February 16, 2010 12:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing his series of interviews for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska examines intriguing-looking Xbox Live Indie Games title Kaleidoscope, talking to the creators of the just-debuted Xbox 360 downloadable game about its alluring visuals and music.]
There may never have been a better time to be a developer of independent games than today, but how to go about getting the word out on a great indie remains anybody's guess.
Kaleidoscope, released on the Xbox Live Indie Games platform for the Xbox 360, is the product of a three-person team currently exploring both popular and novel methods of promoting their first game together.
The central theme of the sidescrolling hop-and-bop is that as you progress through each of Kaleidoscope's levels, layers of color emerge on the screen and layers of instruments fade up on the music score. Gameplay, art and music each have interactive properties affected by the player.
Programmer Matthew Stenback and art director Sang Han have run Kaleidoscope through the gauntlet of independent game showcases. The title was a finalist for the Microsoft-sponsored Dream-Build-Play competition.
Composer Mattias Häggström Gerdt's approach to generating word of mouth has included posting the soundtrack album to popular game arrangement site OverClocked ReMix. Site founder David Lloyd, aka "dj pretzel," hosted the music album and wrote the closing credits track. This interview with the trio of game creators at Morsel provides a look at Kaleidoscope's premise, execution and the often elusive goal of calling attention to the finished product.
Kaleidoscope was first on display at PAX as part of the Dream-Build-Play showcase of Xbox Indie titles. What has changed since then, and how would you describe the overall premise?
Matthew Stenback: There’s more of a focus on exploration now, rather than just left-to-right platforming. I started out thinking that I didn’t want to make a game about shooting or killing, and considered what children do for fun. Coloring books were something that popped into my head immediately. On top of that, I wanted for the music to reflect that theme, so that as every layer of color was colored in an extra layer of music would fade in as well.
How would you characterize your background in programming?
This is my first game. I really like the culture around indie games and that most of all was what made me want to be a developer.
I used to do a little freelance graphic design, but I don’t have a computer science background, so I decided to pick up C# and do XNA programming.
Would you consider Kaleidoscope proof that someone with a limited programming background can make a game this way?
Absolutely, the learning curve is not as steep as you might think. XNA is a free tool you can download and they make it really easy to get your games on the Xbox. The community is also really helpful. It didn’t take me too long to get the basics down. After being selected as one of the finalists for Dream-Build-Play I began paying attention to the showcase more, and I really appreciate what they’re doing.
Taking a look at the game itself, it's divided into four central worlds. Without giving away too much, how did you go about differentiating these sections of the game?
The first level is a tutorial with some simple platforming and a bright color scheme to get you in the mood to play. The second world is all about wind and there are fans blowing you to out-of-reach locations. The third world is kind of scary, and you’ll have to turn on a series of lamps as you go through. After you’ve gotten through the third scary world, it seems like the game is over, but the theme of this next world is 8-bit and the music really reflects this.
During production you've said all your communication with the design team was done online. Was this challenging?
It was difficult to convey certain things through IRC and text, like an idea for a certain game mechanic, so we moved over to skype out of necessity. However, I’m surprised by how well it turned out.
Being based in San Francisco, how was it working with team members on opposite ends of the earth?
Me and Mattias never had the chance to see the game as a whole, so for me to guess at every art asset was difficult. Stenback lives in Newfoundland, Canada and Mattias lives in Sweden. We had skype and IRC on constantly, just working and talking to each other. Mattias would be first to go to sleep, then Matthew would go to sleep, and by the time I’d fall asleep, Mattias was up. That whole process was on rinse and repeat.
Your background is in storyboarding, which might be reflected in some of the concept art for the game, but how did you branch out into other areas in providing the art design for Kaleidoscope?
Sang Han: Kaleidoscope visually is very simple, and what we needed to push was colors. The funny thing is that I’m actually colorblind, so there was a lot of trial and error in getting the colors right. Gaming has always been a passion of mine, and working with color was a new experience. It was frustrating because I couldn’t pick the right colors at all times, but it was a lot of fun and we got through it.
The original game idea is the brainchild of Matthew, and he took me on about two months before the deadline of Dream-Build-Play. When he wanted four uniquely stylized worlds, I gave the second world which has a theme of wind a lot of scribbles and messy, windblown kinds of lines. When world three was a night world, everything had to be pitch black and scary, while the trees were alive and had eyes.
Previously you have written the music for Artoon and The Perfect Match, two downloadable independent games for the Xbox 360. Having had this experience making indie games, were you impressed by any of the other Dream-Build-Play entries?
Mattias Häggström Gerdt: It was a good line-up, actually. I remember seeing Dust: An Elysian Tale in the pre-beta on YouTube. It definitely looks like a triple-A game.
The soundtrack to The Perfect Match was made available online through your personal website. This time OC ReMix is hosting Kaleidoscope Original Soundtrack. Would you say that your participating as a judge at OCR has contributed significantly to your career as a game composer?
First and foremost, without OCR I would not be a game composer. That all started because of Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. If you put “Employer: Capcom” on your resume, people tend to raise their eyebrows.
How would you describe the interactive soundtrack, mentioned earlier?
The point with the gameplay was that when you have just the first layer of the soundtrack, it's dry, shorter sounds, more percussive melodic motifs. More warmth and more depth is added as you progress. Often the bass comes in with the second layer, when you see the first colors come in. It was a challenge to get song levels to match the layers, so that each additional layer made sense in context. I spent a lot of time trying different sounds and tweaking synth patches so that you felt something was being added, without it being too noticeable.
How are the individual tracks tailored to Sang's visual design for each world?
The first world is really mellow, like most first worlds. It’s a very laid-back track to ease the player into the game. Then there’s a darker level, where I used more minor chords and deep reverb to make it seem a bit more tense. We also have one world that kind of has 8-bit as its inspiration, with block graphics. For that I used a lot of 8-bit and 4-bit sounds. There’s a mix of chiptune samples I've acquired, from the Game Boy and Commodore 64 to a Sinclare Spectrum, to capture the retro vibe. It's quite heavily processed.
What software do you prefer to use for your game soundtracks?
The entire Kaleidoscope soundtrack is done in Propellerhead's Reason. Reason is really amazing as a modular synth and these sampled waveforms give you nearly endless sonic possibilities in the field of electronica and experimental music. This was the first music software I used on the computer and also is made by a Swedish company.
Reason does not support recording audio, so the actual sampling is done in the open-source program Audacity. I use a variety of samples, the most prominently used packs are the Flatpack-series from LapJockey and WaveFront by BitWord. I always try to retain the right to release my soundtrack albums. OverClocked ReMix is setting up a site to distribute free videogame music soundtracks, this being one of the first.
[Images courtesy of Morsel. The soundtrack album for Kaleidoscope can be downloaded from OverClocked ReMix]