How A Lifetime Of Heart Disease Birthed Hyper Light Drifter

By Nathan Grayson on November 7th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Hyper Light Drifter is looking magnificent. It’s playing quite beautifully too, and you will hear my impressions of it very soon. But first, let’s delve into the stylishly pink wonder’s past, which definitely isn’t all roses. Heart Machine head Alex Preston was born with a number of life-threatening heart defects, and he’s spent his life alternatively triumphing over them and falling at their feet. Hyper Light Drifter is, in large part, inspired by those struggles – a swarm of ideas that have been flitting and buzzing about in Preston’s mind for as long as he can remember. It was only this year, however, that he finally realized he *had* to breathe life into this game. Good ideas are infinite, but time, unfortunately, is painfully limited.

If the human gene pool was a hardware manufacturer, it’d be the most reviled in the business. It hurls out inconsistent, unpredictable products – spark-spitting machines that go all achy-breaky at the drop of a hat. Some come out top-of-the-line, destined to run marathons at peak efficiency and chug along happily for upward of a century, while others are just waiting for a single additional ingredient to set off a domino chain of degradation. Disease. Defects. Death.

There is, sadly, no return policy.

You work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, some of us begin with very, very little. Forget ticking time bomb situations; some bodies have wrenches stuck in their most vital gears from the very beginning, internal clocks grinding and mashing like teeth on concrete. An “idyllic” childhood or even a careless young adulthood are just fantasies when mortality’s right behind you every step of the way.

Hyper Light Drifter creator Alex Preston knows this better than anyone. But he also knows that life still happens, and you can’t just quit because you weren’t dealt an auto-magically winning hand.

“I have a heart condition,” he told me matter-of-factly, among the otherwise mundane chatter of a crowded hotel lobby, when I asked him why he’d recently been hospitalized. “I was born with it. I was also recently diagnosed with a genetic mutation that causes a lot of other issues. I just have things that happen all the time. I’ll always be in and out of hospitals.”

“I can’t live my life in a typical fashion that most people can. I have a very restricted and limited diet, for example. I’m limited in the physical activities I can do, and I have been throughout my life. That’s kind of what led me down the path of playing a lot of games and indulging in a lot of media. I had a lot of downtime, so I really absorbed all that stuff. Especially with games, where it’s this entire world you can escape to and become something else, you don’t have to worry about stuff going on in your life currently. Games have always provided a good way to push the boundaries of my mind and get out of my own body.”

But it wasn’t until this year – until Preston’s third decade of life – that he found the motivation to make his own game on a large scale. He’d freelanced art and game design previously, but his own art remained insular. Close and personal. Safe. A stay in the hospital at the start of the year, however, changed all of that.

“I’ve always had bits and pieces of  Hyper Light Drifter swirling around in my mind since I was a kid,” he explained. “This one’s reared its head time after time, but it was only in the past year – I was hospitalized really early in the year – that I realized I needed to actually get something out. Before, I was very private about my work and what I was doing. I only shared it with close friends and didn’t really put anything in the public eye. But I’m tired of hoarding all my work. It’s time to make an effort and push on forward regardless of health problems or whatever else.”

It’s hard, though. Not simply due to the fact that Preston’s physical ability to work could be compromised at highly inopportune times, but because his health issues are in everything he creates. He can’t help it. That piece of himself is ever-present, his core and his destruction. His work, then, is extremely personal, and showing that part of yourself to the world can be terrifying. Paralyzing. But he’s moving forward with it nonetheless, and he’s letting his personal life bleed through as it will.

“It goes into everything I do, really,” he gestured, thin frame suddenly powerful, almost proud. “My maladies have always been my art. Especially in this game, the story revolves around an ailing drifter. He’s coping with his own set of problems, but he’s still managing to live his life and do his job, essentially. There’s definitely some autobiographical elements in the story.”

“The [company name] Heart Machine is inspired by that, too. I had open heart surgery when I was about one year old. I had a couple holes in my heart. They had to patch those up. A couple years ago, I also had a pacemaker installed to help with the electrical pathways. Heart issues wrecked that stuff.”

