that it would be fun to make a game together!
D. Yeah, it was pretty serendipitous, I must say!
Q. What is your role in Aquaria?
A. I do programming and music. We work on the design of the game together.
D. I do the graphics and most of the level building!
Q. How long has Aquaria been in development?
A. Since I first showed my ancient prototype of the idea to Derek it’s been just over two years.
Q. Where did Aquaria’s inspiration come from?
A. For me it was mainly games like Final Fantasy VI – games where you explore a fantastical world while having adventures. Games with worlds you’d want to travel to in person one day! 🙂 I was also inspired by Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, mainly because I loved the atmosphere and the way it used voice overs.
D. I’ve always liked games where you get to explore and find interesting places and things. Eternal Daughter was a homage to my favourite games as kid – Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania. There was a lot about that game that I thought could have been improved, and so I think you can see some of it in Aquaria… only much more polished!
And, of course, the game takes place underwater, so much of our inspiration comes from there. In particular, many of the creature designs are based on real-life animals. Nature comes up with weirder, crazier stuff than any human mind could.
Q. There are rumours that you are already planning your next project. Any hints to what it is about?
A. We have a grab bag of ideas germinating. So far there seem to be three good candidates… not sure which one we’re going to pick yet!
We probably won’t be able to work on them for a while…
Q. What is your advice for indie developers?
A. Keep your stick on the ice. If this is really what you want to do, keep at it until you succeed!
D. Work at it. Finish games, even if they aren’t perfect. Don’t sell your first finished game. Work with people who share your vision and dedication. Love what you do!
Q. When you entered IGF with Aquaria, what were your expectations?
A. When we first entered, we just hoped we’d get nominated for something. Any award. When we received 4 nominations, we thought “well, now we’d better win something!”
D. Haha, yeah! It’s hard to know what to expect. Part of you wants to win, but you’re afraid of jinxing things. We were incredibly happy just to be able to attend, to be honest.
Q. What do you think about the indie scene of today?
A. It’s exciting!
D. It’s getting bigger and better, but it still stays personal. I love that. I can tell you, two years ago, you really had to look hard to find good independent games. These days, it seems like everyone is interested. It’s wonderful. There’s really nothing more to say other than that it’s a great scene to be in.
Q. Where do you see the indie scene going?
A. I’d hope to see more power in the hands of developers. I’d like to see indie developers collaborate to create their own publishing label.
D. I feel like the independent scene is more flexible… with that flexibility are going to come more unique opportunities. What we don’t have is the kind of power and money the mainstream industry has, so we’ll have to make up for it by sticking close and helping each other out. An indie-owned publishing label that’s not a casual portal would be wonderful.
Q. Any final thoughts?
A. I was hoping you’d ask “Why are you guys so sexy?” too which my answer would be “Aww, yeah.”
D. I was tempted to answer “Aww, yeah” to every one of your questions, actually!
Just for fun
Q. Favourite Console?
A. Currently Nintendo DS! But in terms of all time, probably Super Nintendo.
D. I think the NES holds the softest spot in my heart. But it’s like choosing between children… I don’t want to play favorites. I love them all.
Q. Pizza or Pasta?
D. Pizza Pasta.
Q. Mars or Jupiter?
D. Mars. I have three words for you: three-breasted prostitutes.
Q. Master Chief or Mario?
A. I’d love to see Mario crush Master Chief’s skull in.
D. Whichever one can defeat King Koopa. [I’d give the three-breasted prostitutes a better chance than either – Ed.]