Features: Looking Back At BIT.TRIP BEAT, Pt. 2

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

Continuing on from the first part of our look back at the development process behind WiiWare hit BIT.TRIP BEAT, Alex Neuse of Gaijin Games warns of the dangers of games going soft, explains the series' brutal difficulty and why BEAT was made a "passive" rhythm game.

BEAT, and CORE for that matter, have received equal criticism and acclaim for being punishingly difficult. Was this a conscious decision or did it just turn out that way?

This was definitely a conscious decision.

I have a soap box to get on in regard to this topic as well. Games are getting too easy, folks. Most video games these days just aren’t challenging. The problem with challenge being removed from games is that people are starting to feel entitled to complete any/every game they buy. With this entitlement comes a lazy attitude where people put down games if they’re challenged even slightly. What this leads to are shorter attention spans, games that pander to the lowest common denominator of lazy gamers, and an overall attitude of “it’s not fair” from consumers. This is a very dangerous path to go down, because there are amazing ways to tell stories and move people through challenge — ways that are impossible to do through storytelling, music, or art. Gameplay is the heart of video games, and overcoming challenges is the reward. So, developers, remove the challenges only at the peril of removing one of our medium’s key rewards.

That said, there certainly is a place for easy games. But there need to be difficult games too. I wouldn’t remember Ikaruga nearly as fondly had it not been soul-crushingly difficult. I beat Ninja Gaiden (2004). One of these days, I’ll beat X-Com. And the amazingly positive feelings I have for these games, after having completed them, are so heavily wrapped up in how difficult they were.

Now, was BIT.TRIP BEAT too difficult? For some people, sure. For others, not at all. I think it’s great that BIT.TRIP BEAT has gotten equal criticism and acclaim for its difficulty. On a side note, my non-gamer mom and step-dad have faced the final boss three times (they haven’t yet beaten the game though). And if they can do it...

One criticism leveled towards the background is that on higher evolutionary stages it can get too busy, some saying to the point of interfering with the gameplay. Was this a conscious method of increasing the difficulty or accidental?

This is a crazy one. The background art served two purposes: 1) to tell the story, and 2) to distract from the gameplay. We spent a lot of time and effort tuning the background art and gameplay so that it wasn't too distracting, but in the end, there were two parts in the game that we thought were too obtrusive: the comet in Transition, and the planet in Descent when it gets close to the camera.

After the game came out, though, we heard about a lot of people losing certain beat colors into the background, and after looking into it (we look into most, if not all criticisms people have - whether we can do something about them or not is another story) we realized that depending on how your TV is calibrated, the game has more or fewer issues with this. So it turned out that we had tuned it to our TVs in the office and it looked great, but different TV types, and people, have their TVs calibrated in all sorts of ways.

If you find that the game is more difficult because of this, try fiddling with your TV's settings.

The three levels are considerably long. Why did you choose this path instead of, say, six shorter levels? Was it for musical or gameplay reasons?

We chose to go with the three level approach for many reasons.

The first reason was because we wanted a playthrough of a level to feel epic and meaningful. We didn’t want it to be something you could do in a few minutes, casually. The journey that CommanderVideo is going through is hopefully reflected in the journey that the player goes through in completing each level.

Another reason was to give players who make it all the way through the levels a sense of flow. There’s something exhilarating about getting in the zone and “riding the vibe” to quote myself from our developer speaks interview. When beating one of these levels, I feel like I’ve been in a trance — and I like that.

And the last reason I’ll cite here is a logistical reason. If we had made six levels, we would have wanted to make each unique from one another and we didn’t have the development time to make each one artistically and musically unique. When we realized this, we decided to go with longer and more cohesively put together levels which were more within our scope.

In hindsight, though, I do wish that we’d come up with some sort of checkpoint system. In twelve minute levels, failing at minute eleven and having to start over from the beginning is pretty rough. This is an issue that we’ve addressed in Void while still trying to maintain the goals listed above. I’d be interested to find out if you and your readers think we did a good job of it.

Did BEAT ever get to the point where you thought it, or parts of it, was just too difficult and had to be scaled back?

BEAT as a whole didn't ever get too difficult, but certain parts of it definitely did. We scaled back some of the speeds of the Beats and did extensive work on the second boss to make it feel as unforgiving as the old breakout-style games, but not too unforgiving. It WAS brutal at one point.

Also, the masochist in me had some gnarly patterns in there that only I could do, and then only with tons of practice. Once I could do 'em though, they felt super fun. Ultimately, they had to go. I mean, we wanted the game to be very difficult, not impossible.

