The Mak­ing Of...

How two for­mer Rock Band devs made a brand-new kind of mu­sic game, the op­pres­sive Thumper

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED­WARD SMITH De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Drool For­mat PC, PS4 Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

Har­monix was rid­ing high in 2009. Sales of Rock Band and Rock Band 2 were in the multi-mil­lions and Vi­a­com, the se­ries’ pub­lisher, was on its way to be­com­ing one of the largest videogame com­pa­nies in the United States. Its fu­ture was se­cure, but Har­monix was about to go even fur­ther – with the fin­ish­ing touches be­ing ap­plied to The Bea­tles: Rock Band, its rep­u­ta­tion as the pre­dom­i­nant cre­ator of mu­sic games would, by the end of the year, be ce­mented.

On the verge of its big­gest suc­cess to date, Har­monix had lit­tle time for a strange new pro­to­type cre­ated by one of its ef­fects artists,

Brian Gib­son. His short video, show­cas­ing a ba­sic, un­fin­ished-look­ing rhythm game, had made the rounds in­ter­nally, but no­body showed much in­ter­est. Mu­sic games had a for­mula, and clearly it was work­ing well. With the big­gest band in his­tory signed to its la­bel, Har­monix wasn’t look­ing for the niche or ob­scure.

But Gib­son, who in his spare time is one half of noise-rock duo Light­ning Bolt, sensed he was onto some­thing. It was far from fully formed – the fin­ished work, he imag­ined, would look noth­ing like this pro­to­type. But with the right help, he might be able to ful­fil a long-stand­ing am­bi­tion: to de­sign and build his own videogame from the ground up.

“The premise was to make a rhythm game that was very sim­ple, where you’d just be do­ing one thing at a time,” Gib­son tells us. “And be­cause you were only do­ing one thing at a time, the game would be more about mak­ing you jump out of your seat and mak­ing you sweat – all the things I liked about videogames. In my job, I was us­ing only a very spe­cific set of skills. But on the week­ends, I en­joyed work­ing on mu­sic and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign stuff. This game was go­ing to scratch a lot of itches. Har­monix, though, didn’t want any­thing to do with it.”

Gib­son’s pro­to­type even­tu­ally made its way to a pro­gram­mer at Har­monix named Marc

Flury. He only knew Gib­son in pass­ing – the size of the stu­dio meant they’d never worked to­gether on a project di­rectly – and even though he liked what he saw, he was still scep­ti­cal.

“I wasn’t very ex­cited about it,” Flury says. “It looked so sim­ple and I didn’t re­ally think it would be any fun. Plus, al­though I wanted to work on some­thing on my own, af­ter so many years at Har­monix I didn’t want to do an­other rhythm game. My grand­est am­bi­tion for it orig­i­nally was to make it for Xbox Live Ar­cade, prob­a­bly take a year or two and just get it out there. But we just kept work­ing on it. How am­bi­tious we started to get was a big sur­prise.”

When Flury left Har­monix in 2009 to move with his wife to South Korea, he took the pro­to­type with him. Gib­son re­mained at the stu­dio, but now, with the ad­di­tion of Flury’s pro­gram­ming abil­i­ties, he be­gan work in earnest on his idea. For each of the de­vel­op­ers, the project be­came an op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue ca­reer­long as­pi­ra­tions. Gib­son wanted to de­sign. Flury, in­spired by peo­ple such as Chris Hecker, of Spy Party fame, and Jonathan Blow, who had re­cently re­leased Braid, planned on cre­at­ing his very own game en­gine. And so the de­vel­op­ment of Thumper, rather than an or­gan­ised, work­man­like process, be­came a kind of mu­si­cal jam, with Gib­son bounc­ing ideas off Flury’s tech­nol­ogy, and Flury build­ing tools to ac­com­mo­date Gib­son’s chang­ing vi­sion.

“It was mostly up to Brian to make the lev­els, in­clud­ing the au­dio, and I was sup­port­ing the tools and mak­ing the me­chan­ics,” Flury ex­plains. “But we didn’t re­ally work in any kind of con­ven­tional, videogame-con­tent-pipe­line kind of way. The tool we used to make tracks changed many times. The way lev­els were au­thored kept chang­ing. It wasn’t an ef­fi­cient process. I didn’t know what I was do­ing and there were huge mis­steps. Some­times I’d spend months on some­thing and end up throw­ing it away. I made a whole sys­tem for do­ing an­i­ma­tions and events, but in the fin­ished game we used a dif­fer­ent sys­tem en­tirely.”

