April 15, 2011 12:11 AM | John Polson
[In this post-GDC happy-hour and email follow-up interview with John Polson, Cipher Prime’s William Stallwood and Dain Saint discuss their first iPad game: 'Pulse'. The discussion includes moving onto Unity, interesting anti-tutorial integrations, a call for more indie bands for DLC, and lessons learned from their previous hits.]
Philadelphia, PA based Cipher Prime has built a solid reputations for itself with Fractal and the multi-award winning Auditorium. Gamers can explore Auditorium online free or purchase it for the iOS, PSP, or PlayStation Network. The team is building an iPad version of Fractal and re-releasing it on PC and MAC with a new Unity engine.
For Cipher’s new music game, Pulse, the team fearlessly stepped out of its platform comfort zone to actualize Pulse’s multi-touch gameplay concepts on the large iPad. Pulse is also the team’s first game built on the Unity engine. The duo has teamed up with Kerry Gilbert, who's become the level designer and composer of about half the music of Pulse. Despite all these firsts, the team demos and describes a near-polished product that is destined to stimulate the senses of sight, sound, and touch.
Pulse’s core gameplay involves touching notes, represented by white dots, when an expanding pulse lines up with them. Each pulse represents a measure in the music. Each song’s time signature determines the amount of rings in the stage. The notes will not always rest on the rings, as Cipher Prime stated they will include eighth and sixteenth notes and more.
There will also be multiple dots to tap simultaneously. Three particle effects occur depending on player timing: a song specific icon (butterflies in picture) for good, icon with bursts for perfect, or x’s for bad. The game’s color also washes away when players miss the timing.
Gamers will quickly learn all of this, even without a text-filled tutorial. Cipher Prime doesn’t believe in typical tutorials and feels that is still a huge win with fans. Pulse’s first song called “Tutorial” has no instructional text. When first starting the game, there’s just a pulse and a note. The music doesn’t begin until players realize they have to hit the note.
Cipher Prime doesn’t believe in failure, so players can’t fail the level. Once they play the anti-tutorial level, Pulse will contain around 7 additional tracks. All songs will be available immediately; there will be no unlocking system. The team plans for mostly local indie artists to be featured on new tracks, releasing one per week in free game updates. The team will have each artist featured along with an interview on Cipher’s website. The team is trying to coordinate releases of tracks on the game with the street dates/releases of the indies’ albums.
Cipher Prime is also currently looking for other artists to tie into the game and add to their collection of genres. The team hopes all genres will be represented at some time, including nerdcore rap, heavy metal waltz, and opera. The music itself will dictate the song's pattern difficulty. The team has released two of its own song previews for Pulse.
Cipher Prime went on to discuss a future song in detail. “Cinder” will go from chiptune to symphonic and will break down into a rapid glitch section, where things aren’t moving around anymore. There will just be notes, and players have to time with the glitch as it’s breaking down. The team also has some songs with alternating time signatures, wherein Cinder goes between 4/4 and 2/4 time resulting in a 6-ring level layout.
To help with these harder levels, the team is adding motion trails and a booming effect. With a combo streak, the boom goes up. Motion effects based on how fast the music is will also help players see what’s going on around their hands by aiding their peripheral vision.
As for Pulse’s timing mechanic, the note pops after the pulse has gone by. This provides a time lapse before and after to hit it. Casual players get a window to hit the note, but hardcore players can only get perfect scores with perfect timing.
In addition to timing, the team talked about an advanced technique called the slide dynamic where players hold a finger anywhere on the screen and slide and spin. As players spin, it time warps the pitch. The game literally slows down and players can hit other things as long as they hold a finger down.
After playing Pulse, experiencing these mechanics first-hand, the team agreed to discuss more about their design choices in this follow-up below:
Could you talk about the future of music gaming on touch devices?
Cipher Prime: We're seeing some great innovative from the guys over at Smule. Music creation is definitely going to be a lot more interesting. The new Garage Band is already making a splash.
As for games, it would be great to see more innovation in the form of multi-touch, maybe even break out into multiple rhythms for the rhythm series of games. Come on, Harmonix, what happened to Frequency? Get that baby going on a tablet device with some co-op-etition.
What does the move to Unity mean for fans and your ease of development?
So far, moving to Unity has been one of the best decisions we have made in our development process. A lot of the lessons we have learnt from Flash carry over, and it's allowed us to jump into the deep-end without a whole lot of hassle. Working in a 3D environment has caused some concern, but we've remedied almost all of those.
For our fans, this means more options and quicker turn-around. Before, if they requested a new platform, it was most likely out of the question. If we did decide to do it, we probably had to do a publishing deal, waste 3 months negotiating and signing, even more porting, and still end up with an imperfect copy of the original game. Now we control everything and are able to make much better decisions and hopefully, make much better end products.
You have a goal of releasing at least 3 games in 2011. What can you tell me about them?
One of them is not a music game. It's a social game. Go figure, huh? One of them is an arcade game. It may be totally free. Music? Oh, yeah. (There’s) another title you've seen before, but we're beefing it up to go multiplatform and take over the world.
What lessons from 'Fractal' and 'Auditorium' helped in making 'Pulse'?
Probably the biggest thing is what we call the "Editor Lesson": You should have an editor for your game from day one. Futzing around with XML files and re-initializing variables every 2 minutes stands in the way of figuring out what's fun about your game. You also have to have people playing from as close to day one as possible… There’re really only two things to do when you make a game: figure why it's fun and polish it ‘til it shines!
As your first iPad game, what development challenges did it present and how did you overcome them?
We've used Flash for years, so we're quite comfortable working with 2D vector animations. We're also used to certain things like making gradients, doing masks, and handling fonts coming naturally. (That’s) not quite the case in 3D and especially not on the iPad. Making the transition to 3D brought us a bit of hassle with writing custom shaders and the like to replicate some of the features we'd gotten use to. On the iPad, this also meant figuring out ways to cleverly batch our game objects together to keep our draw calls down and keep gameplay snappy!
How are you addressing the concern that your core fans were built on devices other than the iPad?
Pulse needs the touch interface; there's really no way around that. The game was designed entirely around the idea of touch. We are looking at Android tablets as well, so we're not iDevice-centric over here. The iPad market is a huge boon for little studios like us. If Pulse does well enough, that enables us to make more, better games. Since we're developing in Unity, we can be on any platform we damn well please.