Features: Looking Back At BIT.TRIP BEAT, Pt. 1

Our Looking Back series of features aims to explore prominent Wii and DS titles from conception to reception. First up: Bit.Trip Beat

With Gaijin Games recently announcing the third game in their psychedelic Bit.Trip series, Void, we felt the series' debut, Beat, deserved another look. In the first part of this inaugural entry, Alex Neuse of Gaijin Games discusses its influences, the level design process and how to do a series properly.

When did the idea for BIT.TRIP BEAT come to you? Did you originally envision it as the first in a series, or did that come later?

The idea for BIT.TRIP BEAT came to me a couple years ago when I was brainstorming ways to make a game that stripped away everything new and fancy and focused solely on fun. At that point, it really was just a thought exercise.

I was having trouble figuring out the concept and in what direction it should go when Chris Osborn, our engineer, and I started talking about our mutual love for chiptune music. At that point, BIT.TRIP BEAT, originally titled Paddle, became a rhythm/music game.

Once the inspiration hit to make this game rhythm/music based, I immediately started jotting down ideas for games that could fit both the minimal style I wanted as well as the rhythm/music genre I so love. After I looked over all the drawings I’d done, I felt that there could be a little more to this game than just the one-off experience. It was at that point that I knew it had to be a series.

All of the games were designed (at least in concept) from the beginning. When starting a series, I think it’s very important to know where you’d like to end up. The last thing I’d want is for people to play through the series and have the feeling that we were just dragging it out.

A good comparison would be US television programming to that in the UK. There are only two seasons in the wonderfully hilarious show Extras for instance. That series has an actual ending. And because of this, the content stays fresh from start to finish. Over here in the US, we have shows like Seinfeld, which inevitably just peter out and finally stop once they’re not good anymore.

Knowing from the start that we were doing a series was very important. We want people to look back on the BIT.TRIP series and love what we did rather than regret that it went on for so long.

Game series’ that could end, by the way, are Resident Evil, Ratchet & Clank, and Metal Gear Solid, among others. I don’t tend to have as much of a problem with games like Guitar Hero or Zelda that have also been done to death. I think it’s because they’re not trying to keep a crazy story straight like the first few I mentioned.

BIT.TRIP BEAT has been compared to everything from Rez to Pong. What games played the biggest role in influencing the direction of the project?

Wait, you mean aside from Rez and Pong? Um...it was pretty much Rez and Pong that played the biggest roles in terms of inspiration. Yep. Or Pong and Rez, if you want to think of it that way. Or Pez and Rong if spoonerisms are your thing.

In short, those are two of my favorite games of all time. So is Super Metroid, but that’s a topic for another time.

Pong represents video game purity to me. It was made 30+ years ago and it’s STILL fun to play. And I don’t know if you know this, but IT’S JUST BLACK AND WHITE DOTS! The fact that someone created something so awesome is very inspiring. In trying to do what we wanted with BEAT, having Pong there proving that the design ideas I was pursuing could be valid was a huge benefit.

Rez came in to play because I’m a big fan of games that can get me “in the zone” and keep me there. The musical interaction in Rez, along with the level flow and extra life systems did a wonderful job of keeping you in the action and keeping you rocking, all depending on your skill. These are the types of things that are attractive to me in games, and they were very inspirational as we developed BEAT.

At the same time, I absolutely love bullet hell shooters and difficult games. But I’ll talk more about that later.

What were some of the development challenges Gaijin Games faced in bringing this game to life?

In a broad sense, the biggest challenge in bringing BEAT to life was that we were starting our company and our first game at the same time. This meant that we had to wear multiple hats in order to get stuff done for the business as well as for the game. Because of this, we worked more hours during the development of BIT.TRIP BEAT than we would have liked.

So, learning how to juggle and balance development work with the business side of things was something that we all learned how to deal with (and we’re getting better at it all the time).

