Released last month through Early Access, 7th Beat Games’ Rhythm Doctor amazed me with its killer soundtrack and innovative music gameplay. I got to speak with Lead Designer and Composer Hafiz Azman as well as Writer and Public Relations/Community Manager Kyle Labriola to ask a few questions regarding game development and some behind the scenes details of the game.
So Rhythm Doctor has been in development since 2014 and it’s finally out in Early Access! How do you feel about such a big milestone?
Hafiz: Can’t believe we’re finally here and that people like the game so much!
It’s been a while since the game’s humble beginnings at the Independent Games Festival. What lessons have you learned about game development since then?
Hafiz: Development is much easier (and also more fun!) with a bigger team. We started with two of us and definitely could not have gotten this far without everyone else who joined. We’re at a good spot now where we can have one person in charge of each of the main pillars of the game. Speaking of which: having a dedicated sound designer will really show in the final product, 10/10 recommend.
What’s your favorite memory of the game’s development timeline so far?
Kyle: Two memories come to mind. One is attending PAX East 2018 with our lead programmer Giacomo to showcase the game. Seeing people play it in-person is a completely different experience from reading people’s comments online. It was incredibly fun to see attendees sit down, have the game concept click in their heads, and then try over and over on our boss levels while crowds gathered and rooted for them. My other memory is quite recent. In the final month leading to release, the game started clicking together as we swapped out all of our in-progress levels for their final versions. One day I was playtesting, and our level “2-1N wish i could care less” was finally complete. When I played it, and the vocals dropped in with all of the finished animation, it really took my breath away. That moment made me really excited to get the game out into the world.
My first time at a big games expo… I just wanna say that PAX East is huge 😱 pic.twitter.com/48JngJNVMk
— Giacomo Preciado (@giacomopc) April 6, 2018
Hafiz: The first time I felt we really had something was in 2017 when we launched the Greenlight campaign for Rhythm Doctor. We had so many comments saying they loved the game so much and were so happy that a full version was developed, that it really surprised me. All this from just that Flash demo? That was when the founders of the Discord server, Shaun and okamii, made the server, and invited us to join. We old folks didn’t even know what Discord was at the time but it was great speaking to fans in real-time for the first time. And that’s continued all the way till today where the server is still active and is where we go to first to announce anything!
In between development of Rhythm Doctor, you also made A Dance of Fire and Ice. Were there any aspects of either game that inspired the other?
Hafiz: They’re both one button rhythm games but they’re very different in execution. ADOFAI is a game with a single central idea that’s easy to build on, whereas Rhythm Doctor is the kind that requires a lot of effort to expand in a satisfying way because its not immediately obvious how to go from “press space on the 7th beat” into something that supports an entire hours-long game.
I used to think the former was “better” game design but I don’t think that really holds true in the end – a game that continually has new surprises is just as valid as one that’s elegantly sticking to a single idea. Rhythm Doctor was the more wild of the games but that also gave it lots of opportunity to try out more extreme ideas in it, and, at least from user feedback, is the one that has been giving people the more euphoric kind of reaction.
For me the inspirations between each other are more about gaining experience and intuition of what kind of rhythms are satisfying to play to. Coding experience definitely transferred over though, Giacomo says the level editor in ADOFAI was much easier to build after lessons learnt from RD’s editor.
My all-time favorite level in the Early Access version and demo is 2-X/All the Times/Window Dance. How did you develop something so innovative here?
Hafiz: We claim no innovation! The central idea was inspired by our friend TaroNuke who used it as part of an open-source Stepmania mod called NotITG https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoui8NPe8cc. The difference is that in notITG, reading the chart through the distractions is where the challenge is, while in our game the gimmick is more to impress you enough that you lose the constant beat that you’re supposed to be playing.
Our programming team did spend a lot of time and effort making it work on all kinds of multi-monitor setups though and we’re glad the level is well-received. Our level designer Jenny fleshed out my initial prototype of the window movements of the song (that was first shown at public events all the way back in 2017, as a shorter instrumental-only song) and she expanded it into the full window-dancing choreography that it is today.
Considering the events of last year, the premise of working remote has taken a relevant turn (even getting a nod within the game’s opening narrations). Since members of the team are located all around the world, what benefits or hurdles have there been working as a remote team?
Kyle: Probably one of the biggest double-edged swords about being an international remote team in particular is the variety of timezones. Everyone we work with is spread out across the globe, which means that all of our schedules are different. On one hand, it’s incredibly handy to have people awake “around the clock” so that either we can interact with our community at all times or keep moving forward on development. On the other hand, it can make having team discussions tricky, because usually as one person is waking up to start their work day, the other person is heading to sleep. A lot of the work had a “pass the baton” type of feeling, like we’re one big track-and-field team.
