October 16, 2019
This week, I had the chance to chat with Chris Osborn, a DJ and indie developer who was one of the 3 original creators of the BIT.TRIP games (now called Choice Provisions, the studio that released BIT.TRIP was Gaijin Games). We talked BIT.TRIP, rhythm game design, and games in general.
Here’s a brief summary of what he had to say. Responses here are paraphrased and aren’t necessarily what he exactly said.
When working on the BIT.TRIP series, did you or anybody on the team discuss the educational possibilities of the series - how the game’s design could teach the player a foundation in rhythmic concepts as they progress?
Not really. First and foremost, our goal was to create a fun experience. Our second goal was to pay the rent. We were striving to have good storytelling and artistry as well in these games. While I did have to sit down with Mike [Roush] and Alex [Neuse] to cover some basics of music theory and rhythm so we could put the game together, we never focused on it in the game design. However, in games like Runner, where when the level resets, Commander Video waits for the next measure to start before running, we inadvertently teach the player about how beats loop and music has this cyclic component.
Taking an educational standpoint might change how the series would’ve been marketed. Do you think that not marketing it as also for learning was beneficial, or do you think that could’ve increased the impact of titles in the series?
In 2009, marketing towards education would’ve drastically changed our audience and probably not have been too beneficial for us. However, with sites like MasterClass nowadays, you can see there are many people who truly want to learn, there might be an improved space for marketing games as educational.
How important do you find the reaction or timing-based elements of rhythm games to be in the formula?
Evidently with BIT.TRIP, time-based gameplay is extremely important. By making the player have to take action in synchrony with the rhythm, they enter a state of flow where they feel immersed and engaged with the world. When the world and the player are sort-of moving at the same time, this can lead to the player sometimes losing track of time and really enjoying the depth of the game. Games like FATE aren’t extremely timing based - while of course the sound effects and patterns are tied to the musical beat, the player’s actions are less so tied. So it’s not an essential component, but I feel it’s an important component for immersion.
Why did you guys pick the retro art style and chiptune music style for the game?
During the time of development there was this larger movement of more 8-bit and 16-bit art becoming popular in the indie game sphere, and in the electronic music sphere, chiptune was kinda becoming a niche genre growing in popularity. Alex, Mike, and I all were fans of retro games growing up as well, and we grew up loving these extremely difficult arcade and Atari 2600 games. This shared love was something we channeled into the design. Atari 2600 is definitely the main inspiration for the art style, with sprites that are so low-resolution that it leaves the player to interpret what they represent.
Was there any worry that the games would come off as too repetitive or difficult for the wrong reasons, for example how in RUNNER some levels aren’t very ‘sight-readable’ to the player?
We definitely had some small concerns about that, but since the gameplay was very polished and enjoyable, the music was good and easy to listen to, and the art style was fresh, we ended up getting away with a lot of asset reuse across levels. Ultimately, the polished gameplay is probably what helped the most here.