Wednesday, January 21, 2009

BestRideEver: A Talk with Dylan Fitterer

dylan fitterer In January of 2008, Dylan Fitterer’s music-puzzler Audiosurf was named a finalist in the 10th Annual Independent Games Festival in three categories : Technical Excellence, Excellence in Audio, and a nomination for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. It took home the award for Excellence in Audio and the Audience Award. It spent the rest of the year blossoming online via Valve’s Steam distribution service.

Almost a year later, Fitterer is still tweaking the game. He’s a player’s developer: participating on forums and regularly incorporating players’ ideas into updates. With the help of his wife Elizabeth, Audiosurf sees weekly releases of playable indie music via Audiosurf Radio. On his website BestGameEver.com, you can find news about Audiosurf and other indie titles, as well as a series of downloadable freebies he developed in a Seven Day Game project, where he forced himself to develop and release a game every week.

Since we like his game enough to talk about it every week, we asked Fitterer about Audiosurf — its development, its future, and a few other things that seemed relevant. Here’s what he had to say.

Charge Shot!!!: You’ve talked about how Audiosurf works before, but could you do us a favor and remind us one more time? In the closest you can get to layman’s terms?

Dylan Fitterer: The core idea is that the more intense the music gets the faster you go. Everything else spawned from that idea. It felt natural that when you go faster you should be going downhill. And it’s great when you can see the peak coming as the intensity picks up. In development, I would take a song, think about what the traffic pattern should be, then go back and look at the data I got out of it. Then I’d tweak the whole thing until a song played the way that I think it should play like.

CS: And it started as a first person shooter, right?

DF: Yeah. I didn’t so much set out to make a music game as I set out to make an action game or an arcade game that was infinitely replayable. Something that would never end. And music seemed like a great way to do that, as a big music fan. So it clearly had to be something generative. So do I generate from random numbers? Do I generate from something that gives the player more authorship over what comes up?

The first thing I tried was a shooter because—I don’t know, it’s just kind of a natural thing. You start making a game and you figure, “Oh what do you do? I don’t know. Probably shoot stuff.” [Laughs] So it was kind of set on this disco floor and it would morph and grow depending on how the song changed. Kind of like a music visualizer. By the end of the song it had built this structure—a sort of crystalline structure that you were jumping around on and dodging in and out of, shooting at friends and whatnot. Pretty odd. I didn’t like it very much because you couldn’t really see how the music correlated to what was happening until the end.

CS: You said it was based on music visualizers. How much of that affected the end product of Audiosurf? Did you have a lot of say in the graphics or was that the people you brought on?

DF: I did almost all of it. Some of the graphics were done externally, like the menu graphics I didn’t do and a lot of the models that you see in the game like the vehicles and the background shapes. There was one visualizer that influenced me quite a bit. You know that company called WildTangent? When they first started out they going to be an engine supplier to indies and I was working with their tools for a while. One of the samples was a music visualizer where it generated terrain from the song. The visualizer was like a spaceship flying over terrain and the terrain bumps matched the hits in the song.

CS: So that’s similar to Audiosurf.

DF: It inspired me, yeah. I described it sounding more like Audiosurf than it was—anyway, it was cool.

CS: How did Audiosurf wind up on Steam? Were you contacted by Valve after the Independent Games Festival?

DF: Exactly. Let’s see, the IGF finalists were announced. Audiosurf was a finalist in three categories, which was really cool. And then I got a call from Valve.

CS: So you hadn’t even won yet?

DF: Yeah, it was when the finalists were announced that it came to their attention.

CS: Do you think the Steam distribution service has affected the popularity of the game?

DF: Totally. The thing about Steam is Valve got it so right where instead of approaching it like, “Okay, we want to sell these games online. How do we control them or how do we restrict them?” Valve looks at it and says, “Okay, let’s sell these games online. How do we enhance them? How do we make this experience even better?”

CS: Do you think that’s helping to open the door for indie developers? We’re certainly seeing more success coming out of the IGF.

DF: Oh, definitely. It’s just so much more accessible to get in there. I think even downloading a demo is just a little bit too cumbersome for the average person. Once you get Steam installed, they just make it so easy. “Do you want to try this game?” “Yeah, I want to try it.” And then you just click and then you’re playing it.

CS: So Audiosurf’s been running for about a year now, right? Since February?

DF: Yeah, exactly. It was February 15th.

CS: Do you have indie labels coming to you now for Audiosurf Radio or are you seeking out artists that you’ve heard of?

