rapped between life and death until its work on Earth is done, my inept NTSC-uk review of Amplitude, the second game by Harmonix, has been invoked by a Kickstarter proposal for its reboot. The problem with calling any game ‘a work of supreme genius’ is that it makes you sound like an ass, which by extension makes you sound wrong. That’s especially galling when, eleven years later, you realise that Amplitude and Frequency (its predecessor) are indeed the two best game experiences you ever had.
Maybe now, when it matters, I can find the right words.
The worst thing you can say about these games is that they’re prototypes for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which if anything were dumbed down for the sake of all that plastic and pop. Though essentially arcade games, Frequency and Amplitude are also about exploring rather than playing or learning music. That’s not in the Spotify sense of being spoon-fed tunes by algorithms, either, but in actually flying through and seeing what makes songs tick. Later, as you master what today’s Harmonix nicknames the ‘Dark Souls’ difficulties of Brutal and Insane, they transcend even that.
Your job in the games is to defibrillate each tune – generally speaking, the more electronic they are the better – by hopping between its component tracks and zapping beat-matched gems with millisecond precision. Get them all and tracks ‘stay alive’ until you’ve revived the entire song, but then die as you race back to keep your vital multiplier going. While it’s wrong to say that you come for the music and stay for the high scores, the game’s acumen as a score attack cannot be overstated.
One of the other zombie reviews on that Kickstarter page calls Amplitude the ‘equivalent of crack cocaine’. That must sound a lot less facile in the context of the full review because, as with narcotics, it’s hard to put the games’ cognitive side-effects into words. Their acolytes, ‘Freqs’, rant like old hippies who’ve experienced what can only be experienced. They’ve seen how games and music can fuse in ways that go far beyond any Rez or Audiosurf. Survive a track on Amplitude’s highest difficulty and you might not come back the same.
Without question, it would be a tragedy if the campaigners for a new Amplitude end up with little more than a blueprint of their dream. The numbers so far invite pessimism, and many are writing aloof cautionary tales before its fate is even sealed. For all the jeering, moralising and apportioning of blame, I’m seeing little written about what Amplitude is or what it means to the people backing it. You’d think Harmonix was selling screwdrivers.
To that end, what follows is a chat with project lead Ryan Lesser which has its origins in a much earlier, unpublished interview about the game and its predecessor. It’s actually a complete coincidence that it was going to, ahem, kickstart this new series of Dead End Thrills features anyway, as part of a wider look at all the Harmonix games. Now, though, updated and focused on more pressing matters, maybe it can be of some use.
What inspired Frequency’s abstract universe? Was it gameplay or something to do with the real world nature of dance music?
Ryan Lesser: It was a few things. Back when it was novel still, I was an enormous fan of Tron, and so was Josh [Randall, former creative director]. The two of us were like the only two people we knew who liked that kind of thing, and we wanted to dig into that beautiful, abstract, wireframe cyberspace. It was different to what was going on at the time with things like Johnny Mnemonic, it was a whole different world.
It was also really related to the graphics that were happening a lot in worlds like the Web and electronic music – album covers and stuff. It was pretty fashionable back then. The Web was starting to take off, as was very early 3D. You had a lot of super-sweet websites… I remember there was one called Mega Car, which was this guy in Germany that was modding his Mercedes to be this ultra-electronic machine. They were all pushing this cool, flat, vectorised look that we really liked, and we thought it went really well with the bits-and-bytes kind of cyberspace we were imagining. So it was apropos, it was time for that, and it happened to match the vibe of the music really well.
All of that was coupled with a very early urge of Alex’s [Rigopulos, CEO] to make a game that had a certain level of synaesthesia. He said it once, I dunno, twelve years ago, and we’ve always taken that to heart in all of our games to different extents. Amplitude and Frequency were almost the more pure versions of synaesthesia for us because it really was more of an abstract world with lights flashing and particle systems exploding; and we weren’t representing guitars or stages or anything real like that. It’s kind of a mix of all of those interests.
DET: Movies like Johnny Mnemonic featured those somewhat literal interpretations of tunnelling through cyberspace, just as you were planning a game about tunnelling through music in much the same way. Coincidence?
Lesser: I recall feeling like – with the exception of things like Tron and the trippy scene from 2001 – we didn’t have too many direct influences for that game. We were really trying to take the synaesthesia concept and mix it with the idea of visualising music.
Trust me, after doing it for over a decade, it’s really hard. It’s an abstract thing with no physicality, and when you’re talking about electronic music… DJ culture was not electronic at the time, it was still all vinyl. People were not showing up to their gigs with little laptops, really, except for a small few. So we saw electronic music as MIDI and things that were even more abstract to normal human beings than music already is. We just tried to create a language that would help people visualise music. This was going to be a hard game for people to wrap their heads around.
