Interview with the creator of Fret Nice
Recently I had the pleasure of playing a fantastic gem of a game that has been getting some press in the independent gaming scene these days: Fret Nice. On the surface it looks like a straightforward platforming game, but there's a big twist: instead of using the keyboard or a gamepad, you play Fret Nice with the Guitar Hero controller!
Fret Nice is a 2D platformer more from the school of Sonic the Hedgehog than Mario or Metroid. The focus is on gaining and maintaining forward momentum rather than poking around every nook and cranny of the screen. You control this little rock-star dude who looks like one of the Beatles. To move left, press any of the leftmost fret buttons on your guitar controller. To move right, press any of the rightmost buttons. To run, strum while pressing the frets. To jump, activate the tilt sensor by lifting the neck of the guitar.
Perhaps the coolest part of the game is when you encounter enemies. To defeat them, look at their facial characteristics which are actually a diagram for what kind of "riff combo" you need to play to defeat them. For example, if the enemy has three eyes, you need to play a single note three times. Jump into the air, hold down one of the frets (any will do), and strum three times. Now you find an enemy with one eye and one mouth. Jump, hold down two different fret buttons, and strum once. There's a lot of room for improvisation and personal interpretation with these riff combos and the music you create meshes with the song playing in the background to create a pretty cool musical experience.
The game was conceived of and programmed by a 25 year old Swedish designer named Mårten Brüggemann as his college thesis project at Högskolan Skövde, a University in Sweden. Mårten created a well-researched and in-depth paper on his game, and because my native language is Norwegian (which is pretty close to Swedish), I was able to understand most of it. The thesis hasn't been translated as of yet, so I felt an interview with Mr. Brüggemann was in order. A quick chat is more accessible than a 100+ page academic paper, and Mårten was quite receptive to the idea!
(Lars) Mårten, it's my understanding that Fret Nice was your undergraduate thesis project. Can you tell us a little about the higher education system in Sweden, and more specifically, your degree program in Högskolan Skövde?
(Mårten) My knowledge of the higher education system in Sweden isn't very thorough. My degree is called "Kandidat examen" and according to the website above it's roughly the same as a Bachelor's Degree [in the United States]. The program was about game development from the game designer's viewpoint and the degree is part of the media branch of studies. Courses include game analysis, dramaturgy, cognitive science, etc.
Dramaturgy is the art of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on the stage. Cognitive science is most simply defined as the scientific study either of mind or of intelligence. It is an interdisciplinary study drawing from relevant fields including psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, biology, and physics.
How many years did it take you to graduate? Also, are there a lot of game-design degrees offered in Sweden or is Högskolan Skövde unique?
Three years. There are a couple of others, though the one I took is considered one of the best (at least at the time).
As you were the lead designer, programmer, and musician for Fret Nice, what is your background in music, game design, and programming?
I play the guitar. I've had some education in musical theory and music production. I've been composing 10 years, mostly amateur-wise in bands and such, but later also some freelance work as a composer of videogame music.
I've been interested in game design since I was a little kid, drawing the games of my dreams on paper. Later I started using different types of game maker softwares for the computer and began making small games. I believe this interest have given me valuable experience in the art of game design but it hasn't led to that many full-scale projects.
I don't have a background in programming, Fret Nice was made in a game maker software called Multimedia Fusion 2 which lets all programming be made visually. I have been using this software and its predecessors since 1996.
It seems Multimedia Fusion is a very popular tool, especially in the European indie games scene. Have you by any chance heard of Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren? He's also from Sweden, and has also used Multimedia Fusion to make his heavily musically-influenced games such as Within a Deep Forest, Knytt, and Knytt Stories. For you, What's the main advantage and disadvantage to working with Multimedia Fusion?
Yes, I've heard of him and played his games. I like the ambience he's created. The advantages [of Multimedia Fusion] are the visual overview of things and some of the "free stuff" like the graphics engine. The main disadvantage is the lack of power and un-optimized rendering.
I read in your thesis that Donkey Kong Jungle Beat was a big inspiration for the game. Can you expand on that a little? What aspects of that game did you like, and which didn't you? How did it influence your design of Fret Nice?
Jungle Beat is a 2D platform game controlled with bongo drums. Fret Nice is a 2D platform game controlled with a guitar. I like many things about Jungle Beat: the tempo, the simplicity, the scoring system. Since the basic ideas of the games are so similar I've actively tried to make as much of the game mechanics and gameplay of Fret Nice as different from Jungle Beat as possible.
It could easily be said that Fret Nice is just as much about the control interface as it is about the music. Do you agree, or does one of them take precedence over the other?
The outset was to make a game with the guitar controller, not to make a music game. I liked the way it is used completely different than a standard gamepad and saw possibilities in the things it might add to the experience of playing a videogame. As I started to explore the different uses of the guitar controller I found that, although I wanted to use as many of the original attributes of the guitar controller as possible, it should never stop to feel like it's a guitar. The intuitiveness of how to use a guitar I think was a great profit drawn from the guitar controller as opposed to the un-intuitiveness of using a "banana-shaped bit of plastic sprinkled with a dozen different colored buttons".
