“Who is the Commander?”
The question posed by IGN as the headline for a Dec. 19, 2008 news post on their Wii channel was modest, mysterious and even a little Rand-ian. It was little more than a vehicle to show off a new video for an unknown, upcoming Wii game, but the cryptic trailer had a distinct Rod Serling vibe not found in your typical press release.
It opens with the sounds of a film projector, and soon a German narrator kicks in. The cameraman of the sepia-tinted reel snaps up to a soldier whose attention is fixated on something covered in a blanket on the ground — the soldier’s face looks indisputably annoyed as he swats the camera back to the bump as it tries to get a shot of his face, as if to say, “Not me, you idiot.” The soldier lifts the shroud, revealing what looks to be a monitor booting up, illuminating a 16x9 rectangle that is then filled with a wide lattice of slim light. Alien symbols flash alongside images of celestial bodies, blueprints, undersea life, da Vinci illustrations and some weird version of Pong. “I am only a man,” the extrusion shrieks. It sounds pissed. The cameraman and soldier run screaming, with the film melting away in the process.
As far as debuts and first glimpses go, this one wasn’t half-bad. The clip certainly was an attention-grabber, generating a good deal of buzz and conversation before the title had even been revealed. Nobody knew what to make of it. Perfect for a brand-new developer whose advertising budget was next to nil.
Few games have become as iconic to WiiWare as Gaijin Games’ BIT.TRIP series, entrancing players the world over with their music/rhythm gameplay under a bonkers Atari 2600 coating. Cranking out six games in three years, let alone ones of their calibre, is no easy feat, and this is how WiiWare’s hardest-working team pulled it off.
Gaijin co-founder Alex Neuse has been in the video game development business since 1997, starting out as a QA tester for LucasArts. He worked his way up the food chain, eventually getting to the point of assisting in designing original games for the developer. One of those projects was Gladius, a 2003 multiplatform role-playing game where players build up a school of gladiators and send them into battle. Neuse was tasked with designing a chunk of its levels and felt overall pretty stoked about the project. Work began on a sequel but the project was subsequently canned, bumming Neuse out and providing the final push he needed to take a crack at a long-term goal of his: founding his own development studio and putting his ideas to work.
“I’ve been in the industry since 1997 and have had varying degrees of creative freedom, and I basically wanted to control the whole thing,” he said. “So I kinda went, ‘screw this, I’m gonna start my own thing if I can’t work on what I want to.’”
In 2004 he had gathered a “big” team of people, put together a prototype and a pitch to help get his new development house, Gaijin Games, off the ground. It didn’t take long for his new home to “fail pretty good.”
“We pitched to like 20 different companies to publish and asked for probably 10 times the amount of money we should’ve,” he said. “It was a pretty naive thing to ask for that much money, but the beauty of it was we got to do some stuff that was new, fresh and fun, and got a lot of practice dealing with the competitive world of independent video game development.”
Neuse halted his independent studio’s forward march for the time being, eventually landing a job with Santa Cruz Games with a very promising job title: creative director.
Santa Cruz did a lot of work-for-hire gigs involving licensed properties. It was here he struck up friendships with artist Mike Roush, designer Danny Johnson and programmer Chris Osborn, who Neuse found shared his affinity for chip music and the good ol’ days of Atari 2600 gaming.
“[Chris and I] started talking about, ‘What if we made a retro game that used chiptunes? That’d be so rad!’,” Neuse said. With his creative wheels spinning from this idea, he began to jot down some ideas in a notebook in his spare time.
But after a while Neuse again grew tired of his job. Licensed properties were cool and all, he thought, but, ironically, he felt his position as creative director didn’t allow for much creative freedom.
“I was sick of working on other people’s ideas,” he said. “We worked on Godzilla, Tomb Raider, Superman, all these properties one could argue are cool or not cool, but they aren’t my ideas, and that bummed me out.
“I quit after a while because I was frustrated at not having creative freedom, and I went on a soul-search for a little bit.”
When Neuse returned, he noticed that Roush had quit Santa Cruz as well. It seemed to him to be the perfect opportunity to resurrect Gaijin Games and make another, less naive, go at forming a studio. Neuse turned to Osborn, who was up for the challenge. After careful consideration and an encouraging phone conversation with his father, Roush was on board with the new venture as well.
“I didn’t go into it just blazing in,” Roush said. “I called my father and asked his opinion, and he said, ‘Mike, you have to do this, you have to go for it,’ and at that point was when I realized I have to do this at any cost.”
So what to do?
