Results from Game Design Challenge: The New Sound

By staff [12.22.09]

 There's been a lot of talk about how the music genre just isn't doing as well as it used to. Yes, Beatles Rock Band is a major hit, and people still love Guitar Hero. DJ Hero hasn't caught on, though. It seems that gamers might very well be getting plastic instrument fatigue.

Is it any wonder? Years of essentially the same game over and over is wearing people down. Is it all about pushing colored buttons as lights cascade down the screen? As addictive as it is, there's more to music than rock, and there's more to gameplay than timing.

Despite the popularity and variety in music, few attempts have been made to marry it to different types of gameplay. We'd like to see that change.

Sony's Patapon for the PSP takes the metaphor of battle drums and applies it to strategy game. Rez HD, on the other hand, marries the beat to a transcendent shooting experience.

In its latest game design exercise, Game Career Guide challenged its readers to use music as a core gameplay mechanic in a creative and integral way.

What follows are the best and most original entries we received. Here are our top picks:

Best Entries

Paolo Tajè, Software Developer, .Rhythm.Robot.Step.Loop. (see page 2)
.Rhythm.Robot.Step.Loop. is a puzzle-platformer in which players must compose a brief piece of music in order to guide a robot through a series of obstacles. The result feels like a mix between Scribblenauts and the music composition portion of Mario Paint.

Leonardo Ferreira, PUC - Rio, Brazil, Beat Bots (see page 3)
Ferreira proposes a tower defense-styled strategy game based around the concepts of musical harmony and balance. Different types of music will grant the Beat Bots with useful characteristics, and it's up to players to create harmonious melodies to progress through each level.

Dean Ray Johnson, Song Shooter (see page 4)
Dean Ray Johnson outlines a shooter in which every element is based on the tempo, pitch, and amplitude of any song from a user's music library. Many of the ideas here have been attempted in other games, but few can claim such depth and attention to all aspects of music.

Honorable Mentions
"Jez," Bug Boogie (see page 5)
Charles Reimers, Senior Software Engineer, Bad Vibes (see page 6)
Mackenzie Peterson, Front Range Community College in Colorado (see page 7)
Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, The Dreaded Raven Song (see page 8)
Elendil "Shin" Cañete and Michaelangelo Lee, Crescendo Flow (see page 9)

Paolo Tajè, Software Developer at Siemens Building Technologies, .Rhythm.Robot.Step.Loop.

Platform: Nintendo DS
Genre: Rhythm Puzzle

In this game you interact using a step sequencer.
A step sequencer is a device that allows you to create a looping pattern of sounds.
The pattern of sounds will be used to control a robot in the upper screen.
The upper screen will also contain the current score.
The score will be higher the fewer loops the player will use to solve the beat.
A beat is a unique pattern that allows the robot to reach the goal.
A goal is a specific area in the level.
Every level contains various threats, as in every good game.
Threats include: holes, spiny things, lasers and lawyers.
Why are lawyers a threat?
They don't have sense of rhythm.

The rhythm flows regardless of what you do, as a line that goes through the grid.
Once the line reaches the end, it loops back to the beginning, and the level starts over.
Every loop is divided in a certain number of steps.
The number of steps may vary (eight, twelve or sixteen in advanced levels).
The number of rows does not vary.
You have five rows.
Each row is an instrument.
The player can make an instrument play by tapping a square with his stylus.

Every time the line bumps into an highlighted square, a sound is emitted and an action is performed by the robot.

- Kick drum: he walks a step ahead.
- Snare drum: he jumps.
- Crash cymbal: he throws a punch.
- Hi-hat: the body of the robot spin.
- Tom: he slides down.

Every action has a special impact in the game, especially when a sound is played together with another one.
For example, to jump over a hole you have to play the kick drum and the snare at the same time.
Snare and crash generate a flying kick.
Hi-hat is useful to deflect lasers.
Tom and then snare can make the robot take a long jump.
Every combination will be introduced one by one in subsequent levels.
Advanced levels will require a larger use of combinations of actions to be solved.

Further in the game, the player will unlock a new interaction choice.
Tapping with the stylus an highlighted (yellow) square, he will turn it into red.
A red square will double a sound, and the corresponding action.
This will make available double jump, running, double punch and so on, opening up new puzzle opportunities. 

Leonardo Ferreira, PUC - Rio, Brazil, Beat Bots 

The kingdom has been invaded by monsters! Their only weakness: music! The only way to stop them: build an unstoppable using the power of song! But who can do that?

Enter...the Beat Bots!

