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Road To The IGF: Bit Blot's  Aquaria
Road To The IGF: Bit Blot's Aquaria
October 23, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

October 23, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC, Indie



Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Derek Yu and Alec Holowka of Bit Blot, developers of Aquaria.

The game has been in development has 8 months so far, with Yu, the game’s artist, and Holowka, who is programming the title, aiming for a completion date of Spring 2007. Aquaria is a 2D side-scrolling underwater action game that features “fluid controls, unique, non-linear gameplay, and vibrant hand-drawn ‘storybook-style’ graphics” designed to draw the player “into an original undersea fantasy world that is teeming with diverse plant and animal life”.

“As Naija, an isolated mercreature, you must uncover your story and that of the world around you through exploration and magical combat," the duo add.

Gamasutra contacted Yu and Holowka via email to ask about the game and its entry into the IGF.

What is your background in the games industry?

Holowka: When I was eight, my dad wanted me to actually start doing something productive and stop just playing games, so he bought me a book called Basic Fun. Eventually I was making freeware stuff with a group called Zaphire Productions. Since then I've been involved in a number of start-ups, one was in Winnipeg which was for a PC multiplayer fantasy combat title and one in Vancouver which was an Xbox 360 combat racer. Both projects completed demos, but failed to find a publisher.

Yu: I guess I've never formally been a part of the games industry, since up until this point I've only worked on freeware titles. I know, pretty indie, huh?

When was Bit Blot formed, and what previous titles have you released?

Yu: Bit Blot was officially formed like the week before the IGF deadline. We had to come up with a company name that we could submit with. The name is supposed to be kind of an "art meets technology" type thing. So yeah, Aquaria's our first game!

What inspired Aquaria, and why did you decide to make it?

Holowka: I was originally planning to make Aquaria on my own, almost two years ago - before I had even heard of the term "Derek Yu". The idea evolved out of an earlier shareware release and wanting to explore some of the same ideas in a more interesting way. I worked on a prototype for a couple months, but eventually moved on to other projects. After working on [Jack Thompson-baiting shooter] I'm O.K with Derek, we decided Aquaria would be a cool concept to reinvent together.

Yu: Yeah, Alec and I were playing around with ideas and he mentioned Aquaria to me. Honestly, I was kind of skeptical at first, but after I played his prototype and thought about it a little more, it seemed like it could be something really awesome! The ocean is such a fantastic place to set a game in. And I had always kind of wanted to do a "spiritual sequel" to my game Eternal Daughter...this seemed like it could be it.

What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?

Holowka: We're not actually finished with the entire game yet, but we have the main functionality and the first chunk of the game in place. Aquaria has actually had at least 4 distinct incarnations, with varying storylines, characters and gameplay. We would work in one direction, and then eventually decide that it wasn't what we wanted. It took us a lot of trial and error to get to the point we're at now and I'm very happy with how the game feels. We made the right choice to restart rather than plough ahead with ideas we weren't 100% on.

Yu: I wasn't sure what to expect. We both wanted to make an engaging and fun 2D game experience - something that evoked the feeling of our favorite childhood games, but was a new experience too. Like Alec said, we're not finished, but in what we have I can see that we're succeeding. It's just a matter of taking the time to polish the experience to perfection.

What challenges did you face in scripting and recording voice overs for the game?

Holowka: We went through the process of auditioning a lot of voice actresses. It was very entertaining to hear our dialogue read in a number of different ways...some laughably terrible! The end decision wasn't hard to make, as our final choice, Jenna Sharpe, blew the competition away.

How important did you feel it was to be able to control the game just using a mouse?

Yu: It's funny, but my dad was the one who actually suggested that the game be played with the mouse only - before you used the keyboard and mouse at the same time. I visited my parents one weekend and downloaded a very early version of the game onto his computer to play it a bit, and after I left he found the executable. Alec and I had maybe talked about mouse-only controls before, but hadn't gotten around to trying it out until that point. Dad said that it would be easier to play that way.

Holowka: The idea of using the mouse was actually a great inspiration for determining the core gameplay. We forced ourselves to make everything work with just two buttons and 2D movement. The end result is that the game controls are very easy to pick up and remember, as well as being completely fluid. We'll still be providing alternative control methods in the final version. I definitely want to play it with an Xbox 360 controller, and keyboard support is nice to have if you're stuck on a plane with a laptop.

What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?

Holowka: The graphics, the music, the controls, the voiceovers, and the gameplay all add up to an experience that feels very unique.

Yu: Giant enemy crabs. I don't think any other game has those.

How long did development take?

Yu: I guess if we meet our deadline, it'll be a little more than a year of development. So far we've been at it for 8 months.

What has the development process been like?

Holowka: I live in Canada and Derek is in the US, so most of the time we're talking online and working on our own paths. But at the end of last summer, a few weeks before the IGF deadline, we managed to meet up and actually work together. We slaved for many hours and the game improved considerably.

Yu: Yeah, working side by side is a lot easier, but since we live so far apart we've had to learn how to deal with each other online. It requires a lot more pre-planning.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

Yu: It's pretty obvious to me that indie gaming is going to explode in the next few years. You're already starting to notice a sort of surge in popularity of indie titles. We're here to experiment, to have fun. We're here to keep 2D alive...you know, I think the mainstream guys took off on 3D before 2D was even close to being figured out. It's good times.

Holowka: I think there's great potential for the emergence of more companies with distinct styles and visions. I certainly don't believe that "basement development" is dead.

Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?

Yu: I haven't played many of them.

Holowka: I've tried out Blast Miner, Eets and Tune so far.

Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?

Yu: Cortex Command is a sweet game. The physics are impressive and I think the developer is a cool guy. You can tell he knows how to make a good game. Castle Crashers looks like it will be a lot of fun, too.

Holowka: Nothing has me blown away, but I haven't taken a very extensive look at the list yet.

Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

Holowka: I'm still addicted to Natural Selection. Looking forward to Limbo (fingers crossed). As far as mainstream games, Altered Beast is awesome. That's a recent game right?

Yu: I like Pillar Killer, this game where you click on a pillar and it falls over and the game declares that you are a "PILLAR KILLER." You think I'm joking, but I actually got a good laugh out of it. Not enough games make me laugh (purposefully). I also admire Dwarf Fortress, for its insane amount of depth. And the depth of its insanity.

As for mainstream games, I honestly haven't played any really recently. But I admire God Hand, because my friend Zack admires it. It looks like it could be the Pillar Killer of 3D fighting games.

Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

Holowka: Don't be afraid of getting a little wet. It feels good.

Yu: Yeah, there's nothing I can really say to top that...


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