There are plenty of dance-based games out there - with the likes of Just Dance 2017 and Just Dance 2018 having already moonwalked their way onto Switch - but the classic art of breakdancing is yet to have its proper time in the virtual spotlight. Well, one little indie is about to change all that, and with style, too. Welcome, to the world of Floor Kids.
With its eye-catching hand-drawn graphics by award-winning animator (and former bboy) JonJon set to an original soundtrack by world-renowned scratch DJ/producer Kid Koala, Floor Kids is set to make a big entrance on Switch. The duo have worked closely before with the Floor Kids, with them appearing in a number of short animations as well as being incorporated into some of Kid Koala's live performances. So it seems a perfect fit to bring the hip-hop beats and that instantly recognisable art style together into a game that rewards creativity, originality and sick dance floor moves.
With Floor Kids out now in North America and due very soon in Europe, we sat down with JonJon and Kid Koala to talk musical influences, working on Switch and tips for any prospective bboys or bgirls out there...
Floor Kids first started out as animated shorts that were incorporated into live shows — can you tell us a little bit about the journey they took from there to becoming a video game?
JonJon: We always thought it could be something more, we just needed to find the right situation and team to make something big happen. I kept animating characters on the side, Kid Koala kept touring, showing the videos and believing there was something we could do with it, he often floated the idea of a game, and Ryhna was able to formulate a strategy to branch out into interactive, an area that none of us had ever explored. We found Mike and the boys at Hololabs and since there was good chemistry, the journey began. The four of us formed MERJ - which stands for all of our first names.
Floor Kids’ soundtrack is phenomenal, and it’s such a huge part of the experience — can you tell us about the musical influences that went into it?
Kid Koala: Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the music! I’ve been doing more film soundtrack and scoring work in recent years, so I kind of applied that “score to picture” mentality to Floor Kids. JonJon’s art style is very raw and scratchy, so I just tried to make music that would fit the visual world that he created. I pretty much used everything in my studio and tried to make tracks that had the energy of the bboy/bgirl events that I’ve deejayed at over the years. I have a vinyl cutting machine in my studio, so often I would play the instruments and then cut them on to vinyl to re-scratch them back into the track. That way you get that turntable push/pull and record dust into the mix which I love. I got to use equipment from every era because I’m a bit of a gear geek. Jon drew a venue that’s an old school video arcade, so I brought out the Commodore SID chip, 4 bit, 8 bit, synths for that. By the time the player gets to the Peace Summit, I wanted the music to feel like some insane “Final Boss Battle”. I laughed a lot making those tracks also (sometimes maniacally) because the chorus sections are ridiculously difficult. During the menu music and story cut scenes, I made more mid-tempo tracks just give a little break from the uptempo battle tracks.
How did the gameplay structure in Floor Kids inform your compositions?
Kid Koala: From deejaying at break events, I had a sense of how long dancers usually spent on the mat during a cipher. That’s how we set up the duration of one round. Normally you would just loop the break on 2 turntables and the dancers would go at it. Each round has 2 “verse” sections, where the player is free to create their own dance routines. Then we added mini rhythm games in the “chorus” sections so you can hit stabs with the musicians (one of my favorite pastimes from playing with bands) before you go back to freestyle mode.
Lots of your musical work has involved either virtuality or multimodality, from Gorillaz and Deltron 3030 to film, fashion shows, and puppets with Vinyl Vaudeville — how are those projects similar (or different) to composing music for a video game? Are there any specific challenges or freedoms that come with making music for games?
Kid Koala: Games are very much a LIVE thing, so during the battles, the point was to make tracks that would push the energy forward, and hopefully inspire the dancer/player to get in the moment and rock out. I had to imagine these tracks actually playing at break event. Or at least some motivational music for you to quickly clean your house! For the story cut scenes, it was more about finding the right tones to match that particular moment in the story. In the menu music, it was about making tracks to give a little down time time or breathing room so you could explore the map, check the Breakdeck or get ready for the next round. At any rate, it’s all in the name of making some rad fun happen!
Doing the sound design and foley for the game was a new experience for me. It’s like creating audio sprinkles for a sonic ice cream sundae. I tried to create a set of sounds that would be fun, cut through the mix, fit the feeling of each move, and hopefully not get stale even if that sound was triggered hundreds of times in a round. My favorite moments in the game are the Strobe State Power Moves, Raquettes Super Worm, and Saboya’s Top Rock spins. We also made scanning through the Breakdeck cards a sort of scratch virtual instrument. I think I originally made over 300 slices of scratch sounds that would trigger randomly as you scrolled through the break deck. I’m not sure how many slices the coders ended up implementing, but you can have fun making your own scratch solo just by clicking, scanning through the cards with the left stick and L&R buttons. That was something that just happened in the studio when we realized each card needed a sound and there was over a hundred different move cards. There were a lot of aha! moments where something the game engine required gave us an opportunity to do something a little bit creative.
We love the Floor Kids’ designs, and the visual style of the game in general — can you talk a little about what inspired you in creating it?
JonJon: Wow thank you! But what do you mean by “visual style”? This is literally what I see when I look at people. Big round heads, two eyes, very short and squishy. I thought I was making a documentary!
