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The ultra-modern stylings of Hyper Light Drifter

2D action-RPG Hyper Light Drifter made waves when it appeared on Kickstarter last month, getting voted through Greenlight before its funding campaign had even wrapped. I interviewed the developers to learn what's special about this pixel art darling.

Kris Ligman is a News Editor of Gamasutra.

If you weren't sure whether Heart Machine's upcoming Hyper Light Drifter was worth sitting up and taking notice, the fact that it was voted onto Steam through Greenlight before its Kickstarter campaign had even wrapped might give you a clue. A retro-inspired pixel art epic reminiscent of Superbrothers and the works of Studio Ghibli, Hyper Light Drifter smashed its funding expectations and ended up raising over 20 times its original target, becoming the latest in a growing line of aspirational crowdfunding darlings.

I spoke with development lead Alex Preston (@HeartMachineZ) and designer/programmer Teddy Diefenbach (@TeddyDief) to get to the bottom of just what it is about the project that has struck a chord with so many players.

You refer to Hyper Light Drifter as being a sort of "throwback" to classic action RPGs, but with modern styling. Could you get into what you mean by that?

Preston: The design of the game from an aesthetic standpoint is unique. There’s a lot of use of color, a lot of use of scale. I expect to have a lot of enemies on screen that you’re tackling at once, which is a more modern thing of games, what with memory limitations not really being such an issue these days. As far as the functionality of the game goes, we’re incorporating more modern design, forward-thinking designs, things that -- in the 20 years or so since the days of Link to the Past -- have evolved and changed for the better. Just stuff that people would expect out of a game these days. It’s not going to be a clunky experience. It’s going to be a refined experience.

Diefenbach: The Drifter feels wonderfully fast and fluid. The character design suggests that the Drifter is nimble and an adept fighter, so we use the combat mechanics and animation to make you feel that sense of power and lightness.

Drilling a bit further down into the aesthetic a bit, could you talk a little about your influences?

Preston: A lot of it comes from older anime that I watched growing up as a kid. Miyazaki, and giant robots fighting each other. More still comes from tons of different illustrators that I love. Concept artists. And from games themselves, of course. There’s a huge influence from the Final Fantasy series, most of the big Nintendo titles, Legend of Zelda. I think Link to the Past is one of the most beautiful games ever created. Its aesthetic is so simplistic but very elegant in its execution.

Any Western games you would count among your inspirations?

Preston: Pretty much everything that Capy does is great. I think they’ve done an amazing job with Super TIME Force and the aesthetic there, they’ve been allowed enough time to really develop that style. Superbrothers’ Sword & Sworcery was really beautiful. [Polytron's] Fez is great, anything that Paul Robertson does is amazing. A lot of the things they have going on at Supergiant Games is really beautiful as well, particularly the main concept artist over there --

Diefenbach: Jen Zee.

Preston: Right. Everything that she turns out is really great looking. Transistor is no exception to that. It’s probably their most beautiful-looking game yet. So. Absolutely, there are influences on this side of the pond.

You have a background as an illustrator and animator, correct? Could you speak to that background and how that has informed the look and gameplay?

Preston: Yeah. I went to Otis College of Art and Design out here in Los Angeles. [After graduating I] basically just went full-time freelance illustration. I worked for different artists, I’ve done sculpture and whatever else. I’ve worn many different hats.

When I started sitting down to seriously design this game, in 2012, I started out with a look of high-resolution art, believing I would do an HD game. It was going to be super illustrated, highly stylized and whatever else. But I quickly found that would actually be kind of ludicrous for one person to really do. So I -- like many other small game developers -- I found that working in a lower resolution, working with pixel art is much more efficient.

I didn’t want to do just boring little pixel art. I especially didn’t want to do ugly pixel art. And so I had to infuse it and wrap it with my own style. It took a while to get there and push it in a direction that I was actually satisfied with, but I’m pretty satisfied with how it’s looking right now.

The story aspect of this game is interesting as well, because you mentioned among your influences these Japanese RPGs that are known for going heavy on text.

Preston: Right. We’re shooting at doing a textless game. No dumptrucking of narrative, no walls of text. I’m very big on visual storytelling, with my background. If you think of something along the lines of Pixar, where in Wall-E, or the first ten or fifteen minutes of Up, they’re able to express all of these different things and different emotions, make you cry. You feel so deeply without these movies saying a single word. That’s exactly the sort of space that we’re in right now.