Beat Bots is a music based strategy game with an overhead view that has some similarities with tower-defense games. The main goal of each level is to get a certain number of bots to the exit within a certain time limit. Players don't control the Bots directly; they walk in a set path, which is filled with obstacles, like barriers, different kinds of terrains, and many, many monsters.

Players can guide the Bots by placing Tune Boxes in the map; these boxes emit sounds that affect the Bots in many different ways, if they are in their range: Main Boxes (that have the sound of strings, wind or keyboard instruments) can change the mood of the Bots, what causes them to change their methods of offense, as well as boosting their attacks; different enemies need different types of attack to be defeated.

Support Boxes (that have the sound of percussion and electronic instruments, as well as some minor wind and string ones, like bass and harmonica) can change the Bots structure, making them grow wings, wheels, and others extra parts. These parts help them to get across damaged or hard terrain, and give various bonuses to their stats. Finally, the speed that each Bot has when marching is determined by the rhythm of the Tune Box that they are currently listening.

Placing certain types of Tune Boxes next to each other can create an area of Synergy; Bots that listen to these synergy sounds ill gain extra bonuses. But placing incompatible Boxes next to each other can also create negative effects, since one Box can cancel the sound of a lesser one.

Players build Tune Boxes with Screws, that are gained when a Bot successfully exits the stage, or and enemy is defeated .Once built, a Tune Box can be moved in the stage at a certain cost of Screws (also, the game has no "Game Over" screen;, instead, if the player fails to get all of the needed Bots to the exit, he gets a "Screw Up" screen).

The background music in the game is given by the combination of the individual sound of each Tune Box; so, since each box is tied to a respective sound, players need to recognize what sounds go better with others; certain stages will need some special combination to get through. Players will have to craft a harmonious melody in order to get the Beat Bots to the exit!

Dean Ray Johnson, Song Shooter

The idea would be to create a top-down shooter that creates levels for the game based on musical tracks that you provide to it, somewhat as Audiosurf does. The game would attempt to create unique levels using a large library of art, bullet types, character types, and so on. You would first need to drop a song into the game to be analyzed* in various ways, during which the game would create a level file that could be accessed at any time afterward. The level would then be played with that song as the backdrop.

Analyses would include:

* Tempo analysis: Analysis of the speed of the piece. When the tempo is faster, enemies will move quickly and thus be more difficult to hit. When the tempo is slower, enemies will move slowly and be easier to hit but will have more health to compensate.

* Spectral analysis: Analyze the balance of low, middle, and high frequencies. When low frequencies (bass) are dominant, enemies will be larger and thus easier to hit but have more health to compensate. When high frequencies are dominant, enemies will be smaller and thus more difficult to hit. Mixing of different sizes will be common.

* Amplitude analysis: Analyze the loudness of music relative to the maximum possible. When the music is loud, bullets fired by enemies will be smaller and move more quickly. When the music is soft, bullets will be large but move slowly. "Large" may also indicate longer laser-type effects or other variations. This analysis will also be combined with the spectral analysis - songs with quiet bass will still have occasional large enemies, but they will fire slow bullets to match the quiet of the bass.

* Pitch analysis: Analysis of the root pitch of the piece. This will be added mostly to provide variety. For songs in the key of C, enemies will follow patterns and shoot bullets common to classic shooters. The key of B flat or G might grant enemies that shoot "lasers" rather than bullets and follow somewhat abberrant patterns, while the key of F# might provide very chaotic, erratic enemies.

* Scale analysis: Analysis of the second and third most common tones other than the root to provide superficial differences. For example, the scale of the piece might set the player in a factory environment fighting robots instead of an ethereal environment fighting elemental sprites.

We want the player to be able to complete the entire song (I hate getting cut off before a song ends), so the player cannot be killed during the game. Instead, hurting the player will daze it, preventing it from attacking and slowing its movement for a time. The main penalty is that enemies might get away while you are prevented from attacking. When a group of enemies (or single large enemies) is killed, it will drop a power-up that boosts strength, size, or frequency for your main or secondary weapon or provides additional "bomb" uses, so the player must try to stay unharmed while staying in line to attack targets.

The actual goal of the song is to defeat the boss. The system will attempt to find the point where the last verse or chorus begins in the song and place the boss at that point. The boss will appear with a timer showing how long until the song ends. If you haven't collected enough power-ups during the level, then you may be unable to deal enough damage to the boss before the song ends.

The player characters will also be able to customize from a number of audio-themed weapons. Each main weapon has a distinctive sound that sounds similar to an electronic music box. Firing your secondary or temporary weapons alongside the main weapon will alter its tone - if you have the Distortion secondary weapon and the Delay shield, your main weapon will sound distorted as you fire it, while the background music track will be echoed when you throw up the shield.

