Slave to the rhythm: the developers banging a drum for music gaming

Games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Dance Dance Revolution are way behind us, but developers haven’t stopped experimenting with rhythm games.

Long gone are the days of watching Activision and Harmonix trying to improve on the design of their plastic instruments or looking for the best exclusivity deal (Aerosmith? What were they thinking?) almost on a yearly basis, becoming pieces of nostalgia meant only for occasional parties.

In Japan, games like DJMax Respect and Taiko no Tatsujin are a huge success in home consoles, whilst Bang Dream!, The Idolmaster, and Love Live (the latter published by Bandai Namco) have the upper hand in mobile devices, earning millions through microtransactions thanks to gacha systems. Luckily, most of them have arrived in this side of the world, and their longevity is proof that there are still people who love the rhythm game genre and are waiting for the next musical iteration.

But the majority of rhythm games end up being just that, iterations of the classic railroad UI where notes approach the screen at varying paces. Instead, it’s in the indie games scene that the genre has been thriving, fighting for recognition and building communities around them for years. Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Thumper, and the recent Beat Saber have proved that there was a potential for experimentation all along, and it’s thanks to independent studios risking themselves chasing a unique ideas that they’ve managed to come together and blessed the rhythm games genre with a resurgence.

In the wake of this resurgence, the need for improvements and variety with the genre has increased even further, with studios working hard to intertwine rhythm in new genres, asking themselves questions such as whether or not staying on beat should be mandatory, and how they can work towards accessibility to prevent newcomers to feel intimidated or unable to play entirely.

Beats and bobs

Just Shapes & Beats is a minimalistic co-op bullet hell in which all enemies and obstacles that are thrown at players are built entirely by the music. For developer Simon 'Lachhh’ LaChance, condensing all the information on the screen while focusing on keeping the game simple and easy to learn was the main challenge.

“I didn't want the player to shoot at all,” LaChance explained to TechRadar. “Removing (that) aspect actually gives more liberties on the level design, and also makes you feel even more vulnerable. 

“You have only one thing to do: avoid. If you can teach the rules of the game by saying ‘avoid pink’, that makes it very accessible.”

To LaChance, tapping on the beats has been done a bit too much already, and whilst he understands the interest of echoing the design of Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, he didn’t want to go that way. 

“A lot of people cannot play that kind of game because they lack rhythm,” LaChance continued. “I always think: ‘can I play this game with my 5 year old boy?’. Having to tap on the beat did not fit in that rule.”

Spinning plates

Spin Rhythm lives up to its name by presenting a colored wheel that you have to rotate in order to match notes and follow the rhythm of each song, with a particular twist that involves hardware equipment such as DJ gear. It started out as a puzzle game initially and, according to the developer, integrating a rhythm element was kind of an accident. 

“When the concept changed camera angles to be more like your typical ‘note track’ rhythm game, the idea to sync with music popped up, and there was no looking back,” developer Super Entertainment told us.

The wheel mechanic allowed them to present the game on PC, consoles, and mobile devices almost equally, ranging from using a mouse, a Wacom or motion controls, but working with different audiences is the biggest challenge. 

“Hardcore PC and console players might look at mobile games as too casual, and mobile players will drop a game that requires too much learning or isn't instantly rewarding,” the developer explained. 

Stick ‘em up

Drastic Games has been experimenting with rhythm in a twin-stick shooter game, Soundfall, which influences from roguelike titles such as Enter The Gungeon but introduces dungeons that are procedurally generated based upon the music. Whilst staying on beat in Soundfall grants players a number of abilities like unlimited dodge or higher damage, it’s not mandatory. 

“It didn't give players the right sense of feedback, it was very punishing”, Drastic Games co-founder Julian Trutmann told TechRadar. “We ended up with an optional approach: if you want to be offbeat, no big deal, but as designers, we should be giving you something even cooler if you get on the beat.”

The community is a big part of Soundfall. The studio is looking forward to seeing how they could experiment with speedrunning or even custom songs in the future, and accessibility is also a big part of the experience, working on feedback through the gamepad’s rumble. 

“We should be able to build a product that even if you can't hear it, you should be able to play it,” fellow co-founder Nick Cooper added.

Groove is in the heart

Sayonara Wild Hearts introduced itself to the world as a “pop album video game” during last year’s The Game Awards 2018 conference. Under development by Simogo and Annapurna Interactive as publisher, the upcoming Nintendo Switch exclusive showcases motorcycles, a massive three-headed wolf, and women gangs like the ‘Dancing Devils’ or the ‘Stereo Lovers’.

“Every song in Sayonara Wild Hearts is a level. Whilst some elements follow the rhythm, the game itself is not precisely rhythm-based,” Simogo co-founder Simon Flesser told us. “Levels are designed to follow the flow of custom written pop soundtrack. For example, in a boss level when an explosive chorus starts, there are equally explosive visuals and happenings on the screen to match.”

At its core, the gameplay is always a semi-on-rails level that flows with the song, and there are winks and homages to the many gaming influences that inspired the idea for Simogo. The game is meant to play and feel like the arcade era, using just a couple of buttons and focusing on the game’s retro magic. All these elements are packed in a vibrant and colorful experience influenced by tarot arcana, arcade games and, of course, music.

“I think the beautiful thing about games as a medium is that it can be so many things, both new and old,” Flesser added. ”I’m happy for all these things to co-exist, and also for them to keep influencing each other.”