Once the squad got together, all Gaijin take-two knew that they wanted to do was make console games. With a small team made up of only a designer, artist and programmer, the three-man band by necessity had to start small and simple. Neuse recalled that notebook of his with ten or so concepts of rhythm games that he had dreamed up and pitched them to his peers.
“At some point we decided that this would be strongest as a series of games,” Neuse said. “We decided on the number of six games, and so I just chose the six strongest concepts that I had been toying around with.”
The team decided to start off with a concept for a paddle-based game much like the ol’ chestnut Pong, primarily because it happened to be the simplest one in the book, and also because they felt it would suit the series order. “We always knew we would start simple with BEAT, amp it up little by little, and then come back to simplicity in the end,” Neuse said.
“[We thought] what’s more simple in the video game industry than Pong? So we basically said, ‘Alright, we’re going to do rhythm/music Pong, and I hope it’s fun,’” he said. “And it was.”
The Wii Remote’s motion-sensing abilities were perfect for emulating the twisty paddle controllers of yesteryear, and so the platform was decided. The young development studio spent two and a half months working on concepts and shopping around to publishers, pitching their series as "8-Bit: A series of six new classics in the 8-bit style for humans who enjoy fun," before settling with Aksys. In addition to the promise of a great degree of creative freedom and control, what sealed the deal for Gaijin was the publisher’s enthusiasm, with Roush recalling that during their pitch meeting, “the owner of Aksys had a giant smile on his face. That was a plus.”
UP AND RUNNING
With a publishing deal locked in, the three amigos stormed ahead into a veritable whirlwind of balancing business and creation. Neuse blasted ahead with getting the necessary nuts and bolts in place for starting a new company, like getting an office and sorting out all the necessary equipment, while Roush and Osborn focused on prototyping what would eventually become BEAT. And somewhere along the line they ditched the 8-Bit moniker in favor of "BIT.TRIP."
The team couldn’t have picked a more stressful financial year to start a new company than 2008, as the world’s economy had just about fallen to its knees. “We’re sitting there starting a brand new company,” Roush recalled, “and we’re watching essentially America’s financial system fall apart, and we’re like, “well, whatever, we’ll keep making these games, they’re awesome.’”
The crisis made it tough for Gaijin to secure loans simply because no banks were issuing them at the time, Neuse said. That pretty much booted any plans for bigger, more ambitious games at the time, but even crafting a game centered on one of gaming’s most basic mechanics of bopping a block back with a paddle turned out to be stressful enough. For one, the team couldn’t afford more than one development kit for most of BEAT’s time in the oven until Neuse eventually got a kit for his desk which he then shared with Roush, which is not at all conducive for a constructive workflow, Neuse said. “That was a big challenge, because Mike, as the artist, needs to see how the stuff looks on the television, not just in Maya or whatever, so he would interrupt me to look at some art. It was a juggling thing where Mike and I were constantly interrupting each other, which sucked.”
The iconic art style stemmed from Neuse’s desire to create a game that would look exactly like an Atari 2600 title. “I was talking to Mike about it and I remember him looking at me as if I was totally insane,” Neuse said, laughing at his own vision, “and he was like, ‘I will handle the art, don’t you worry about it.’ He didn’t say it like that, but it was basically, ‘Dude, we can’t ship a game that looks like a 2600 game.’”
Before there was BIT.TRIP, there was 8-Bit.
Roush took the 2600 idea to heart and set about creating a look that quoted that era of gaming while still maintaining a modern look. That’s easier said than done, though, especially when your biggest enemy as an artist is the relatively small size limitation that comes with WiiWare development.
“At first I had this amazing vision of what I wanted to do, and as I started building the art we all realized that, because of the download limit, our music for our music game was taking up all of the space that I could have for textures, geometry, animations and stuff,” Roush said. “So as I was making the art for the BIT.TRIP games, especially for BEAT, I’m sitting there realizing that I needed to come up with something quick, because I essentially can’t use textures and I have to make something look good.”
The look he settled on wasn’t as clean or crisp as it could’ve had Roush been able to use textures, but its blocky, burnt-in ambience made the game stand out from everything else on the service and is indeed tough to imagine divorced from the series. All in all, it created a much stronger identity than merely copying Pitfall’s palette.
“I think the game we ended up with is so far from what was in my head, in my vision in terms of look, but way better because of it,” Neuse said.
