You may not know this, but deep inside you there may reside an urge to kick ass to the rhythm of Mandarin rap. The upcoming Vita exclusive beat-matching rhythm game KickBeat actually gives you the chance to do this. In a battle for control over the world’s music you will kick and punch your way through 18 tracks, including but not limited to Rob Zombie and Pendulum. The game intrigued us, so we caught up with creative director at Zen Studios Neil Sorens over a cup of virtual coffee and a chat about the past, present and future of KickBeat.
PSM: Like Patapon which is a great portable experience, KickBeat looks like one of those games that fits perfectly on the go. You started developing it in 2009. Was it started with Vita in mind as the platform, or was PSN or even the PSP taken into consideration? What was the decisive factor for making it for the Vita platform?
Neil Sorens: Although we didn’t start developing the game for a handheld, it made sense once we saw that the Vita could run the game without us sacrificing our vision. Like you said, this type of game is a good fit with the portable experience. The songs are pretty self-contained experiences; you can play a song or two and accomplish something in a short amount of time.
PSM: The idea started way back in 2006. How close to the final game was the original idea, and how many different iterations did it go through before it became what it is today? Was it even the same genre all the way?
Neil Sorens: The original idea was to do it on the Wii with motion controls. Unfortunately, since we don’t do retail games, and WiiWare’s size limit was a constraint, we shelved the idea. A few years later, we went back and redesigned it for a standard controller. It was always a rhythm action game, though – the core design didn’t change much over the years. The technical design, however, went through several iterations, as many of the systems (animation, music analyzer, etc.) were breaking new ground.
PSM: How big is the team working on this game? And considering the really cool fact that most of it is hand animated, how many animators do you have on staff doing this?
Neil Sorens: Seven people for most of it (I think it’s been as many as twelve at certain points), although some of them are working on other projects as well. We’ve had two animators on the project.
PSM: In one scene in the reveal trailer you see the protagonist evading rockets, and then you see a chopper crashing down into the stage. Are these some sort of boss battles or are they more like set pieces that happen during a match? If they are set pieces, do you have a lot of them?
Neil Sorens: There are three boss battles in the game and some cinematic stuff around each one. The helicopter battle is one of those boss fights. In addition to those, we have some scripted “slo-mo” sequences in the middle of songs that trigger based on the player’s success. Of course, we have to balance these with core gameplay – and also make sure we’re not biting off more than we can chew in terms of development time.
PSM: In a lot of cases there are several enemies in the periphery around the dojo stages. Are these all the enemies that you will be fighting during a song / level, or will they spawn as you go?
Neil Sorens: Yes, they will eventually jump into the inner ring and attack you. As they do so, new ones will fast-rope or otherwise appear to replace them, until there are no more enemies needed for the song.
PSM: The initial lineup looks interesting, and the Mandarin rap song is something I can’t wait to hear. But with the option to use your own music, are you considering releasing songs as DLC?
Neil Sorens: Right now, we don’t have any specific plans to sell add-on songs. We can do it, but first we’d like to see how people respond to the game and whether it’s something enough people want.
PSM: With influences like kung fu movies and rhythm games, are there any other pop cultural references or other games that has influenced the development of the game?
Neil Sorens: A few years ago, 2004 or so, the studio I worked for before Zen was developing a game based on the TV show Kung Faux. The show had hip-hop music and voiceovers over classic kung fu films, and a video-gamey sort of presentation. I wasn’t directly involved with the project, but I did see a few of the episodes, and they probably helped inspire the concept. And in 2006, there was an iTunes commercial featuring Eminem and his song “Lose Yourself.” The high-contrast visual style and the kinetic, quasi-violent movements synchronized to the beat were a more direct inspiration.
PSM: Thanks for the chat! We wish you the best of luck with the the upcoming release, and look forward to see what you have to show at E3!