New Wave: Dylan Fitterer on Audiosurf

By Kieron Gillen on March 21st, 2008 at 5:17 pm.

It's really not a game which crops screens well, alas.

Audiosurf, in terms of both commercial and critical success, is the indie-hit of the year so far. It managed to pick up an IGF award at the same time it was sitting at the top of the Steam charts for all of February. It’s caused more listening to eighties-pop music than is strictly healthy at RPS towers, and we love it still. We grabbed an opportunity to speak to its creator, Dylan Fitterer. We talk about music, people’s physical response to music and whether he’s incredibly rich. But we start with the core of things; that is, how Audiosurf works anyway…

RPS: Jim describes Audiosurf as “Alchemy”. As in, how it creates levels can seem more than just a program should do – it’s something almost unearthly. How do you do it? Was it just a case of deciding general rules and then relying on their robustness to create something coherent, or… well, what? You tell us. Tell us a little about what’s inside your magic box.

Dylan Fitterer: Alchemy, as opposed to chemistry, is exactly the right word. It was created through a fairly chaotic trial and error process. I’d often add a rule to create a cool moment in one song that ended up ruining the best part of another. Once I discovered the ruined song I’d fix it (and probably ruin another). Eventually it grew into the mess of code it is today that works well for most songs and sometimes really shines.

RPS: So there a time when you were playing early Audiosurf and just tweaking the results. As in, it should be steeper here, it should turn faster, etc. How did you make these sort of decisions? How did you know that this sort of slope felt “Right” for the exciting bit in Wolf Like Me or whatever?

Dylan: Wow – I don’t really know. I’m not very good at deciding that something is “Right” and sticking with it. I second-guess constantly and always look for ways to improve. The first hints that there was really something to this whole idea was slowly climbing a hill and getting goosebumps as it rushed me over the top. Those moments have seen a lot of adjustments to try and reach the impossible “Right”.

RPS: “Goosebumps”: That’s something I get with Audiosurf a lot. Do you have a very physical reaction to music? Is that the sort of thing which drove you towards making it?

Dylan: I think so, yeah. Listening to music is when I feel emotions strongest and emotions/physical reactions seem to be some kind of feedback loop. Music creates a mood and atmosphere that can change my mode. I like using that to my advantage and getting myself into a desired state through song choices.

It's really not a game which crops screens well, alas.


RPS: Okay: an obvious one – what songs did you use in the early days of Audiosurf? And what was the first song which gave you something you didn’t expect which was kind of magical?

Dylan: In the early days I only ever tried it with my own music collection. Some of the artists I listened to most frequently were Tool, The Doors, Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, and The Creatures. It was Bed by Pet that first hooked me on the rollercoaster concept in Audiosurf. I must have played it 10 times in row after first trying it in Tune Racer (an Audiosurf prototype). In Bed, Lisa Papineau alternates from whispering to all out wailing – forming huge peaks to ride.

RPS: One thing I’ve seen is people discovering music by Audiosurf. People talk on forums about what’s ace, and then someone else plays it and is enchanted. Have you discovered any neat music via Audiosurf?

Dylan: An editor from Play Magazine, Mike Griffin, told me Orbital’s Meltdown was the perfect Audiosurf long track – and he was right. Another was the White Stripes. I hadn’t given their music much attention until my brother issued an Audiosurf challenge with Icky Thump.

It's really not a game which crops screens well, alas.

RPS: Something about Audiosurf which is odd – some people just don’t get it at all. It’ll be easier to put it down to just people who aren’t into music – and I think there’s some of that – but it’s more than that. What do you think makes someone not like your game? Have you noticed any trends?

Dylan: There’s a clear trend; both of the people who don’t like Audiosurf are broken.

RPS: Yes, but seriously…

Dylan: For some people the visuals just don’t click. A few times at the GDC Expo, Elizabeth clapped along and stomped a foot to help demonstrate how the traffic synchronized to the music – and still nothing. For me, the more I focus on the game the more I become immersed in the music. I look far out ahead to visually anticipate upcoming notes and curves while steering my present position. Music is primarily a driver for me. I always have something on (and loud) when I’m productive, but it isn’t of as much interest while relaxing. So perhaps it’s a matter of whether you like to fade out or focus when listening to music. Or maybe some people just need to practice a little more to fully get to the good place.

RPS: We only noticed when Alec overtook me on Wuthering Heights that you had changed some elements of the game – they don’t actually appear to described on the site. Care to describe what you altered, and why you did?

Dylan: There was an update recently that increased the score potential of the Mono characters to keep them competitive. It also added a new model for Mono Pro’s vehicle with plates that open when it jumps. It was hard to know which features players would like most, but now they’re simply telling me and I’m using that feedback to shape Audiosurf into a better experience. The Mono
characters have been more popular than I anticipated so they’ve already gotten some attention.

It's really not a game which crops screens well, alas.

