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Kicking off Gamasutra's 2014 Road to the IGF series, Ryan Clark explains how "Thriller" influenced the design of NecroDancer, and why it's important to find the perfect beat you're building a rhythm game.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

January 27, 2014

9 Min Read

Crypt of the NecroDancer is Brace Yourself Games' debut title, but it's not creator Ryan Clark's first game -- it's not even his first time in the Independent Games Festival. Clark co-founded Grubby Games in 2004, where he helped create IGF award nominees Professor Fizzwizzle and Incredibots before selling the company to Big Fish Games and joining up as an executive producer. After a few years at Big Fish Clark left to launch Brace Yourself Games, and now he's back to take another shot at the IGF. His game, Crypt of the NecroDancer, is actually nominated for IGF awards in two different categories: Excellence in Audio and Excellence in Design. It's an apt pairing, given that the rhythms beating beneath NecroDancer -- which features a soundtrack from Super Meat Boy and Desktop Dungeons composer Danny Baranowsky -- is intimately tied into the roguelike's core gameplay. Everything in Crypt of the NecroDancer moves based on the rhythm of the music, so players must tap the keyboard -- or, optionally, a DDR pad -- in time to the beat to navigate the 2D game's lush, procedurally-generated dungeons and battle the monsters living within. Kicking off Gamasutra's 2014 Road to the IGF series, Clark explains how Michael Jackson's "Thriller" influenced the design of NecroDancer, and why it's important to find the perfect beat you're building a rhythm game.

What's your background in making games?

I made my first "game" after my Dad taught me Apple BASIC when I was 6. I was hooked. I slowly improved my skills, and in the late '90s I started making websites to help others learn how to make games. It was much harder to do back then than it is now! In 2003 I founded the Game Programming Wiki and in 2004 finally mustered up the courage to quit my job and try making my first commercial game. That game was Professor Fizzwizzle and it had the great fortune of being nominated for the IGF Grand Prize! Our company Grubby Games made 6 additional games, 2 more of which were also IGF nominees, and one was in the PAX 10. In 2009, for various reasons, we ended up selling the company to Big Fish Games. I worked for them for a few years as an executive producer but recently went indie again and am now very happily working on my 10th commercial game, Crypt of the NecroDancer with a super talented team of other indie devs.

What development tools did you use to build Crypt of the NecroDancer?

We're using a little-known language called Monkey X. I chose it because it makes cross-platform 2D game development quite easy, while still affording you access to the raw source code in case you need to fix bugs in Monkey X itself. This is the core reason I have shied away from Unity -- lack of affordable access to the source code. On the art + audio side, I believe Ted and Jesse both use Photoshop for their art, and Danny uses Cubase for the music.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

I started working on the prototype in January of 2013, but didn't really get serious about development until I convinced Ted and others to join me around Feb/March of last year. So we've been working on it for a little less than a year, I'd say. I'm the only one working on it full-time.

How did you come up with the concept?

I had an epiphany when playing the freeware version of Spelunky a few years back: I find games a lot more enjoyable when they have consistent and fair rulesets. When you die in Spelunky, it's usually your own fault. You didn't see a trap, you acted too hastily, or you just didn't know something about the world -- but now you know it! As a huge fan of the original Rogue -- I played the hell out of it when I was a kid -- I wondered if I could take the lessons learned from Spelunky's fairness and apply them to a more pure roguelike. To achieve this, I tried making a roguelike where the player and enemies both moved at fixed intervals -- that way the enemy movement patterns could be fair and very predictable. When I tested this out, moving at a fixed interval felt like moving to a beat! So I tried playing the game while listening to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and it felt amazing. Soon thereafter I came up with the NecroDancer pun and everything just fell into place.

So Crypt isn't turn-based (a la Rogue) or real-time (like Spelunky) -- it's beat-based. How did you approach composing a soundtrack that so fundamentally affects gameplay?

