Perfecting the Endless Runner – An Interview With Team Alto

Alex HandziukMar 2, 2018
Interview with The Team Behind Alto's Odyssey

It’s been three years since Alto’s Adventure, an endless-runner-style snowboard game debuted on iOS. The game combined surrealist art with mesmerizing background music to deliver an experience that was praised by critics and players alike. Alto’s Odyssey is the second game by Team Alto and features a desert setting instead of the mountainous peaks of the original game. The game was released on February 22nd and is currently available on iOS with an Android version releasing at some point in the future. Our review of the game is coming this weekend but in the meantime, we had the opportunity to set up an interview with the Lead Producer Eli Cymet, Lead Artist and Programmer Harry Nesbitt as well as the founder of Snowman studio, Ryan Cash. 

Alto's Odyssey Review 1
Image provided by Team Alto.

CGMagazine: First of all thanks for agreeing to do this interview! How does it feel to have Alto’s Odyssey released and out in the world?

Eli Cymet: I tweeted just after our launch trailer came out that there’s this feeling you get when you’re making something and haven’t shared it with the world yet. This sense, at times, that it doesn’t really exist. It might sound silly, but it’s definitely a palpable feeling, and it’s been surreal over the last few months. Coming to grips with the fact that this thing we’ve been making and thinking about and obsessing over is actually now real and in the hands of players is so gratifying. To know that it’s resonating with people and being seen as a worthy entry in the Alto universe is a whole other layer of joy!

I’d be remiss not to mention as well that I’m so proud of the team — especially when it comes to our sense of support for one another. On a tiny team like ours, self-care and empathy for the people you’re creating the game with is paramount, and I’m always blown away by how much we’ve been there for one another amid last-minute hiccups and bug fixes.

CGMagazine: The endless runner genre isn’t known for its storytelling and world building. How did you manage to combat that stigma with Alto’s Odyssey?

Harry Nesbitt: I’ve always been inspired by games, as well as art in general, that opts for a more minimalist, impressionistic approach. I think by stripping away the noise and reducing elements down to their simplest components you can build towards an overall more immersive experience – you’re essentially asking the viewer to engage and fill in the blanks, leading to deeper, more personal connection with the work.

Alto's Odyssey Review
Image provided by Team Alto.

Eli Cymet: We’ve always said, of the Alto series, that our narrative is more implied than it is explicit. We’re not telling an epic, grandiose story with tons of text. With that said, I think the decision to situate players in the shoes of Alto and his friends – these characters who have such a distinct look and feel and sense of personality – helps to convey the idea that you’re in a little narrative. We try to couch story moments in places like the character descriptions, outfits of our cast, and even the scenery itself, so that players can feel as if this is a real place they’re moving through, with a group of close friends.

CGMagazine: The sound design in Alto’s Oddysey is one of the game’s biggest selling points. What went into figuring out what kind of musical vibe to go for?

Harry Nesbitt: We were incredibly lucky to work with audio designer Todd Baker, whose background includes games such as Tearaway and Monument Valley 2 – he’s also based here in the UK which allowed him to work much more closely with myself and Joe Grainger (the other programmer at Team Alto). Todd brings such a level of care and craft to his work that immediately aligned with our own sensibilities. From day one, he had such a clear and singular vision for what he wanted to create, that we knew we could totally trust in his process, and listen in awe as the magic came together!

Interview with The Team Behind Alto's Odyssey 3
Image provided by Team Alto.

Eli Cymet: Todd’s music has a timeless quality that feels as if it could fit into any era, but which beautifully captures the grandeur of this new desert space. With regards to direction, it was very important to us this time around to deepen the score beyond a single, repeating track. Todd understood this right away and thought to thematically represent the vast and ever-changing procedurally generated landscape in his work.

The game’s main theme sits in a non-standard time signature that is meant to feel fresh each time you hear it, always propelling forward to new places. Subtle cello variations in the game’s opening title screen give the sense of always finding yourself somewhere new and exciting.This extends to the sound effects, which go far beyond functional noises this time around. They have a musical quality that is meant to make players feel that even simple actions are a little magical – that you’re in a fantastical place far from home.

Interview with The Team Behind Alto's Odyssey 6
Image provided by Team Alto.

CGMagazine: How has the process of creating Alto’s Odyssey differed from creating Alto’s Adventure? And was it easier to crack after working on the first game?

