If you could travel across a virtual zone in a pair of starfighters to defend the core from doom, how well do you think you could protect it? Do you think you could go in without a second thought, without any hesitation to save the day or would you go with a more strategic approach? How well do you think your reflexes would be with bullets flying at you from different directions? To me, I would need to be in the moment to have my reflexes tested to truly show what I was made of. But I think we would all try to do our best no matter how fast the action may be, we would all need to make sure we have the rhythm to succeed. So when I heard that developer, DB Creations, bringing the rhythm and the bullets into the mix, I had to know more. So I reached out and co-founder Blake Gross, was happy to talk about their newest game, Rhythm ‘n Bullets as well as talking about Virtual Reality.
Interview with the co-founder of DB Creations, Blake Gross
Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce yourself and what you do at DB Creations?
“Hi, I’m Blake Gross. I’m one of the co-founders of DB Creations. I have been working in the AR/VR space professionally since 2017, initially working on enterprise HoloLens applications at Microsoft. My main job is programming, but I also work on design, marketing, and production.”
Growing up what were some of your favorite games that really stuck with you and what was that one VR experience that really drew you in?
“Pokémon Red/Blue is what really got me into gaming when I was 6. I still think about it a lot. There was a real feeling of, wow there is this entire world inside of this small screen that was utterly captivating. It’s very relevant for VR because I don’t think any experience has given me that sensation, despite the fact that the technology has the potential to induce a much higher degree of presence.
My initial experience with VR was at DisneyQuest in Chicago when I was around 8 or 9, which was defunct soon after opening. I got to play the Aladdin VR experience (which Jesse Schell worked on). Even at the time, I knew it was janky, but there was something there. What was awesome about that experience was that it was locally networked, so even then it was a really incredible social experience.
Fast forward a few years and I was at the Carnegie Mellon Pre-College for Game Development the summer before my junior year of high school (2008). It was my next big exposure to VR because their graduate program was making VR games, that got my head turning again. Then, when I was at my first internship out of college, the DK1 Kickstarter (2012) happened. I was already enthused about the potential for VR, so I backed the Kickstarter. And then that was the start of me really getting involved in the space.
To answer the question more succinctly, it was Aladdin VR at DisneyQuest.”
DB Creations is responsible for some interesting titles like Embrace the Unknown and Never Stop Learning. Your newest game is called Rhythm ‘n Bullets. What can you tell us about the game?
“Haha, those are some of our company values. Our previous releases are:
Chimera Reader (2016, GearVR, Oculus Go, Pico Neo 2/3, Nolo)- Most downloaded VR eBook readerTable Trenches (2020, iOS, Android, Nreal)- “Tabletop tactics redefined“; AR strategy game where units move across your table and floor in battle.
Rhythm ‘n Bullets is an “arcade-style SHMUP where the gameplay is infused by the music”. Enemies come at your core that you are protecting from various sides while you control two starships defending it and shooting enemies, matching their color, to keep your ships and the core safe. It can get pretty hectic as well!
Rhythm ‘n Bullets was born out of a desire to build on top of interesting games like Xortex from the Lab while also building a sort of spiritual successor to the GearVR app GrooVR. Members of the original core team of Rhythm ‘n Bullets had been in charge of the tech and audio from GrooVR (which was one of the top-selling GearVR apps). Additionally, I was really inspired by a whole array of games including Space Invaders Extreme, Rez, Tetris Effect, Ikaruga, and Geometry Wars.”
So it’s really all about timing your shots with the rhythm of the music?
“Not exactly. I would say the “rhythm” part of the name really is about two different things: 1) Shooting to the beat (which raises multiplier faster). This is one part of having the player feeling in sync to the music, but obviously, on higher difficulties, you can’t only shoot on the beat. 2) The way the world and enemies are tied to the music. Enemies move to the beat and will shoot to significant notes, The world pulsates to the beat and also is responsive to the music that is happening. Most sound effects in the game (including the player shooting) are matching the currently playing notes of the track. The music layers are based on events (whether the boss is out or not) and how well the player is performing (what multiplier tier they are in). This all comes together to fuse the music into the gameplay.
We had prototyped only shooting on the beat mechanics. It really doesn’t match a shmup well. If you look at a game that came out last year, Bullets Per Minute, you can see some of the constraints that happen. You need to have really clear feedback to the player around when they can shoot to the beat (it’s actually pretty hard to teach a player this mechanic), and the number of enemies that you can have needs to be relatively small. That all kinda goes against the feeling we wanted from a shmup of being frenetic.”
What can you tell us about the control mechanics?
“The players control two ships that follow each controller. The controls are the same on each controller. They use the cross and circle buttons to change the bullet color (red, white, and green). The Trigger Button is shooting and the PS Move Button is the shield. Holding the PS Move Button and pressing the Trigger Button creates a shield bullet.”
Right now there are three themes. Can you tell us a little about each theme and do you see more themes being added in the future?
“We actually have five themes. Three in the campaign mode, and then five for relax and endless.
Tech City – A futuristic cityscape where you see larger towering structures protected by a dome. The music is inspired by cyberspace and electronic elements.
Japan Garden – Japan Garden is inspired by tori gates and the Japanese mountains. The music is inspired by Japanese themes as well as Rhythm and Blues.
Galaxy Zone – The Galaxy Zone is a space-themed level that features a space station behind the player and planets in front. My favorite moment in the game is when the boss spawns on this level and everything glows. The music is inspired by electronic music and contains voice samples from historical NASA recordings.