Instrument - main gun:
Arpeggiator - Fires many small bullets in a wide, fanning cone. Gun sounds like an arpeggiated synthesizer.
Drum Machine - Fires large, single bullets in a forward line. Gun sounds like random drum effects.
Oscillator - Fires a sine-wave laser with weaker damage but a wide horizontal breadth. Sounds like a sine-wave tone, transforms into a square wave as it powers up.
Sampler - Fires a thin laser with rapid firing rate. Sounds like various wind or string instruments sampled and looped together.

Effects - side guns:
Distortion - Fires a wide, medium-powered wave ahead of you that covers a 60-degree arc but only travels a short distance away from you.
Flanger - Fires a moderate damage laser that changes direction according to the direction that you move in (moving right rotates the laser toward your 3 o'clock side).
LFO - Fires strong single bullets at a very slow pace.
Modulator - Fires two very weak, rapid-fire lasers at 30-degree angles forward.

Destructive Effects - temporary offenses (bombs):
Chorus - Temporarily adds a "shadow" to your main weapon that increases its size by a fixed amount.
Feedback - Creates a "shadow" of every enemy bullet on the field, which reflect back toward the screen and hurt enemies instead of you.
Overdrive - Charges and fires a single powerful bolt straight in front of you.
Vocoder - Temporarily creates a wave of damage in a sphere all around you that deals strong damage.

Mastering Effects - temporary defenses (shields):
Delay - Freezes the bullets in a large sphere around you so that you can navigate around.
Filter - Destroys all enemy bullets in a sphere around you.
Limiter - Puts up a shield that persists around you for a moment. Bullets inside the shield are immediately shunted to outside of the shield, and no bullets can enter the shield while it is up.
Reverb - Bullets in a small sphere around you are reflected away, damaging enemies if they are hit by the reflections.

In addition, while it's common in top-down shooters to simply hold down the Fire button and fire a constant stream of bullets, the stream fired by the player matches the tempo of the music and can be altered with an options button. The player can voluntarily slow down the rate of their weapon fire to match the beat of the song, resulting in larger, stronger weapons, or turn the flow up to match quarter beats (close to 16th notes), dealing less damage but able to fire more often. In addition, the strength of a bomb effect can be powered up by charging the attack - instead of tapping the bomb button once, the player can tap the bomb key five times. If each tap lines up with the beat of the song, the power is enhanced.

"Jez," Bug Boogie

Bug Boogie is a rhythm game where the player controls an alien bug, his goal is to complete each stage and score as many points as he can to be at the top of the online leader board. This is achieved by controlling the little bug and helping him spread his seed ( or larva) to as many female Boogie Bugs as possible. Once a certain amount of females have been impregnated then the player can choose to move onto the next area or if possible mate with more bugs for more points.

The noises the player bug makes when the face buttons are pressed will be a musical instrument note or music sample to fit the current mating tune (music) of the female bug.

There are seven different territories that the player can choose, one for each available music style- rock, hip Hop, metal, pop, jazz, blues, dance/electronic.

Each territory has eight sectors that get progressively harder and are unlocked after the previous has been adequately completed.

Once the player is in the sector he can see the various female bugs scattered throughout, he must decide where to spray his scent. Females within its radius are enabled so the player can start the mating ritual; any hidden females within with in it will become visible and susceptible.

As the player approaches an enabled female he will see her pheromone rings and bubbles that surround her; the player must move to each inner ring after collecting its pheromone bubbles. However to stay within these rings the player must tap the correct face button in sync with the (music) coloured pulses that are emitted from the female.

The pulse will have one of four colours to represent one of the four face buttons:-

Blue- X

Purple - Square

Green - Triangle

Red- Circle

Each female can have one unique rhythmic sequence made from a combination of 4 to 6 colours depending on difficulty. How the player uses this sequence depends on the colour of a female bug-

Green- the player has to constantly repeat the sequence in time with the pulse,

Red- the player plays the sequence and then waits for the female to repeat before he repeats it,

Yellow-These rare females have coloured pulses the first time the player connects to the outermost ring, after which the ellipses turn orange, the player will have to remember the combination to succeed.

If the player presses the wrong button during a ritual then he is pushed to an outer ring, taking to long will lose possible bonuses.

When the player reaches the female he will move on top of her, both will flash in time with the music but the female will make new sequences made of a combination of four colours which the player will have to repeat, this will last for about thirty seconds, the player's success at this will affect his score. When finished the player is free to move to the next female.

