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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Dance Central

In this excerpt from Game Developer magazine, Harmonix discusses how developing Dance Central for Microsoft's Kinect introduced new opportunities, as well as new obstacles for the studio to overcome.
The latest issue of Gamasutra's leading sister publication Game Developer magazine, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of Dance Central, written by Harmonix's Kasson Crooker, Marc Flury, Matt Boch, Dean Tate, and Ryan Challinor. Released in November as a launch title for Microsoft's Kinect, Dance Central allows players to follow along with a variety of pop and hip-hop dance routines with songs by popular artists including Lady Gaga and Soulja Boy. While Harmonix has been in the music game business for years, Dance Central marks the first dance-based title for the company, using an interface and gameplay style unlike any of the studio's previous releases. These excerpts, extracted from the January 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game. Along the way, the creators of Dance Central reveal the difficulties the team encountered when developing for the Kinect hardware, and how the complex nature of developing playable dance routines introduced new challenges for the seasoned music game studio to overcome. Keeping It Real In order to establish a sense of authenticity around the game's presentation and dance routines, Harmonix made sure to build a team that understood the inherent appeal of choreographed dancing. "Dance Central's design started with a lofty aim: to create a game that will teach players real dance moves. This goal served as a compass during early prototyping, leading the team toward designs that gave prominence to dancing above all else. We utilized the instantly recognizable choreography from Soulja Boy's 'Crank Dat' as a litmus test for potential mechanics, throwing out a number of pose matching and gem hitting prototypes when they didn't stand up to the challenge of communicating moves like the 'Lean n' Rock' or the 'Supaman'. After a few months and several iterations, we settled on our move names and flashcards approach, which handily communicated the entirety of 'Crank Dat'. Although we had identified core gameplay mechanics that would teach real dance, we were still unsure of the makeup of our development team. In working on the Rock Band series, we've always considered our staff's intimate knowledge of rock music a vital element of the franchise. Our developers' experience touring, playing, and writing for their bands imbues Rock Band with an authenticity that we believe sets it apart from other music games. In order to inject the same type of authenticity into a dance game, we felt we had to assemble a team with a love for hip-hop, pop, and, most of all, dance. At the dawn of the development of Dance Central, we held company-wide tryouts to determine who would mocap the first prototype routine. We asked each prospective choreographer to both dance the routine to 'Crank Dat' and develop a routine of his or her own design. While most Harmonix developers ran away screaming, a handful of Harmonix artists proved to be outstanding dancers and were promptly sent to mocap the first routines. This choreography proved essential during prototyping, but we quickly realized it would be critical to add professional dancers to the staff, both to create original professional-level choreography for the game and to teach the rest of the team how to dance." The Right Scope, The Right Moves In order to best develop a new franchise from the ground up, the team aimed to recreate the success the studio had with the first Guitar Hero, limiting scope in favor of refining core gameplay. "Creating new IP isn't easy, especially when your studio is well known for one type of genre-defining game. We knew that the Dance Central team would need the drive to do something completely new while also quickly reaching consensus on feature scope. We looked back to the work our studio had done developing the original Guitar Hero as a reference point. At that time, Harmonix was a much smaller developer. We had to be prudent about our ambitions while remaining flexible and innovative. Our imperative for GH was first and foremost to completely nail the core fun experience. Naturally, it felt like Dance central should share that approach. We made the decision to keep the team small, composed of key members who had proven themselves on other Harmonix titles over the years. This was no easy task, given that we were simultaneously developing Rock Band 3! This core Dance Central group was able to break into agile sub-teams that rapidly iterated on gameplay prototypes. There was a conscious effort to focus the design on strengthening the core dance experience rather than adding breadth and complexity. Adding a character creator, in-depth single player campaign, or other ancillary feature would have detracted from achieving our core goals. Instead, we spent most of our time perfecting the dance gameplay, learning how to best handle difficulty, building a teaching mode, and making sure our flashcard and spotlight HUD were conveying the right information at the right time, all in the service of keeping the dancing as fun and entertaining as possible. Our strike teams consisted of a designer, coder, artists, sound designer, QA tester, and a producer, each empowered to scope, design, and prototype the main gameplay modes. As noted earlier, we also made sure the team had a genuine interest in dancing and dance culture. That dedication shows in the final product. Having a common background, knowledge of club music, and passion for dancing meant we were able to approach all design choices knowing that they were grounded in the world of dance. By 'speaking the same language,' we moved rapidly through iteration, since we didn't suffer from off-the-mark decisions. We felt validated in our approach when we showed the game to professional dancers who were impressed with the authenticity of both the dancing and approach to teaching. The combination of a small, powerful team, tasked with the goal of implementing a core feature set unhindered by feature bloat enabled us to execute a sophisticated game based on Microsoft's brand new motion tracking tech in just 12 months." Getting Low Nailing down the game's difficulty curve proved difficult as the team aimed to design routines that appealed to players with little to no previous dance experience. "Dance Central's choreography covers a substantial range of difficulty, from simple two-steps to challenging toprock moves. We knew that having a broad range of choreography was necessary for the game to appeal to both novices and experts, but as the project unfolded we were unsure about the qualities that define the difficulty of a given move. We knew that delivering an accessible experience on easy would be vital to the title's broad appeal, but throughout development, we tried and failed to establish an appropriate 'low bar' numerous times. Our first attempt began with our choreographers developing a few complex routines and presenting them to the design team. The design team, a group with a range of dance skills, tried out each move and discussed which were easy, medium, and hard. Using those ratings, we derived easy and medium combinations and videotaped the choreographers performing them. We presented these videos to various playtesters and had each try to dance along, rating the difficulty of the moves and the routines. Unfortunately, our playtesters weren't good judges of their own skill level or performance. Once the songs were integrated into the game and players were scored, we found playtesters struggling with moves they had previous rated as easy. This problem was compounded by the fact that we had already motion captured the routines and couldn't reshoot, given the release schedule. We were stuck with some very challenging hard routines. We tried again, this time encouraging our choreographers to come up with a few very simple routines. This time, our easy and medium levels turned out much easier. Some of our more talented playtesters were able to pick up hard levels without much effort We thought we had reached an acceptable easy, but then tried presenting these levels to some key high-level staff who struggled, unable to perform the majority of the moves. With important members of the Harmonix brain trust unable to comment on the mechanics of the game, we knew we had yet to find universally accessible choreography. With a few months to go, we finally figured out how to use staff members with minimal dance skills to our advantage. We asked our choreographers to generate a number of very easy moves and set up a dance class to teach these moves to the self-described 'bad dancers' at Harmonix. The choreographers went through each move, asking the novices to follow along as the designers watched and noted which moves they picked up quickly. Using this information, we crafted four new easy songs, which make up the first tier of Dance Central. Although we succeeded in making these first songs very approachable, the difficulty ramp across all songs is not as smooth as we would have liked." Additional Info The full postmortem of Dance Central explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the January 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine. The issue also includes a bonus postmortem on the Wii and DS platformer Ivy the Kiwi, a preview of the upcoming Games Developers Conference, a feature on bringing strategy games to touch screen devices, Game Developer magazine's annual Front Line Awards, and much more. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of January 2011's magazine as a single issue.

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