First posted on 13 February 2008. Last updated on 12 November 2008.
Amongst the short list of indie adventure game developers, Cos Russo is a name that may be most familiar to fans of Cyan's Myst and Riven. Russo is the founder of DejaVu Worlds and the developer of Alida, a point and click graphical adventure game set in the style of the Myst series. Not only is Russo the sole developer of Alida, he is also the sole producer, marketer, and publisher (at least initially) for the game. The unexpected success of Alida allows Russo to expand development of the game from the MAC to the PC and to even strike a publishing deal subsequently with Got Game Entertainment for Alida for retail distribution.
Born in 1955, Russo has worked in the music, film, and television industries prior to becoming a game developer. He has played both piano and keyboard for many television and film productions in Australia and has also engineered many of the recordings. His past credits include The Lighthorsemen (1987), Brides Of Christ (1992), and many others. Although his only academic training has been in music, he has always had a hand in programming (as early as back in the days of Apple II, as he claims), especially at the recording studio. Currently, Russo lives in Bowral (south of Sydney) in Australia and works full time as a musician. We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview this talented indie game developer. In the interview, Russo speaks of his inspiration behind Alida, the tools used to develop Alida, the challenges faced by an independent game developer, his thoughts on the state of the adventure genre, and what holds in the future for his and his company.
- You have openly acknowledged that the inspiration behind Alida is Cyan's Myst and Riven. From the perspective of an adventure game developer, what elements about the Myst series do you find most appealing? Least appealing?
- Well, it was a long time ago now... I remember working with the composer Mario Millo on the music of an Australian television series at the studio back in 1994 and we decided to have a break - we went to the local Apple store and saw this new game called 'Myst'. I convinced my friend that we could afford some time for recreation as the studio work had been intensive. We booted Myst up and I remember the effect was immediate ... we were hooked ... no more work was done that day. I loved the way Myst transported you somewhere else for a time. I was so used to linear films where a story is dictated to the viewer, but this presented media so it could be experienced in a new way.
The most appealing thing about the Myst series are the worlds they create - always unique and unusual. I also love playing Grand Theft Auto, but games like GTA are always in familiar environments and settings, whereas the Myst series enable the player to experience new environments. Mix that with evocative music and its magic.
Least appealing ... I suppose the only thing is that the Myst era has ended.
- The story in Alida about an abandoned theme park on an island in the shape of a guitar is decisively whimsical. What is the inspiration behind Alida's story (perhaps from your work in music)? Why is the game (and the rockband in the game) named Alida?
- After playing Myst, I was inspired by the medium and dabbled in 3D ideas. But, it was Riven that finally got me. I felt that the medium was perfect for all the talents I had. I was looking for a game theme that would get me started - as soon as the giant guitar idea came to me I was off and running. I knew that the guitar would look great and would entice gamers to check it out (I know that I would!) Sometimes ideas have to be a little crazy!
I've always thought of the possibility that one day a rich famous band will do something crazy. If they are wealthy and bored enough, anything is possible - maybe even building a theme park in the shape of a guitar!
There is nothing romantic about the origin of the name Alida - I was looking for a short name beginning with 'a'. The fact that it is female is intentional - every guitar player I know refers to his guitar as a female ('she's a nice axe'; 'she's got a nice sound' etc).
- How has your background in music, film, and television prepared you as a game developer? What are your music, film, and television influences for Alida?
- Working in film and television certainly got me ready to spring board into the new emerging technologies. I have always dabbled in computer programming from the earliest days of computing, building apps that would help us in working with film. The music in Alida is purely atmospheric as in a film score. I did not want to include any music that may have been "composed" by the band Alida in the story. Music tastes are SO diverse; if the band's songs were not to the taste of the gamer, I felt that this could alienate the game.
- Alida was developed largely on your own. How much help, if any, were you able to recruit from the community of fellow independent game developers? What community resources, if any, did you make use of during your development of Alida?
- I had help with the video shoot for the character cut scenes and some sound effects recording. I got some advice from a fellow gamer regarding Revolution.
- You chose to develop Alida using Runtime Revolution for the framework, after having been exposed to this tool through a colleague's recommendation. Why did you choose Runtime Revolution over other more popular development tools, such as Macromedia Director? If you were to remake Alida today, what development tools in place of Runtime Revolution would you have chosen (hypothetically) instead? Why?
