Big Stakes and Small Details: Beau Blyth on Samurai Gunn, Hyper Light Drifter, and the Joys and Stresses of Indie Development
As the saying goes, the Devil is in the details. It’s the little details that can make or break a game, and when they’re overlooked it typically results in the latter. It’s these little details that are the bread and butter of game developer Beau Blyth. Those familiar with the indie games scene might recognize that name as the brains behind 2013’s hit arcade title Samurai Gunn.
Hot off the release of E-Studio and Raw Fury’s Tormentor X Punisher, the Los Angeles-based developer and I sat down for a chat about Samurai Gunn, Tormentor X Punisher, and Blyth’s work on the indie darling of 2016, Hyper Light Drifter.
Throughout our interview it was clear to me that Blyth had a mind for the little details, a trait he apparently acquired not from the world of gaming, but from the world of animation.
“Before I did games I was a hobbyist animator. Animation is still something I keep up with a lot. I’ll go frame by frame through great anime scenes and stuff from Western animation. You can learn so many animation secrets if you do that. I’m always reading animation books and examining that kind of stuff,” said Blyth.
A LOVE LETTER TO KUROSAWA
Though released late in 2013, Blyth’s Samauri Gunn tore through the Steam charts and garnered the attention of Achievement Hunter for a video on their Let’s Play channel. Though seemingly simple in design and premise, no small detail was overlooked.
“What I look for in a game is when you can just jump in and get to the meat of the game right away,” Blyth mentioned, “and Samauri Gunn was definitely a product of that design philosophy. The game kind of extended from this one-hit-death principle that I messed around with in a previous game I worked on called 0Space.
“I’d always liked the one-hit-kill idea because it forces the player to make sure all their actions are meaningful. You always need a way to deal with that situation where the stakes are high. I like games like that.”
Design clarity was key during Blyth’s development of Samauri Gunn.
“Usually when I work on a game I don’t like waiting to do the effects because all those details are so important to the product as a whole,” Blyth revealed. “In Samurai Gunn, I have these flashes when you jump and when you land to give the player a little extra clarity. In the midst of the combat I wanted to have a moment when you’d know you’re back on the ground and have the ability to jump again. It’s just to clarify moments of state change.”
One of the elements I vividly recalled from the handful of times I played Samurai Gunn during its peak occurred any time a player scored a kill. When a player was defeated, the defeated player and the victorious player would be highlighted by a pair of huge brushstroke-esque bars. Blyth told me that this was the result of a love for old Japanese cinema and inspiration from an older game from Vlambeer’s Jan Willem Nijman.
“Jan had made this game ages ago that was a ninja fighting game, and it had huge streaks like in Samurai Gunn. But I wanted to use those streaks too as a throwback to classic movie letterboxing. Samurai Gunn is a party game, but it’s also a love letter to Kurosawa,” said Blyth. “I wanted to use that old cinematic technique to get the player’s attention, and I like what those streaks added. If you were in a dangerous situation and someone else was getting killed, that letterboxing would come in and give you a moment to breathe and get your bearings again.”
THE PLATFORMER THAT GOT AWAY
While completing work on Samauri Gunn, Blyth came in contact with Hyper Light Drifter developer and fellow Los Angeles resident Alx Preston.
He elaborated, “Alx and I met through a mutual friend of ours, Ben Esposito [developer of the upcoming Donut County]. He and Alx and a bunch of people formed a game and arts collective down in Culver City called Glitch City, and I would go there occasionally to work on stuff. But my relationship with Alx basically started with an email. Ben had told me, ‘Hey, my friend wants to hire someone to make a game.’ I needed money and Alx needed someone to code, so that’s how my time with Hyper Light Drifter began. And we actually ended up playing a lot of Samurai Gunn during development of Hyper Light Drifter.
“Prior to Hyper Light Drifter, I had never worked on a team before. I worked with Alx to code the prototypes for Hyper Light, so that became my part-time job while I was working on finishing Samurai Gunn. It was a completely different game while we were working on those first prototypes.
“For a bit it was a high-res platformer, but the work involved on that ended up being a bit overwhelming, so we scrapped it and created a pixel platformer. But after a while we really didn’t know what direction to take the project. One day Alx came to me and was like, ‘Oh my god – I have a great idea,’ and he showed me this concept art and said, ‘This is the game I want to make.’ I think at the time all I said was, ‘Cool, yeah.’ He was sorry we were ditching the whole thing, but I knew that he had to follow his passion.
“So we started working on this new version of Hyper Light, but we ran out of money. There was a definite moment of, ‘Oh, I guess we’re going to do a Kickstarter,’ but then that blew up and development on Hyper Light Drifter became my full time job for three and a half years. During that time I focused mostly on character movement, enemies and bosses, weapons, and effects – all the stuff I like to do.
“Hyper light Drifter is very much an amalgamation of everyone’s input on that game. But it’s a very difficult game. Hyper Light Drifter is hard, even for me. It’s very demanding and puts you in situations where you have to be very quick witted and have a deep understanding of the character’s limitations. Every action is meaningful.”
Those who have played Hyper Light Drifter should be intimately familiar with the lovely drifting ability used to quickly get around environments or dart around enemies. While individual effects like this rarely get their own credits, Blyth told me that this particular effect was his creation.
