Behind the colorful music wheel of Wandersong

Wandersong's Greg Lobanov digs into the game's intriguing color wheel of song,, why he crafted an aesthetic around a 'rainbow of sound', and how he designed puzzles solvable by singing.

A few weeks ago, the humble little music adventure Wandersong snuck out onto Steam and the Nintendo Switch. It caught our attention not only because of its vibrant tone, but also because its primary mechanic stuck out as a genuinely inventive idea that fueled some really interesting gameplay. 

So a couple weeks ago we invited Wandersong lead developer Greg Lobanov onto our Twitch channel for a chat about the nuts-and-bolts development process of this melodious game.

For your convenience, we've excised and edited together some colorful highlights from that conversation for your perusal below. 

Making an interactive feel-good singing color wheel

The rainbow wheel was actually the very very very first thing that I did for this game; it was kind of the starting point.

It kind of came… I was just kind of wondering if there was a way to make a game controller into a musical instrument. And I thought like, using this… I really like the way the sticks feel and I thought that there was something there, like some fun to make them feel really like expressive and flowy. 

And that wheel was my first little idea. And so the very first thing for this game was just like a circle, a rainbow circle, and a gray screen. And I just could use the controller to play like little GarageBand flute sounds out of it. And right away it was super fun, I thought. The rest of the game kind of grew from there.

Once I saw “ok like playing music with this little wheel is really fun” I kinda started to wonder what would happen if I built… How far could I go with this? What would a game that was built around this look like? And I started to have all these character ideas, and story ideas, and I just kind of like built and built and built on it. 

"We really emphasized the music wheel. We made that really fun and juicy and reactive, and have all these little animations and tunes and stuff and it just feels like really gooey and reactive to play with."

Why does it feel so good? I think one thing that distinguishes Wandersong from a lot of other games that I look at is that the animation and the kind of the character of the game is really specific and directed, so you don’t have like a silent protagonist; the protagonist has a really strong personality. And the way that they move and the way they animate in response to the player’s controls is like really evocative of their personality so I think no matter what you do with it or how you play with it, you always feel really in character and that gives the game a really nice cohesive feeling. Like you’re always really stepping into the shoes of that character.

I definitely think that we really emphasized the music wheel. We made that really fun and juicy and reactive, and have all these little animations and tunes and stuff and it just feels like really gooey and reactive to play with. And everything in the world reacts to the music. Everything is just kind of like connected with each other and reacting to each other, and whe ever you do anything you feel really like…you have a big impact on the game I guess. Your choices are really valid and you really shape the way the game looks and the way the screen moves. 

So a lot of that stuff kind of all came together. There was like, I think right at the start, even before I had that music wheel idea, I was really interested in exploring… like i wanted to make a game that was about like positivity and optimism and I wanted to spread like really good values and messages. That was something I was getting really interested in trying to  find a way to do.

That was just a big idea floating in my head but I didn’t like have any specific idea for, but then once I came up with the music wheel I kind of was like “Oh, I really feel like this big thing that I want to do can really fit into this little thing I just found.” And that gave me a really strong direction early on. A lot of those early decisions about design and art and layout and whatever all came through that filter, which was a really really like clear filter. It was like “ok this is what I want the game to feel like, this is what I want the game to be about, how do I do that?” And this was the best I could come up with 

Making puzzles and props that interact with the player's singing

Generally thinking, the entire game is kinda this museum of different props and things that interact with your singing in different ways. So whenever you see something new you just kinda of sing at it, and you see how it reacts to your music and everything works a little bit different.

You’re always singing to something, but different things go in different ways. This is a good example where there’s the bird where you repeat its sequence and it gives you a big jump and then there’s the vine, when you sing to it it grows in the direction you sing. 

I hadn’t actually seen any game like this before either, so I kinda was like figuring out as I went. I will say that like when I had that first idea with the little rainbow wheel on the screen just playing with it I felt like just making up songs is really fun so I wanted to try to find ways to emphasize that aspect of it and encourage the player to make stuff up and play with it. 

That did create a lot of restrictions for puzzle design stuff because we didn’t want to create situations that were really challenging or specific. A lot of it we tried to think about ways to make it feel really cool and let you sing and play with the game and see how things reacts to your music and then the puzzles will be things where like you can do lots of things with this thing and there’s kind of like one thing that it wants you to do, and you kind of play with it until it does the thing that you want it to do if that kind of… It’s very broad, but it’s supposed to feel really playful. 

And sometimes it’s not just like you walk in a straight line until the end, but it kind of gives you this really fun little like thing to do to get to the end if that makes sense? It’s a really fine line that we walk, because we want it to be really interesting but we don’t want it to be punishing.

Crafting an aesthetic that's "a rainbow of sound"

The rainbow actually is usually the last thing we do for every color palette. So that very first test I was doing, I knew there was going to be that rainbow wheel to it but for every area of the game, like… This is actually probably the first game that I feel really proud about how it looks and I didn’t do pixel art or anything, I really tried to take color seriously.

