Road to the IGF: Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter

Gamasutra catches up with Heart Machine's Alex Preston to chat about the state of indie games and the design of Hyper Light Drifter, Heart Machine's debut game that's up for 3 IGF awards this year.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Alex Preston appears to be living the indie game developer dream: after years of work his first game, Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter, was released last year to significant commercial success and critical acclaim.

The vibrant 2D action-RPG is now up for a slew of awards, including the Art, Audio, and Grand Prize honors at this year's Independent Games Festival. It's a stereotypical success story -- indie dev makes good with a fresh spin on classic game designs and aesthetics -- that belies the real complexity of Drifter's development. 

As we wrote about last year, Preston is one of many game makers who manages the workload of game development while managing chronic illness. In fact, his congentinal heart condition and other health issues inspired Drifter, as well as some of his work as an illustrator and designer.   

As part of our annual series of interviews with IGF nominees, we caught up with Preston again to get this thoughts on where the indie game development scene is at these days, where Drifter came from, and why it looks the way it does. For a deeper dive into how the game's unique soundscape was crafted, check out composer and sound designer Akash Thakkar's great GDC Europe 2016 talk on the topic.

What's your background in making games?

Only as a hobbyist, and a bad one at that. This is my first actual game.

What development tools were used to build Hyper Light Drifter?

GameMaker Studio, Photoshop, Pro Motion, After Effects, Premiere, various audio/synth programs, Asana, SVN, Workflowy.

How much time have you spent working on the game, all told?

Likely around 5 years, since I had began concepts for it well before we launched the Kickstarter in late 2013.

How did you come up with the concept?

I wanted to tell a personal story, about my own struggles as someone with chronic illness.

From there, I drew inspiration from many games that I love, cartoons/anime I grew up with and the wealth of brilliant artists I admire. I had to narrow down the specifics and mold this all into something cohesive, and that took a massive amount of time.

Much has been said about the game's overall style; what I found particularly striking was the color palette.  Can you speak to how it was composed, and why?

With great care! I embrace color; bright, saturated, neon, muted, whatever works. I love to explore palettes to express a mood, feeling, theme.

This comes from my background as a painter and illustrator, and a great love for colorful comics as a child. I'm glad more devs seem to be pursuing colorful options this generation as well.

Drifter pays homage to the design and aesthetics of games in the '90s. What sort of compromises or concessions (if any) did you have to make during development in order to stay true to that? 

We were constrained by our resolution, 480x270, which creates some good rules, but also doesn't allow you to explore as much detail as you'd like at times. It forces you to think and design within tight constraints.

Everything else was mostly flexible, from gameplay to sound, and really only limited by our time and the engine. Since it's an homage, and not a replica, we were free to have a rather large soundtrack with complex, shifting layers of atmospheric sound building throughout each room.

We were also able to push the amount of enemies and frames of animation as much as we pleased/was suitable.

So what do you think are the biggest hurdles and opportunities for indies today?

Biggest hurdle: getting recognized in a crowded market, on any of the store fronts.

Biggest opportunity: a huge audience is out there, growing everyday, that's hungry for good games. Pick your niche and do your best.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Yes! I'm always playing as much as possible. I really enjoyed Inside, Overcooked and Quadrilateral Cowboy as my standouts. Of course everything on that list is pretty damned good.

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