In your thesis you explain a little about your early design decisions and how you changed them to be more intuitive after testing them on users. Would you mind discussing some of those early decisions you later changed? Would you have eventually recognized those problems if it wasn't for the testers?
Testing is an integral part of developing a game. Being the lone designer and trying to balance a game is not recommended. I would probably not have found the problems if it weren't for the tests. Some of the problems included the effort needed to activate a command, i.e. walking/running by flipping the strum bar fast, compared to the commonality of the command.
I noticed in the game that when I play the same note over and over again it's not the same as, say, hitting a piano key over and over. It seems the game was doing something "under the hood", so to speak, to translate my input into something that sounded more musically coherent. Is there some kind of programmatic music algorithm that translates the user's simplified input into something that actually sounds good?
The notes played are relative to where in the song the playback currently is. As you said this is used to make the musical experience more coherent. There is no algorithm used for this though, it's hard-coded.
I can see that there is a lot of inspiration drawn from Sonic the Hedgehog in particular. Can you comment on how the different control scheme affected your level design philosophy?
The control scheme was better fitted for a fast game play with lots of forward motion. It's sometime hard to build momentum in Fret Nice because of the clunkiness of the control scheme and therefore I tried to make it so that the player never has to stand still. This should be apparent in the level design.
Emil Berner is the name listed for the artist in your game. Have you two been friends for a while, or did you join up for the first time on this project?
We met at school and have worked with a couple of unfinished projects earlier.
What was the hardest thing to implement in terms of design? In terms of coding?
Design: Probably the flow in the game play which was held back by the clunkiness of the control scheme. This is where the before mentioned tests became useful.
Coding: The enemy-attribute system.
Will there be new features in the future?
Who came up with the various themes for the levels (Outskirts of Town, Pumpkin Patch, Forbidden Mine)? The last level features a climactic, heart-pumping race through a crumbling mine that is as thrilling to listen to as it is to play. What was the inspiration?
I gave a rough description of where I wanted the stages to take place. Emil then got free hands to graphically interpret these descriptions.
I loved your "riff combos" mechanic. I did notice that there were several times I could just jam semi-randomly (akin to "button-mashing") and kill most of the monsters, though there were some I had to pay attention to get it right. Was this accidental or intentional? Do you see it as a good thing or a bad thing that the player can do that?
This was accidental. I see both a bad and good things about this. The good thing is that it gives the player a different way of approaching the game mechanics, thus giving it more personality. The bad thing is that the button-mashing way is almost always easier and the player does not get rewarded for playing the game "the right way".
Can you describe your process for composing the background music and laying out how the level would "sound" as a played-through experience?
I tried to think of different gameplay situations that would occur in the level and making those parts be represented by the soundtrack. So the composing process was very dependent of the level design process in a way. Since the player should be able to play along to the songs, I wanted to make them pretty straightforward too. This was maybe the hardest part, making the game have a interesting soundtrack while still not making it too dynamic. Some of the game's sound effects have a harmonic tone that is meant to fit into the music as well. To accomplish this I used specific musical keys to make these sound effects more reusable.
What was your initial concept for the Fret Nice gameplay and how did that compare to the final version of the game? I assume there were gradual changes throughout, but what did it look like when it was a brand new, untested idea?
I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted the game to play right from the start. Plus the mechanic which I consider one of the most important for the Fret Nice experience, the "Riff Combo system", was one of the first design ideas I developed into a working gameplay mechanic.
I noticed that the enemies don't "die" when you shoot them with musical awesomeness, they turn into friendly happy creatures instead. Was it your specific intent to make the game non-violent?
No it just fit better with the theme of the game.
Maybe this is just me, but is that the theme from "Airwolf" when you escape with the Helicopter at the end of each level?
I wanted to make it sound like the Airwolf theme as a musical joke, but it's actually a completely different note pattern so I hope there won't be any legal issues. Hehe.
What would you change about your development process if you could do it again? Also, what are your plans for the future? Will there be an extended version with more levels than the demo? Are there any plans to release Fret Nice commercially?
Changes: I would include more people and choose a different SDK.
Plans: I'm currently in the process of starting a game development studio with a couple of school mates. Fret Nice will be one of the games we will be working on. Visit our website for more information.
Extended Version and/or Commercial Release: We're currently looking into ways of making this possible.
In the beginning of the game there's a tiny bit of a "Fret Nice" song. Is there a full version of that song somewhere ? :-)
No sorry that's all there is...
Ah, well that's too bad :).
Unfortunately, the game is no longer available for download. It was taken down for contractual reasons.
Note: You will need a Guitar Hero controller to play the game. For those of you who have the PS2 version you'll need to grab a PlayStation 2 to PC adapter to play. If you have the Xbox 360 version, however, just plug it in and you're ready to rock.