And in the game? Yes, in the game. Hyper Light Drifter is still very much in development, but the hope is to include some sort of illness mechanic – at least, if it fits. Think less Far Cry 2 (though Preston liked the game and called it an “interesting” starting point) and more, well, whatever fits in a Diablo-meets-Link-to-the-Past ARPG.

“We’re figuring out what exactly what will and work for the game right now – though we’ve done a lot of work on it already,” he explained. “So we’re looking into all of that and maybe a possible illness mechanic.”

“We don’t want to hinder the player in a way that’s dissatisfying or frustrating. So if we end up having an illness mechanic, it’ll be something that’s interesting and fun in a way. Our baseline for this game is, ‘Is it fun?’ We want to design around elegance, beauty, and an underlying core of fun. So even an illness mechanic has to be fun on some level.”

It’s a harrowing line to walk, and Preston’s very conscious of that. If he’s letting the pressure get to him, however, he certainly wasn’t showing it when we spoke. It was quite a happy moment for him, all things considered, due in large part to people’s reaction to his labor of love. Openness and sincerity are powerful things, and fans – much to Preston’s delight – have taken notice. More powerfully still, many of them have responded in kind.

“I’ve had a lot of good support and really positive feedback,” he grinned. “People sharing fan art and their own medical histories. It’s been pretty touching. I’m always open to hear people’s stories, and when they’re genuine like that – when a complete stranger is willing to share those secrets and disabilities and what they’re going through – I understand perfectly where they’re coming from. How personal that is. Revealing that information is a huge deal.”

“There was also one guy on YouTube who said, ‘Fuck you, I was gonna make this game.’ He was really serious. He really wanted me to get fucked,” he chuckled. “But there’s been plenty of people who were like, ‘We’re really inspired that you can put this out here. This is the kind of game I want to make. The kind of stuff I want to do.’ As an artist, the fact that it resonates on that level is really what you shoot for.”

It’s a thrillingly auspicious beginning, but now the real work begins. Preston’s certainly not a game development neophyte, but he’s never tackled a project of this scope and direction either. Hyper Light Drifter, meanwhile, suddenly has a whole, whole lot more expectation riding on it now that it’s pulled in $645,158 on Kickstarter. You could be forgiven, then, for worrying that Preston might not be able to pull it off. But this isn’t a one-man show, and Preston thinks he’s assembled a team that can deliver and then some.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to these fans to make something great,” he said, soberly.

“There’s been a couple failed projects where they mismanaged money or overscoped or all sorts of bad things happened. For me, I’ve been buddies with these guys I’m working with for a while. They’re reliable. They’re solid dudes. They’ve been working on their own games for years. Casey Hunt is one of our teammates. He was part of this group called Three Legged Legs. They made amazing commercials and motion graphics stuff for years. He’s creative producer, so he’s super experienced in that area. And then there’s [Samurai Gunn creator] Beau Blyth. He’s been making games forever now. Also, Teddy [Diefenbach]. He’s been super reliable and in the industry longer than any of us. He used to work at larger companies like Disney Interactive.”

He added that all of them are generally used to working with belts tightened and piggy banks skeletal, so they’re not suddenly going to go off and splurge in all the wrong places. “It’s not like we’re gonna go out and buy Lamborghinis or anything,” he smirked.

For Preston, this is the start of one of the biggest endeavors of his life, art bigger and bolder than anything he’s attempted previously. But it’s also more than that. It’s a culmination of years of shifts and upheavals, ailments he couldn’t control and constant uncertainty. That aspect of his life will probably never change, but now he’s taking matters into his own hands. Now he’s following his heart instead of letting it hold him back and drag him down.

“My health issues are my problem. They’re my disabilities, but I cope with them and I’ll continue to cope with them. And now I have lots of support. I’ve always had solid support, but this year’s been particularly rough, and I was able to get this thing out.”

“I’m done hoarding my work.”

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56 Comments »

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  1. DarkFarmer says:

    thanks for making me feel even worse that I didn’t back this.