I think it was Greg [LoPiccolo, chief creative officer] who said, ‘Okay, let’s make it like a pass or a tunnel, and display the music on that somehow.’ I started working on a bunch of ideas which— It’s funny in hindsight to consider that there was a time when there weren’t these little notes or gems in a tunnel, we were inventing that. We had tonnes of ideas, and the one that stuck was these little cubes in time. It was just our way of representing this abstract idea.
What were some of the other options?
Lesser: We had many different representations of a note or a beat in time. Some of them sat flat on the surface, some of them hovered above the surface and moved to the music. Sometimes, their specific shape or their depth would be relative to the kind of note that was playing. We had lots of things that were physical, and in 3D which interacted in a very physical way. We learned pretty quickly that you can only have a little bit of that. Most of it was really a 2D problem that we had to solve, which is: the music is being played at a single millisecond in time. We struggled with the precision of that problem, with the fact that people don’t play things that precisely. The more precise the music is, the less good it tends to be.
So, we found the sweet spot where we took away a lot of the physical stuff. We had versions that were like, for example, a 3D torus or diamond floating above the track, coming toward you. The target was in fact this thing that was on the ground. So, when the gem or note passed over this target, a hammer would literally swing up and smash it. It was very satisfying because it was very physical, but it was very weird because what people really cared about was hitting that note at that moment. All that extra stuff wasn’t just distracting but also slowed down the process.
We moved to what we thought was the next best thing at the time, which was the little parentheses that are in 3D, and when a gem moves through it they squish it. But the squish happens over a single frame of animation. Back then it was 60 frames per second, so only one of them brought the parentheses from the outside position to the inside, and then it took about three frames to fall back, just to give you a little bit of physicality. But the important part was that single frame, and that was what put us on our path to making gems that didn’t sit off the surface very far, and ones that exploded really, really quickly.
DET: Why was Amplitude such a break from Frequency’s seemingly successful format?
Lesser: There’s a lot of reasons, but two simple ones really stick out to me. One is that the tunnel of Frequency actually made it difficult to do a bunch of gameplay things. For example, having singlescreen multiplayer was impossible, and multiplayer became a really crucial part of the game design of Amplitude because it was so fun to play two, three and four player. So we had to have a set-up that was more useful for that, and the open road design helped in a huge way and will be even better now on a widescreen. The 4:3 screen was a little cramped on the first and last track, but the widescreen TVs today will be amazing for that.
The other thing is that we did want – both for the sake of screenshots and, if this was to be a multiplayer-slash-party game where there were spectators – there to be a little bit more to look at. We did a test one day during Frequency where we broke the path, and suddenly the path was outside of the tunnel. We were looking around at these spaces we were building and were like, ‘It looks amazing out here.’ It was so nice to see all these big shapes that were passing by you with parallax and scale differentiation, and we just wanted to go for that, and therefore give the players more pixels that could shift to the music. If you play Amplitude you can really see that we’re linking a lot of the objects in the world to either your successful button-presses or the music that’s playing. The entire world feels linked to the audio, and you couldn’t do that if you were just in the tunnel.
DET: What prompted the floating video screens?
Lesser: It was a combo of a) we wanted that old-school kind of cyberspace to have a bit of that Blade Runner vibe; but at the same time it was a way for us to customise the level to the song and make that experience unique. So, if you went into the Blastlands level, there were multiple songs you could play in that level, and we wanted people to think that if you were playing a Blink-182 song, it just felt different to playing a David Bowie song. An easy way to do that is to put those people or that imagery into those screens. And in a way it also put a little bit of a humanising element in there, seeing singers or guitar players or whatever on these big screens in an otherwise geometric and cold world.
Was the ship a difficult thing to nail down?
Lesser: That was our second game and we were still a semi-naive team. We hadn’t sorted out our creative process yet – not that you ever really do. That ship, due to that process, was redesigned about 150 times. We wanted people to have more of something to relate to, and back in the day, when you went into a game store and looked at either a magazine article or the back of a box, looking at Frequency, it’s very abstract. There wasn’t really a precedent for games with little notes on a track coming at you, so we were trying to do some things that would invite people in and give them something to feel grounded in. At one point I thought it should be a robot or sentient entity of some sort, but we went with a ship basically because it could have three guns, three blasters that could release the music from the gems.
We had many, many different designs, and that one ended up the final one because it had enough surface area to do this thing that Greg wanted to do at the time, which was to have this big musical readout on the ship. It’s a vehicle for two giant VU meters, and that’s just a really good way to sync up with the soundtrack. In the new game we’re pushing it a little bit away from that. Some of the new designs we’re experimenting with are more interesting. We have a brand new one that’s maybe going to go up later today that I’ve been drawing, and one of the artists kinda ran with it. It’s really nice: reminiscent of the old one in that it’s got these Popeye macho arms and a skinny little body, but it’s modernised and pretty badass-looking.