Charles Reimers, Senior Software Engineer, Bad Vibes

The player is trapped in a world of crystalline beauty and needs to create a path to freedom before the ever growing background tones make their head explode.

This would be a logic-puzzle game.

In the background is a sequence of electronic tones.

The play would be on a field of 'crystals'. The crystals would be colored to indicate the sonic wave tones that will shatter them. Later in the game, crystals may require a combination of tones or especially strong waves. The sonic waves can be bounced off crystal surfaces if they do not shatter them. Bouncing a wave off a crystal may also transpose the tone and always weaken the wave.

The player is provided with a set of objects, color coded to indicate the tones they interact with:

Resonators - Put out sonic waves and have an indicated arc through which they put out the sonic waves.

Transposers - Any sonic wave passing through a transposer will be modified up or down the scale, for example, turning a C into a D.

Mufflers - Absorbs any sonic wave that hits it. Later in the game, selective mufflers absorb only the indicated tone.

Deflectors - Mirrors for sonic waves. Later in the game, selective deflectors only deflect the indicated tone.

Transmitters - Transmitters are actually two linked objects, one absorbs the sonic wave, the other re-emits it.

Amplifiers - Amplifiers boost the wave strength.

The player also has a special 'booster' object. This object takes the current background tone sequence and boosts it loudly enough that the Resonators can form waves from the tones.

The tones arrive in sequence and some tones might last longer than others. So the player will need to set up their equipment such that they can shatter a path through the crystals on the play field using the tones in the order that they are given. Since waves do not travel instantaneously, the player may delay a wave of one tone until after another tone has arrived.

Each new level will add some new set of tones to the existing sequence.

Crystal shapes will be simple early on, basicly fuzzy blobs with no flat surface to deflect tones. Later, they will have facets to deflect waves.

The player does not have a limited number of times they can use the booster on any given level, but each time the booster is used, the background sequence gets louder. As the background gets louder, it might randomly trigger a resonator, potentially messing up the players plans. When the background reaches a certain level, the player's head explodes. Certain rooms may require the user to use the booster more than once.

The tone sequence is always playing in the background, but when the booster is used, the tones come to the foreground and each interaction also generates it's own sound.

The biggest 'win' in the game will be progressing through the levels. Additional score is given for shattering crystals and bonuses given for clearing a room or creating musical constructs (such as trills, chords, etc). Bonuses may also reduce the background level.

Mackenzie Peterson, Front Range Community College in Colorado

To address the issue, I would combine two-genres: Rhythm/2d Platformer. The game would be set to music, and the player would control the character through varying levels. Each move or action the player makes creates a unique sound, and the proximity of the key press to the "beat" would determine the effectiveness of the move (i.e., jumping off of the beat would cause your character to trip and fall). Different playable characters could have different sound sets. An example of a drum-set based character might utilize this sound set: running=drum roll, jump=crash cymbal, duck/slide=bass drum and so on.

So if you can imagine running through a bright and vibrant level, the plain background music would come alive as you bound through: brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrUT-CrSH-CrSH-CrSH-guuh (running, jump, jump, jump, slide)

What makes this an effective set-up is the freedom of the player to use their character as an "instrument", jamming along through the level. The level design would optimize said "jams".

Following the music would create timing based combat. Say a monster charges his move. You know that it takes two counts to charge so you dodge-move on count three--too soon or late and you're dead.

The concept of incorporating larger aspects of musical composition would apply well to bosses. For example, the song's structure could tell the player when they can attack or when they should be defensive--an ABA format song would dictate that the player can be aggressive for 4 measures, defensive for 4, the aggressive for another 4 before repeating the pattern. When the boss reaches a certain health level, the structure may move to the bridge, where it's CCCD--and D is when the player can attack.

The main concept of this game would be: music non-stop and the player is just "sitting in". I feel that "being in the groove" is a powerful feeling and what's great about this concept is that it's not like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, where the player is marching along a set path. There's freedom of improvisation and the freedom to make your own mistakes. Playing along with the music would also add a pseudo 3rd dimension to the 2d game in that the player is constricted by sound, and not a Z axis.

Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, The Dreaded Raven Song

'You don't belong here,' the foster witch coughed to her apprentice, Kataline. The girl had lived with the witch as far as she could remember, but not without trouble, not without the undying. 'Remember the Dreaded Raven Song,' the witch's final instructions had commanded, 'or you will stay in this silent city for more than your mortal years.'

Thus begins the lyrical horror adventure set for any current generation game console. Armed with a thumping locket, players must direct Kataline's usage of the soul-inspiring Dreaded Raven Song to escape the subterranean domain.

