Ryan Lessler Revitalizes Amplitude

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Before Guitar Hero brought music games into the mainstream, and before Rock Band took its place as the definitive party game, Harmonix made Amplitude. Like Rock Band, Amplitude asks players to synchronize button presses with prerecorded music, effectively “performing” different parts of a song. Unlike Rock Band, Amplitude didn’t really connect with audiences. The game, which came out in 2003 for the PlayStation 2, was a critical success but a financial disappointment. In a way, that makes sense. Thematically, Amplitude is fairly abstract; it’s also really, really hard.

Now, freed from the shackles of corporate oversight – Harmonix went independent in 2010, after four years as part of Viacom – and armed with over $840,000 from Kickstarter backers, the developer’s giving Amplitude another try. With Amplitude‘s mid-2015 release date quickly approaching, we talked with Harmonix creative lead Ryan Lesser about what the studio has learned over the past twelve years, and how those lessons will make Amplitude even better the second time around.

How would you explain the differences between Amplitude and Guitar Hero/Rock Band to someone who isn’t familiar with the original (aside from the different controllers)?
Musically and thematically, Amplitude is based heavily on electronic music, where a game like Rock Band is primarily rock focused. In gameplay, the largest difference is that in the other games, the player is working on hitting individual notes to score points on a specific instrument, say, guitar or drums. In Amplitude, the player is trying to capture entire musical phrases made up of connected notes and do so across ALL instruments in a song, and while trying to keep lots of tracks active at a time by streaking across phrases.

Tell us about working with Pete Maguire to create the game’s soundtrack. What are the challenges of composing music that’s specifically designed as a gameplay element, and how is that different from writing music that’s atmospheric or noninteractive?
Pete is awesome, and was the perfect choice for audio lead on Amplitude. We have very complex demands for our music in that [it]needs to play really well at multiple difficulty levels, feel like a video game level as you move across it, tell the story of our “concept album” in both music and lyrics, and all the while it has to sound AMAZING. It has been a great challenge but the musicians here at Harmonix have crushed it.amp1Can you guide us through the technical details of Harmonix’s refined “beatmatching” process? Which tools and techniques are included in this workflow?
I am afraid that I cannot divulge the technical details of our process.

You sure? We are a workflow magazine.
I can’t. Sorry!Can you tell us about the game’s new concave/convex level tracks? What is your approach to the visual design of levels, and how will different curves and shapes enhance gameplay?
In the original game, you would play on a strictly concave track in multiplayer and a convex track in solo. With the space afforded to us by widescreen televisions (yes, Amplitude is THAT old) and the resolution possibly on HDTV, we were able to be more experimental with our track topology. By allowing a song’s track to not only bend through space but also modulate in its convexity/concavity, the game can be more dynamic, [and that]also allows us to use the track as part of the difficulty curve.

Visually, Amplitude looks pretty abstract, but you’ve mentioned that there’s a kind of “concept album”– like story to follow. Can you talk about some of the techniques you’re using to tell a story to the player?
The abstracted backgrounds and nanotech-themed blaster visuals are in fact part of our overarching concept album design. I am hoping that when players dig into the game and look for the cues in the menus, musical tone, lyrics, etc., they will start to put together the pieces of our story.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band both worked well in social settings, and even first-time gamers could jump right in and play. Are you doing anything to make the new Amplitude accessible to casual or nongamers, and if so, what?
The living room, multiplayer experience is one that I have been very focused on and the team has made really good headway. We have been striving to unapologetically make the upper end of Amplitude very challenging, as that is one of the appealing aspects of the original. But at the same time we have been trying to lower the barrier to entry for new players using lessons learned in the ten-year gap between the original and new Amplitude. The onboarding experience will be more streamlined, the lower difficulties will be very forgiving, opening songs will be noob friendly, and important gameplay techniques, like Streaking, will be introduced to the player early.amp2You’re making Amplitude with Sony, but it was also a Kickstarter project. Has the influence of the public and their personal stake in the project changed the development process at all? If so, how?
During the Kickstarter, we were very clear that we were going to make the game a pretty faithful representation of the original, and promised that we would bring the backers in early to let them get hands-on experience with the game so that they could offer feedback. On multiple occasions, and coast to coast, we have had great play sessions with the backers and they have offered lots of opinions and feedback that we have actually acted on immediately.

Harmonix is known for expanding the range of video game controllers (I have my Beatles Rock Band Hofner bass on display in my living room). How are you taking advantage of the DualShock 4, especially in ways that players may not have seen before?
We have certainly focused on the DualShock 4 as an integrated part of the experience, just as if it were a guitar, etc. There are many features built in currently. We pulse the controller to give tactile, beat-based feedback to help players “feel the beat,” we have removed much of the audio clutter from the main speakers and placed them contextually in the DualShock controllers (great for four-player), the controller LEDs change to match track color in solo (filling your room with immersive light), show the players their color in multiplayer mode, and more.

What’s coming up next for you and the Harmonix team?
Ha! Well, the Amplitude team is up to their earbuds in development work and lots of others here at the studio are jamming on Rock Band. We have a bunch of other game ideas in ideation modes but none that I can get into here and now.

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