RPS: Valve’s Doug Lombardi described Audiosurf as changing your life over a handful of weeks. Care to talk about that? The game had gathered a whole load of attention before release before its beta, and suddenly you’re topping digital download sales charts. What have these weeks been like for you?

Dylan: Absolutely crazy. Being announced as an IGF finalist was a huge turning point from complete obscurity. That endorsement started a whole snowball of attention and helped put Steam sales beyond my expectations. I’m used to getting about half an email a day, but that number has gone up a bit lately.

RPS: Obvious question: You’ve made this great game. What now? Are you planning to expand Audiosurf, or head to something new or just go surfboarding?

Dylan: I’ll be expanding Audiosurf for a while. I want players to know they can expect that from my games, but also, my brain is still at the Audiosurf setting. There’s a lot more I want to do with it.

RPS: Another obvious, if a more rude, question: You’re loaded now, yes? Is that awesome? I hope it’s awesome. We’re big fans of money at RPS – mainly due to not having any – and quite like the idea of an indie-runaway success leading to someone becoming comfortably wealthy.

Dylan: It’s beyond awesome to be able to focus completely on my own work now.

Audiosurf is available on Steam for ten dollars. RPS remain besotted with Kate Bush.

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19 Comments »

  1. Alex says:

    Everyone remains besotted with Kate Bush. Everyone.

  2. Rob says:

    Heh, I like how he dodges the last question.

  3. Tak says:

    That was a ‘yes you dummy’ to me, more than a dodge. At least he didn’t go ‘I have more money than you probably ever will, yes’. That would be just mean :p

  4. Bidermaier says:

    It must suck being Jeff Minter right now :(
    btw Dylan was interviewed this week in attack of the show, it is entertaining. http://www.g4tv.com/attackoftheshow/videos/20789/The_Loop_OneonOne_with_Audiosurf.html

  5. fluffy bunny says:

    Nice interview. It’s great to see this game getting the success it deserves.

    Bidermayer: What does Jeff Minter have to do with Audiosurf, and why would it suck being him right now?

  6. Rook says:

    Are there any numbers on exactly how well Audiosurf did?

  7. Bidermaier says:

    i see audiosurf as the best realization of Minters ideas on videogames so far.

    music visualization used as a base for a very 80′s gameplay
    2D gameplay using 3D perspective
    Use of synergy and psychodelia in games

    IMO the game screams Minter.

  8. fluffy bunny says:

    Fair enough. But unlike Space Giraffe for instance, Audiosurf is very “clean” – both in terms of gameplay and presentation.

    Anyway, I hear Minter wasn’t very happy with the sales of Space Giraffe on the 360. Maybe he should go the Steam-route as well?

  9. Scandalon says:

    Plus, didn’t Jeff Minter recently (within the last year or so) release a new game that tanked?

    Now, I don’t want to become the grumpy demo curmudgeon, but I think that’s part of why I didn’t “get” audiosurf. I guess there was a limited # of plays or something? I just tried a couple of the built-in ones (my music collection is on a different box than my gaming rig), so I got to try, like, one of the TF2 songs, part of the “unplugged” version of PortalCredits and a couple partials of others. (That were terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad audiosurf tracks – and one that wouldn’t start, my car just sat there.) Then I was locked out and told to buy the thing. I deleted it immediately.

    Seriously, I really like music and (depending on my mood/stage in life) often actually just sit/lay there and listen. I really wanted to like AudioSurf…but couldn’t.

    Is it worth another try? (Will the steam monster let me if I re-install the demo?) I actually have $10 of “fun” money available, but I don’t want to waste it…

  10. andreas says:

    i just got it.
    ive tried the demo when it came out and did not think too much of it.
    most of my music is on my ipod and i had no real music to try the game.

    well i installed it again today, copied some the go team and amon tobin to my laptop and BANG! it worked and was awesome.
    i bought the game and ive been playing it so much.. i kinda feel dizzy now =)

  11. Cigol says:

    I played the demo and thought little of it to be honest. It needs the full version to be appreciated, it takes time to get to grips with (or at least it did in my experience) and the unlocking of all features helps the experimentation/learning process.

  12. K says:

    I really need to get around to trying Audiosurf out. It’d be interesting to see if it compliments or clashes with my natural synesthesia. Could be my perfect game, or a mental crash.

  13. Down Rodeo says:

    I have been meaning to get it; I have a few weeks of free time now so I might just add it to my Steam list. People seem to like it, and I like my musics, so why not I figure.

  14. Brokenbroll says:

    The demo is too limited. I got into the game from playing the beta, and you really need to play a whole handful of tracks to start getting the feel of what works and doesn’t. The demo, offering only four tries, doesn’t give one enough play time to build an appreciation for the game.

    I bought it based on the beta. Had my decision only been based on the demo, I might not have.

  15. Cigol says:

    I think it’s something they should look at, I mean it wouldn’t hurt to increase the track limit to something like 10 or so. I’m pretty impulsive when buying on Steam so whilst my purchase was fine I can imagine some people being put off.

    I guess the numbers so low to encourage buying to continue playing.

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