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