Eli Cymet: Perhaps one of the biggest differences this time around was an expanded team. The original game was very much the product of Ryan and Jordan (Snowman’s co-founders) working with Harry (the game’s lead artist and programmer). This time around, I came on as the game’s producer, and we added support on the design and engineering side with UK-based programmer Joe Grainger and designer and programmer Jason Medeiros here in Toronto. All of this to say: I think we acknowledged that the team with which Alto’s Adventure was built wouldn’t have been healthy or sustainable to maintain a second time around, and by spreading the workload out, not only were we able to create much healthier development experience but we the game genuinely feels richer for it. Having a larger group of people with whom to share ideas and test your assumptions means that you’re not operating only on your gut feeling of what might work.

CGMagazine: Potentially connected to the last question, what was the hardest aspect of creating Alto’s Oddysey?

Harry Nesbitt: A lot of things about the first game happened quite naturally or came about as a solution to a particular problem. So by the time you’re finished, you’ve got these rules, and you don’t know if they can be applied to other things. The art style of Adventure came about over a bunch of iterations; it didn’t spring into being with a full understanding of what works and what doesn’t. It had to be chipped away at slowly. So when you try to then take that ruleset and apply it to new things, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work. The first game was a sort of lightning in a bottle scenario, and now you’re trying to recapture that all over again. It was definitely a challenge.

Interview with The Team Behind Alto's Odyssey 7
Image provided by Team Alto.

CGMagazine: What about Alto’s Oddysey are you most proud of?

Ryan Cash, Founder of Snowman: Something we’ve talked about a lot during development is making sure that we maintain the things that make Alto feel like Alto. Part of this DNA is the propulsive downhill experience, the sense of flow and elegance in the game’s movement. I think when following up something successful, there’s a temptation to see how many bells and whistles you can add to impress people, and I’m really proud that as a team we resisted that temptation to focus on deepening and enriching the aspects of Alto that players enjoyed the most. What we ended up with, I feel, is a game that sits very well alongside Alto’s Adventure as a sort of companion game set in the same universe.

CGMagazine: The two games in the Alto series have taken place on mountainous peaks and dessert environments. Are there any plans for a new game, perhaps featuring a water world?

Ryan Cash: I think, as a team, we’re all still coming to terms with the fact that Alto’s Odyssey is real and out on the App Store. Our focus right now is definitely addressing a few quirks and bugs we’ve spotted and making sure players are having the best experience possible with the game. We’re not quite ready to think about the prospect of another Alto title right now, let alone where Alto and friends might go. With that said, if and when that time comes, we’ll definitely make sure we share that info far and wide.

CGMagazine: For those who have played Alto’s Adventure, why should they pick up the game’s sequel?

Interview with The Team Behind Alto's Odyssey 4
Image provided by Team Alto.

Harry Nesbitt: Something I think I’d want to communicate is that it’s not a sequel – none of the way we’ve thought about making it as a sequel. We’re not seeking to one-up the first game. We’re trying to create another game set in the same world that taps into a different set of emotions.

Eli Cymet: With that said, I think the feelings we’re exploring this time around and the places they led us in design make this an experience that will absolutely feel fresh and exciting for returning players. The presence of biomes – these diverse natural spaces that transition seamlessly into one another – makes the game much vaster in scope than Alto’s Adventure. They bring with it a host of core new mechanics like wallriding, moving grind rails multi-tiered grinds that snap and sway, tornados, and rushing water. All of these features lend themselves to a greater sense of exhilaration, and allow players to get up and into the air to pull off big combos. We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure none of them add any new control inputs, though, making the core plays experience as accessible as ever.

CGMagazine: Last question and potentially unrelated: What does the world need more of?

Eli Cymet: This is a great question and a daunting one! With Alto, our goal is to craft an experience that is accessible and can provide even just a little bit of joy and relaxation to your day, whether or not you consider yourself a skilled gamer. We’re certainly not claiming or trying to change the world, but if we can brighten even one person’s day a little, I think we consider that a huge victory. If I had to get lofty with it, I’d say the world could definitely use a little more brightness.

Stay tuned for our review of Alto’s Odyssey, this weekend on CGMagazine.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Brendan Quinn’s interview with Sledgehammer Games and Wayne Santos’ review of Journey.

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