Do you anticipate some differences? It always struck me (and this comes out of my own background, as a film studies person) that animation conveys a lot of its emotion by exaggeration, and getting the viewer close to the subject. This game, however, keeps you visually separated from the characters a good deal, at least what we’ve seen of it.

Preston: We have ways of addressing that. There’re plans for some possible cutscenes, for example. But even within the context of the game engine itself, I think there’s plenty of room to work there. Coming from that background of being a visual storyteller, and [producer] Casey Hunt being a visual storyteller, we’re more than proficient at working within the limitations of the 240p area that we have to work with.

Diefenbach: Our target of shooting for something that is textless and voiceless is something that we’re all very excited about, and we have a lot of exciting plans for how you’ll still be interacting with the world. It’s not as though you’re removed from the other entities in the world because of that.

Preston: We’re shooting for a form of communication and interaction with the world characters. It’s not a barren world you can only look at. We’re trying to do a little something different there. We’ll have a few more details on that as we develop it more.

Moving over to the funding campaign and to Greenlight... Many project creators feel it’s getting harder and harder to get their Kickstarter campaign noticed, as more game developers flock to it as a funding solution. What do you believe were the main drivers behind your campaign’s success?

Preston: I think it’s probably a combination of the aesthetic that I developed, the themes that I was touching on, and the nostalgia. I think a lot of people still love these old genres and have a deep desire to play these games. And I think the formula that I presented was something that really resonated with everybody.

I’ve seen a lot of people talk about spotting particular references to other games [within Hyper Light Drifter], and I think those little tidbits popping up forms a certain bond [with backers] that you wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise. I wear my influences on my sleeve. I try to show a respect and fondness for all the things that’ve allowed me to develop as an artist, and all the things that have influenced me. I think people recognize that deep love and passion that our team has for media and especially for these video games.

One thing that many project creators have experienced on Kickstarter is that there will be a peak of interest at the beginning and again near the end, but between those is a trough of very low activity and it can be difficult to maintain momentum during that stretch of the campaign. What did you do to address that?

Preston: We definitely had a lull in the middle but that was just the expected thing we knew was going to happen. It’s a weird feeling when you see the first big spike, and then it crests,  and then it tapers off, but then it spikes again. It’s all kind of a rollercoaster. It can be overwhelming. But I had been braced for it, and I did a lot of my own research on Kickstarter, so it wasn’t something out of the blue for me.

[To keep momentum going] I tried to do an update every day. I know that’s a lot for some people, and I did have a few who were going ‘stop with all the updates!’ but I think a lot of people actually appreciated that. During the lull, we brought out some interesting things, prints, temp score from our composer -- kind of a musical sketch, essentially. I always tried to give something enticing to the backers to talk about and keep interest going. I think it worked to a degree, so!

You were also voted through Greenlight before the Kickstarter even concluded, which is uncommon. Does that translate into extra pressure to deliver on expectations?

Preston: I would say, as far as our stretch goals go, there isn’t really anything in there that we thought was unreasonable. For me the vision of the game was always clear, and all the things that we added via the stretch goals were things that had fallen to the wayside, things we hoped we could do down the line, and whatever else, and now it’s actually possible.

For example, the challenge mode, that’s [designed as] a patch that we can do down the line, a month or two after release of the game. Whereas the primary focus of the story mode and the co-op built in is the same, and even with any of the stretch goals, I don’t think we’re overpromising anything. The biggest thing is being able to release on other platforms -- that was the unknown for us. Originally it was just going to be a project that was on Steam.

I think a lot of Kickstarters kind of do blow themselves up with stretch goals. But I think we tried to keep it pretty realistic. I don’t think anything we put in there was particularly dramatic, except for the platforms.

Diefenbach: That was one of the first things I looked at, when Alex and I first spoke about me joining the project. I was really attracted to it, including the creative side, but I wanted to make sure that I understood what I was committing to. And I had come off of shipping a couple games and also cancelling a game, and so it really mattered to me that the scope was correct. They were already looking very carefully at that, and when I joined we continued to do that. At least from my perspective I feel very comfortable with what we’ve set up and what we have planned.

Preston: And anything that we feel like we cannot accomplish, we want to be as transparent as possible with the community, because the community’s been so awesome from the beginning. So we’re going to continue to update our devlog and we’re going to continue to do weekly updates on the Kickstarter for all the supporters and backers and tell everybody about the process, like ‘hey, this is where we’re at this week.’ Keep the process open so that people understand how much goes into making a game.

If you are interested in checking out Hyper Light Drifter for yourself, a build of the game will be playable on the floor of MineCon this weekend in Orlando, Florida.

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