6 Interviews

Interview: Harmonix on Kickstarting a new Amplitude

By Connor Sheridan on Sunday 4th May 2014 at 9:03 PM UTC

Before Harmonix was known for bringing friends together with plastic instruments and flailing dance moves, it made a pair of blazing fast, thumb-blistering rhythm games. With a new campaign going live on Kickstarter today, the studio wants to to do it again.

Music has always been at the heart of Harmonix's games, but those hoping to triumph in FreQuency and Amplitude needed singular focus on the pulsing electronica landscape before them.

They didn't have time to fool around with miniature guitars or gesture-based controls - they could barely smash the proper buttons on their controllers before wheeling their Beat Blasters off to another scrolling sound track in desparate need of rhythmic fireworks.

Harmonix wants to bring the knowledge gained from years of crowd-pleasing rhythm games to bare in the form of a new Amplitude. With an appeal back to its hardcore roots, a small team of veteran developers is working to impress at least $775,000 worth of pledges out of potential backers - and in the process prove Harmonix hasn't become a one-note studio.

We asked creative lead Ryan Lesser to convince us that his team has learned enough over the last decade to improve upon the sweet flow of the originals.


CVG: Rhythm games have come a long way since 2003, from Guitar Hero to Project Diva. How is that affecting your approach to the new Amplitude?

Ryan Lesser: Having been there for the arc of rhythm action games and music games for the past 15 years, I've definitely watched them grow and shift and change. Harmonix music games definitely trended toward a party mentality; we made these very inviting music experiences.

What I'm hoping to do is take that knowledge, things that I've gained from The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Dance Central, and take that layer of player participation and blend it with the more hardcore sensibility of Amplitude.

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So my goal is to take the very addictive, quick, fast-paced gameplay of the original Amplitude and try and meld it with some of the lessons we've learned over the course of they years. Both through the stuff I was mentioning earlier, like the sort of inviting party play, but also all the things we've learned about perfecting beatmatching and how to make that type of game tick.

Every game that we've done and included beatmatching, we've improved upon it over and over again. So I think that this Amplitude will sort of shine based on some of that past knowledge we have.

What do you mean by improving beatmatching?

In Frequency and then in Amplitude, we at Harmonix were creating these games where the player had to pay attention to the beat of the music and listen to what was really happening. We would then place musical moments in the game for you to match.

So in Frequency and Amplitude, and after that Rock Band and Guitar Hero and et cetera, there are these notes that you have to play on the beat, or to the beat. We call that beatmatching, and Amplitude is in that family.

Each one got more and more polished, and this is the kind of thing we perfect on a millisecond by millisecond basis and pixel-by-pixel basis. So all those lessons learned are going to be poured back into Amplitude.

Is it a matter of making the player's actions better reflect the music?

It's a weird, abstract gameplay notion that not a lot of people have to deal with as far as game developers go. But we really go crazy over all the teeny little bits that make up a great beatmatching moment, capturing that gem.

Whether it's the player feedback through audio or through visuals, the timing window - we pay ridiculous amounts of attention to all these things.

I'm pretty psyched to put that back into Amplitude, which had a whole other layer of gameplay that none of the other, newer games that we mentioned have: the sort of frantic, tactical decisions that you make on a moment-to-moment basis. Like navigating the landscape not only trying to find the other instruments that exist on the track, but also using the landscape to keep the music going.

"In Amplitude you need someone to be hanging out with you putting eyedrops in your eyes because you wind up never blinking"

I don't know if you've played Amplitude before, but there was this really great aspect where you never had a moment to rest, you were very quickly making your way around the game, making tactical decisions about where to go based on the difficulty of the tracks, how many points you can get out of a certain track, going for a high score on that particular level and competing against your friends, all the way up to power ups and power up locations and use of the power ups.

It was all very specific and the way you used them changed your end result quite a bit.

While many rhythm games put players in a 'flow' state, Amplitude demanded almost a trance-like state to keep all that in mind.

We've been calling that a flow state just because that is really what it feels like. In Amplitude you need someone to be hanging out with you putting eyedrops in your eyes because you wind up never blinking [laughs].

That's something that we thought was awesome about Amplitude, and we're trying to hit that again for sure.

It's all original music this time?

That's where we're starting. Obviously it's easier for us to hit the ground running with in-house music, and for a game that is crowdfunded it's easier on the pocketbook.