- Alida was first created on Macintosh using SuperCard. When I was ready to port to PC, Revolution was the perfect tool as it has the same stack, card object base as SuperCard. So it was relatively easy to move the complete scripts over to Revolution. I found out about Revolution quite late in the development, but if I had have known earlier, I would have chosen to script entirely in Revolution because of its multi platform compile.
- What are the major differences between the MAC and PC versions of Alida? How different is the fan reaction to the later PC version compared to the earlier MAC version?
- The Mac and PC versions play almost identically. The earliest version was for Mac OS9 and after its release I was able to make some game play adjustments after gamer feedback. The PC version was received well, but I was not impressed with a bug that emerged. Thanks to Revolution's small app size, I was able to quickly post a patch to sort it out. After Alida's release and time in the marketplace, there were certainly changes that I would have liked to have included. This is the case for all developers, but deadlines ensure that it gets released otherwise we would take forever!
- Many indie developers fail to anticipate the business needs of game development. What lessons have you learned about running a company and a business as a game developer?
- It sounds irresponsible to say that I had never really placed emphasis on the business side of Alida, but if the business aspect was the priority, Alida would never have been made! You see, it would be absurd to think that a lone developer could release a game that could compete with the games market. What the hell was I thinking...? This is why Alida HAD to be a work of passion for me.
- How difficult was it for you to locate a third-party publisher for Alida? How did you secure Got Game Entertainment? How long did it take? In the end, how much did your partnership with a first-tiered publisher help with the sales of your game?
- I initially set up a web site for Alida and emailed many game sites across the web to try and get it out there. It was reviewed favorably on a couple of sites and that really got the ball rolling. Soon thereafter, publishers contacted me regarding distribution, including Got Game. Publishers certainly know how to get a game out to the masses. I was able to move 300 – 400 copies, but the publishers were able to move them in the thousands.
- Many indie game developers are now turning to online digital distribution channels, such as Steam and GameTap, to distribute their games. Have you contemplated on re-releasing Alida via these services? What lessons have you learned from Alida about distributing your own game online?
- There is a digital download version of Alida available in Russia. I have not looked into exploiting Alida any further online.
- What were the challenges you faced in dealing with the press and media as a self-publishing independent game developer? How much did the press reactions (especially negative reactions) to Alida ultimately influence the sales of the game?
- Around 6 months before Alida's completion, I sent out packages to many publishers inviting them to publish and distribute Alida, if interested. I had zero replies or acknowledgments. So I realized that I would have to create the initial push for Alida into the marketplace. I was quite surprised that no publisher was interested in a product that would have been delivered complete, without any costly development costs on their behalf.
In the early stages of Alida's release, I would always remind reviewers that Alida was created by one person, not a large development company. This would certainly help the overall grade of the review especially with the original Mac version.
- There is often a substantive discordance between fan receptions expressed in community game forums and actual sale figures that an indie game title generates. This, in part, may be a reason that has diluted the commercial success of some indie titles such as Himalaya Studios' Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine and Frictional Games' Penumbra: Overture. How true is this paradox in your experience as a game developer? By what criteria do you judge the commercial success for Alida?
- Alida was a passion of mine, and even if I only sold a few copies, it was the art of creating it that was the driving factor. So, it was an immense pleasure for me to see Alida well received in the adventure gaming community.
- Which part of Alida's development was most challenging? Why? What ideas about the game were planned initially but abandoned subsequently during development?
- The most challenging part was keeping on track and remaining positive (in attitude) about Alida. Working on your own on a large project like Alida is a daunting task. As work progressed, I realized certain things would have to be omitted to meet release deadline. Originally, I wanted 6 actors playing all the band members, Kivas and Julia (Arin's wife). If time and money allowed, Alida would have had much more interactivity with the characters. I also would have liked more time to work on the music.
- At the end of Alida, the fate of the other band members is not entirely explained. Is this ambiguity deliberate? What is the chance for a future sequel?
- At this point, there are no plans for a sequel.
- Critics of the genre have argued that the "Myst" era of adventure games has long since passed, for better or worse. Do you agree? What is the current state of the genre? What is the future of the genre?
- I don't see any adventure games on the shelves when I go to my local games store. There are, however, endless varieties of shoot em ups. I think the adventure game genre will blossom in some way if a clever developer creates a new and unique way of experiencing real time 3D worlds?? If I knew what that was I would be building it now!
- What can we expect from Cos Russo and Dejavu Worlds in the next 5 years?
- At present I am working on internet music publishing software.