Kid Koala is not a game developer. Born Eric San, the Canadian DJ and turntablist has been spinning records and making beats since he was 12. Over the past three decades, he's DJ'd breakdancing battles and worked with legends of the electronic music scene like Amon Tobin. He's also scored films, written graphic novels and even collaborated with Mike Patton of Faith No More and Dan the Automator on an album of "love" songs. But he is not a game developer. Like many, he grew up playing Super Mario Bros., and back then if you'd told him one day he'd work with Nintendo, he'd never have believed you.
His latest project is Floor Kids, a rhythm game that's a celebration of breakdancing culture. It's something he worked on, one way or another, for over ten years. The game was released last December for Nintendo Switch as part of the company's "Nindies" program. When San and creative partner Jonathan "JonJon" Ng were first approached by Nintendo, neither had any idea what a Switch was, but agreed anyway. "Nintendo was like some company from outer space that created this awesome game," he said. "It was a no-brainer for me." Now, the game is coming to PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One very soon.
Floor Kids started life over a decade ago when San and Ng were working at Canada's National Film Board. San had just released Your Mom's Favourite DJ, and Ng was animating a short film about a kid with Asthma. Ng had been a breakdancer off and on for awhile, but it took until 2004 for him to form a regular crew and start practicing weekly. He'd spend his days animating, then go home and dance and to wind down from that; he'd sketch breakdance animations. He doesn't consider himself a professional dancer, but said that he'll "definitely get down and help get the party started." During crunch, the stressful final stage of game development, Ng would breakdance in the studio to relieve muscle pains from drawing.
He was familiar with Kid Koala thanks to breakdancing, and one day showed up at San's house with a stack of animation paper. On it were a couple of kids having a breakdancing battle, bouncing around from page to page. San recalled nodding his head to the silent beat the kids were dancing to as Ng flipped through the paper. Ng said that his drawing rhythm could've influenced what he'd shown San, or it could've been the way he was fluttering the pages.
As you can see in the short above, the characters' moves have subtle differences and styles. Ng's animations are driven by an acute knowledge of the physics of the dance moves and how they link from step to step. His understanding of the nuance and different styles enabled him to break each windmill or head-spin down into individual frames of animation. "He literally knows the rotations, the gravitational torque on all the spins just because he's done the moves himself," San said. "I realized I was dealing with a bit of a savant," he added, laughing.
After that, the pair began collaborating, with San providing foley work and music for Ng's short films, even taking the animations on tour to serve as visuals during his concerts. The pair knew that their project had potential, but weren't sure what to do with it. Five years ago, San took to Twitter to in his words, "cold call" some local game developers and see if they'd want to talk.
Mike Wozniewski is the founder of Hololabs, a development studio in British Columbia, Canada. Ng and San met with him in 2013, and he was the first developer who didn't mention changing Floor Kids' expressive art style. "[Hololabs] stepped up to the plate and really wanted to do it exactly how it was in the old videos," Ng said. Other programmers wanted a "super digital" aesthetic that'd be easier to code. That wasn't something Ng wanted because it'd take away the spirit of how he works.
"In my animation career, a lot of times that roughness, that sketchiness, gets cut at a certain part of the process," he said. He continued the clean versions don't look as good as they did prior, "but this is what you're told is going to sell the product better."
Ng has set up shop at break competitions before, using a marker to draw the winner, Floor Kids style. Then he'd give it to them on the spot. "Because I understand the dance as a language, I know their best moves, and I'll make sure it's one of the most memorable moments from the battle."
Floor Kids: The Video Game's animation and art aren't perfect because they were never supposed to be. Everything has a bit of a rough, penciled look like it was ripped out of a sketchbook — not a Disney animation cel. Even when you're glancing at screenshots, everything feels like it's in motion. Ng attributes that to his manner of pencil and brush strokes. He said that the speed with which you put a line on a page is the speed the eye traces the drawing. "If you're really hesitant and feathery, and take a really long time, your eye might take a really long time," he said. "If you do stuff really loose and fast and sketchy, your eyes tend to move that way too."