“We started with no en­gine and no graph­ics, just do­ing re­ally foun­da­tional ex­per­i­ments,” Gib­son con­tin­ues. “If peo­ple saw what we were do­ing they would have said it looked like garbage. But I re­mem­ber, ev­ery step of the way in this project, just be­ing elated. We started by mak­ing a graph­ics en­gine and work­ing out how to put points in space and have light­ing hit them. We made a 3D plane, then di­vided it up into a grid, then made it so you could move around on the grid. That stuff built ex­po­nen­tially. As we de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy and made new tools we were able to cre­ate things we couldn’t have cre­ated be­fore. Each of those small steps felt amaz­ing.”

Nev­er­the­less, Flury and Gib­son, now op­er­at­ing un­der the stu­dio name Drool, were in new ter­ri­tory. Hav­ing worked on both Rock Band and Gui­tar Hero, they knew bet­ter than any­body that rhythm games, as they were gen­er­ally ac­cepted, made play­ers feel cool, ca­pa­ble and – most im­por­tantly – like they were mak­ing mu­sic. But Thumper was darker. Based on il­lus­tra­tions by a friend named Mat Brinkman, Gib­son had en­vi­sioned the game to be “op­pres­sive, heavy and dis­so­nant”. At the same time, it had to be sim­ple. Where mu­sic games pre­vi­ously had in­volved in­creas­ingly com­plex lay­ers of sound and, par­tic­u­larly in re­gard to in­stru­ment pe­riph­er­als, con­vo­luted meth­ods of in­put, Thumper would use only a cou­ple of but­tons on a stan­dard con­troller. As well as cre­at­ing a game en­gine from scratch, the two mem­bers of Drool were try­ing to for­get al­most ev­ery de­sign les­son they’d ever been taught.

“We had a lot of mini crises about what the game should be,” Flury says. “How does the char­ac­ter jump? Do we use an ex­tra but­ton, or what? And it was just the two of us try­ing to work this out. When you play it, the so­lu­tions seem pretty ob­vi­ous, but at the time they weren’t ob­vi­ous to us. Plus, if you’re mak­ing an en­gine from scratch, it needs to do all th­ese things that are very nuts and bolts. It needs to read files from the disk. It needs to al­lo­cate mem­ory,

“THE GAME WOULD BE MORE ABOUT MAK­ING YOU JUMP OUT OF YOUR SEAT AND MAK­ING YOU SWEAT”

draw tri­an­gles, play sounds. It was im­por­tant to make this game good, but it was over such a long stretch of time that I of­ten felt like I was just build­ing a tool, not build­ing a game. I was burned out some­times. I was work­ing at maybe 20 per cent ef­fi­ciency.”

By now, the project that Flury had imag­ined would last only a cou­ple of years was start­ing to take over both his and Gib­son’s life. “It didn’t feel healthy,” Gib­son says. “Some peo­ple must think we just threw this out af­ter a cou­ple of months of tin­ker­ing around, but for a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of my life it was my life.”

A con­cep­tual shift, how­ever, steered Thumper back on track. Pre­vi­ously, Flury had imag­ined his first ever game en­gine as an all-pur­pose tool; some­thing with broad ap­pli­ca­tions, like Unity. But try­ing to build an en­gine that could do ev­ery­thing, for ev­ery­one, he re­alised, was un­nec­es­sary – the smarter ap­proach was to cre­ate tools specif­i­cally for Thumper, tools that ap­pealed di­rectly to Gib­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a mu­si­cian. Now, in­stead of Unity or GameMaker, Flury sought in­spi­ra­tion from mu­sic-edit­ing soft­ware. Step se­quencers, which al­low artists to vi­su­alise their en­tire tracks on a grid and add or re­move el­e­ments on the fly, proved an ideal model.

“Brian was the main user of this en­gine so it was a process of build­ing a new tool and see­ing what ideas it would give him,” Flury says. “We didn’t lay out the lev­els in 3D space; we had this time­line with all the dif­fer­ent data on it – things like au­dio and vis­ual cues – and then the game would put them all to­gether. It was very spe­cific to the game we made. No­body could have made this game with­out us­ing the tools we built.”

