While at E3, I had a chance to sit down with a few of the people from Gaijin Games, the developer behind the Bit.Trip series to talk with them about the challenges of porting Runner2 to Vita and what it is like to be an indie developer in this day and age. The three members of the team that I had the pleasure of talking with during the interview were Danny Johnson – Designer Extraordinaire, Dant Rambo – Associate Producer (with the coolest name ever), and Chris Meyer – 3D Artist and Dream Maker.
(Note: Gaijin's official job titles probably do not include “extraordinaire,” “(with the coolest name ever),” or “dream maker,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t apply)
Danny Johnson: With the Vita Version, we heard the feedback from a lot of fans that there was a desire to get the game on Vita. We’ve heard from other independent developers that their games had done really well on the Vita and stuff like that, so it was a market that we really wanted to go after. It is just that we hadn’t scheduled to do it at the beginning of the project, so we finished the main game up on consoles and then have been doing the Vita version amongst other things. So, basically what we have to show is Runner2. It’s all of Runner2. It’s, you know, the same game, but on handheld. We’ve retained everything from the console version, so I think that’s pretty impressive.
Jack Gardner: So, you heard from other people that it would be good to have it on the Vita. What specifically makes Runner2 good to have on Vita?
DJ: I think part of it is that we heard there was a bit of a different audience on Vita versus even on the PS3. People just, you know, want to play it [on the go] or just as their main device or they don’t like playing consoles, I don’t know. I think the big thing was that people wanted access to the game without having to sit at home, [laughs] which, you know, is understandable these days.
Dant Rambo: I guess I’d also add that it is cool to be a part of the big indie push on Vita, which is nuts.
Chris Meyer: Sony in general, not just Vita, is really embracing the indies.
JG: Did Sony approach you guys about putting it on the Vita?
DJ: I’m sure they kinda nudged us and said, ‘so you’re gonna put it on the Vita, right?’ You know? So we’ve kept in contact with them all throughout development, just making sure things were going all right. They definitely like to see stuff on the Vita. We kind of had that idea that we wanted to do it and it was a little bit of seeing how it goes and when can we fit it in and now is the time.
JG: Are there a lot of challenges involved in taking a game that was made with consoles in mind and putting it on a handheld? Artistically, programming-wise, etc.?
DJ: I think the ideal is that we could bring the same exact game and put it on handhelds. I mean, at this point we’ve only been working on it for about a month or so, but we’ve got it running. We just need a lot of the little optimization stuff and to work out the kinks. But it seems like it has been pretty good, pretty easy. You know, always bringing a game to a new platform brings a new set of challenges, but the whole thing is that we are looking to retain the main game and keep it at a solid frame rate.
CM: We just don’t want to trim it down. We don’t want to give handheld users a lesser experience.
DR: And it is also cool that it is level-based, so it already lends itself well to being on a mobile device, so you can pick it up and play it for five minute or for hours.
JG: With the PS4 coming out soon, will Runner2 be available on the PS4?
DR: That’s not out of the question.
DJ: Yeah, I think part of it was we were waiting to see how their backwards compatibility was going to work and if you could still play it on PS4. I think they’ve said they have some streaming capabilities, but I think it is possible that we would port it up to PS4. Who knows if we would add stuff or what, but the whole thing about Runner2 was we didn’t want to leave it out of the hands of anyone. We wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to play the game could play the game. So, we put it on whatever we could.
JG: Alright, makes sense. Are there plans to create a follow-up or branch out into different explorations of the concept?
DJ: Um… There is still stuff yet to be done on Runner2. We’re not going to go into that quite yet, but we are not done with Runner2, but definitely at this point we are looking into other avenues, other games, future projects, a couple of exciting possibilities, but that stuff is still probably a little ways out. But we have been toying with smaller stuff and bigger stuff, so… yeah.
JG: Has the reception of the game been pretty good today?