DF: A bit of both. I’d love to be approached more often than I am—that makes it easier. But yeah, some of both.

CS: How do you pick which songs make the cut? Do you play them ahead of time? Do you get recommendations?

DF: We always play everything ahead of time to make sure it’s going to be a good experience for the players. And it’s just music that we like. Actually, Elizabeth has done most of the Radio picks for the last few months now.

CS: In earlier interviews, you were recommending artists like Tool and stuff like that. Have you found any new bands since that you would recommend?

DF: Yeah, Ladytron has really great rides.

CS: What kind of music is that?

DF: I don’t know how to describe it. It’s synth. It’s kind of a throwback. You know The Creatures? It’s kind of like The Creatures except a little more tech-y. That’s not a very good description. Along the lines of The Knife, maybe? The Knife is also a great band for Audiosurf. There’s another one I would recommend.

CS: One of the things we’re talking about is how many options the players have, the replay value, this organic game experience. Has anything that the players themselves have done really surprised you since it was released? You put that post on BestGameEver.com about some guy hitting a million points on Dragonforce. Anything else?

DF: Well, I’ve been surprised by some of the songs that get into the top ten. [Laughs] One thing was really cool. I don’t know his real name, but he’s UncFester on the Audiosurf forum. He put together this video to “Heroes” [link] sung in German by the lead singer of Rammstein. He took the top half of the Audiosurf screen, leaving off the blocks and the car. He took that, and he put it sideways, and then he mirrored it. And then he put all kinds of blur on it. It was really cool. It’s more like a traditional music visualizer where you’re just seeing abstract crazy stuff and it was really well synchronized with the song. I actually really liked it. So I took it and that’s going to be in the next update now. There’s a visualizer mode, which takes his idea. It takes the top half of the screen, rotates it, mirrors it three times and you can just watch this go. It’s a really great visualizer.

CS: So instead of riding the song, it’s just using the software you’ve created as a visualizer.

DF: Exactly. It takes the game out of it. But it’s a really good visualizer.

CS: How does that work as a mod? Is that a song tag mod or something else?

DF: No, it’s a new Freeride option. In the new version, when you hover the Freeride button you get a little dropdown for Classic or Visualizer.

CS: The updates you’ve come up with, like these song tags, have they mostly come from player feedback or are you still coming up with ideas as you play the game?

DF: A bit of both. Sometimes literally both, like one of the new tags available in the next update is called “Steep.” This is because I started working on the track generation algorithm. I was really unhappy with some songs that would come out all uphill, not very exciting rides. Sometimes it’s for a song that really should be. So I created the “Steep” tag that you can throw on there, make that song the more exciting ride it deserves to be. And I saw on the forum somebody had suggested that, which I hadn’t read yet. So it came from both.

CS: Will we ever see a sequel in the classic sense? New characters or anything like that? Or are you happy to keep rolling out updates and then move on to another project?

DF: You know, I’m not sure. I’m definitely going to be doing more updates for a while. I’d love for Audiosurf to hit the success of something like Counter-Strike where it just keeps going. There may be a sequel someday. I have recreated almost the whole game in a new engine now. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet. But there might be a new full release sometime.

CS: Does it affect gameplay at all or is it mostly a graphic overhaul?

DF: Right now it’s just simply a recreation. It doesn’t really look much better. It plays almost exactly the same. But it’s on a whole new system. It’ll run on Mac and Linux. It’s on a whole new engine.

CS: A lot of people who’ve been saying they wish they could get it for their Mac. So that’s good news.

DF: So that’s one thing. I might take that and do a Mac version. I’m not sure yet.

CS: You’ve said that people could write songs for Audiosurf and equated it to level design. There’s a whole section of the forums where people have posted their own songs, their own remixes. Have you been able to give any of these a shot?

DF: Yeah, I’ve played quite a few of them. Actually, I’ve got a little backlog though. I need to get back on there and catch up.

CS: Do you find that it’s mostly original music? And is it more computer-driven music?

DF: Mostly. There’s a new category of music I’ve seen some people calling “Laptronica,” if you’ve heard about that.

CS: That might make sense if it were somebody just posting something on a forum.

DF: I think what a lot of people are doing now is they’re finding that it’s gotten easier and easier to create things by yourself, music being one of them. The tools just keep improving.

CS: Are you a musician yourself? Have you given any thought to composing something?

DF: Not really anything worth mentioning. I’ve played with ACID Music for quite a while. They’ve got some really cool software that makes it so easy to make something that sounds reasonably good. But no, I’m definitely not a musician. I did play trombone in high school.

