Slave to the rhythm: The making of Beat Sneak Bandit

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Slave to the rhythm: The making of Beat Sneak Bandit
One of the best reviewed iOS games of 2012 so far, Beat Sneak Bandit is the story of synergy between art, music and gameplay.

Or as developer Simogo describes it - rhythmadelic controls, stealthalicious gameplay and puzzletastic levels.

Created by a two-man outfit, we caught up with Simon Flesser - 50 percent of the Swedish indie - to find out more about the game's inspiration, its six month prototyping and development phase, and whether its commercial reaction matched its critical acclaim.

Pocket Gamer: Where did the concept of Beat Sneak Bandit come from?

Simon Flesser: Since we started Simogo, we've been toying with the idea of making something rhythm-based.

The first version of Beat Sneak Bandit was quite different to the end product. We started with a slower paced game, in which you could re-arrange the timing of every floor by swiping left or right on them. It felt really good; it had this nice feeling to it like scratching record, but the game was very hard to understand and heavily dependent on trial and error.

So here we were with this cool game with rhythmical levels, but without a proper way to interact with it. We just simplified and simplified until we decided on the beat tapping interaction and one direction movement that the game ended up with.

What other games influenced Beat Sneak Bandit?

We try not to let other games inspire our actual concepts too much - but video games are a huge part of our lives so it's impossible not to let stuff you like inspire you.

There are definitely things you can learn from playing other games. I looked at how they handled animation in the Rhythm Tengoku games - how snappy everything is to match the beat. But for the gameplay, we were more inspired by traditional logic puzzles than video games. Our first prototype levels were actually printed out on paper and we jotted down possible solutions on them with a pen.

The little inspiration we drew from video games were probably more from classic NES/Famicom games like Ninja JaJamaru-Kun, Mappy, Popeye and Donkey Kong than rhythm games.

Can you describe a bit more about your prototyping phase?

We are, in fact, not great at prototyping - we have a hard time of keeping things rough and for a reason. I don't believe prototypes with cubes or super simple graphics can really get you a feel for how a game will feel.

Sure, it's great to do to try out mechanical stuff, to see if your idea holds up or breaks. But fun does not lie in pushing buttons or dragging fingers on screen. If something feels good, It's all in the feedback - and feedback is a lot of things: animations, effects, sounds, all that!

So I'd say there are different kind of prototypes.

There are prototypes for just testing out if your game is holds up, logically, (and with a game like Beat Sneak Bandit, you can do that on paper), prototypes to test out technical stuff, and prototypes to communicate if the game is any good, fun or satisfying.

What sorts of things were you hoping the player would feel playing Beat Sneak Bandit?

Tough question. First of all we just want players to get a sense of satisfaction. The tone of the game is meant to communicate ... I don't know, a certain kind of hipness?

What development tools did you use and how long did it take to make the game?

We use Unity, Photoshop, Madtracker, Maya, pen, paper and a bit of common sense. It took six months!

What was the biggest problem you came across in development?

It was quite a stressful period when we realised that our original idea was way too hard to understand, and it was a great relief as it all came together during our simplification period.

Getting no latency in terms of input and 100 percent sync with the beat was another huge problem and we weren't sure if we'd be able to do lag-free audio-based gameplay on iOS devices. Gordon [co-founder Magnus 'Gordon' Gardebäck] did a lot of magic to make it work!

When we finally nailed that and simplified it down to its basics, it was such a relief. When we let friends play it and they had a much stronger positive reaction than on any of our previous games, that's when we knew we were making something special.

What did you learn from your developing your previous iOS games?

Oh, a lot. There's a lot of things so it's hard to go in to specifics - We've found a workflow and pipeline that we're pretty happy about now.

Is there one standout example?

One thing we learned - the hard way - is that major content updates is not worth it, not for the kind of games we make anyway.

We did huge updates for Bumpy Road, basically doubling the content, but financially it just wasn't worth it. I wouldn't have it undone though, the game truly came to its full potential with the new extra content.

Who wrote the music for the game? What was the musical inspiration?

I did! I'm a big soul and funk fan, so a lot of inspiration came from that.

A lot of the beats and horn things is inspired by James Brown. I've also listened quite a bit to funk fusion jazz in my days, I'm crazy about old synthesizer sounds, and stuff like Herbie Hancock is full of that.

I also listened quite a bit to cartoon themes, like Inspector Gadget and old Hanna-Barbera things.

What was the process of integrating the gameplay into the music?

It sort of grew together. Levels are adjusted to fit to the music and vice versa.

The music we started out with was the same basic songs but the arrangements were a lot more advanced and had more layers, but it was hard to hear the beat for people with no music experience, so we had to make the beats easy to distinguish.

