TIGInterview: Alex May

By: Derek Yu

On: April 9th, 2009

Alex May

Leigh Ashton, AKA Gravious, recently interviewed his good friend Alex May about Dyson, IGF 2009, and what it’s like to be a part of indiedom.

Leigh: So Alex, for those who don’t know who you are, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your games?

Alex: I’m Alex May. I am fascinated by interactive systems. I currently work in the games industry full time and write the real stuff in my spare time. That’s actually a bit unfair to my current employers. The project I’m on at work is rather fresh, and our own thing by and large. I wrote Cottage of Doom, which won the TIGSource B-Games competition and wrote Dyson along with Rudolf Kremers.

Leigh: You’ve just come back from the Independent Games Festival, how was that?

Alex: It was one of the best weeks of my life. I had never been to America before, never been to a conference before, never been nominated for an award before. It was amazing. Just meeting so many of my fellow indies was more than worth anything I’ve put into Dyson so far. Dyson may not have won the awards for which it was nominated but we really don’t mind about that. The games that did win absolutely deserved to and for us, the nomination itself has been an astronomical boost. Really, it’s been life-changing just to be nominated.

Cottage of Doom

Leigh: Your most recent game Dyson was a finalist for the Seumas McNally grand prize, it started off as an entry in one of the frequently held competitions here on TIGSource, were you surprised at the reaction its received?

Alex: Yes, but also no, in a way. I think I also speak for Rudolf when I say that the response we’ve received has changed the way we think about our work. Personally, I was surprised that so many people could enjoy our game, which I considered to be flawed and incomplete in every aspect. However, we ourselves tried hard to create something a little surprising, so it is good to see that people are finding that refreshing.

Leigh: You’re releasing Dyson commercially through Steam and Direct2Drive in July, How has that experience been so far?

Alex: Super. Both companies have been extremely supportive and responsive. It’s been a breeze, both in terms of being easy to go through the process of signing a deal, and in terms of dealing with people over financial matters.

Leigh: Most commercial games are the product of market feasibility studies and intense demographic targeting, yet indie developers frequently just make the games they want to play. What are your motivating factors in game design or implementation?

Alex: If it’s not fun, we remove it. Eventually. For me, all elements of the design should support each other. Finding ways of doing that can be like piecing together a huge jigsaw puzzle, which might even have bits missing, but eventually you get something like a full picture. For instance, it is important that Dyson trees cost a certain number of seedlings, for the design. But the trees only grow from one spot, right? So for the implementation, I had those other seedlings land on the surface of the asteroid and become grass. For ages we just had them explode in the air and the tree would magically grow out of the asteroid, but now it all makes a bit more sense.

Leigh: Have these ideals moulded Dyson, or since “going pro” have you adopted a more business oriented design approach?

Alex: I think I got a bit scared by going commercial and I wanted to make sure people would get value for money. But in doing that I think I miscalculated what people would see as value, or forgot what made our game valuable, and I helped make plans with Rudolf that might have made the game worse. I talked to Jonathan Mak at GDC and he helped me realise this. We’ve looked at the plans since and applied what we learned from players at the IGF so that we can stay close to the indie dream.


Leigh: What do you think the pros and cons of this approach are?

Alex: Doing it indie? OK here goes: In the Pros corner, you’ve got the love. That’s the main thing. And if you’re not free then you can’t realise that love, make it real. Tale of Tales did a presentation at the Indie Game Maker Rant at IGS where I think they told us how indie they are… or something. The point was, nothing influences them except themselves. That’s what I took away from it anyway. I’m usually quite pessimistic, but I strongly believe that if you stick to your principles then it all works out in the end, regardless of the Cons.

Leigh: A lot of people commented that some of the entrants to the IGF were from mainstream published studios and shouldn’t have been allowed. This raises the question of what it is to be “Indie”. Do you think “indie” is a market, like “Casual” games, and therefore a valid target, or is it simply an ideological stand to the publishers lack of creative risk taking?

