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Q&A: For Alex Austin, constant prototyping is a way of life

Gamasutra catches up with Gish co-developer Alex Austin of Cryptic Sea, to chat open development, prototyping, and first-person hockey.
One of the original developers behind Gish alongside Edmund McMillen, Cryptic Sea's Alex Austin is an experimental game developer whose work has spanned multiple genres and aesthetics, from first-person sports games to overhead racing and tank combat titles. Across many of his games, Austin's interests lies with realism -- not of visuals, but in terms of mechanics and play styles, compelling players to rethink their assumptions of how games work. Some, such as Hockey?, enjoy an international cult following due to their original and hard-to-master gameplay. Gamasutra catches up with Austin to chat about his open development approach, his current prototypes, and why he wishes his games were more polished than they are. Gamasutra: Looking over your website, it seems like nearly everything you’re working on at the moment has a test build or a demo for people to dive into. You’re pretty open about your development process. Alex Austin: For multiplayer games, you do kind of have to build up a fanbase to even test things out. You can’t really test it out yourself, especially if you’re one person or a couple people. So that’s been my strategy: put things out there, see if people like it, see how they’re playing it, and base design off of that. You can’t figure out how people are going to play your games until you put it out there. Usually what I’ll do is that I’ll go online in one of my games anonymously and just watch how people are playing. If I go online under my normal handle, they’ll just bombard me with ideas. I try not to pay too much attention to those – they have their ideas of where the game in its current version should go, whereas I’m focused on the next version, not so much going back and modifying what’s already built. Another good thing [with open development] is bugtesting, since you can test how the game works on many different systems and setups. I’ll definitely hear about it if a game I’m making doesn’t work very well on a certain card. The other part of having these games up as alphas and betas is… I’m kind of running out of money now. [laughs] So I kind of have to start charging for things. I’ve been all right with money for a while because of Gish, which was in the very first Humble Bundle, but that’s sort of run out. Gamasutra: You also have an outrageous number of open projects right now, as I recall. How many are you working on? AA: I think about six, actively, but in total something like 17 or 18. We counted them recently at a game jam. A lot of them are, you know, prototypes. It just kinda happened this way; I didn’t plan on or set out to have this many. Some of these games I’m working with someone else -- an artist, let’s say -- to develop. And I switch among projects, working with one person, then another game with another person, while I’m working on ideas for my own games. I also have a tendency to not finish games, because I’m too ambitious. [laughs] Which is part of my current situation as well. I’m starting new projects while I’m still trying to finish some of the old ones. Gamasutra: But you find you get more done this way? AA: Yeah, it’s really useful for me! Just for one example, one of the things I’ve been focusing on for the last couple years has been vehicle physics, within a physics engine that I built myself. I want to be able to model each wheel on a vehicle independently. So when I started exploring that in A New Zero, and then in the top-down racing game, I was able to apply much of the same tech to both. When I got stuck on one game, I could move over to the other and work on that, until it gave me some insight on how to solve the first problem. At one point, in one of the games, I had some calculations wrong on one of the wheels – but I didn’t notice it because there were only, like, two drive wheels. But when I applied the same physics to a tank -- which has, like, 12 wheels -- in another game, you could tell immediately that it was way off. So that’s one instance where spreading myself among projects turned into problem-solving.

Gamasutra: Of your six active projects, probably the most striking one to me is Hockey? You don’t often see hockey games getting the first-person treatment -- actually, I can’t think of any. What was your thought process going into that? AA: It started as a top-down game, like the original NHL 94. But it had physics, and what we found was that in third-person the physics were too hard to control. So, on a whim we said ‘let’s try it in first-person mode.’ And it just felt right. Within a day of experimenting we were convinced what we had could work. We made the whole first-person Hockey? prototype in like a week and put it up, where it’s been for about two and a half years now. It’s garnered kind of a cult following. There are leagues -- I think Russia’s league has over 400 people by now. And there are North American leagues as well. I think the most interesting thing about Hockey? and how people are playing it is the skills you can develop. You can tell if a player’s played for a month or like, two years. There’s just a huge difference in the skill you cultivate 00 stuff that we didn’t even anticipate. For instance, we figured that no one would want to play goalie. So we didn’t even bother putting in any gear for that position. You just have the basic hockey stick. But now, in all the leagues, there is always someone who plays goalie. And this is despite the fact that we didn’t program the puck to collide with the player’s body -- these goalies are able to knock pucks out of the air with just the end of the stick. It’s amazing. I don’t know how they do that. I can’t do that.

Gamasutra: You’ve mentioned previously the sort of ‘lack of polish’ that your games have, and how you see this as a disadvantage. Some independents see a ‘rough around the edges’ aesthetic as kind of a badge of honor; a statement. You don’t consider yourself in that group? AA: Yeah. Definitely. The Cryptic Sea EP, the album of games that I’m working on? All three of those games are really good, but I haven’t been able to get the level of polish that I’m after. That’s one of the things I’d like to do, when I start making enough money to afford that, is hire people to come in and give it the polish it deserves. I do agree that a lack of polish can be [a statement]. Like obviously, I don’t want a game I release to be buggy or anything like that. But visually I think that going for something simple can be smart. About half my games begin with a simple black and white start menu. It’s far better to do something like that than to do some kind of halfway job. [On the other hand] I do feel like some games are ‘over-polished.’ And that’s another thing: I never want to start polishing a game before I think it’s ready. Once you start doing that, you’ve kind of locked in the gameplay. So I try to wait until the last minute. You can follow Alex Austin's work at Cryptic Sea. He's also available for web design services.

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