CS: On BestGameEver.com, you have a couple of the seven-day games that you made. What was that experience like?

DF: That was invaluable. That was like my cry for help. I’d spent so long trying to make a good game. One of my biggest blockers was that I always felt like I had to be making the best game ever, and I was just never going to finish because there’s too much pressure. So I came up with this idea of just forcing myself to release a game every Friday. And with that constraint in place, it just kind of took all the pressure off because it was like, “Okay, well I did this in seven days so it sucked. But I only did it in seven days.” And sometimes they were good. That pressure was gone and it actually allowed me to complete things and try a lot of ideas. It was just invaluable.

CS: Were you focused mostly on experimenting with game mechanics and engines or were you dabbling with story at all?

DF: I wouldn’t really say any of it was dabbling with story. There was the game Lebeth Strikes Back, and that was for Elizabeth after her car got totaled. It was about getting revenge on the guy who hit her. So that’s kind of a story. There was the tow truck—the guy who runs over Travis. Elizabeth wrote this whole backstory about the tow truck driver who kind of inspired that. It wasn’t really in the game. I’m not really big on having story in games.

CS: Audiosurf had a story at one point that was kind of like TRON, right? And you scrapped that?

DF: Yeah, it just wasn’t a fit. I think that kind of came from the idea that Audiosurf needed to have a more typical advancement structure like other games have. One of the main reasons that was scrapped is that I realized I don’t like that because then it comes to end. At some point, it is concluded. The game tells you very clearly that you have finished this. And I didn’t ever want to have that.

CS: So you don’t think you would ever see yourself working on a bigger, narrative-driven game?

DF: No, not at all. I really dislike those. I like to just get to the meat right away. Show me the part I want, not this fluff.

CS: If you had to name a favorite game from the last five years or so, excluding Audiosurf, what would you pick?

DF: I’ve played a ton of Team Fortress 2, so that comes to mind. I’ve spent so much time there. I love that game. A game I discovered pretty recently is called Dominion. It’s actually a card game. You know Magic: The Gathering? I’ve played a ton of that. I think really highly of that game. Dominion kind of flips it on its head. Instead of building a deck as a separate sort of game and bringing that to the tournament, the game itself is about building the deck. So there’s this pool of cards and everybody is competing to buy the cards they want to add to their own deck. The person who gets the most efficient deck first is the winner. It’s really, really good. And really accessible, too, so I’ve been able to bring that to new players and they’re up to speed right away.

CS: What is your day filled with now? Are you working on anything new or just experimenting with Audiosurf?

DF: Some of both. I’ve done a few prototypes on little other ideas. It didn’t end up being all that inspiring. Trying various different things with Audiosurf. I want to keep updating it, keep adding new things. What are those things going to be? You have to figure that out. One of the things I’m going to try real soon is some new competitive modes, like single machine multiplayer. Right now it already has Double Vision.

CS: Which is not competitive, but a cooperative mode.

DF: Right and I really like that. I might try some more cooperative modes, too. But I want to explore more with what I can do with multiplayer in Audiosurf. And the way to go about that first is just same-machine. Let’s keep the technology simple, and let’s figure out what the cool gameplay is. And maybe one day that becomes over-the-Internet multiplayer, who knows. But first I want to figure out what’s cool about multiplayer.

CS: Anything we haven’t covered?

DF: Another thing I’d like to mention is the Community and Statistics site that’s coming soon. I announced it too early a while back in the news, and it wasn’t ready as soon as I’d hoped. We’re working hard on that. That’s going to be really nice to have. Then you can easily see what thrones you hold, when someone beats you, or what your friends have played recently. Like I have rivalries with my brother a lot. So I’m kind of designing the site around what sort of features we’d like to have, to make it more fun for us to jab at each other.

CS: Will it be an extension of Audio-surf.com that’s an online leaderboard database?

DF: Yeah, it’ll be a replacement. So if you hit the site, and you’re not logged in, it’ll assume you don’t own the game yet. You’ll get more of what the site is now: “Why is this cool? Where do I buy it?” That kind of thing. If you hit it and you’re logged in, you’ll get more of a social and statistics kind of site.

CS: That sounds great. Thanks so much, Dylan.

DF: Thanks for talking to me.

You can pick up a copy of Audiosurf via Steam, or check out more information on the game’s website. Again, Dylan Fitterer’s development website is BestGameEver.com. You can also find him posting regularly on the Audiosurf forums. For further reading, check out our This Week in Audiosurf Radio column for weekly song reviews and ride recommendations.