    • kalidanthepalidan says:

      No worries. Someone has to buy it when it is released.

      • SillyWizard says:

        Indeed. I sometimes wonder about particularly niche kickstarters that are very successful: has their entire audience backed the game? Is there going to be anyone left to buy it once it’s out? I know it seems like a silly question, but. I wonder….

        • MadTinkerer says:

          I never seem to have enough to back everything I want, but there have been so many success stories and even now a steady drip of full releases that I don’t worry about it too much. I back what I can, and as for those who successfully met their goals without my pledge, I patiently wait for the rest.
          Disaster and post-funding failures do happen, but they seem to be more the exception now. The main constant seems to be that 99% of all game projects get delayed, but most that are funded still ship.

    • InternetBatman says:

      By the end they had so much money that I kinda though adding more money would add more pressure to overscope and stress rather than security.

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        Don Reba says:

        Note to self: at the end of an extraordinarily successful Kickstarter campaign, make it exceedingly clear that I would not be stressed out at all to get even more funds.

        • InternetBatman says:

          It sounds backwords, but if you are not used to having a lot of money, it creates a lot of worries that you didn’t have before. How do you manage it, how much do you give out to friends, how much should you add to the project, are you keeping track of your original focus? There’s a reason the Night in The Woods team stopped doing stretchgoals and slowed down on updates.

          On the other hand, Obsidian would have had no problem taking ten million more for Project Eternity.

    • povu says:

      You can pre-order it if you like. http://www.heart-machine.com/

  2. JRHaggs says:

    Oh, there’s definitely a return policy, Nathan. But things usually have to be pretty damn defective to warrant its use.

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      equatorian says:

      If you’re talking about the RMA, then I’ll just hop in to say that it’s because the process is so freaking atrocious that nobody wants to do it unless they absolutely need to. Gene Pool Inc. barely keeps enough stock in its warehouse, and it’s hard to find parts. Worse is finding mechanics that won’t leave screwdrivers inside when they’re exchanging parts, and sometimes the parts themselves make the rest of the hardware explode.

      And good luck trying to get to the customer service hotline. Horrible brand, honestly.

  3. Aberaham says:

    650 grand buys you low res pixel art with too many shaders.

    • Dominus_Anulorum says:

      The things some people get out of articles. I mean seriously, how can you not think that this game looks gorgeous? Pixel art can be fantastic if done well. Hi-res graphics are not all they are cracked up to be. Cave Story, one of the best games ever, would not be the game it is without its pixel art.

      • Sam250 says:

        “Hi-res graphics are not all they are cracked up to be.”

        Nonsense. This game looks pretty good, because they have used colour and form well, but greater resolution means greater potential, so as well as great aesthetics the better artworks need great resolutions. Impressionism might have used colour and composition better than the detailed paintings that came before, but to get the best artwork you can you want the colour, composition *and* the detail.

        http://www.artrenewal.org/artwork/730/730/4511/springtime-huge.jpg

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKl0o3B4Sr4

        Low-res art gets a free pass from the press, because “indies” get a free pass and they are the ones that do it, but in the big picture the style can only go so far. In other words, it is tied to mediocrity.

        • epmode says:

          It’s kind of crazy that you linked to a video of Muramasa since it’s one of those games that looks incredible in screenshots but not as good in motion. Sure, the art is a lot higher resolution than Hyper Light Drifter but the sprites are animated more like a puppet than cel animation. There are very few keyframes and most animation is accomplished by rotating and scaling the components of the characters in interesting ways. The newest Rayman games operate the same way, although they’re more impressive than Muramasa.

          Hyper Light Drifter’s sprites are mostly handled like traditional cel animation style where the artist simply redraws the sprite for each frame. While the results can be impressive, It’s a lot more work.

          The problem is that making a game with high resolution 2D art AND great animation is ridiculously expensive and it’s definitely out of reach of even a $600K Kickstarter.

          …well, it might be out of reach. The Banner Saga is a good case study. It’s in high resolution, looks incredible and it features traditional animation. It bears mentioning that their $700K is only to fund the first part of a three part game, AND they’ve already released a F2P multiplayer mode to help fund the rest of the game.