Players guide Kataline through the muted city with the left analog stick while all the face buttons are mapped to a verse from the Dreaded Raven Song, a chant that is not a single song but a set of lyrics used to create enchanted arias. Pressing or holding any face button down will cause Kataline to tunelessly hum a simple lyric, enhancing her physical capabilities from jumping high by tapping the bottom face button to quickly running so long as the left face button is pressed.

Unique challenges will require specific verses that the apprentice must sing in time with the heartbeat of her target. Assisting Kataline to stay in tune is the thumping locket, a jeweled heart which is represented at the upper left corner of the screen next to her health. By holding the left shoulder button down, the audibility of Kataline's own heartbeat will heighten as the locket blinks in rhythm. By continuously pressing specific face button combinations in time with her heartbeat, players may string lyrics to perform and maintain unique personal empowerments, from seeing in pitch darkness to lifting heavy rubble.

While set in a hushed and seemingly empty city, Kataline rarely travels alone. Haunting her surroundings are the ghostly undying, incessantly whispering their intent to make her their own. The apparitions will harass and interrupt Kataline at every chance, suddenly smashing windows, hurriedly locking doors, to materializing into teething, rabid fiends. Often inaudible and invisible, only the locket can give forewarning of their presence, brightly reddening the closer an undying draws near.

Kataline's only defense against the undying is by appealing to their sanity with the Dreaded Raven Song. By holding the right shoulder button down, Kataline will focus on the faint heartbeat of the nearest apparition: the apprentice must tread closer to better hear the heartbeat of the undying. In growing silence, the undying will give away three heartbeats at best. Successfully pressing any face button in tune to the undying's heartbeat will slowly urge their sanity to take control while rhythmically chanting certain lyrics together by pressing specific face button combinations will imbue various effects, from instilling temporary silence to freezing the victim in place. However, if Kataline fails to consistently sing in tune, there will be screams and pain.

Singing the Dreaded Raven Song at every step, Kataline might yet escape by harmonizing with the hearts of the undying, inadvertently making a place for herself in their found soul.

 Elendil "Shin" Cañete (Game Designer) and Michaelangelo Lee (2D Artist), Crescendo Flow

Art by Michaelangelo Lee and Gabrielle Mendez


Crescendo Flow is a music-driven rhythm/puzzle game for the DS that sharpens music sense and rhythm. Using the stylus and a simple touch-based system, you will rely on what you hear more than what you see. Embark on an adventure as the musical sprite Flow and rescue her world from chaos by composing spells in the form of songs. In Crescendo Flow, creativity is everything.


Each stage represents a song, and the player must keep a performance meter known as the Crescendo Gauge above a certain level to complete it. This is done by tapping or dragging on a group of glyphs (called Scales) while following the beat. If the gauge falls below the defined level, the player will fail.


Each Scale's appearance is based on the length of a musical bar. They will only appear for a set duration of time, and must be tapped or dragged to complete the bar.

Though the system may be reminiscent of the hit game Ouendan, Crescendo Flow deviates by assigning specific sounds to each glyph. They will branch out at certain points in the Scale, and the player can select which glyph to tap or drag first to create their own melodies. Each action can and will affect tempo and pitch, allowing players to shape the song to their liking.

The Screens

All animations and visuals are shown at the top screen while the touch screen displays the Crescendo Vision, a representation of Flow's mind and speech. It houses the Crescendo Gauge, as well as the Scale glyphs.


Crescendo Flow features a spell casting mechanic that allows the player to solve puzzles. The game will display Flow in a variety of quirky situations; from fighting groups of enemies to overcoming obstacles such as trees or huge boulders. To solve these problems, Flow must cast spells with the help of the glyphs.

At the bottom of the screen is Flow's spell sheet. Each spell on the sheet requires a sequence of glyphs to activate. The player can power up these spells by selecting the required glyphs within a Scale. Once a spell's requirement has been met, the player can cast it by tapping on a special Cast glyph that will appear on the Crescendo Vision instead of the last glyph in the Scale.

Casting spells and solving situations allow players to proceed with the story and level up their glyphs, unlocking more options such as new spells and new songs.

End Note

Crescendo Flow is a vast design and can be tweaked in a number of ways to make it more enjoyable. Its core objective, however, is to teach players about scales and sounds by learning how notes affect one another, as well as the value of tempo and pitch. It's a great way to teach children and adults alike about the fundamentals of music development while avoiding the nitty-gritty of hardcore study. It also teaches self-improvement and musical appreciation, something most music-based games don't usually offer.

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