Roush was also tasked with working up a human for the main character. He came up with a set of six or so designs and presented them to the team, pointing out a slim black bar with a 16x9 visor as his favorite; Neuse was incredulous that the shape was even human, but they trusted Roush’s opinion and went ahead with it. When it came time to name their flagship character, there was no hesitation: Osborn and Neuse exchanged looks and exclaimed “CommanderVideo!”, the name that Neuse used as his handle for assorted online profiles and accounts over the years.
MORE THAN A PRETTY FACE
From the very beginning the team wanted the series to accomplish more than just flashy retro-influenced graphics and captivating gameplay, of which it accomplished in spades if critical and fan reception are anything to go by: They wanted it to tell a story of what it means to be human, from birth to life to death to beyond. That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a series of downloadable games whose main character is made up of simple geometry. “It’s a very deep exploration of what it means to not be a human, become a human, and then stop being a human,” Neuse said. “People are starting to pick up on that a bit, which I think is really great.”
The first sign of this story, whether anybody knew it or not, was in that first crazy viral video the team cooked up while BEAT was in development. And the brains over at Gaijin realized that not only would the video put a better foot forward than just releasing a bunch of confusing screenshots, it would allow the story to plant its stake as a concept always at the front and center of all the games.
“Screenshots of our game don’t look super good because you can’t tell what’s happening,” Neuse said. “You look at a BIT.TRIP BEAT screenshot and it’s just a bunch of squares; you can’t tell what’s going on, there’s no motion blur, nothing to tell you what’s happening. So we wanted to play up this character, and that’s where the viral video came into play. [...] Everything that’s in it is also in these games. Not literally, like you don’t see these images in the game. But the ideas in the game...let me put it this way, the viral video is not just a bunch of nonsense. You see CommanderVideo unearthing and he’s in his true size, which is 12 ft. tall, and you’re just seeing the head of him. He transmits all of this information in his visor and all of that plays back to what BIT.TRIP is. So we were hinting at things in that video that would come later in the series, like in game five and six.”
All throughout BEAT’s development, the team was firing on all cylinders. Roush wrestled with defining the art style and implementing it in a feasible manner given his limitations, Osborn plugged away at the code and Neuse busied himself with all other elements of gameplay, such as fitting the music and level designs in an organic way. This was done through collaboration with their anonymous composer over at Petrified Productions, who they refer to as their “fifth Beatle.” The vibe and style for each game would be decided internally at Gaijin, who would then send over a guide and some samples to their maestro. Gaijin would in turn receive rough drafts of compositions and provide feedback until they got what they were looking for. If they were lucky, the compositions would be finished before work began on level design, as Neuse said was the case for the second level of BEAT, noting how the stage “dances” along to the music. Level one did not have that same luxury and was designed before the final piece came in.
The trio worked around the clock to get their game done in their scheduled three-month period, putting in many a night and weekend just to crack it. But the reward for when all the pieces started falling into place was huge. The game “clicked” for Neuse once Osborn had the juggle beats up and running. “That was the beat that was first and foremost in my mind,” he said. “When Chris had the juggle beats going and we had the music for the first time from our composer, and I was juggling beats to the music, just bouncing them, and I turned around and Chris and Mike just had these smiles on their faces. And it was like ‘OK, this is awesome.’”
“Just the fact that it worked clicked for me!” Roush laughed. “That was so amazing. Once you had heard the beats and the music, it was like, ‘wow, this is something.’”
Everyone worked so hard that they were beginning to fall apart. In Roush’s case, this wasn’t a figure of speech. His wisdom tooth had started to bother him, but 16-hour days and his own stubbornness meant that he didn’t get it taken care of. By the time Christmas rolled around, the tooth had gotten so bad that it had to come out — but where are you going to find a dentist open on Christmas? Self-medication was the only option. “I made all of level three on BEAT at my house on a bunch of really intense painkillers,” he said. “The art for level three is just, it gets really weird. All of a sudden there’s just a house...it all meant something to me at the time, but I look back at it and I go, I have no idea. There’s a spider that comes by, an owl...just very strange stuff.”
On March 16, 2009, BIT.TRIP BEAT released on the North American Wii Shop Channel for 600 Nintendo Points. With their first game out the door and in the hands of players, Gaijin Games freaked out. In that first week, the team was glued to their browser’s refresh button to keep track of all the nice things fans and critics had to say about the fruit of their labors. “We were just on a high,” Neuse said. “[The positive response] vindicated my desire to have creative freedom; it validated that, ‘Oh, you do have good ideas, Alex.’
“It was our first game, and we’d all been in the industry for a little bit. I had worked on a lot of licensed games and they don’t typically score well,” he said. “I had been in for over a ****ing decade. I was ready to get some good scores.”