Alex: ‘Indie’ isn’t a market, it’s a word, and it’s short for ‘independent’. In this case, independent games. So I don’t think it’s a market, no. I don’t think casual games is a market either. I think there is a clear market for simple, family-friendly downloadable games, because it has been captured and hungrily developed. A market is a place where people go to buy things. All those people know roughly what they will get when they shop at certain places or with certain companies, organisations, brands or people. People who visit Big Fish are Big Fish’s market, and the market for anyone who sells through Big Fish. People who use Steam are Valve’s market, and the market for anyone who sells through Steam. But the so-called casual portals have fallen into the same trap as the mainstream publishers – they’re on to some money and that’s repeatable, and it’s something they can statistically rely on, so they don’t change what they’re doing. This has created the myth of the ‘casual’ game. When people do the same thing a lot it becomes typical. Anyway, these games aren’t casual; some people spend hours on them at a time. What they are is good games that appeal to certain people. A truly casual game would spit you out after half an hour and tell you to come back the next day. Dyson has been called a casual game because it is quite simple, but you can spend hours doing the same clicking and dragging. It’s not casual, it’s just quite easy to play and it’s compelling.

Now if you look around on indie game sites, you’ll see people (developers and consumers alike) complaining that (for example) “all indie games are crap” or “all indie games are unrefined” or “all indie games are arty nonsense”. All this proves, apart from that people are stupid (and we knew that already), is that indie games are diverse, which makes sense because the only creative barriers around an independent game are that there are none. They don’t fit into any one market by definition. They’re just games, and some are good and some are bad and some of them will appeal to you and some won’t.

All that said, there will be a small minority who are interested and any indie game just because it is indie – idealistic consumers and pursuers of creative freedom or pretentious art hipsters? It’s your choice. It could be considered a market by a bad businessman. I don’t think it’s particularly significant in business terms, but at any rate it is interesting to see the positive and negative stigmas that are associated with the word ‘indie’ by the public now.

I try not to let any of this bother me though. Just focus on what you love. That’s a bit hypocritical, because sometimes I say bad things about games or people, but one ought to focus on what one likes and ignore the rest. Do as I say, not as I do! You there! Take your shirt off at the award ceremony!

Rudolf Kremers

Leigh: could it simply be that the “bedroom coder” has come full-circle?

Alex: They never went away, it’s just that they can more readily make money again now. Great!

Leigh: The irony is, most of the kids making games now probably never used the computers that kickstarted our industry, a 16 year old for instance, wouldn’t have even been born when Commodore imploded, taking the Amiga with it..

Alex: I miss it too man, but you gotta let it go. It’s gone. We’ll always carry it with us. We’ll always have Alien Breed, and Lemmings, and Exile. We’ll always have Workbench, and Deluxe Paint II, and AMOS. Red Sector, Fairlight, and Parallax. 4-Mat, Drax, Tim Wright. Let’s celebrate it, not mourn it!

Leigh: Old games from defunct platforms aren’t as easily accessible to people as say, old books, or even film, do you think this is depriving young developers or even just gamers, of our rich gaming heritage? Is that even a problem, really?

Alex: We write our own history in this respect. There were probably loads of great books written well before their time, as it were, that have not been preserved in enough numbers to be significantly remembered historically. Same with music. It is important to save them. They contain rich history. But they do get saved, and there are people out there saving games, probably to a more efficient extent than any other medium ever. I have seen entire collections of every known game ever released on a platform made available. I checked, and the rarest games I knew were on there and reportedly worked. But really, I know most of what I know of old media from my parents. My dad just bought a DVD of old 1920s jazz MP3s. He spent years collecting tapes and records from that period, only to be able to buy a massive great chunk of it on eBay for four quid. He says it’s the best four quid he’s ever spent.

So teach your kids about old games, why people made them, what trends and forces shaped their creation. It’s important.

Also, I should put a save game system in Dyson. Thanks for the reminder.

Leigh: Do you see a distinction between amateur game makers and indie game makers?

Alex: This comes from that Andrew Doull article. It was stupid then and it’s still stupid because it’s a false dichotomy. Amateur means non-professional. Independent means free. These are not the same. Imagine instead of a single dimension, where at one end of the line you have amateurs and free games, and at the other you have indies and commercial games, you have a two-dimensional space, where on one axis you have amateur and professional, and on the other you have freedom and constraint. Then you will see the real terrain.


Leigh: Where do you see Indie games going from here?

Alex: As a whole it will become, and in many cases has become, a viable medium for people to create any kind of interactive entertainment and live off that to some extent. It’s quite diverse now, with self-published indies operating out of their own sites, and distribution channels available on PC, Mac, XBox 360, PS3, Wii, and mobile platforms. The tools are ripe for picking too – just look around and see the richness: there’s Unity, Game Maker, Multimedia Fusion, BlitzMax, Torque, XNA, pygame, and a ton of other engines and frameworks. There’s never been a better time. If you ever thought about making a game, you can pick up a tool and get to work right now. You can do it.