I'm actually personally excited and focused on in-house music because it allows us to really craft every single note and every single decision that the player makes, while at the same time having our super-experienced musicians creating music that sounds great.

When you use licensed music, you have to cater to the instruments that already exist. So you may take the best rock song or electronic song in the world and put it into Amplitude, and while it's fun to listen to, as game designers we potentially have trouble laying out a really interesting and challenging gameplay landscape for the player.

There may be no bass in the chorus, or there may be no vocals in the bridge, and that doesn't make for the most exciting Amplitude experience. So we're starting with non-licensed music, and then depending on funding and what musicians we wind up hooking up with, we may or may not see licensed music pop up in the game.

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Part of that decision was based on your experience with working with licensed music in the original games?

God, yes. So one cool thing is that a ton of us have been here since the beginning of Harmonix, certainly have been here since Amplitude. So we've lived through a lot of our games. I have been around for every single game we've ever made.

One of our musicians on the game, Pete Maguire, he created music for Amplitude and has been on many of our licensed music games. Of course it's very exciting for in-house musicians to be crafting their own music, as an artist that's just something you want to do all the time.

But he's very aware of the challenges of licensed music, having been through things like The Beatles and Rock Band and stuff like that.

They're awesome, don't get me wrong. If we find the perfect match-up of band and song and Amplitude, then we'd be thrilled to do it. But for the mentality of Kickstarter, how we're trying to make the game at its core and expand from there based on funding, this is a smart way to go about it.

Many Kickstarter games are "spiritual successors" from their original creators. Did you ever consider going that route to potentially work on more platforms?

There's a lot of different reasons why people go with spiritual successor, sometimes they may not have the best relationship with the publishers, or they have a struggle with the property. We are not in that situation at all.

We have a good relationship with Sony, and Amplitude as it is is what we want to make. The PlayStation controller is also quite good for Amplitude. The buttons are, this is a weird hyper-detailed thing, but... Not every controller out there is great for this kind of high-speed, intense beatmatching. But the Sony controller is quite good at it.

What makes it ideal?

Literally the feel of the buttons, and the amount of throw on the buttons, and the speed in which they engage, the layout. There's just a lot about it.

In Amplitude, once you get into the mid-to-high difficulties it becomes a very fast and frantic game, and you need super-speedy response and the ability for your fingers to just hit that stuff really quickly.

And the DualShock has always been a great interface for that.

Why is now the right time to bring Amplitude back?

Alex [Rigopulos, Harmonix CEO] and the rest of the team have been talking a lot about new and different ways of developing games. We tend to make games sort of secretly and in private, because of the nature of some of the games we make.

"We've wanted to put out another version of Amplitude forever"

And we've been talking a lot about making games of different scales, making games with different funding models, making games with different interactions with the fans. Alex pointed out a lot of this at his PAX lecture.

We really wanted to do a Kickstarter game just to give that a go and see how it is to work with the fans very, very directly. Amplitude we thought matched really well, because it was a game that we've wanted to make ever since the original came out.

We've wanted to put out another version of that forever because we love it so much, and we don't think there's anything like it out there. And because it was so well loved when it came out, and reviewed so well, we thought that bringing it out again now, using a fan-based funding system, was a perfect match.

This is not a mystery game that you're just hoping is going to be good. This is a game that people know is good, and they can go online and read the reviews and see how great it was.

We think that makes for a great Kickstarter as well, the mystery is sort of removed.

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Is Harmonix positioning itself to be able to do more of these smaller, more agile projects alongside triple-A games like Fantasia?

Yes. That's definitely something we're focusing a lot on. To be honest, it's experimentation for us, because we're on over a decade of making triple-A titles.

We have a lot of great talent, some of whom have actually made smaller titles. I think we're giving it our best, and we're focusing on all different scale titles

I definitely wouldn't put Amplitude down in the agile-in-scale meter the way that Record Run is, but we have all kinds of games spanning across the entire domain.

You won't see just small and giant, you'll probably be seeing a lot of varied scale games from us in the future.

Will there be any difference between the PS3 and PS4 versions?

You'll probably be seeing graphical differences. We don't currently have a plan to put in any specific generational dependent gameplay stuff. But it's very early days, so I couldn't even answer that question specifically.

But no, our goal is to have them be as similar as possible. But clearly the graphics will be uprezzed on the PS4.

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