In Rez, players had a direct influence on the game's music as every action produced a sound effect that was essentially another instrument. Beat comes across as much more linear in this regard, as sound effects are produced by blocking the incoming dots, sort of like in Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Was this the plan all along?

BIT.TRIP BEAT is what I’d call a passive rhythm/music game. You’re not actively creating the music like you do in something like Parappa the Rapper. You’re playing a game that, strictly speaking, doesn’t need to be rhythm/music-based. But by playing the game well, you are adding to the aural soundscape. We wanted BEAT to be accessible in its theme to everyone. Everyone remembers Pong. People “get” the game. With BEAT, we wanted to avoid catering to fans of rhythm/music based games only.

Knowing that over the course of the series we were going to add more depth and different ways of interacting with sound, we didn’t want to give it all away at once. For instance, BIT.TRIP CORE is a much more actively rhythm/music based experience, more akin to Guitar Hero where you have to line the beat up, and then execute with precise timing.

As the series continues, we will be exploring the player’s interaction with sound in many different ways.

The story in the Bit.Trip series is told through brief cutscenes between levels. Do you feel the narrative lived up to the story you wanted to tell?

This is an interesting one. There is a very specific story that’s being told with the BIT.TRIP series. Whether it comes across to the average user or not, I’m not sure. We are trying to tell the story in a way that leaves a lot up to player interpretation.

Also, the story isn’t only told through the cutscenes. The gameplay and music help to tell the story as well. My hope is that visually perceptive people will pick up on the background art and cutscenes while musical folks might pick up on the emotions in the music, and vidiots might feel something through the gameplay.

If we were ever questioning whether the story was getting across to the player, we stopped questioning it when GenisSage left this comment about BIT.TRIP CORE’s story on our blog:

I kinda understand the summary in the instruction manual, though. Especially the “Wisdom begins anew” line. Like, in BEAT, we are ethereal, and as such, focus only on our immediate area. We drift along, aimlessly, absorbing energy to grow along. In CORE, however, we have become physical. The world expands, and our boundaries broaden. Inversely, we have discovered that the knowledge we held in BEAT no longer applies, hence the first level being “Discovery.” We must learn that our old strategies are meaningless, and that there is a whole different ruleset here. After we learn that, we begin to test this, hence the second level, “Exploration.” We learn to find new ways to push our power. Finally, the last level (Which I haven’t gotten to, but saw in the manual) “Control” Where we finally master our newfound setting (And perchance, move on?). How am I doing, so far?

If other people have their own theories, we’d love to hear them. We may even make a dedicated webpage for them like we’ve done with evidence of PERFECT runs on levels in our games.

How did you envision the game's critical and fan reception? Did it meet those expectations?

We were absolutely thrilled by the critical acclaim and fan reception of the game. I mean, we all liked the game internally, but you never know how the public is going to react. The first piece of fanart we got blew our minds. It came in during our strange viral campaign (which will make a lot more sense one of these days) before BIT.TRIP BEAT was ever released.

I’d say that from a critical and fan standpoint, BEAT’s reception exceeded our expectations. We’re very glad to be a part of this fan community which has been so supportive of what we’re trying to do.

My hope is that with the critical acclaim and growing fan base for games like these (experimental, imaginative, non-standard), more independent developers will surface on downloadable platforms like WiiWare where the consumer can try something new for a small investment and developers and publishers can get creative without all the risk that’s tied up in the more standard retail approach.

For that to really happen, though, people need to be made aware of these downloadable services. With sites like Nintendo Life starting to give actual cred to services like WiiWare, it’s only a matter of time before digital distribution becomes the norm. So, let’s get the word out there! There are creative games available. And they’re inexpensive!

Have you considered porting the series to the Atari 2600? I'm sure there are homebrew fans out there that would get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

I plead the 5th.

In conclusion...

To conclude, I’d like to thank everyone for reading my lengthy ramblings. The team at Gaijin Games thanks you from the bottom of our hearts for supporting us as we try to make a name for ourselves and deliver unique experiences for players who like good games.

I know that most postmortems like to focus on what went right and what went wrong, and we didn’t do that too much in this one. If you’d like to read a more traditional postmortem about BIT.TRIP BEAT, check out the one on Gamasutra.

I hope y’all are looking forward to the rest of the series and be sure to watch the Gaijin Games blog for updates on this (and other) projects.

Big thanks to Alex Neuse and Gaijin Games for their time.