Leigh: Finally, any tidbits on what you guys are up to after Dyson is released?

Alex: We’re going to work together on another project. I can’t say what that is yet, as we’ve yet to come to a 100% conclusion on it, but we’re both pretty sure of what it will be by now and we’re very excited by that. I want it to be a commercial game, because I want to do this for a living, but that isn’t going to drive me. It will be something we do for the love of it, so no second-guessing the market or focus testing too early, or any of that crap. Rich gameplay and wicked styles.

Leigh: Thanks for answering my questions Alex, some very thought provoking answers! All that’s left to say now is best of luck with Dyson, and are we still cool for the level that spells out my name when you zoom out? ;-)

Alex: I’ll put it in right after that cheque clears.

  • toastie

    Great interview! <3

  • Alec

    He is a sexy man…

  • Kinten

    Mm.. Alex May… yummy

  • Corpus

    Ossum! Nice interview.

  • http://0xdeadc0de.org Eclipse


  • Rudolf Kremers

    I wonder who took that great picture?
    (arf arf arf)

    Good interview.

  • Günter

    I think that’s my favorite response so far to the “What is indie?” brouhaha. Also, Dyson is an awesome game, so hats off to this fine gentleman.

  • SilverSpoon

    No sexy badge-nipples though :-(

  • Melly

    Dyson is awesome.

    In other news I can’t access the forums. :(

  • Tanner

    Alex, I would do any amount of sexual favors for you to thank you for cottage of doom.

  • http://b-mcc.com// BMcC

    Oh Leigh, you sneaky sneaky! I need to do the post-GDC interview circuit.

    P.S. Haowan, I miss you.

  • http://www.superbrothers.ca/ superbrothers

    ‘…I think I miscalculated what people would see as value, or forgot what made our game valuable, and I helped make plans with Rudolf that might have made the game worse. I talked to Jonathan Mak at GDC and he helped me realize this. ‘

    Jonathan Mak is truly a beacon of clarity. To thine own self be true, end of story.

    ‘Rich gameplay and wicked styles.’

    That’s Dyson, in a nutshell. :)

    Brilliant interview!

  • PoV


  • Nava

    Brilliant interview! It was a pleasure meeting both Alex and Rudolf at GDC, both very intelligent, perceptive, and well-spoken gents. <3

  • Adamski

    Is Alex May the old dude at the bar?

  • mirosurabu

    Haven’t read better interview in a while. Very awesome.

  • Kinten

    I was so stunned by the seductive picture i forgot to comment on the interview.
    Well done indeed! I wish there could be a place where I could read more relevant indie-interviews like this one.

  • JoeB

    I do however think most indie games are artsy/gimmicky shit.

    Tower of goo and crayon physics to name a few.

    Are they bad games? By any means no, the’re great, but i wouldnt play any one of them more than a quarter of an hour!

    They aren’t the kind of games i would like to play remembering golden days of PC(and console) gaming.

    Cave story, cortex command and aquaria are more like type of game i would LOVE to play. They’re not all that “innovative” per se, they use more or less classic gameplay mechanic and they’re just very good at it. They fill a small portion of niche games which are not made anymore nowadays.

    Now i would kill for a indie game made in vein of old classic might and magic 6/7.

    Screw innovation and all that artsy, gimmicky shit. Make some games with content, immersion and huge world.

    But you see – making innovative, artsy gimmick of a game is a lot easier. Oh, and you can win a prize in IGF that way too. :(

  • Craig Stern

    Nice interview! :) I like, I like.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May

    It should be pointed out to JoeB that Cortex Command and Aquaria both won prizes at the IGF while Dyson did not.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May

    To everyone else: thanks for the comments :)

  • Aubrey

    Nice one JoeB.

    Someone’s got to stick up for the status quo, or we’ll be overrun with arsty games trying new things. FUCK. THAT. SHIT. How dare anyone experiment with things on their own time.

  • JoeB

    I’m quite pleased dyson didnt. Because it’s prime example of a typical artsy, procedural gimmick game.

    (Cottage of doom on the other hand is awesome!)

    It’s not like there’s something wrong with gimmicks if that’s your thing.

    And I woudnt even call them games, they’re much like toys you play around with and move onto something more engaging.