The sim­ple me­chan­ics that the duo had en­vi­sioned, but nev­er­the­less hes­i­tated over, could now be quickly im­ple­mented, tested and – if nec­es­sary – it­er­ated or re­moved in quick suc­ces­sion. En­e­mies and bosses came and went. An idea in­volv­ing dif­fer­ent, op­tional tracks, which play­ers could switch onto rather than fol­low­ing the main route, was tried and then scrapped. It re­quired a lot of trial and er­ror, but com­pared to the un­cer­tain vi­sion put for­ward in the pro­to­type,

Thumper was start­ing to fi­nally take shape. Mu­sic be­came the game’s largest in­flu­ence. As well as em­u­lat­ing step se­quencers for the tech­nol­ogy, Thumper’s core de­sign was in­formed – di­rectly and in­di­rectly – by Gib­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing in Light­ning Bolt. The band’s heavy, over­whelm­ing sound de­fined Thumper’s dark, fore­bod­ing mood. The dis­torted, ar­rhyth­mic ar­range­ments in­spired the game’s stress­ful, un­pre­dictable game­play.

“I made a lot of Thumper’s mu­sic while I was on tour,” Gib­son ex­plains. “I’d sit at a lap­top, with head­phones on, and cre­ate th­ese loops that I thought sounded good – big drums, grand, dis­so­nant, cos­mic sounds. Af­ter adding those into the lev­els, the game­play would come. It all orig­i­nated from my own back­ground in mu­sic. I en­joy play­ing off of rhythms and in­ter­act­ing with some­thing sim­ple in com­plex ways. So the rhythms in Thumper would be a beat off, or a beat be­fore. The mood of the game re­flected the stress and ten­sion of play­ing some­thing dif­fi­cult, and once it was vis­ually op­pres­sive and dark, it all gelled to­gether.” By 2015, Thumper was ready to be pre­sented. Gib­son had al­ready showed it to a close friend, who, to his sur­prise, had called it the best game he’d ever played. With that boost of con­fi­dence, Drool shopped its game around GDC. Two ex­ec­u­tives from Sony, Nick Sut­tner and Shane Bat­ten­hausen, ex­pressed an in­ter­est in bring­ing it to PlayS­ta­tion. There were still many op­ti­mi­sa­tions to be made – less than a year prior to re­lease, Flury was still work­ing on the en­gine – but Thumper had found its groove.

Still, it had been seven long years. Flury had his en­gine and Gib­son had his vi­sion, but it was dif­fi­cult, at least in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, to feel any­thing ex­cept re­lief. Like one of Light­ning Bolt’s gigs, like a level from Thumper, Drool’s first ex­pe­ri­ence cre­at­ing a videogame had been an at­tack on the senses. For now, the pair could en­joy a very wel­come come­down, but in Flury’s words, the work had been “messy”.

“Mu­sic can be med­i­ta­tive, com­bat­ive, dif­fi­cult,” he says, “and I was in­ter­ested in hav­ing a mu­sic game that gave that type of ex­pe­ri­ence. But mov­ing for­ward, qual­ity of life is go­ing to be a big con­sid­er­a­tion. I don’t want to spend an­other bunch of years just op­ti­mis­ing. This mo­ment I’d stressed about for­ever is fi­nally over, but it’s re­ally hard when you’re work­ing like this. The list of prob­lems keeps go­ing. We did ev­ery­thing, the two of us, and so much of it was us just wing­ing it. You can ex­plain this away when you have the fin­ished prod­uct – you can give it the ‘suc­cess­pla­na­tion’ – but a lot of the time it was just all the same, all bound up in one big mess.”

“Marc started work­ing on this be­fore he even liked it,” Gib­son con­tin­ues. “He maybe thought the idea would turn into some­thing else, and it did, but when I look back at ear­lier it­er­a­tions, I’m sur­prised even I was ever ex­cited about it. A nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ent for fin­ish­ing a game like this is delu­sional op­ti­mism. You have to be able to see what it might be, even if it might never hap­pen. A lot of self-de­cep­tion goes into mak­ing a game. I was partly con­fi­dent about it be­cause of Light­ning Bolt – I had the ex­pe­ri­ence of do­ing some­thing more pri­mal and see­ing peo­ple re­spond to it. But there was also a part of me that was think­ing I’d need to get a job af­ter this was done. I wasn’t sleep­ing well. Only now do I feel nor­mal.”

En­vi­sioned as a dif­fer­ent type of rhythm game, rather than build­ing up tunes and melodies as they progress, play­ers in Thumper must re­spond, quickly, to an un­pre­dictable beat

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