Beat Sneak Bandit has a pretty outrageous story, where did it come from?

I think it's important that a game has some kind of personality and that is easiest to achieve with characters.

And with characters comes story. It just makes the experience a lot more memorable and relatable, and it's a good thing to have to reel people in.

How do you determine the way to ramp up the difficulty?

Balancing and ramping up difficulty is really hard.

First, it's important to lead the player so you're sure that they understand every single element, and introduce them one at a time. A player needs to have the tools to be able to perform what they are asked to.

And Beat Sneak Bandit is an intentionally difficult but fair game, so we wanted this communicated early on, without players feeling that they were punished.

How important is it to have a visual style that matches with the audio?

When it comes to animation, it's absolutely crucial that it matches the beat, 100 percent.

Speaking of visual style, I think that's just one part of a game that has to feel like it's part of something that just works together. A game is sort of clockwork and all the different part are gears. There's not a single part that's more important than the other.

There's a Saul Bass/1970s cartoon feel to the game's visuals. What lead you to this style?

If you're making a rhythm game about a thief, it sort of comes naturally with that kind of 1960s cartoon and secret agent vibe.

It's basically a mix of everything that has a cool or groovy vibe from the past - from James Bond to blaxploitation movies to 80s cartoons like Inspector Gadget or Danger Mouse - taking those things to a silly extreme, while making it relatable for people with no connections to it.

I also think it's important a game has a vibe or a personality, not only communicated through visuals but through everything in the game. For example, for the game's lingo, I looked at a lot of Funkadelic and James Brown songs: the language and words they use there.

Have you been happy with the sales of Beat Sneak Bandit so far?

It has sold pretty well, but after all the insane reviews and great response we sort of hoped that it would do just a bit better. We're pretty aware that it's a very gamey game, and intentionally uncompromising when it comes to gameplay, so with that in mind it's done very well.

The huge challenge for us is reaching out and promoting our games. There's only so much a two man team, with limited resources, can do. Even though we aren't making crazy numbers, I'm super happy that we can make these kind of games and actually make a pretty decent living out of it.

What led you to Beat Sneak Bandit's $2.99 price point?

We were pretty satisfied with the sales of Bumpy Road at the same price point, which led us to go with the same price for Beat Sneak Bandit , even though it has quite a lot of more content and took longer to make.

Looking back, I think maybe we should have priced it a little higher, but we want to avoid fiddling and experimenting with prices after release. The game is very much more a classic gamey game in structure, tone and accessibility, and I think the perceived value is a little higher than that of our previous games.

Even though the game did sell well and recouped costs just a few weeks after release, I wonder if Beat Sneak Bandit might have performed better on PS Vita, 3DS, or maybe even on XBLA or PSN?

Given you're only a two man team, how did you go about marketing the game?

First of all I'm a believer in trailers. I think it's a great way to communicate the most important things about your game, so I'd say it's important to have. Other than that I'd just say we try to shout as loud as possible, to as many people as possible. We spend quite a lot of time on this.

Just the other week, we created this video reel of prototypes, concepts and unfinished stuff, for example. There is no direct money involved in doing things like that, but it's a cool way of getting attention to our studio while still doing something we enjoy.

But it's hard to get the word out, definitely, and I don't have a great answer to it.

Most things can be marketed and sold, even really bad things. Our focus is just trying to create really, really good, high quality things, and I think that is mainly what sells our games - not the image of our studio or how lovely guys we are.

I think it's important to be classy about it too. I see many going the route of 'Support indie gaming!' or 'Support this or that genre or this cause' and that kind of thing.

I don't want people to support us because they feel sorry for us or they feel that they are supporting a good cause. I want them to buy our games because they want to play them.

Is there anything you would want to go back and add, or change?

We're extremely satisfied and we have no plans to add anything at this point. But we did have two things that we had to scratch to get the game out in time. We wanted an endless mode variation on the boss fight, that you could unlock after beating it.

I also wanted to have Duke Clockface's backstory communicated via diary notes that you could find on the bonus stages. I still have a pretty clear idea of what that would be. I'd love to revisit that universe though, there are so many things you could do with it. I'd love to give Herbie a bigger part of a game too.

What's next for Simogo?

We've made some prototypes and concepts now and have decided which one will be our next self funded iOS project.

It will be pretty different from our previous ones. It's ambitious but not enormous and I'm very eager to get started on it. In addition to that there might be other things we're working on but that'll be a secret for now!

Thanks to Simon for his time.

You can check out what Simogo gets up to next via its website, and check out
Beat Sneak Bandit here [iTunes link].
Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.