    The thing with these games is – they are entirely built around this one “new” gimmick and can’t really stand on their own. Cool at first, but that doesnt usually last that long.

    And i really can’t name a game from my list of favorites actually being all that innovative or being built around a gimmick.

    But dont mind me, just go ahead make your artsy “uh, oh, i’m so indie” label games. I just find them repulsive.

  • corpus

    I like that you can list several contemporary games made in that vein and still spend several sentences making complaints in a tone that suggests that nobody makes them any more, JoeB.

    You display the sort of grit, iron will and ability to disregard trifling details which, I feel, is severely lacking from the modern man.

    Here’s to you, JoeB! I only pray that your offspring will be numerous and your genetic output prodigious. It is the future’s only hope.

  • JoeB

    “I like that you can list several contemporary games made in that vein”, please elaborate.

    There’s no such contemporary game like M&M 6/7 made nowadays, at least none of them captures essence, immersion, feel and scale of the game. None.

    If you’re talking about my reference to cave story and aquaria – then, yes, there are a few metroid-esque games being made (recent castlevanias on the DS). But there’s only a few of them. And only very few of them actually is very good.

  • Kermit

    I loved Dyson. I have a friend who doesn’t play video games, who I got into Dyson.

    Playing Dyson isn’t like playing COD4 or Cave Story… to me, its more of a relaxing thing. Like yoga. Dyson to me is like lighting incense, drinking tea, listening to relaxing music and appreciating art. It’s a beautiful, relaxing game.

    The art isn’t a gimmick to me. To watch my trees grow, watch my groups travel from circle to circle (planet to planet?), slowly grow and expand… I love it.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May


    I think to an extent here you’re railing against something you don’t quite understand. You’ve taken a collection of games whose only shared trait is not reproducing classic game design, and labelled them with a series of inappropriate terms. For instance, I wouldn’t refer to World of Goo as “artsy”. Innovative, yes, but I don’t see what’s so artsy about it beyond some subtle anti-establishment commentary. It features genuinely new gameplay that wasn’t possible all those years ago, it’s a new way to play and there’s nothing wrong with that. It sustains the game all the way through several chapters and each level introduces a new puzzle type to solve, which is a monumental achievement and should be appreciated.

    I’m glad you liked Cottage of Doom, but I find it strange; personally I think CoD does new things with the barricading mechanic and it surprises me that this doesn’t repel you. Perhaps it is because the game feels so familiar that these innovations are allowed.

    I think innovation as a term is rather over-used, and carries with it a certain stigma now. My theory is that the people who are sick of seeing the same game over and over again (especially in the mainstream) exaggerate their vocal complaint by saying “we need more innovation!” – but the fact is that these games do change over time. Gears of War, for example, wouldn’t have existed without innovations from several other games (e.g. Halo, whatever game the cover mechanic came from, etc). So when people who like these games just as they are react by saying that innovation is overrated, even though they engage in it themselves.

    This has manifested itself in the indie scene with what you call artsy games – people trying to do new things may get looked down upon because the change is too drastic for people who are happy progressing at their own pace. It takes people outside their comfort zone. I would put Dyson in the category that might challenge people to think outside their comfort zone, and about what games can be like if we try to make different things, and I’d put Cottage of Doom in the category where established game tropes can be manipulated slightly to keep players who are comfortable with that environment happy.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May

    Also: “I’m quite pleased dyson didnt.”

    You must be quite upset that Blueberry Garden won then – it’s far more innovative/’artsy’ than Dyson is :)

    I think it’s a bit silly to label games the way you are doing when it is clear that it’s your personal taste for nostalgia that drives your gaming tastes. Labelling games as gimmicky just because they don’t remind you of older games is not really on.

  • Corpus

    I should point out that, when my comment above was posted, JoeB had not yet responded to anything. I guess the comment of his that’s now displayed directly above my own was being moderated for approval or something so hadn’t appeared yet?

    I have to say, I don’t understand this use of the word “gimmick.” Recently I’ve noticed it being used frequently and in different places in the indie games world as if it were synonymous with “feature.”

    Maybe that’s been going on for a while and I just haven’t been aware of it. It doesn’t matter either way. The point is that it really means nothing more than that: all you’re doing is talking about features of games, but using a word with negative connotations to imply criticism of said features. You’re not making it clear WHY exactly you’re criticising them, and this has two implications:

    A) Your argument is inherently nebulous, wooly, weak and poorly constructed. Actually, it isn’t really an argument at all.