Well, there are two ways the soundtrack can affect the gameplay. First, higher tempos give you less time to think before you have to make your next move -- and before the enemies make theirs -- so we keep the tempos lower for the first few levels of a given zone to help ease players into it. If the action is too frantic they won't have sufficient time to learn the enemy movement patterns, and they will begin to feel as though the game is unreasonably difficult. Second, we can alter the beat pattern to give the player something else that they must think about, in addition to enemy movement patterns. For example, a normal beat pattern for a 4-beat measure would have the 1st and 3rd beats "on" and the 2nd and 4th beats "off". This then repeats for the entire song. But if we want to mix it up, we could make it so that in every 4th measure we drop the final "on" beat. This would make it feel like there's a brief pause in the music -- we do this currently for our "Zombie Conga Line" boss battle. Or, in some parts of the song, we could set ALL beats 1 through 4 to be "on". Double the beats, or "double time". In the game's final zone we plan to do this -- the player would then have to be aware of the song itself, and recognize that the "double time" portion is coming up, and prepare herself to move at twice the tempo for a bit!

What did you learn from building a game whose difficulty is based in part on what track is playing?

I learned that there's some maximum number of decisions per second that a human can make before you'll no longer feel as though you're consciously choosing your actions; instead, you're forced to play based on instinct and gut reaction. Once you hard-wire the enemy movement patterns into your brain, fast songs make it feel like you're subconsciously reacting to the game. When you're in the zone it's like your brain is on ass-kicking autopilot.

Players can use their own music while playing Crypt, right? Do you foresee any intriguing situations arising from someone playing a level to a different beat, like a spoken-word album or a numbers station recording?

Yes, that's right! I certainly anticipate people playing the game with death metal or other high-tempo genres in order to increase the level of difficulty, or slow-tempo genres if they find the game too hard. A spoken-word track or a numbers station recording would yield strange results! The beat detection algorithm would do its best to detect beats, but they would likely be hard for the player to sync up with since there really isn't a rhythm to speak of. Players would then be forced to watch the "beat meter" at the bottom of the screen to see the upcoming beat pattern, rather than just relying on their ears. It might be do-able, but I don't expect it to be overly fun. Though I expect a few people will try it just for the silliness of fighting through a dungeon to the "rhythm" of a book on tape.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Oh man, yes. Such a great year! Papers, Please stands out as a fun, innovative game that doubles as intelligent commentary on the sorry state of the world. I don't think any game has EVER pulled this off so masterfully, and I hope it wins all of the awards -- even the Design award that we are also nominated for. The Stanley Parable was very clever, TowerFall Ascension is a BLAST to play it's being developed here in Vancouver by my friend Matt Thorson), Don't Starve is super addictive (also made by Vancouver friends at Klei), 868-HACK is a near-perfect realization of a game concept (Michael Brough is some kind of wizard), Save the Date blew my mind, SoundSelf was my favorite thing at the GDC last year (lying there on some pillows at the Wild Rumpus, chanting/humming/singing with friends was surreal), and The Swapper (honorable mention) was a super-polished and satisfying experience. I was sad to see that it wasn't nominated. There are also a great many that I haven't played yet, and I'm looking forward to the GDC so that I'll finally have the chance!

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I'm glad you asked that! There has been much talk of an "indie bubble" lately, with people saying that indie games have peaked. I just think that's insane. It has never been more possible to make a living making indie games than it is right now, while the quality of the games being produced these days is amazing, and I don't see either of those things going away. Sure, it seems like more and more people are trying their hand at making games, so we have to compete with more and more developers, but the pie has been growing so rapidly that it seems to have balanced out. Back in 2004 when I started, Steam barely existed and it certainly was not a platform available to indies. We had to sell our games the old-fashioned way: from our website! No one really knew about "indie games", and people were not as accustomed to shopping online back then as they are now. We had a lot of hurdles to clear in order to make a living making games back in those days, and we still managed to do it! Compare that to now? So many things have changed in our favor since then, and so many hurdles have been removed -- Steam is more open, the consoles are more open, press and gamers at large know about "indies" now, technological advances have made it easier to make games, Kickstarter exists, bundles exist, people are more willing to shop online, etc. The only real hurdle now is a lot of competition, and that is the best kind of hurdle. These days, the only thing standing between an indie dev and success is that developer's ability to make games that people want to talk about and play. As a game creator, you couldn't ask for more than that!

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