Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, Francois Bertrand and Matt Shores of Empty Clip Studios discuss the battle to liberate your own musical library with PC game Symphony.
What's your game called and what's it about?
Our game is called Symphony. It's a vertical shooter that's 100 percent driven by your music. Your music is under attack by a mysterious evil entity and you must fight to liberate it.
What's the coolest aspect of Symphony?
We really pushed to have the tightest connection possible between the emotions, events and mood of your music and the game. The characteristics of each of your songs – the beats, the energy and the spectrum, all contribute to generate a unique level. We also wanted to add a lot of replayability and wrap everything into a coherent storyline so you have a satisfying, long-lasting gameplay experience.
You're not just playing individual songs – you're fighting to liberate your music collection. As you progress through the game, you'll fight boss battles, unlock difficulty levels, get rewarded for reaching score targets, collect items and customize your ship. Every song in your collection contains an item you can discover, equip and upgrade.
What inspired you to make Symphony?
We all have a collection of songs we love. Each song has a unique mood conveyed through intros, buildups, bridges, climaxes, etc. We're passionate about both music and games (and games like Audiosurf and Beat Hazard) and had always wanted to create a game that would make these emotions literally come to life, so that we may enjoy our music in a new way.
Explain some of the difficulties in taking random people's random music and turning it into a game with Symphony's music analysis system.
We realized that the most rewarding experience we had as players was to get the tightest moment-to-moment link between the music and gameplay.
Coming up with a system that would work as well with any type of music, from quiet classical music all the way to death metal, was the biggest and most fun challenge of the project for sure. There were actually two main challenges.
For one, beat detection. It may look easy to detect beats and important moments in a song, but mathematically, there is a lot of noise (quite literally) to sort through. For example, we found that a lot of times a singer's voice, which often has a lot of energy and is irregular (versus the beat) could throw things off.
Then, the other challenge is to create a fun game regardless of the song. This means a slow, low-energy song should be easier than a fast, high-energy song, but not TOO easy. To add to the challenge, we feature six difficulty levels with upgradable weapons, which adds even more stuff to balance.
Overall, we're pretty happy with what we've come up with, but we'll be constantly working on better algorithms. We hope players will tell us of the songs that have issues so we can improve the game.
Symphony looks like a mix between DDR, Audiosurf and Geometry Wars– how did that layering of ideas come about?
The design of the game actually changed quite a bit as we went through development. It started as a total geek-out, an experiment on generating procedural creatures based on music. The more we developed though, the more we shifted our focus from procedural creatures to procedural gameplay. We realized that the most rewarding experience we had as players was to get the tightest moment-to-moment link between the music and gameplay.
What is your background in music?
Matt was a musician with a degree in cello performance – all I have to show are some piano and guitar lessons. But we seem to both be drawn to integrating music and audio in creative ways into games. This isn't part of a master plan to exclusively create audio-based games, but our debut title Groovin' Blocks also integrated music into gameplay in a novel way (it has a terrible name, it's a bit ugly, but it's really addictive! Check it out on WiiWare, wink wink).
Congratulations on Symphony's Indie Game Challenge Technical Achievement award. How has that recognition affected your development process?
Thank you! I can't say it's changed how we develop the game, but it was a great relief to know we're on the right track. After working on it by ourselves for over three years, it's hard to have perspective. You start asking yourself: Is this really good? Are we going in the right direction? Are we going insane? Getting this external validation energized us to finish the game.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Being independent enables us to have full control over the creative and development processes, which is any game creator's dream. It's sometimes extremely difficult just to pay the bills, but we're totally addicted to it.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
There are more and more independent developers out there. But as rewarding as it is, it's often very challenging. So it's great to be able to trade war stories with other indies and help each other out.
Sell Symphony in one sentence:
Symphony makes you re-experience your music collection by generating unique gameplay tightly based on it!
As an independent developer, we have to spend a lot of time working on other projects just to keep the lights on. That means we got to work on Symphony only whenever we had any spare time; it was in development on-and-off for the last three years. It shipped on PC but we hope to take it as many platforms as we can.
If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.