From a development standpoint, the biggest challenge we faced was how to get the game under way. We weren’t in a position to self-fund the project, so we started looking around for publishing partners to help us get the game made. We pitched the game to a few publishers and ended up deciding to work with Aksys Games. The Aksys crew and I go way back and I think it was only a matter of time before we ended up working together. So, with their support, we started development on BEAT.

Other challenges during development were of the sort that every development team faces. These are things like how to best implement feature A or B. Doing the beat-based gameplay was one of the bigger challenges. So were animating the cutscenes and the camera in level 2.

How did the level design process work? Did you compose a song and construct the level based on the piece, or did you have sections of level in mind and worked them into the music? Did you stick to this process for CORE as well?

This is kind of one of those chicken/egg situations. Which comes first? Which should come first? For BEAT, it was a bit of both. Sometimes I got the music from our composer before I started laying out the Beat patterns, and other times I got it after. For instance, in Descent, you can feel more musical themes coming in through the gameplay right from the beginning of the level. That's because I had the music for level 2 before I started laying out the Beat patterns. Level 1 didn't have that same kind of music/gameplay marriage.

Ideally, we'd get the music before doing any of the level design work, because then you can make the levels “dance” to the music a lot better. However, in reality, with the team all working in tandem, it doesn't always work out that way. The process has stayed the same for the development of CORE and VOID, with minor tweaks here and there.

BEAT "feels" like an old-school game. What goals, if any, did you have for accomplishing this?

We definitely wanted this game to feel old-school, which I’m sure is evident. Our goals for accomplishing this were to have the gameplay remain as simple as possible, the art clear and clean, and the controls absolutely perfect.

Of those elements, the controls were the most important by far. Making a “paddle” game truly requires spinner control to feel 100% on. Lacking a spinner controller (the death of which, by the way, is one of the worst things to happen to video games); we knew that if we couldn’t nail the controls the entire game would fall apart. So, during our prototype phase, we tried many different control schemes, and the wonderful analog control offered by the Wii Remote’s motion sensing capabilities won out leaps and bounds above all other control schemes. In fact, I would argue that the Wii Remote is the best substitute for spinner control on the market (except for the insanely awesome Arkanoid DS spinner made by Taito). Let’s see some more paddle games on the Wii, yo!

How was working with Nintendo? Was it difficult getting your WiiWare developer license?

Working with Nintendo is great. They’ve been very positive in terms of supporting our creative vision. However, since we didn’t self-publish the game, we didn’t have as much contact with Nintendo as our publisher did. As we work on more WiiWare games, we are developing our relationship with Nintendo, and they continue to be great to work with.

As far as getting our WiiWare license goes, it wasn’t too rough for us. We had a lot of past Nintendo experience, so proving our abilities went just fine. The major difficulties in this regard were setting up our office and getting our dev kits in-house early enough for all of us to get up and running on the actual platform.

Did anything have to get cut from the final version? Features that just weren't working; or possibly cut for time?

I don’t think we cut anything from the game. BIT.TRIP BEAT is very close to our pre-production vision for the product. In fact, we ended up adding boss battles (which weren’t in the original design). I wish we’d added a few more features — features that are making it into some of the sequels.

I will say, though, that in our initial concept, the game was a much bigger experience — more on par with a $50 retail game. As the concept turned into reality, we realized that the big experience just wasn’t feasible for a downloadable game, so we cut early (before pre-production even began), and because of that we were able to match the end product to our vision.

Why were boss battles considered a necessary addition?

Before we had bosses in the game, we just had very difficult beat patterns planned for the climax of each level. For some reason, that just didn't feel oomphy enough. We realized that while we had a game that was so fun and fantastic as a retro action deal, the ends of the levels just didn't have as much awesomesauce on 'em. When we thought of the final boss idea (no spoilers!), we freaked out.

From then on, we knew we had to have clever and cool bosses (I'm going to jinx our future games here, I know it) in all the BIT.TRIP games.

Be on the lookout tomorrow for part 2 of our BIT.TRIP BEAT revisit.