Technique-wise, the original videos were done on 21 pound Chromacolour paper, inked with those Flexgrip ballpoint pens, which made each drawing a commitment. I worked mainly on a clear plexiglass disc. My process emphasizes flipping the pages fast, no light table. I work fast, and rough - no clean up. I think I was influenced by the concept that the viewer’s eye moves through an image at the speed with which the lines were put down. So if you draw fast, the eye moves through the image fast. And that’s movement. Style-wise, the round heads and dot eyes evolved out of my past works where I was telling stories from my childhood. It’s kind of intuitive. There was something cute and appealing about round heads, a construction line and watermelon seed eyes. I don’t really understand it, but I love drawing these characters because they make me laugh. It’s that simple.
When we started working with the coders, I transferred a lot of the original drawings into the digital work space and worked frame by frame the rest of the way on a 21ux Wacom Cintiq which might sound hi-tech but by now it’s pretty much vintage technology.
One of the things that’s really impressed us about Floor Kids’ animations is the transitions between different moves. Since players are able to essentially string moves together however they like, how did you deal with those possibilities as an animator?
JonJon: On this project, I wore a couple different hats, seeing as I was one of the bboys on the team and the hand-drawn animator. So sometimes these questions cross into two different artistic disciplines and I almost want to give two answers. First, the possibility of having to animate transitions from any move to any move, was highly interesting to my bboy mind. It gave me tons of ideas as well as a lot of problems to solve in physical space. Sometimes the process of curating which characters would have certain moves was a bit organic, so sometimes I would be thinking, do these moves even link up? From an animator’s perspective, I often think of workload, efficiency, project deadline, how much can get done in time. Oddly on this project, my animator mind was also really excited to link up all these different moves, and watch every single transition come to life. The move tree for each character is so deep, there’s probably average 1500 uniquely drawn frames. There was very little re-use because I wanted everything to feel custom and organic. I guess I just went a little crazy with it and had fun. I set up my studio space where I can animate a bit, and when I get stuck I just get up and break a little bit. They’re two really good energies to alternate between.
Floor Kids feels like a great fit on the Switch to us — what made you decide to release on the system?
JonJon: Kirk and Damon at Nintendo of America found us at MIGS last year and convinced us to port our game over to the Switch. At the time, I had not heard of the Switch, since it wasn’t out yet. But the devs and designers knew about it and they were hyped on it. I was simply excited on a basic, nostalgic level like, woah, this is Nintendo. Is this real? I realized that our style fit with their brand, and maybe it also made me realize how much playing their games as a kid and having fun had influenced me and my style. It feels full circle and it’s kind of unbelievable.
Do you play rhythm games? What are a few of your favourites?
Kid Koala: No, but sometimes I’ll try to play Super Mario Bros using the dance mat.
JonJon: I enjoyed playing Beat Sneak Bandit when we started developing for the game. And I remember battling each other on Bust a Groove.
Do you feel any influence from video games (or video game music) on your other creative projects?
Kid Koala: Tetris, and it’s music, causes me low level anxiety, but I love it!
JonJon: My favorite games from childhood are NBA Jam, Starfox, Starfox 64, Mario Bros, Mario Kart, Tetris, NHL 94 and Street Fighter although I really suck at every single one of them. When I got older I played Tony Hawk and Bboy for PS2. One time I got addicted to Plants Vs Zombies. I’ve never played Super Time Force but I love watching it. And a couple of the coders on Floor Kids got me hooked again on Dr Mario when they brought in their NES emulator.
Kid Koala: I’ve been playing Castle Vania since I was a kid. I didn’t score Floor Kids as a side scroller soundtrack, but I’m sure that music is in my DNA by now.
With both of you based in Montreal, are there elements of Floor Kids that reflect the Montreal break scene?
Kid Koala: I believe the Metro venue is my metro station. But I think they would kick us out if you started a dance cipher on the platform like that.
JonJon: I think it’s my metro station… but yes absolutely, I think there are a lot of shout outs to the Montreal scene from crowd characters to locations on the map. But I wouldn’t pin it down to anything specific, it’s more of a vibe. A nostalgic feeling. And it’s not just Montreal, it’s a bit of the universal city, there’s bits of Toronto and Vancouver where me and Kid Koala are from, and of course, New York, the original source of the culture, and we threw in places we’ve been to, places we’ve traveled and places we imagine.
What do you hope players will experience as they play Floor Kids?
Kid Koala: Pure, uninhibited (funky) joy.
JonJon: Living vicariously through these characters to do the moves they could never hit. If you can hit these moves in real life, then, now you have a way to do them without getting tired.
If players get inspired by Floor Kids and want to take part in real life — either b-boying/b-girling or DJing — what’s the best way to jump in?
Kid Koala: For the starter DJs out there, I would suggest picking up one of these portable scratch turntables they’re making these days. It’s an inexpensive way to get scratching right away to see if it’s a craft for you. These new portables are light, have a built in fader or switch and can even be powered with batteries, so you can scratch at your next picnic! AND they have headphone outs so you don’t annoy your parents, siblings, neighbors.
JonJon: If you’re just getting started into breaking, I would start by asking someone who’s been doing it for a while for an intro to the basics. Maybe set a goal to learn one move or one step. For me it was windmills. Don’t just start on your own without guidance. It’s a great thing to do with others because everyone has knowledge to share. Go check out an event. Take a workshop. Watch footage. At the same time, it’s a tough scene, and you don’t want to get in the way of the full-time battlers. Just be aware of the surroundings and have fun.
We'd like to thank Kid Koala and JonJon for their time. Floor Kids is available to download from the Switch eShop in North America now.