DR: Yeah, I would say so. I haven’t heard anything negative. Even people who had never played it on console seemed to really enjoy playing it.
CM: There are also a lot of fans who have already played it, beaten it, one-hundred percent-ed it that want to play it again on their Vita. [Laughs]
DJ: The console version was so well rated, that we hope it would bring out the people who are interested on Vita.
JG: Yeah, that’s always the mark of a- [clattering noise] Always the mark of a great game when someone throws their pen in the middle of an interview. [laughter] When people like the game so much that they want to buy it again so that they can play it again.
DJ: We certainly love how the fans have accepted the game and gone far beyond what we would expect. Like, one-hundred percent-ing the whole game and posting videos on YouTube.
DR: One related anecdote to that, is that someone on Twitter said that they one-hundred percent-ed it and then deleted their save file so that they could start again. That was nuts.
JG: Wow, I don’t know of anyone that actually deletes their save file…
DR: At least not intentionally. [Laughs]
JG: So, about how big is your team at Gaijin?
DR: It is nine, I can confirm.
DJ: Nine full-time, I think we have two or three contractors.
JG: And how involved is Sony in the process of creating a game like Runner2?
DJ: I’m not the person that they deal with, but I think that they just sort of make sure that things are going well for us, that we have the stuff we need. I think the PS4 dev kit came before we even ordered it or anything, so we were like, ‘Oh, awesome! We’ll have to check this out!’
JG: They are kind of hands off when it comes to-
DJ: Yeah, I mean they’ll talk to us when we need to. I mean we have some people over there that we know pretty well and will answer our questions if we need them.
JG: But it is a pretty good relationship?
DJ: Yeah, we definitely like them. We make them happy and they make us happy. Everyone wins.
DR: It is a good relationship.
JG: I’m just wondering with the whole indie push coming out of Sony and the implosion of Microsoft’s indie stuff, people have been kind of wondering about indie development on consoles and for big companies like Microsoft and Sony. They’ve hear a lot about how terrible Microsoft has been for developers, but I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about Sony.
DJ: Part of it was, you know with all the console makers, they have a lot of guidelines that you need to go through. Some of them make it easier or harder for you, which is a bit rough. We kind of like the Steam model where they are very hands off and they let you do what you need to do to make it work. It is a different approach from the consoles, but they are a little more nimble than these big corporations. I don’t know, it is tough to say.
DR: I guess there is a little bit more of a hurdle with Microsoft because they don’t allow you to self-publish.
JG: Is it hard to find a publisher for indie developers on consoles?
CM: If I am not mistaken, we were able to establish Gaijin Games itself as a publisher. I think we can take that route if we want to. We worked with Aksys in the past because we wanted someone to help fund our game and get it through, because that is always really beneficial to a small team to see if they can get a game out there. But we’ve allowed ourselves the ability to self-publish on some of the platforms. Whenever that option is available we like to do it, but whenever there is publisher assistance then that is also pretty helpful.
DR: This isn’t even related to us, but I met someone in the Sony booth today who had an idea for a game and they said Sony and Nintendo wanted to play ball right away, but he was here trying to find a publisher for Microsoft. Which isn’t to say that it is harder or easier.
DJ: And I mean, we’ve talked with Microsoft, and they do support developers. It is just that they have a different approach to who they want on their system. It’s not a terrible approach or anything like that, it is just that they have their own mindset. Sony seems to be more, ‘we’ll take any cool games we can get,’ whereas Microsoft is a bit more exclusive with their stuff.
DR: One last thing: The intended launch window for the Vita version of Runner2 is between mid-July and mid-August.
JG: If you loved Runner2, you’ll love Runner2 on Vita.
DR: You’ll love playing it on the toilet!
CM: That’s the new feature. [Laughter]
Runner2, fully titled Bit.Trip Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, is a side-scrolling platformer currently available for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC, and Mac. The Vita version, as stated in the interview, will release sometime between mid-July and mid-August.