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Small Dev + Licensing + App Store = ?

Midnight Status recently developed and published a game based on the amazing music of Kishi Bashi. It was the most difficult App Store review process in our 6 year App Store history. Luckily it was just one part of a longer dev story.

It was the summer of 2011. My wife and I had moved into our beautiful brick home the year before and we were still getting acquainted with our neighbors. Although we had met briefly, the small japanese woman approaching me in our front yard was still mostly a mystery to me. She was very upbeat and cheerful. She reminded me of my own mother, who I lost in 2009.

Mrs. Ishibashi began addressing both my wife and myself excidedly telling us about her son, Kaoru. Apparently, he was a musician and would be moving back with them to produce a new album. Since we both did creative work we surely had some things in common. More importantly he and his wife needed friends and they were about the same age as my wife and I. Even better, we each had a daughter. Mrs. Ishibashi sold us on getting together. She was a good matchmaker and possibly even a better salesperson.

The next weekend K (his more well-known alias) and his wife Keiko came over to our place. We drank wine to release the awkward tension of the situation and eventually realized that Mrs. Ishibashi was correct. We had plenty in common. He showed me his music from Jupiter One to Kishi Bashi and I showed him my game development work from Crash for Cash to my book iPhone 3D Game Programming All in One. There was a mutual respect for each others' respective passions. We hung out late into the wee hours like two couples who didn't have kids (or two couples with really cool grandparents who were taking care of the kids). It was a ton of fun and that night kicked off a relationship that would walk a fine line between traditional friendship and collaboration.

My wife, Hilary, and I began attending K's concerts, including the first solo act of his at a local watering hole, The Taphouse. Although it's hard to imagine now, the performance was a little rough. Hilary and I had been listinging to his first CD, which had impressed us. The sound was different. It was like nothing we'd ever heard before. The closest I could think of at the time was The Beattles but then again it was just hints here and there. Overall, the music was great but it was so different that it was hard to imagine it ever becoming really popular.

As we watched that first night in The Taphouse, it was clear that the challenges K faced ran deeper than simple acceptance of music that sounded different. K's MO was live recording of himself playing every instrument and then looping and layering those sounds over top of each other in order to build his compositions in real time. The result was about 5 minutes of pain in order to get 10 seconds of glory at the end, where the song actually sounded like his CD.

After the concert I helped K pack up his equipment and we hung out having a few beers. It was a good time but all I could think about was how to help him tighten up that loop recording process. The next day we met again in the front yard. I questioned him about his process, trying not to step on his toes or insult his creative process in anyway. I mentioned the possibility of using an app to switch between loops or instruments more quickly. His initial approach involved literally switching between each large instrument and using clumsy foot pedals (still uses those) to to control the layering process. It was time consuming and just the introduction of a touch screen interface seemed like it would go a long way.

He wasn't really interested in that approach, fearing that it would take away from the authenticity of the performance. He loved the fact that his live shows could actually go awry, crashing and burning in spectacular fashion. So while, K wasn't intersted in automating his performance it got us thinking about collaboration.

By the next show K had solved his live performance lag by reducing the instruments he used to just his voice and a violin. He started beatboxing the baseline, which was really cool. The live performance became streamlined without the need for any App wizardry. However, K, freshly off a successful Kickstarter, wanted to start dabbling with gaming to promote his brand.

He showed me a Flash based app that let users turn loops and and off. Attached to each loop was a TV screen. The whole thing made for a sort of impromptu music video. He was looking for someone to finish it off, as it was the product of some interns. It wasn't really my type of project so I took a pass on it but I mentioned the App Store and a more complete game as a possibility. At the time it was not financially feasible for either of us. He didn't have the money to pay me and his brand was not yet prolific enough to gamble on.

Over the next year we would hang out when K wasn't on tour. We were both super busy so it was hard to schedule things around work and family. One day K saw me going for a run and asked if he could join. That became our thing. We'd go for runs and talk about the ins and outs of being indie creatives. As K's first album 151a became popular he filled me in on the details. When my next #1 game, Airspin came online I filled him in. We also spoke about what it would take for a Kishi Bashi game to be great.

Most games involve losing at some point. I identified early on that K's music was pretty relaxing and that any game associated with it would have to be sort of rythmic without too much frustration. Surely, it needed a challenge of course but it shouldn't bar people from enjoying the music. I intially pitched the idea of using Crash for Cash's basic tilt and match mechanic because it was easy and rythmic.

We worked on that for a while and we eventually incorporated the idea of lyrics into it so that users could learn the words while playing the game. Still, that game mechanic involved losing. My worst nightmare for the game would have been to just keep hearing the first part of the song as users restarted over and over again.

About a year after we started talking, K passed over a video of a song called Lollipop by Mika. It featured a girl walking through a crazy environment, sometimes falling great distances as she made her way. It was crazy and kind of psychadellic. It was a new direction but it had promise. What if players had to collect the lyrics to the song as they played a sort of "infininte runner"? That became our new concept and I knocked up a quick prototype in January 2013.

At that point we started getting more serious about this Kishi Bashi game. K, wanted it to look great so we reached out to some artists he had worked with in the past. For whatever reason we couldn't get the traction we wanted and getting people to commit was difficult. I finally contacted an artist named Jenn that I'd worked with in the past on Serious Games. Her sample work was mostly from the simulation world, though we did make one entertainment game together a few years back. It was a tough sell for K. Jenn's sample work looked nothing like the concept he wanted and her initial placeholder for the Kishi Bashi character didn't help. K wanted to find someone else but I convinced Jenn to produce one crazy colorful background (I literally said just go crazy) to see if she could meet his expectations. That did the trick so we started producing something in earnest.

Things were going pretty slow as there was no set deadline for the project. It was more a labor of love that we made time for here and there. K would get in touch every now an then to see how it was coming and I'd send over a new graphic or screen shot. Finally, he came back one time and said that he wanted to release the game alongside his new album which was going to happen in April 2014.

This kicked things into high gear. I moved away from our old prototypes and wrote a new framework using Unity's brand spanking new 2D toolset. We added another artist (the amazing Vince White of Will Power fame) to the project to do the character work, though he ended up doing so much more. In roughly 10 weeks we turned out the final product featuring K's new music, Jenn's crazy backgrounds, comic inspired visuals by Vince White, and a gameplay mechanic that walked the line beween challenge and music appreciation.

The licensing process had some complications internally but not much. The hard part was Apple. We went through a 3 week review process (when the running average reported by was 4 days). Apple wanted to see copies of our contract to the license for Kishi Bashi. In addition they dinged us for some really small infractions, such as the screen shots in our metadata for alluding to an in-game reward for a good review on iTunes. Ultimately, this lengthy review process put us past our release date as well as the release date for the album. Apple never stated the reasons for such long delays but I suspect they might have had a contractual obligation NOT to release the music on iTunes (even in a game) before a certain date. There was a preorder in place for the new album "Lighght".

Nevertheless, the game is now seeing healthy performance on the App Store that should help K reach a wider audience with his fantastic music. We were hoping for an earlier release and a bigger splash but those are the trials and tribulations of game development.

Thanks for reading and by all means check the game out!

Kishi Bashi, the game!


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