Rhythm Doctor, a one-button rhythm game was definitely the game that drew my attention at IndieCade 2017. It teaches complex music and rhythm theory even without players realizing it. Although the core mechanic is simple and requires you to only push the action button on the 7th beat to play, it manages to keep players focused and absorbed throughout each level by adding a twist like offbeats, polyrhythms, hemiolas and irregular time signatures. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to interview one of the developers, Hafiz Azman.
As you have stated that Rhythm Doctor is inspired by Rhythm Heaven by Nintendo, what are some specific elements in Rhythm Heaven that really influenced your game?
Hafiz Azman :
Rhythm Heaven was important in showing us that it was possible to make simple gameplay without making it boring. By ‘simple’ I mean removing two aspects that are usually vital to make challenging rhythm games: many possible inputs and a high notes per second (NPS).
For example, at higher difficulties, Guitar Hero introduces extra notes such that you have to move your hand around the fretboard. Many arcade rhythm games differentiate themselves from others by way of different styles of controllers: scratching turntables, waving your hands, stomping the ground, banging a Taiko drum… and at higher difficulties you’re performing a bunch of these different actions at the same time.
Rhythm Heaven eschewed all of that to make a game with two buttons. To keep the challenge despite it, it uses very precise timing windows and plays around with like 50 different methods of telling you when to press these buttons, rather than just notes scrolling down a track. It also has a lot of focus on internal rhythm, i.e. keeping the beat in the absence of one.
So our game explores further into those concepts of simple inputs, interesting note cues, and internal rhythm. For a lot of it we actively look at what Rhythm Heaven is doing in that space and try to go in the opposite direction. Focusing on more complicated rhythms, having the music have a less whimsical tone etc.
How long did it take the team to develop Rhythm Doctor? What were some of the challenges in making this game?
Hafiz Azman :
It started way back in 2011 though we were still in university back then. We’re aiming to release in the first half of next year. Making a full-featured level editor has been quite a challenge, so has dealing with an increased scope.
It’s pretty funny how you can build a game in two days in a game jam, and then making it sellable can take two years. There are a lot of challenges when making a game 5x as big, that go beyond just 5x as much coding/graphics/music. Things like optimisation and budgeting come into play, and your code has to be a lot cleaner and more organised, otherwise adding a simple feature will start to take longer and longer, like adding one more brick to an unstable brick tower.
There is no doubt that Rhythm Doctor has amazing music, making it best audio winner in Bicfest 2017. What is your personal favorite song in Rhythm Doctor?
Hafiz Azman :
Thank you for the compliment, though I don’t think my own music is great music on it’s own. Music in video games has the advantage of having it be listened in the context of the gameplay, so judging it on its own is thankfully not very relevant to most players. So with that said, I’m pretty happy with the “Super Oriental Insomniac” level (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaF2YFhLaok), how the music works with the level design to make a pretty intense and tricky experience.
What is your current favorite game? What aspects of game do you value the most? Eg. visual effects, storyline, background music.
Hafiz Azman :
Just played Super Mario: Odyssey, which above all, impressed me with how many new ideas they could come up with, again and again. Even post-game, the fresh ideas were never-ending and I had to give my Switch away to stop playing.
Do you have any suggestions for young game developers? What are some things they need to know before getting into the gaming industry?
Hafiz Azman :
I’m gonna respond just with respect to the indie side of the industry, as that’s what we’re familiar with.
Nowadays, it’s becoming harder to be successful as the market’s getting crowded. And the landscape is always changing so quickly that blanket statements often become irrelevant pretty quickly, or often has many caveats.
Some people say ‘start small’, but hey this is our first game and it sure isn’t small.
Some people say don’t undercharge, but you get games that released for free to get publicity and then a small-priced sequel, e.g. Emily Is Away.
Some people say work with publishers, but there are plenty of self-published successful games, and plenty of games with publishers that did not do well.
(Tip: if a publisher does not offer funding nor a minimum guarantee of any kind, run away as fast as possible. They are taking zero risk financially and that means they will have no qualms discarding you if your game is not successful. Also please don’t give away 30% of your game to someone based on their ‘experience in the industry’ and their promise that they can help. A lot of these publishers prey on your inexperience and insecurity. They’re frequently able to get away with it because it’s a buyer’s market for publishers nowadays. In the words of one ex-publisher “we’re greedy and devs are desperate”. Good publishers exist but you’ve gotta make sure everyone who has worked with them are extremely happy, and even then, consider the possibility that the developers are underestimating themselves as the big factor in the success of the game.)
Some say ‘fail fast, validate your prototype quickly’ but there are plenty of genres where you can’t really do that, where you need a lot of systems programmed in place.
Some say ‘have a big hook’ but there are games like Stephen’s Sausage Roll which don’t really have a single one-liner hook to them, yet are successful because the puzzle design is so top notch.
And there are some developers who study the market laboriously, look at what is selling at any given time, e.g. ‘sandbox games with a lot of replay value’ and then try to do something in a similar vein. The thing is, if everyone did that sort of thing we wouldn’t have as much innovation in the industry as we do now.
So at the end of it all, the advice you should follow is super different depending on what kind of game you make, whether you value/need commercial success, how much risk you want to take. For every success or failure there will be a lot of Captain Hindsight people saying ‘obviously this was going to succeed/fail’ and point at factors that really were not a guarantee of success or failure, but they just don’t realise it because everything is tinted with the knowledge of how it turned out.
There are many different roads to success: you could be a famous YouTuber first and release a game after, you could release many games / mods of other games for free first and build a fanbase.
Our personal story is one of those many roads (and we don’t even know if it’s a road to success yet haha): building a small free prototype while still in school and having it blow up in popularity first, thus validating the prototype. That’s a safe-ish way to go about indie development but again, it’s just one of many different routes you could go.
We’ve been advised by a lot of people with more experience, thanks largely to the kindness of other people. If anyone wants any advice in turn, feel free to hit us up!
Rhythm Doctor is coming out in 2018. What will the full game have that the wasn’t included in the demo?
Hafiz Azman :
A full level editor, a longer campaign with a bunch of fun gimmicks, a story to go with the whole thing, drills to practice certain rhythms, hidden modes and challenge levels.
Please check https://fizzd.itch.io/rhythm-doctor to play the demo version of Rhythm Doctor.
And the full version is expected to be released on steam in early 2018.