When We Made… Hyper Light Drifter

Back in 2013, before the Kickstarter bubble burst, the service was a hotbed of fresh indie games that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Hyper Light Drifter is one such game, and developer Heart Machine saw great success on the platform. It zoomed past its initial $27k goal and eventually received almost $650k of funding. This was the first sign of the game’s appeal and popularity, which would continue beyond launch with many hundreds of thousands of sales across multiple platforms.

The story of Hyper Light Drifter is also the story of the indie development community. Talking to Heart Machine founder Alx Preston and one of the game’s coder/designer Teddy Dief (the other being Samurai Gunn creator Beau Blyth), it’s clear just how important the close-knit dev scene was to its success.

Preston and Dief already knew each other as founding members of Glitch City, a collective of independent artists and game makers in Los Angeles.

“We would come together as a group of various types of media creators,” Dief says. “There was a monthly jam called Strawberry Jam that was run out of coffee shops, and that’s how I met a number of other people who ended up coming around the table to start Glitch City. There was some breaking point where people were getting tired of not having power outlets. And unreliable coffee shop Wi-Fi. Conversation started around whether we had enough people to actually rent a space.”

Before renting an office together, the group worked out of Preston’s house.

“Glitch started for me out of our garage, hosting art events or working nights where we’d invite people over,” he says. “We were doing that for a few months and we were always discussing the idea of a co-working space.”

The majority of the Heart Machine team that worked on Hyper Light Drifter came from this collective and even though Dief was a founding member, it was only through serendipity that he ended up working on the game at all.

“We had founded Glitch City and I was deep in my own indie endeavour and was considering doing a crowdfunding campaign of my own,” Dief says. “I had judged that I needed a few months of runway, because it takes time to build those campaigns, to make sure I was financially soluble. So I had emailed all of Glitch City the day of the Hyper Light Drifter Kickstarter launch, asking ‘Hey does anyone know of any short term gigs?’ When Alx reached out the Kickstarter had already started to have really strong momentum. It was not at all what I had said I was looking for. I was working on a very different type of action RPG. I was like ‘oh man, this is so beautiful’ and I hooked up with Alx. Although it was not what I was seeking, the timing really worked out.”

As for Dief’s game? Long dead, but he has no regrets. In fact, ‘no regrets’ is a recurring theme when talking to the pair.

“I don’t know if I would really change anything about development because a lot of it was such a huge learning experience that was really valuable and I took those lessons to heart,” Preston says. “Sure, there are plenty of things that, at the time, a tiny insight would be nice to have done them perfectly, or not to have fucked up, but I wouldn’t have learned some lessons otherwise. It’s not to say that there aren’t things that we could have done better. Just the things that we didn’t do better at first, we learned from. They are part of the project and I’m okay with that.”

The team declined to work with a publisher, so with no one setting development tasks for the team, Heart Machine took it upon itself to manage its schedule. The team took advantage of the games events circuit to set deadlines and gather valuable playtesting insight at the same time.

“We treated events as big internal milestones for a deliverable,” says Preston. “After deciding we were going to head out to PAX, for example, we’d spend time thinking ‘okay we’re going to build out some [areas in the] North [of the map] here and have this playable chunk ready for the demo,’ and that gives us a set of tasks and a goal. And we know that we have to deliver on this date, so it was super helpful and it was also great to be able to finally show some people and watch them play. Because that’s always kind of scary.

“It’s always a new experience when you’re watching somebody play a level that you’ve been designing and you know inside and out. You play very differently to how anybody else can play, because you understand the roots and it’s constantly on your mind. There are so many reasons why it’s extremely helpful and a positive experience overall. Mostly it was great for us internally to understand ‘oh yeah, we can make things and we can finish them’. At least to the extent that we’re happy enough to be showcasing.”

The first public demo for the game was at MineCon in Orlando, and it was a particularly eye opening experience for Dief, who flew out there on his own.

“It was about a month after the Kickstarter,” he says. “They had reached out to us and we thought this would be a cool opportunity, but also everybody was wrecked. Alx was exhausted from running the Kickstarter and we were trying to do a ton of work just to figure out what the game could be. But we decided it could be worth doing. So I flew out to Orlando alone. And I remember we were making that demo en route. Like, in the hotel room the night before the show.

“I was putting a level together with the pieces that we had with GameMaker’s basic editor. White boxing it until three or four in the morning. It was around midnight back on the west coast, so I go to sleep in Orlando saying ‘Okay, it’s done. Alx can you make it look good? I’m gonna go to sleep. I’ve gotta get up at eight to go to the show floor’. And I remember waking up and pulling from the repository and Alx had done his work on it. And while I was sleeping the white box level became this gorgeous piece of the very first Hyper Light Drifter demo and I just remember feeling as though I had made the right choice. Joining this guy. All you have to do is go to sleep. When you wake up your game is finished.”

Not having a publisher meant that Heart Machine had to think on its feet when it came to the more mechanical side of game publishing, such as QA and porting. For Preston, this only added to the curriculum: “We did everything by hand and it was a great learning experience.”

But that’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s here that we see the value of being surrounded by an incredible indie developer scene.

“It helped a great deal that we had so much of a community around us,” says Dief. “Not just in Glitch City but in a larger indie games community because having avenues for all the things a publisher can take off your shoulders was a huge help. That we could ask people we respected and who have been through this before us, ‘Hey, we need to do QA. Real QA. Who do we work with?’ And get recommendations through that. Finding people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to find was a huge thing in making sure we could do all that ourselves.”

So what if you’re not in such a privileged position?

“My philosophy has always been to just keep showing up to everything as much as possible,” Dief says. “We were lucky with Glitch City, but the larger indie games community is always broadcasting itself. There’s an event every week, if you’re really looking. They may not be where you are and getting there is a logistical problem, but hopefully for anyone trying to get started there is an event close enough to you that you can start going. And making it not only a habit but considering it part of your career to show up to those events to learn from people and make friendships.”

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