Holiday Forest – The Holiday Forest is a winter holiday-themed level. The music is inspired by 8-bit and tracker file music (chiptunes) with a holiday flair. This is the slowest and most relaxing level.
Retro Land – Retro Land was inspired by gamings past. We specifically made it for the PSVR release as an homage to the brand. The music is inspired by gaming music and electronics.
We have a concept for another theme (underwater), but we haven’t done any development on it yet. It really depends on how well the game sells if we can invest time into building additional content. As of now, we view the PSVR release as the Definitive Edition!”
Can you tell us about the different power-ups within the game?
“Missiles – Each ship shoots bursts of missiles that obliterate enemies
Slow Down – Slows down time and makes all shots homing shots. Also affects the audio.
Rapid Fire- Gives the player the ability to shoot reallllly fast.”
So you really have made Rhythm ‘n Bullets with no motion sickness so really anyone can pick it up and play?
“That’s the goal. It’s pretty well studied that the headsets are good enough to not make players sick, so most motion sickness really comes from what the games are doing. Our game has no artificial locomotion which should make it a comfortable experience for most players.”
When leaderboards are involved, do you ever look at the boards and see the scores and wonder how some of the players are getting that high of a score, and do you ever go back in the game to make sure you can top that score just for the fun of it?
“Yes definitely! When we initially launched the game we did a free demo where the person who got the high score got a Quest 2. Everyone blew past my expectations of what was possible for players to do so I had to rebalance endless mode after that. The player who won the Quest 2 continues to be the best player of the game, I can’t beat them.”
Sound helps make up the immersion within VR. Being that there is a rhythm within the game, what was some of the inspiration for the music in the game, and did the sound and music differ from when you first started to work on the game?
“This was the hardest part. I hope we get a chance in the future to work on this style of game again because I think the whole team learned a lot about what it takes to build this type of game. I mean if you look at the development process of any of Miziguchi’s games, it’s a long process with a lot of pre-production and tough work. We faced similar uphill battles in our game. Figuring out how to do generative music correctly is really hard. Figuring out how to make a music reactive game, in general, is hard. So we spent a lot of our R&D time prototyping that. The generative sound effects in particular have basically changed with each release of the game to highlight how many iterations we’ve done there. The game sounded different even in the free demo.
Tetris Effect and Space Invaders Extreme were really the leading examples of generative music in games we looked at. We were inspired a lot by electronic music in general.”
Graphics also make up part of the immersion. Rhythm ‘n Bullets seems to have a certain art style that seems very pleasing to the eyes with the neon colors. Did you find yourself going back and forth on how the different themes should actually look?
We knew really early on we wanted to do a wireframe aesthetic both as an homage to arcadey shooters like Geometry Wars and Asteroids, as well we thought it was an art style that would look great in VR. I always think stylistic games look better in VR than those that go for any sort of realistic look.
I was a big advocate for only having wireframes and nothing else early on, which our art director (properly) strongly pushed back against, so the style definitely evolved in that way. Japan Garden was the first theme, so that was really where we iterated the most on what the game should look like. I think a lot of changes were pulling stuff back, less wireframes and more normal geometry, less neon glow (it used to be everything was neon glow). I’m pretty happy with where we got.”
When working with different platforms such as PCVR, PSVR, and the Oculus Quest through the Oculus App Lab, what was most surprising to you?
“The first platform we released on was Quest. I think the most (positively!) surprising thing to me has been how great the PSVR audience has been. I think the PlayStation audience really gets what the game is about and what is fun about it. It has me really excited about the future of VR on the PlayStation platform.”
What do you know now about Virtual Reality, what would be the top three things you would tell your younger self?
“1) Just start building and releasing things earlier! We look back at projects that we stopped working on or didn’t come out because there was always a sense that someone else was doing it and it was too late. I think it’s really easy to get in that mindset as a creator. It usually turns out that multiple people building similar things will help your project more than it will hurt it.
2) Standalone AR headsets will take longer to get off the ground than you think they will. If you asked me when I first started working in AR, I likely would have said in 2017 that by 2022 we would have mass production AR headsets.
3) 2 6DoF controllers and a 6DoF headset is basically where VR ended up. I really thought after the Rift CV1 came out that we would see a renaissance of control technologies. I was really closely following haptic vests, infinite locomotion devices, and body trackers at the time. There was a sense that 6DoF was kinda just one part of the puzzle, it’s still true, but it ended up being enough to start to make VR mainstream.”
So what’s next for you and DB Creations?
“We’ve been working on a VR naval real-time strategy game for almost a year now. We think we’re getting pretty close to having a demo of it available for people to try. It’s a very different direction than Rhythm ‘n Bullets, but so far it’s a ton of fun. I haven’t played anything else in VR like it. We’re also doing some AR experiments, but nothing definitive to announce there yet.”
With the content for Virtual Reality continuing to grow, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience Rhythm ‘n Bullets?
“If you love arcade-style shooters, if you’re a fan of “synesthesia” games, or you just want to hang out in cool environments, Rhythm ‘n Bullets is for you! I really think we’ve created one of the tightest shmups in VR, one of our core design goals was to enable the player to feel strategic over-responsive and to understand why they lose when they lose. I think we achieved that!
I really want to thank Blake for taking time out of his schedule and day and for giving us a closer look at Rhythm ‘n Bullets and for also talking about Virtual Reality.
In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.