Harry Nesbitt on Alto’s Odyssey
I’ve been really enjoying playing Alto’s Odyssey, the followup to the critically acclaimed endless snowboarder Alto’s Adventure.
The game features like fluid physics-based movement, procedurally generated terrain, and dynamic lighting and weather effects. This time around, players will soar above windswept dunes, traverse thrilling canyons, and explore long-hidden temple cities in a fantastical place far from Alto’s home village. Along the way, you’ll grind across vines, bounce atop hot air balloons, ride towering rock walls, and escape mischievous lemurs – all while uncovering the desert’s many mysteries.
I had the chance to speak to Harry Nesbitt, lead artist and programmer at Team Alto, about the working process behind designing such a charming mobile game and how you follow the success of Alto’s adventure.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Harry Nesbitt and I’m the Lead Artist and Programmer for Team Alto. My background is illustration and design, which I studied at Liverpool School of Art and continued to work as a freelancer for about 5 years before making Alto’s Adventure. I’ve always had an interest in art and technology and the way they interact, so making the jump to games was actually quite a seamless transition. I see games as the ultimate cross section of all my interests, so it’s a medium I’m really excited to be working in.
Alto’s Adventure was my first game, and presented a huge learning curve, as I learnt to work as the sole artist and developer, and was responsible for all the game’s programming, visual design, animation, 2D and 3D assets, UI / UX as well as the website and trailers.
Describe the team behind a game like Alto’s Odyssey.
Thankfully, Team Alto is now comprised of 3 core members, with an additional 3-5 people in freelance and support roles, who’s involvement varies at different points of the project. The work is divided between the UK team (including myself, Joe Grainger and Todd Baker) handling core art, programming and audio aspects of development, and Snowman in Canada providing production support, marketing, design feedback and general QA.
How long did your team work on this sequel?
Our core development cycle was about 14 months start to finish, but we’d been discussing ideas on and off for almost 2 years prior to starting. The first sketches appeared back in early 2016, but it took us a while before we felt we had the time and resources to truly get started. A little known fact is that we actually publicly announced the game during our first week of active development, and used this as a clear milestone for shifting away from ongoing feature updates for Adventure and focusing our time and energy on the next game.
What’s your working process like?
Day to day tasks would be divided up fairly equally between myself and Joe, with Eli Cymet, our producer, overseeing the workflow and fielding external distractions. I would tend to focus more on art and core engine work, with Joe taking the lead on new features (including an overhauled animation system) and gameplay programming, though in reality these roles were fairly flexible and we’d often dip into each others code.
With that in mind, there was a lot more emphasis on tools and workflow this time, to ensure we could collaborate in a fast and iterative way. This included a full suite of visual editors for creating and managing custom terrain, turning what was previously a fairly tedious task into something much faster, more expressive, and more enjoyable. This allowed us to be much more creative and experimental, while increasing the overall amount of unique experiences the player can encounter.
How do you handle working remotely.
We stay in fairly close communication over Slack, with a weekly standup call to keep things moving in the right direction. Day to day, however, I think we all benefit from the time and space that remote collaboration provides, allowing us to work in whatever way suits us best. For me that usually involves sicking to a fairly regular schedule in a comfortable studio environment. Others might prefer the bustle of a busy coffee shop, or the piece and quiet of their own home (or a mix of all of the above).
There’s also the added novelty of meeting up and working together for short busts throughout the year. For example, I spent a full month in Vancouver with Eli during a particularly challenging rethink of the game’s development schedule. Being able to be in the same physical space, working with flip charts and sticky notes to map things out visually, was a huge benefit.
What did you learn from Alto’s Adventure and were you able to use this insight in the sequel?
I would say the main thing we learnt from Adventure was cost of unsustainable development practices — particularly the long-term impact on well-being and creative energy. As a small team, with just one core artist / developer, we found there were a growing list of responsibilities that only I could handle, leading to major bottlenecks in our workflow. For example, if an asset request came in for a big marketing opportunity, then all development or support work would need to be put on hold, and overall progress became slow and unsustainable.
I would also find myself “crunching” to hit big deadlines, taking a hit to my physical and mental health in the process. Each time this happened, I found it increasingly hard to bounce back to full strength, and alarm bells would ring any time the threat of crunch approached. I became almost resentful of work for a time, to the point of having doubts about continuing as a game developer. I took a very close look at my priorities and what it would take to turn things around.
Thankfully, we all agreed that if we were going to work on a new game, we first needed to expand the team. After a great deal of searching, we eventually found Eli and Joe, and work began. I’ve often said that as proud as I am of the game we made, I’m more proud of the way we made it. As a team, we always made time for each other and prioritised well-being above all else.
Both games have a great atmospheric quality, is that something you strive for and if yes how do you attempt to create this?
I’ve always been fascinated by art that strives to create a strong sense of place. I think games have a huge advantage when it comes to delivering immersive experiences, but it’s not something you typically see on mobile — especially not for casual audiences. I was keen to see if we could take the simple, accessible mechanics of something like an endless runner, and embed them into a world that felt like a living breathing space, with its own internal logic. Thankfully I found this isn’t always about adding detail or complexity, but rather stripping things back to their core components and focusing on the overall tone. In fact, it’s often the stuff you choose not to show that can engage peoples’ imaginations more, and allows them to develop a deeper, more personal connection with the work.
What are your thoughts on pay-to-play vs free-to-play games?
I personally prefer premium games, as I like the sense of ownership that paying a fixed upfront cost gives me. This may be a relic of growing up in a more material time, where buying and owning physical media was the norm, but I’d like to think I’ll always have a deep appreciation for the “artifact” as much as the experience it contains. That said, I do feel there is room for both approaches, and there are plenty of examples of free-to-play games that strike a respectful balance of valuing the player’s time and money.
Where can i get my hands on one of those plush Lamas?
Unfortunately, we’re completely sold out of our handcrafted needle-felt llamas (lovingly made by our friend Anika AKA Zimt Beadwork in Germany), but I think we’d all love the opportunity to work with her again, as well as with other artisan creators to help bring any future merchandise to life. We like to take the approach of thinking about our products as coming from the world of our games, as if they were made by the inhabitants of Alto’s mountain or the endless desert itself.
Can you remember what the first was that you ever played?
If I recall correctly, the first games I ever played were for the family Amstrad PC my dad brought home in the late 80’s. My brothers and I were always lucky to have access to systems like the Mega Drive and Game Boy as we grew up and games featured heavily in my life. However, it wasn’t until receiving a Playstation at age 10 with a copy of Final Fantasy VII that my mind was truly blown, and I realised the full impact that games could have.
How do you switch off?
This is a curiously difficult question to answer, as it’s something that has been changing a lot for me recently. I used to find a great deal of peace from being alone in nature and working with my hands. I lived in a fairly rural part of the UK during the development of Alto’s Adventure, and would often break to go camping or fishing, but ultimately found myself becoming increasingly isolated and introverted. I’ve since learnt to embrace the excitement of living in a city like London and the opportunities it brings, as well as spending time travelling to new places around the world. I would say that right now that I don’t feel truly relaxed unless I’m in the presence of close friends.
For the time being, we’re heads down on support for our players, and bringing the game to new platforms. However, we also want to make time for being creative and exploring new ideas. Beyond that, I really have no idea what comes next, but I couldn’t be more excited to find out!