Changing How You Think About Your Music - The Men Behind Symphony
Monday, July 30, 2012
Just saying the word around most gamers will inspire noveau-nostalgia, frustration, joy and disappointment. All but the most hardcore will call the genre dead, flogged to death with nigh-monthly releases from multiple companies and closets full of useless plastic instruments. Empty Clip Studios’ Symphony is about to bring it back in a way that will change the way you think about music games forever.
For a “bullet-hell” style shoot-em-up, Symphony has already garnered some pretty high accolades. After some fierce competition at the Indie Game Challenge 2012, hosted by The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, SMU Guildhall and GameStop, the game won both the award for Technical Achievement and the GameStop PC Downloads Choice Award.
So what makes Symphony so special? It uses a special algorithm to create the enemies and battlefield based on your music. If that’s not impressive enough, it was made by just two guys, Francois Bertrand and Matt Shores of Empty Clip Studios.
“We came up with the idea a long time ago, but have been working on it on-and-off for 3 to 4 years,” Bertrand said. Being an indie studio though, the work that pays the bills comes first. “As a small indie studio we've actually spent most of our time doing contract work to pay the bills. We've been working on Symphony part-time, whenever we had the chance.”
Shores takes the story back even further. “We came up with the original concept on a drive back from GDC in 2006, but we didn’t really start on it until 2009,” he said. Then something clicked, “Last year we really started on it full time and said ‘Ok, this could be an awesome game, let’s finish it,’” Shores said.
Creating a game from the varieties of music in a gamers’ collection can be daunting and had its challenges. “There’s really two challenges in that,” Bertrand explained, “Extracting the right information out of the music, the beats, the intensity and whatnot is one challenge, and then using that information to procedurally create the game, generating enemies, AI, balancing and such.”
“People might be tempted to categorize this game as a rhythm game like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, but we aren’t that kind of game at all,” Shores added. “We’re more of a music experience game. Getting this to work with the game creatively was very difficult.”
The game has had an interesting evolution. It started out as a total experiment, where Empty Clip focused mainly on creating creatures procedurally of the music. The more they played, the more they realized that linking gameplay to the music as it played was a brilliant idea for a game with replayability only limited by the size of one’s music library.
Bertrand and Shores both emphasize the connection people can have with their music. “The music we love carries a lot of emotions; there are calm moments, crescendos, climaxes, bridges and so on,” Bertrand said, “Gaming makes us experience the same kinds of emotions and we always wanted to create a game that merged the two.”
What they’ve created is absolutely a success. Symphony blends your music with a game that can range from challenging and obsession inducing to a nice easy casual time-killer. Will Kenny G’s riffs give you an easier time than trying to beat the game listening to System of a Down? Yes, absolutely, says Bertrand. The evolution of music recording changed the range of music and so changes the dynamic of the game.
“Classical and jazz music tend to have what we call a lot of dynamic range in the sound,” Shores said. “This means that they are either very quiet or very loud and different times. Most produced pop, rock, rap, and so on try to keep the volume around the same level.”
Something like Symphony might naturally have had to come from a small team. Shores said “EA or Ubisoft create a team with this sole charter in mind? I think they could if they really, really wanted to. Mind you, it would mean that they would have to cut off the approval hierarchy, and I am not sure that would be possible.”
He pointed out that indie game awards reinforce the idea that small teams have that creative flexibility that’s typically not available at larger studios. “Most game developers want to experiment and try new ideas, but they don’t have the time or resources to do so.”
Empty Clip even created a weapon just for GameStop, something a larger publisher might do with skins or things that typically don’t change gameplay. Buying Symphony from GameStop actually gets players an advantage. The “Seeker GS” actually fires heat-seeking bullets, making your Slayer albums a little easier to handle.
“We want Symphony to ‘feel’ your music like no other game has in the past,” Shores said. “It all came from the car ride asking ‘What if a game really understood my music?’” If that was their goal, Symphony is a resounding success.
It’s been a long road for Empty Clip, Bertrand and Shores, but things are looking up. Symphony is available now for pre-purchase and will be available August 6th from GameStop PC Downloads.