    B) It’s very difficult for people to argue with you, because nobody is entirely certain what you mean. It’s not even clear that YOU know what you mean. In other words, it’s a cop-out and a cowardly tactic.

    All games have features. Most games have a single definitive feature, or a small number of definitive features. You can’t just decide that the only valid features are those you personally appreciate and label everything else a “gimmick.”

  • Gravious

    Frankly i think someone so afraid of art or innovation might consider whether the Indie community produces content relevant to him. The fact of the matter is he’s probably more upset the free games aren’t more conventional…

  • JoeB

    There’s a lot of valid points expressed right there.

    Kermit, you’re quite right. At’s a different kind of expierence, it’s the artsy game expierence, relaxing and all that, yes.

    World of goo isnt the artsy type i’m afraid. It’s the “innovative” game or what i refer to as gimmicky game. Why gimmicky? First of all it’s not all that fun after a half an hour and hence has no lasting appeal. Mainly because it’s built around just that one new gameplay mechanic and is not integrating itself seemlessly with other already well established gameplay mechanics to bring something fresh and fun(that would perhaps be the case with Cottage of Doom). Much like half-life was an innovator, but people dont think of it primarily as an innovative game, but look at it as great game, because the innovation seemed natural and seemless. And most importantly it’s fun and immersive game on its own and actually had an impact on future FPS.

    The key point: most indie games labeled as innovative(and usually have that distinct artsy look) are actually not all that fun, but take a lot of spotlight – and those i prefer call gimmicky. People(at least me) seek “good” and “fun” games, innovation for it’s own sake doesnt matter.

    “This has manifested itself in the indie scene with what you call artsy games – people trying to do new things may get looked down upon because the change is too drastic for people who are happy progressing at their own pace. It takes people outside their comfort zone. I would put Dyson in the category that might challenge people to think outside their comfort zone, and about what games can be like if we try to make different things, and I’d put Cottage of Doom in the category where established game tropes can be manipulated slightly to keep players who are comfortable with that environment happy.”
    No, just no. I’m not by any means against change or art. Actually i welcome it(unless it’s fun and immersive). Most artsy games are neither all that fun and certainly not immersive. And I feel quite comfortable with dyson. It’s good at what it does.
    But there’s at least three things it doesnt achieve:
    1) lasting appeal
    2) fun (it’s fun to some extent)
    3) immersion(as in game world, story, content)
    Much like Kermit said – it’s a game you would play drinking a cup of tea.

    It feels like a toy not a game to indulge myself into.

    Yes, Blueberry Garden is clearly the artsy type, yeah i was like “duh, an artsy game won award”. Can’t judge about the innovation, havent played it yet.

    And i’m sorry to all of you whom i’ve somehow offended.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May

    Yeah, I think those are interesting points. A lot of indie games are experimental, because creative freedom allows experimentation like this. It is also hard to make deep and immersive experiences like Cave Story (5 years) etc. so you do rarely see them. They are mostly labours of love. Consider that Dyson took all of 1 month to create as an initial prorotype – that’s something it shares with a lot of the other games you’re calling gimmicky. They’re often based on short-term prototypes (crayon physics – 1 week; world of goo – 2 days i think).

    Personally I found World of Goo engrossing the whole way through the game. For me the innovative gameplay played second fiddle to the clever level design. I think the game excels on every level: if you remove the emphasis on the so-called gimmick, the game is still really good in terms of its level design and its progression.

    I think people are reacting badly to your comments because you include a lot of generalisations that don’t really make any sense (e.g. “People(at least me) seek “good” and “fun” games, innovation for it’s own sake doesnt matter.”) and some genuinely unpleasant comments (e.g. “But dont mind me, just go ahead make your artsy “uh, oh, i’m so indie” label games. I just find them repulsive.”).

    Also consider that most people will find most things pretty bad. I don’t need to go out and buy every Xbox 360 game for instance, because most of them don’t appeal to me or don’t satisfy my quality requirements. Still, I will leave the occasional comment to the effect of “Great, another bald space marine game, just what I’ve been waiting for”, which is pretty similar to what you’re doing, so I guess I can understand your frustration somewhat.

  • RayRayTea

    Nice interview. Keep up the good work :)

  • RayRayTea

    Hehe I hope JoeB never sees the game I’m working on.