Developer Interview: Derek Yu on Aquaria, TIGSource and Indie Development

Let’s start with the basics: who are you and what do you do?

My name’s Derek Yu and I make video games and draw. I also run The Independent Gaming Source, a community for indie games and game developers.

Tell us a little bit about your history with videogames: How long have you been playing them?

I started playing them very early on. My dad bought my mom an Atari 2600 when she was pregnant with me, and the very first games I played were Asteroids, Combat, and Demon Attack. I also remember hunting through old floppies my parents had for gems like Colossal Cave Adventure and Hack, the roguelike that eventually inspired Spelunky.

What were your favourites growing up?

The three titles that really define my childhood for me are The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter II, and Doom. So many of my best memories are related to those games, like drawing Zelda maps with my dad or playing deathmatch after deathmatch with my friends at the local gaming store. Street Fighter II in particular has quite a few funny stories attached to it, like the time my friend’s father made us repeat a Buddhist mantra one thousand times for quarters to play in the arcade. It goes to show you how far we’d go to indulge our passions for these incredible virtual worlds!

I can’t really recall a time when I wasn’t interested in playing and making video games, to be honest. It wasn’t long after I picked up a pen that I started laying out designs and dreaming about starting my own company. And now I’m actually doing it for real – it’s amazing! I feel very fortunate that I was able to grow up with this artform and have friends around to play and make games with.

Your first “big” game was Eternal Daughter, which you’ve described as a tribute to games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. What is it about that particular style of game that appeals to you as a designer?

One of the things I love about creating videogames is designing a world that’s not only believable but also engaging as a game. The best games engage us on both those levels. You know, I imagine a person who practices parkour sees a building in a different light than your average person – he may see an everyday window but he also sees a place to climb up or jump off of. To create something in a video game that’s believable but also playable you have to think in a similar manner, and that’s a lot of fun.

Metroidvanias are well-suited to this type of design because of how they open up to the player – each new power-up lets you think about your environment in a totally new way and explore more of the world. The designer, therefore, has to think about each area in the game in all of these different ways, but still make the environment, as a whole, feel like it’s part of a consistent universe. Symphony of the Night really exemplifies this by offering the player a giant castle that works as a platformer even when it’s turned upside down!

What inspired you and three collaborators to make I’m O.K – A Murder Simulator? Do you know if Jack Thompson ever actually played it? Were you surprised when he reneged on his promise to donate ten grand to charity?

It started on a forum on my personal website. I believe I just threw the idea out there – “this would be funny, let’s do it!” It seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

I never had any expectation that he would keep his promise, but it surprised me how positively people treated the game. To be honest, I was slightly nervous that game players would be angry – one artist I asked to collaborate on I’m O.K. told me that we should be ignoring Jack Thompson, and this was a popular sentiment at the time. However, the game went over quite well with the general public and people enjoyed all of the not-so-subtle digs at Jack and the industry.

How did the idea for Aquaria originate? How much did your (and Alec Holowka’s) original vision for the game change during the course of development?

I met Alec when he contacted me about working on I’m O.K. We talked about other game ideas while we waited for our collaborators to finish their work. At one point, he showed me a prototype for Aquaria, and I thought it was cool! We started working earnestly on the game shortly after.

Our original idea was to create an action RPG that was populated with all kinds of NPCs that you could interact with. Over time, we scaled back and focused on telling the story through monologues that played as you explored the world. That way you could enjoy the story and exploration at the same time without one interfering with the other.

The prototype was extremely limited and it took a lot of work to figure out the mechanics. The combat and spell-casting system, in particular, took a number of turns – at one point you moved with the keyboard and aimed/fired using the mouse. Basically, we started with a vague idea of what we wanted, which made development challenging. It wasn’t without its merits, though, as Aquaria’s storyline has theme of creative struggle that were influenced by this process, and overall, we learned a lot from it.

What effect did working on a large commercial project like Aquaria have on your approach to making videogames? What important lessons did you take away from the experience?

Alec and I took a lot of risks developing Aquaria that I wouldn’t take now. We “dived in head first” (pun intended!) without considering a lot of things… like, we were practically strangers when we started working together! These days I couldn’t imagine beginning a project like that without learning more about the person I was working with. I feel fortunate that Alec turned out to be such a dedicated and talented person.

Beyond than that, the original prototype, while promising, was not an adequate proof-of-concept for a large-scale action-adventure game. To create Aquaria we had to tear down and rebuild fundamental parts of the game over and over again. The end result, of course, was good, and I have zero regrets, but ultimately, I don’t want to spend two years on a game again unless I have a clearer idea of where I’m headed.

Tell us about the genesis of TIGSource and how you came to take such an active role in the indie games community. How has the indie scene changed since you became involved with it? Where do you see it going in the future?

TIGSource was started by Jordan Magnusson as a small blog to review indie games and interview their creators. I was interviewed by Jordan for the site shortly before he announced that he was going to close it down for personal reasons. I offered to take it over from him and that’s how I got involved in the indie games community.

At the time, the prominent indie games websites mostly covered casual matching and word games, which I wasn’t interested in. I was happy that there were communities for small developers and hobbyists, but I was unhappy about the association with casual games and the focus on business over art in a lot of the discussions that were being had. When I first took over TIGSource it had a distinctly different vibe than the other indie game sites, and for the first few years I tried to drive that wedge in further.

These days, there’s no need for a wedge – not only are indie games are pretty distinct from mainstream games and casual/social games, but digital distribution and word of mouth (word of keyboard?) have really raised the concept in the public’s awareness. As far as I’m concerned, the only role that sites like TIGSourceneed to play today is to highlight the most interesting indie games and to provide a place for developers to discuss and support one another in making more such games.

Indie games and developers are sometimes perceived as pretentious and elitist. John Carmack, for example, recently attacked “snooty” indie developers for criticising the lack of innovation in mainstream shooters like Call of Duty etc. Do you feel there’s any truth in that perception? What do you think causes people to see indie games in that light?

“Pretentious indie game” and “soulless corporate military FPS” are two stereotypes that clash well with one another, so it’s not surprising that they’ve become popular ammo for people on both sides of the fence. These stereotypes weren’t conjured out of thin air, either… for example, some indie games developers and fans feel like indie games are more “artful” than mainstream games, and I agree that it’s pretentious. However, I think the vast majority of indie developers are just trying to create good games and respect the developers at big studios, and vice versa.

Finally, how difficult is to be make it as an indie developer? What advice would you give to budding game designers looking to follow in your footsteps?

Make games and finish games! That’s rule number one, as far as I’m concerned. It’s never been easier to make a name for yourself if you have the dedication and talent. The tools and support out there are high-quality and easily accessible, so there’s no excuse not to start game-making. It’s a bit of a plug, but honestly, TIGSource is still one of the best communities to be a part of if you’re interested in learning about indie games.

As far as schooling goes, I would recommend computer science, which was my major. I think that’s the most useful degree to have in game development, although it’s by no means necessary. The important thing is that you have some familiarity with programming – so much of game design is tied to the code. Even if you’re an artist you should have some understanding of how game programming works, in my opinion.

Game development is certainly tough, and as an indie developer you have to wear a lot of hats and possibly concern yourself with every aspect of the development… but I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.

Thanks to Derek for answering our questions!

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