        • Convolvulus says:

          “Best artwork” isn’t a thing that exists outside of your mind, and you certainly can’t quantify artistic value according to level of detail. In the modern creative process an image’s resolution is always subordinate. Why should it be a driving aesthetic consideration when a child with a camera phone can capture millions of pixels in the blink of an eye? I’ve never seen a striking representational tile mosaic and thought, If only the subject were depicted in a high-res photo, there’d be like eighty times more art in there.

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          Oozo says:

          @Sam250

          “Impressionism might have used colour and composition better than the detailed paintings that came before, but to get the best artwork you can you want the colour, composition *and* the detail.”

          You know, what you just wrote there sounds an awful lot like you think that Cézanne, Monet, Manet et al. did paint the way they did because the hadn’t reached the higher level of sophistication yet were they could use both their feeling for colour AND a more detailled, realistic style. I mean, I’m not an art historian myself, but I am QUITE sure that detail is not what those guys were after, and not because they would not have been able to do so.

          Unless what you want to say is that tbe painting you linked to is objectively superior (or because you think it is). In which case, sorry for having tried reasoning with you.

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            psepho says:

            “By the time I was 14 I could paint like an old master. But it took all my life to learn to paint like a child.” — Picasso (so I am told)

          • Sam250 says:

            @Ooozo

            You just can’t offer an opinion without accusations of being a taste nazi! But I can’t blame just you. Almost nobody you see on gaming sites seems to understand the what objective and subjective mean. To them, they are only ammo to use against dissenting opinions. The “all styles are equal, everything is subjective, no criticism allowed” crowd seem like paragons of humanity, but in reality it’s a rather destructive hypocrisy.

            Yes, the style of painting I linked is superior, to me. I offer that opinion to the world with the hope that I can share some of my own enjoyment with others, that perhaps they can see things in new ways and make discoveries and together we can find the things that bring us the most pleasure.

            For those that get a lot of out looking at Picasso: good for them, though I would rather talk with somebody else, lol. But there is also the possibility that they can find *more* enjoyment by opening their mind to the possibility that Picasso sucks, lol, and by that perhaps you will understand how the hardest critic is being infinitely more constructive then than the “that’s just your opinion man” idiots. This is all part of the process to get the most of the art and find the things that bring us the most pleasure.

            Moving on. Do you really think Monet *could* paint like Bouguereau but *choose* not to. Nonsense.

          • Sam250 says:

            @psepho

            If that quote was anonymous you would recognise it as nonsense, even the ravings of a madman, but we are “educated” to respect Picasso as an authority, even though most people have only glanced at his work and probably don’t even care about painting.

            Now maybe you *do* genuinely love Picasso’s work… but realistically I believe that if you open your eyes and use your own judgement you would come to the same conclusions I have, which is that children’s drawings are *shit*, Picasso is *shit*, and the most attractive artworks are the complex ones.

            Bonus round: http://www.iambetterthanyourkids.com/

          • The Random One says:

            So we can’t see Picasso is shit because we’re too close-minded to analyze his work honestly. This is the only possible truth. It is inconceivable that we have analyzed Picasso’s work honestly and actually enjoy it, and that he is recognized as a great master of painting because a lot of people actually think his paintings are pretty good. No; Picasso is objectively bad, and everyone only thinks he’s any good because they’re told so, including the first people to recognize him as a great painter.

          • Sam250 says:

            If you spent more time reading and thinking rather than sarcastically sneering at straw men you might make some progress intellectually.

          • Sic says:

            The Random One just repeated what you said. Without the usage of “lol”.

          • Sam250 says:

            lol

          • GROM says:

            for someone who complains about people not understanding the difference between objective and subjective you sure do make a lot of subjective statements.

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          For a second there I thought you were seriously suggesting that more detail = better art. Very amusing.

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          molamolacolacake says:

          I think what we have here is a difference in taste. I love the Hyper Light style so much and it happens that impressionism and pointillism are my two favorite art styles.

