VGB Feature: KickBeat Q&A With Zen Studios Creative Director Neil Sorens

KickBeat_monastery_library_Concept_VGBlogger

Zen Studios is famous for its suite of pinball franchises (Zen Pinball, Pinball FX, Marvel Pinball), but the Hungarian development shop’s talents go much further than a mastery of silver metal ball physics and constructing the themed tables for the shiny orbs to ping and flip around in.

One of the studio’s upcoming games that has absolutely nothing to do with pinball is KickBeat, a PlayStation Vita-exclusive rhythm game fusing interactive 3D martial arts combat with high-energy music and familiar beat-matching mechanics. How’s that for a game concept?

Read along as Neil Sorens, Zen Studios’ Creative Director, tells us more about this highly original and extremely cool experimental game project that is sure to have on-the-go gamers bopping their heads and grinning from ear to ear as they go kung fu fighting to their favorite tunes.

VGBlogger: In the original announcement, it was stated that the idea for KickBeat was conceived several years ago. Was the game concept designed from the start to be on the PlayStation Vita or did the decision of platform come later?

Neil Sorens: We started working on the game long before we knew about the Vita. Once we had some solid information on its capabilities, though, we thought it would be a good fit for the game.

VGB: What about the PlayStation Vita made it the platform to finally bring this idea to fruition?

NS: It had the processing power to run the game as we envisioned it, and the OLED screen makes all the visual details we wanted to include stand out. The buttons fit perfectly with the game’s control scheme. And handheld platforms are generally good for music games for a couple reasons. First, because there’s no A/V system to worry about, there’s no need to fiddle with calibration. Second, handheld games need to be able to provide short, satisfying play sessions, and you can have just that by playing a song or two in a music game.

KickBeat_ch02_outro_panel_Concept_VGBlogger

VGB: Zen Studios games are typically multi-platform across all major digital download platforms. Is there any intention to broaden KickBeat’s horizons beyond the Vita down the road or is the game tailored too much to the Vita to be able to easily port it around later on?

NS: We’ll see. If it’s well-received on the Vita, then it’s not out of the question. But if people hate it on Vita, I can’t see them liking it on a different platform.

VGB: For a game that appears to have sort of a kung fu break dance style, KickBeat’s soundtrack centers a lot on some heavy rock jams from bands like Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. How did this mash-up theme come about and has it been difficult picking the right songs to mesh properly with the gameplay?

NS: Originally, I envisioned the game as a mix of kung fu, beat-matching, and hip-hop – all violent, kinetic, and rhythmic. However, Europeans aren’t so keen on the gangsta rap, and, to be honest, it’s not one of my favorite genres – I just thought it was a good fit for the game. Also, it’s tough to find hard-hitting hip-hop that can be included in a Teen-rated game without being chopped up beyond recognition. To make matters worse, we had a great deal of difficulty licensing hip-hop tracks: Eminem said no; we got about 75% of a Ludacris track; we couldn’t even get in touch with Xzibit’s management.

Choosing the right songs for the game took months. And then balancing what we wanted, with what we could afford, with what publishers and artists were willing to let us use…it was one of the biggest challenges we faced in creating the game.

In the end, the track licensing took over a year – we ended up with a lot of rock, electronic/drum & bass, some hip-hop, and some tracks with elements of some or all of those genres.

KickBeat_02

VGB: How many bands/artists and tracks will be included in the final game?

NS: Thirteen artists and eighteen tracks.

VGB: Any plans to extend the soundtrack or other features through DLC after release?

NS: We’re open to the idea if people ask for it, but the music importing feature may make it redundant.

VGB: How will the game’s music import feature work? Was it difficult creating the infrastructure for such a feature?

NS: You’ll be able to choose a song from your Vita’s music library, input the beat info, and use sliders to customize a handful of optional settings. If you don’t know the beat info, we also include a tool to help you calculate it.

Algorithmic music analysis is always difficult, especially when you only have the final mix of a song, not the individual instrument tracks. Beat detection, for example, is only accurate maybe 65% of the time in the best case (which is why we don’t attempt it, instead having the player input it). It gets even trickier when you try to map the results to animated characters and discrete cues.

KickBeat_09

VGB: Will there be any limitations on the number/type of songs a player can import into the game? For example, I listen to a lot of orchestral movie and video game soundtracks. Will I be able to go kung fu fighting to tunes from the Lord of the Rings score if I want to?

NS: I’m sure there’s some upper limit to the number of tracks you can save. There aren’t any restrictions on what type of music you can use, but in my opinion the best results come from music that has a steady, distinct beat.

VGB: KickBeat is breaking away from the familiar rhythm game mechanic of punching buttons as notes flow across a timing bar of some type. How does the rhythm mechanic work in this game?

NS: It’s not too different from standard mechanics, actually, because if your game is too weird or unfamiliar, then you start scaring people away. You have enemies that attack from four directions in sync with elements of the music (primarily the beat, but also dominant vocals and instruments), and you press the button corresponding to the enemy direction at the correct time to counter and defeat them. It takes a few minutes to get used to the proper timing when you’re looking at animated 3D characters rather than abstract shapes, but in our tests, players pick it up within a few minutes even without the tutorial.

There are some slightly more complex mechanics (multiple simultaneous buttons, hold and release, double-tap) as well, but these are either rare or optional until you get into the higher difficulty levels.

VGB: How exactly does a player go about controlling their martial arts avatar? Face buttons, touch screen, a combination of both, options for one or the other? Any support for other Vita hardware features, such as the rear touch pad, microphone, camera, or gyroscope?

NS: Face buttons, directional buttons (combine both at will – at the hardest levels you almost have to use both hands), or touch screen. We aren’t using the other Vita hardware features.

KickBeat_18

VGB: It appears that the game has a pretty substantial story mode. How is the story structured in terms of level progression and how many levels/hours can players expect from the main campaign?

NS: Basically, the songs are divided into groups of 3, and after each 3 songs, you’ll get some story advancement. Once you’ve finished all 18 songs, part two of the story unlocks, and you can play through the songs again at a higher difficulty to see the rest of the story.

The amount of time it takes to play through the story really depends on your skill level and how much you challenge yourself. If you succeed at every song on the first try, skip the story scenes, and only go through the first part of the story, then maybe an hour and half. For an average player watching all the scenes, going through both parts of the story, and bumping up the difficulty for part 2, probably 5-8 hours.

VGB: What multiplayer modes and options will be available? Will multiplayer be infrastructure and ad-hoc?

NS: We’ll have a competitive infrastructure mode, where you play side by side and try to mess up the other player by collecting and using various attacks that will make the game harder for them, such as extra strong enemies, enemies that are invisible until the last moment, etc.

VGB: What sort of replayability options will KickBeat offer? (Leaderboards, trophies, unlockables, bonus modes, character customizations, near gifts, etc?)

NS: All of the above except Near gifts. The scoreboard competition will be similar to what we’ve done with our pinball games, and there will be a challenge mode for expert players that unlocks with the highest difficulty level. There are some unlockable playable characters, a few outfits for each main character, and a handful of other rewards.

VGB: What’s the current estimate for launch date, pricing and file size?

NS: We should be releasing in early Fall. We’re not announcing pricing yet, but it will be in line with our pinball packs and other games we’ve put out. File size will be a little over 1GB, last I heard.

VGB: Thanks for your time. Look forward to playing the game!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!