We have a level editor for this game where I can of like just draw shapes and that’s where all the shapes and the platforms in the game come from. And then colors are built into that as well. So every level in the game there’s like a small list of colors that everything picks from, like indexes, so there’s like color 1 2 3 4 5, and every shape is either one of those 5 colors. 

The reason we did that is because I could make levels and I could go in and work on the colors and all the levels would change color with whatever I decided the colors would be. So I could kind of iterate on the color palette as a separate project from doing the design and the art and I could fix and work on colors and improve colors without losing any art asset work in other areas. 

I’m not a really confident artist but I do feel confident in my ability to really hone in on colors that look really nice. Just out of my iterative process, I know this can be better I know this can be better and keep working on it. So by kind of letting that drive the visuals of the game I was able to work on the colors a lot basically. How I picked them is a hard-to-answer question because it’s really like “oh I wanted this part of the game to feel like this and I really felt like yellow and purple was what did it."

I’ve been slowly growing on [color in game design.] It wasn’t like a passion that I was really into when I came into games. Like I like Nintendo games, I appreciate color in games, but I didn’t take it seriously as an aspect of my art or game design until probably 2 or 3 years ago.

"If you can make really good colors and make really good color choices then even kind of a crappy drawing can look amazing."

I met other artists who I really respected and I really like their work and I found consistently that color was a big thing that excited me. I have this theory that like basically any piece of art is just colors that are arranged in a certain way. And like learning how to make a really good drawing or a good composition or render something in a really interesting way, that takes a lot of time and practice and effort. That is a lifetime of study. 

But if you can make really good colors and make really good color choices then even kind of a crappy drawing can look amazing. So I kind of figured like maybe color is my way to kind of cheat through the process and take anything I do and make it more interesting. I took it really seriously as just a thing to learn and then study. I read some books on color theory that helped me learn a lot about the basics of how things work. I learned a lot. Even if you look at early screenshots of this game, I think even maybe our Kickstarter trailer had some ones, but even before then it did not look good at first. 

I learned a lot while working on this game. Especially because I gave myself that flexibility, that color palette editor that tied to the game I was able to put an idea down, I saw how the game looked and went “hey this looks ok, I wonder if I can improve it.” And just work on the colors, see how it gets better, work on them more see how it gets better, and I just learned a lot. Basically, trial and error, practice makes perfect, that kind of stuff. This is the first game where I really feel confident about my work on the color and I really like put effort in on it and it was all my work.

Learning lessons from a cross-country bike ride

Living on my bike for a few months and riding across the country was a really life-changing huge adventure and experience. And I think definitely almost right after I did it I wanted to make a game that was about that in some way, just cause I was feeling really inspired by that whole journey.

Some of the first games that I kind of tried, like ideas that I think are cool but I wasn’t super happy with, I had a lot of ideas that were based on the trip in a much more literal way. I was gonna make this game about bikers, and ike an apocalyptic desert and it was about biking and survival and all these kind of literal things that

What I really feel like I got from the trip was a lot deeper than that I think. I felt after the trip a lot more positive in general and optimistic. I felt really reassured in myself.

Like I had left… I’ve been a game developer my whole life, I’m not like a athlete or a biker or anything. And when I left to do that big bike trip I didn’t do it with the expectation I was gonna get all the way across the country. I was kinda like well here’s an impossible thing, I’m going to try it and find out “ how far can I go?” and when I stop what’s that going to be like you know? Just to see, just for the challenge.

And so when I actually accomplished it I was like “wow, I can do way more than I thought.” And that was a really powerful thing to realize. And along the way I met so many strangers and was the benefactor of so many different people's generosity. I made so many friends and stayed with so many people, and just had so many positive experiences with other humans that I was just like feeling really positive about just feeling good about humans in general. I was like yeah, strangers are to be trusted, and the world is a good place after all. 

It was just this feeling about everything being connected and wonderful and I really wanted… I think what attracted me to Wandersong when I found that idea was that it felt like it really had the opportunity to speak to that message more so. Even though it’s not about biking or really any specific things of what my bike trip was, it is very much about that deeper meaning that I got from it. And that made it feel really powerful to me. It really felt like it was expressing something I really wanted to express. 

It’s really amazing to think about, if you talk about that, at the time when… So that was in 2015 when I did that GDC talk and later that year or around that same time was when Gamergate was happening. And like when I was starting Wandersong, Gamergate was at its tail end, it was dying down. And there was this feeling of like wow that was crazy, glad that’s over, that’s never going to happen again. And Wandersong I think came at least partially from reacting to that. 

That very negative event in… In the gaming industry it was this omnipresent thing. It really felt like there was this cloud of negativity around everybody. People didn’t trust each other any more.

So I wanted to kind of think about that and think about finding a way to kind of like bring everyone back to being in a happy and hopeful and trustful place. And it’s amazing to me like, I had no way to know since then just how much the world was going to change after I started this game. At the time I was like “this is kind of relevant right now, I’m really excited about this, maybe someone will connect with it.” 

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