          • GROM says:

            Exaclty this, it’s an intentional ‘crippled’ art style, that used be the unintentional norm through processing power but wich is now freed from it’s former bounderies resulting in truly stunning masterpieces. Sure there were games in the old days who allready had great pixelart and a lot of us people growing up on them will have nostalgia coloured goggles on because we experienced them during influential times. Just like impressionism tthey just gave you a point of reference and left the rest open for interpretation instead of telling you what you’re supposed to see.

            I wonder if people have the same opinion on old films because they’re not in HD while a lot of charm or atmosphere came from the limitations of the technology they used. Just look at LOTR and The hobbit. They’re only ten years apart but one really does feel like a genuine fantasy while the other one just feels like plastic puppets in front of a greenscreen. HD doesn’t make everything better or superior.

        • Focksbot says:

          Sam250, you are, of course, entitled to your own preferences, but it would be a poorer world where the fullest range of possible artistic styles wasn’t practised.

          As it happens, I agree with you that the ‘everything is subjective’ position is lazy and usually hypocritical (as in, those who cite it will usually not apply it to something *they* think is clearly superior). But to be objective about art, you really have to recognise that simplicity is affecting for different reasons than complexity, and that detail presents its own series of difficulties that are very difficult to overcome.

          At the end of the day, Hyper Light Drifter easily looks as good as Muramasa. I think I *am* being objective when I say that. Both games look ‘good’ in the sense that they project a particular aesthetic that is (a) functional, (b) bursting with individual character and (c) appropriate to the themes and content of the game. ‘Ugliness’ in games usually means either hard to read and understand, crudely derivative of something else (the problem with most ‘realistic’ games) or ill-fitting.

      • Sam250 says:

        “Cave Story, one of the best games ever, would not be the game it is without its pixel art.”

        It’s not even one of the best Metroidvania’s, when compared the the best Metroids and Vania’s, or the Wonder Boys and Megamans and various one-offs, let alone one of the best sidescrolling action games, take the Contras and Ghouls n Ghosts for example, and when you realise you also have to compare 2D Metroidvania’s to their 3D relatives, the action-adventures and other similar genres, you might see how ridiculous it is to call Cave Story one the best games ever made. And the pixel art isn’t even very good.

        • Dominus_Anulorum says:

          Well, okay, I love the game, but your opinion can definitely differ. But what is your problem with pixel art? It is a style which you like or don’t like. While I understand someone not liking it, I do not see how pixel art is inherently worse than any other art style. And detail does not equal beauty. Battlefield 4 has incredible detail and is a very nice looking game. Compare it to Dishonored. Dishonored honestly does not have incredible detailed textures, but the unique art style makes up for it and makes it, in my opinion, a much more beautiful game.
          But wait, doesn’t Dishonored have a huge amount of detail in the environment and world? Why yes it does. And that is part of what makes it so awesome. Likewise, look at these trailers for Drifter. Sure. the textures are 2d pixel art, but it already looks like the game world is going to be full of glorious detail which makes it, in my opinion, better than any high res. game like BF4. Note, though, that this is of course just my opinion. I am just trying to say that art is highly subjective. You may rate the impressionists bellow other art styles, but other people love them. It is all in the eye of the beholder.

        • Convolvulus says:

          Forgive my previous comment. I thought your artistic philosophy was wrongheaded because I didn’t understand that your personal taste has universal importance. What is the correct fabric for shirts?

    • SillyWizard says:

      You got it backwards. Low-res pixel art (among other things like awesome art design and concept) netted these people $650k in the hopes that people will be able to get their hands on a fully realized version of the game.

      Don’t be a douche.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      I don’t often compliment trolls, but that was a good one. I see what you did there.

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        Llewyn says:

        Indeed. It always amazes me that RPS readers devote so much energy to arguing with trolls, rather than simply blocking them.

        • Focksbot says:

          If you just block them, then to someone idly browsing the site, it looks like their daft arguments/points (to be generous) go unchallenged. Far better to swat them.