“I guess my claim to fame in Hyper Light Drifter was the dash effect. It was a really neat cyan and fuchsia flicker and, incidentally, flickers are my new favorite thing,” Blyth revealed. “A really clever flicker I noticed is – I believe – in Killzone 2. There’s an ammo counter in the corner that flickers as your ammo depletes. When you’re looking right at it you don’t really notice, but when you’re looking away you notice it flickering. So when the ammo goes low, you know. I love stuff like that. It’s all clever little tricks that aid in communication.
“One of my favorite effects that I’ve used on couple of things is making enemies flicker red when they’re low on health. It’s similar to Killzone effect, in terms of what it communicates to the player. When you’re in a group of enemies, and let’s say you hit one guy three times and he’s almost dead but you dash away and give the enemies time to reorganize themselves, you’ll have an inclination to go for the flickering enemy when you head back into combat. It’s really subtle, but that flicker will draw you towards that one. I like that effect a lot.
“I actually learned a lot from Sean Ward, who did all the animations for Hyper Light. I went on to use a lot of that stuff on Tormentor. The thing about Sean is that he’s an animator but he has all these really clever ideas about gameplay stuff that I had never really thought about. We worked really closely together on the bosses.
“I would have this boss I was working on, and I would bring it to Sean to take a look at and test play – and he’s really good at stuff like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, so he would always just wreck house with the boss battles. But afterwards he would sometimes do this little ‘hmm’ which I learned meant he had some idea for a new animation and attack that boss could do. And it was always something that made everything much higher stakes. Obviously I was be on board for things that like because I love high stakes. We did that a lot, and now I think about stuff like that all the time.”
RETURNING TO THE ARCADE
I’m always interested to know what moves a developer from project to project, especially in the world of indie developers where there’s not necessary a CEO or middle management figure saying, “Hey, this is the game we’re making today!” For Blyth, this move came from an familiar but unexpected source.
“Sometimes it’s like you’re working on so many things in your head. I wish there was really a moment where you could take a break and say, ‘Oh, what do I want to bring into this world next,'” lamented Blyth. “I was thinking that as Hyper Light Drifter was ending, that I was going to take a year off and just think about games really deeply and figure out the next meaningful thing I can bring into the world.
“And then Tormentor happened. My friend Joonas Turner actually showed me a prototype for Tormentor years ago. He was telling me about the design for it and how he wanted to add this combo system where you do tricks with your guns and stuff, and at the time I told him, ‘This is great – I can’t wait for it to come out.’
“Then came the question later of, ‘Beau, would you be willing to take this to completion?’ And of course I said yes because this was the perfect small project for me to do after Hyper Light. It’s a arcade game, it’s straight up my alley, and I’d done a ton of top down shooters before. So, he brought me up to speed on the design and everything and we completed the game in about a year. I’m a big fan of NES and arcade games, and I play a lot of retro games in my free time. With Tormentor, we designed it from the ground up to be a game you could beat in ten minutes. So the question became how could we get the player engaged right away?
“What really excited me about it was the opportunity to elevate the effects and the feel. Right off the bat he told me he wanted hundreds of enemies on screen. I had never built anything that could handle that kind of stress before but it sounded really cool. I had been messing around with this full screen hit-spark effect and I thought it would look really great in Tormentor. And I knew if there were really going to be hundreds of enemies, I wanted their bodies to stay there permanently so the arena would just get totally ruined by the time the game was over.
“The full-screen hit spark was something I wanted to put in this sort of Kid Icarus style game I may or may never make, but that was a feature in it – trying to make clear that you definitely hit an enemy. But then I realized it was perfect for Tormentor.
“With the full screen hit effect, the reason it works in Tormentor is that you’re not always looking at where you’re shooting, but you need the feedback of knowing when you kill a bad guy. Because you’re probably watching your character and screaming and thinking, ‘Oh my god what’s going on?’ So the fact that it’s so big is so you can see it out of the corner of your eye and know what’s going on.
“We bounced a lot of ideas off each other, and it was a really fun time. There were three of us working on it in three different time zones, so we were never awake at the same time. It’s kind of a miracle the game ever got made, but we were lucky we never really argued about anything. The biggest thing we ever needed to figure out were how the upgrades would be displayed, and we only ever did two revisions on that. It was definitely the quickest development and release of a game I’ve ever worked on.”
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
As we neared the end of things, we inevitably came back to the topic of Hyper Light Drifter. As we were talking about it, Blyth confided in me that he had still not played the full release version of the game. This comment sparked something in my mind I hadn’t really thought about before – what’s the relationship of games and developers once the game gets published?
“I have not played Hyper Light Drifter, the release version. There might actually be stuff in there I haven’t seen. I don’t know what the final version of the levels look like,” he confessed. “That thing was being touched up until the moment of it’s release, and at that point all of us were so burnt out that none of us played it right when it came out. I think Alx is probably the only one who really knows what the final version is, or maybe Teddy does. I don’t know – I can’t really speak for anyone.
“But there were moments though towards the end where we would play it together and go through whole sections and pass the controller around – and there would be moments when a whole area would get completed completed and everyone just kind of went, ‘Whoa.’
“I remember, after Rich had done a first sound pass on the town, I just walked around the town for a while and thought it was amazing. But as a whole I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully experience Hyper Light, which is definitely sad, but the game is very much about mystery, and I’ve seen behind the curtain. There’s no mystery for me. When you already know the secrets, it’s different.
“I was actually just listening to Rich’s Soundcloud a while ago and a Hyper Light song came on. It had been long enough that I had kind of forgotten the music, but when that song played I thought, damn, this is really good. So that was a cool feeling. I don’t know, maybe I’ll play it in five years.”