Hafiz: Yup, and funnily enough I found the baton passing pretty useful in its own way because you know that you’ll be able to have a stretch of time when other team members are asleep and you can focus, rather than the threat of a 5-minute question-turned-30-minute discussion hovering over you the entire day because everyone else is awake as well…
What are some rhythm games you’re playing right now?
Kyle: Right before everything had to lock down, I loved to visit San Francisco’s arcades for their variety of cabinets. I’d play Groove Coaster, Dance Rush Stardom, Crossbeats REV. Sunrise, and Pop’n Music Fever. Now, on Steam, I occasionally dip into Muse Dash and the music mash-up game Fuser. On 3DS, Rhythm Heaven Megamix is still a favorite. I think I’m often drawn to rhythm games that have completely different concepts, control schemes, and art styles from each other.
Hafiz: I haven’t played a rhythm game properly since Rhythm Heaven many years ago… I think developing our own two rhythm games kinda satiated me so much that I didn’t have a craving for it. I’m excited for the new rhythm games I’m hearing about coming soon like Unbeatable.
The rhythm game genre prides itself on infectiously addictive songs, and Rhythm Doctor is chock full of them. How did you develop the soundtrack for the different levels of the game?
Hafiz: I started making this game while in university, so I was quite new to composing. My only experience in music was from piano after school and studying Music subject during A-Levels. And also from sometimes making music for fun, or writing funny songs for friend’s birthdays. Other than that, developing Rhythm Doctor’s soundtrack was a lot about teaching myself music writing techniques over 8 years.
In the final year of development, we added to our team a sound designer s9menine, from China, who also self-taught music theory and music production, and was previously working at a sound design studio. They composed a few additional tracks for the game.
We also worked with talented guest music producers and singers for some of the original songs. These are artists we knew from YouTube and asked them if they could work with us, and they helped us with vocals and mixing.
And finally we licensed a few pieces of music from other music artists like Andrew Huang, aethoro, bl00dwave and Picto.
Marketing for the game has been light, to say the least. That said, the Discord community for the game (and A Dance of Fire and Ice) has been supportive and active for quite a while! How important is it to foster an online community for something like Rhythm Doctor?
Kyle: The online community has been incredibly important for us. In a way, it actually ties into that concept of the marketing being “light.” Over the years we’ve gone through the original Flash demo, some level prototypes for our newsletter, our convention demo, our level editor, and now finally our Early Access release. It’s been a very soft, gradual rollout instead of one big reveal. Our Discord community, which is quite active and filled with really passionate and talented creators, has been a core element of seeing exactly what this game could be. But the community stretches even beyond that. When the game released, it made me realize that there was also a community of people out there waiting eagerly for the game all across Steam, Twitter, and our mailing list. It’s not only heartwarming to see that kind of interest, but also really important for fostering a community of custom level creators and players who want to try those custom levels out.
Our Discord is consistently active, and you can find both the latest Level Editor and Level-Making Competitions there, as well as share anything you make.
— Rhythm Doctor (@RhythmDrGame) April 12, 2018
A few years back, you announced that there will be console versions of the game. Do you have a timeline on, say, the Switch version?
Kyle: We’re excited to bring the game to more platforms, but there’ll be a little bit of a wait. Because of how often things might get changed and re-worked throughout the Early Access period, we’re going to be focusing on the Steam version for now. We’d love for the version we bring to other platforms to feel more “final,” so we’ll probably start looking into that process more in 2022. We definitely still have our eyes on the Switch!
After the Early Access launch, what’s next for the planned full release of the game?
Kyle: Our first plan is to get some sleep, take a breath, and take it all in, hahaha. After that, there’s a few things on the To-Do List. We want to continue fleshing out Middlesea Hospital as a living, breathing hub world. We don’t want it to feel like just a “level select menu”, but a place you can look around and discover secrets, new snippets of dialogue with the characters, and interactive easter eggs. Of course, new levels will also gradually be added over time. And finally, when we approach the full release launch, we’ll be continuing the main story of the game and implementing the real ending. Dr. Paige and Ian have become accustomed to working together with their rhythm intern and caring for their patients, but their stories aren’t over quite yet.
Hafiz: On the gameplay side we have plenty of new and fun mechanics to explore still too!
Finally, any last words for our readers?
Hafiz: Thanks for waiting patiently for so long! And if you like the soundtrack be sure to check out the other music from those artists we collaborated with on Rhythm Doctor, you might like them too!
You can buy Rhythm Doctor now on Steam via Early Access. Stay tuned for more news here on Gaming Trend.