    • Uncompetative says:

      As an indie game dev who did a degree in Fine Art it is my subjective opinion, based on my exceptionally refined good taste, that Hyper Light Drifter has superior aesthetics to Destiny.

  4. BLACKOUT-MK2 says:

    Wow, it’s stuff like this that’s really inspirational. Struggling with all those health problems and he’s stil gone and made a game. All the more power to him!

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    psepho says:

    This art is wonderful — it really clicks for me. Second screenshot down (the skull ship) is quite sublime.

    I really hope that the game can love up to it.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    Looks great. Gorgeous, even. For a pixel-arty game.

  7. Chillz says:

    Such an amazing article, thank you Nathan! :) Also thanks to Mr.Preston for pulling through all his problems and making(what looks like) an amazing game for us :)

  8. LittleDizzle says:

    I had emailed Alex with a personal health story about a month before the kickstarter ended and was slightly informed about his health problems. It really brought forward the thought of “why I haven’t I started doing anything yet” and made me get on the ball. They also seem to have a great team behind this game.

  9. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    I’m going to mention Radio the Universe in every Hyper Light Drifter post I come across. Then when you finally start covering it I’ll link back to those comments. Hopefully it’ll be a post by Nathan, as he’s good with the “how come I haven’t noticed this yet, oimgod” angle, as the most blatantly excitable member of the team.

    • KillahMate says:

      How is Radio the Universe coming along? It’s one of the ones I would have backed had I only known it existed before its Kickstarter was over. Last time I checked the developer was doubling down on the game, with few new updates. Or do the backers get updates?

      • epmode says:

        Updates are infrequent (once a month) and they’re limited to backers but I don’t have any reason to believe things aren’t going well. The guy was pretty terse in the Kickstarter pitch as well.

  10. AlexStoic says:

    What a beautiful article, and very inspirational. Man, seems like we should all be able to pull it together and do something that outlives us. Thanks for posting, Nathan.

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    thesundaybest says:

    Lovely article. Genuinely excited about this.

  12. Synesthesia says:

    Beautiful article, beautiful pixel art, beautiful animation, beautiful music. Can´t wait till this is out.

  13. googoogjoob says:

    this game is a tragic reminder of the state of indie video games in anno domini two thousand and thirteen

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    Martel says:

    Great writing Nathan, thank you.

  15. Barts says:

    I haven’t backed this, for one reason or another, but the day it comes out on Vita, I am A) buying a copy for myself, B) buying a copy for any my friends that has a Vita at that point and C) writing glowing review in whatever magazine or portal that buys it from me (I’m freelancing, so…).

    The feeling of both awe, adventure and discovery I got from looking at that image with huge monsters, similar to ones from Nausicaa from the Valley of Wind was priceless.

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    quietone says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read. Ever. The perfect equilibrium on telling a sensitive subject with so much dignity both from the writer and the developer.

    My sincere admiration for a wonderful piece of writing, and a very interesting story to be told.

    The fact that the game looks great doesn’t harm either.

    • Sic says:

      I agree. A very good article.

      It was verging extremely close to going over the top into touchy feely land, but in my opinion, didn’t.

  17. chicknstu says:

    This stopped me in my tracks, this article. Absolutely had to comment…

    I have a heart condition too. I’ve had it since birth. I’ve had a pacemaker since I was 18, and am now at the point where I’m on a plethora of drugs to stop my lungs filling up with gunk and a simple walk into town is like scaling everest.

    But, like Alex (it sounds like) I have never considered this to be a disability, although it has brought the urgency to get the projects out of my head and onto a screen forward.

    The reason I felt the need to comment is that there is something in this article which should ring true with everyone…

    “Good ideas are infinite, but time, unfortunately, is painfully limited.”

    Remember, that’s not just true of people with heart disease. That’s true for everyone.

    Really hope I can meet Alex one day. It sounds like we’ve had identical lives!

    S

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    While I didn’t back this cause I hit my “I think I’ve spent enough money on Kickstarter for now” limit a while back I will definitely get this on Humble Store later because it looks AMAZING.