The old game had no real narrative, and in this new game we’re crafting an admittedly thin narrative but a narrative nonetheless, just so the artists and musicians can come together and design towards a singular vision. The new ship will align with that a lot more.
DET: Should we expect more of a visual journey throughout the game?
Lesser: Each level had a theme unique to it in Amplitude, but there was no story. There was no visual storytelling. I’m not sure how that’s going to change this time round. We definitely don’t want to put our energies too much into something like that because this is still a musical arcade game. And because this is a Kickstarter project, the team’s still pretty small, so we’re going to be focusing mostly on gameplay and pretty visuals.
DET: It’s not the case, then, that Amplitude is simply the more ‘Kickstarter-friendly’ or mass-market game?
Lesser: I don’t believe that Frequency is better than Amplitude. Amplitude was an improvement in every single way but one which is subjective, which is that Frequency allowed you to go from track one to track eight by just continuing in a single direction, whereas in Amplitude there was no wrap. That’s something we’re just going to fix in this new Amplitude: there’ll be an auto-wrap so you’ll basically disintegrate and re-integrate on the other side of the track.
It’s the comment I’ve heard the most in the past decade, and I’m just shooting to fix that now. It’s not that big of a deal. You’ll get all of the beauty, open space and multiplayer freedom of Amplitude, and quite honestly the playability. We had another year to refine our mechanic for that game, and I just think it’s better.
How will you deal with the lack of that third shoulder button on the post-Amplitude DualShocks?
Lesser: We’re paying a lot of attention to it. I’ve played a lot of Amplitude on the PS3 using the DualShock 3 on our first-gen machine, and I found that it’s actually really playable as it is. It’s not as good as the DualShock 2, so I won’t pretend that it is, but there’s a couple of things we can do when we’re coding and designing for those controllers. For one thing, we have control over when that trigger activates, how it feels, and how responsive it is.
Another thing is that we can design our levels with that controller in mind. We haven’t gotten there yet, obviously, but I’d imagine we’re going to experiment with our patterns to just make it feel great on that controller. Maybe that means that we’re not going to change it at all, because after playing for 15 minutes you don’t even think about the old controllers any more. Or maybe we actually don’t put 16th notes at 150bpm on R2, we put them elsewhere. So there’s lots we can actually do to make that work fine.
DET: Much has changed in the way computers and information are portrayed since Frequency, but we appear to have come full circle. It’s as though the mundane believability of recent sci-fi has refreshed the appetite for more fantastical and imaginative worlds. Moreover, we’ve recently had a new Tron that’s trumpeted that aesthetic, albeit with a style that’s more latex and metal than unitards and polygons. Where does the new Amplitude sit?
Lesser: We do like to play around and experiment at Harmonix when it comes to abstraction and realism. We tend to stay away from realism; even our game about The Beatles was not a photo representation, we had fun with it and stylised. With the new Amplitude I want to be faithful to the old one but not go back and do a kind of late-90s cyberspace thing. I also don’t want to do a Tron vid. The first Tron was very influential to me in like a million ways – it’s still one of my favourite movies – but it was an influence that was pretty played down at the time. People didn’t really talk much about Tron. My office had the old Art Of Tron softcover book, and I had the action figures from when I was a kid, but there was no new Tron.
The new Tron was a pretty amazing-looking thing and has become a kind of touchstone for people making movies after that, but I don’t want to go there. I’m trying to be faithful to the original game and not so much to Tron. Using some of the new capabilities we have with the engine, the new ways we have to make things feel alive and physical, we’re trying to polish up the original Amplitude to make the new one.
DET: How much of a landscape are you going to build with this one, as opposed to just a vortex of shapes around a highway?
Lesser: In three hours we’re having our first narrative meeting, so I don’t have great, solid information for you. But, like I said, I am hoping to put a narrative layer into this game and it will include some sort of visual storytelling. It’s not going to be main characters, cutscenes and a love interest, but I’m hoping we give something for the player to latch on to. I’m hoping to craft this game as if it’s sort of a prog rock concept album where everyone has a general idea and we craft the lyrics and the music and the art all towards that idea. And not necessarily in an explicit, obvious way, but in the way any good classic rock album delivers – it’s sort of abstract and more poetic in how it handles it.
DET: Will you be aiming for 60@1080p?
Lesser: Some of the later games we made, like Rock Band, run at 24 frames per second in the world because I wanted to simulate film, but the actual track runs at 60. You need 60 for those really crucial, millisecond-by-millisecond finger taps. So, we are going for fullscreen hi-def at 60 frames per second. We’re actually working on our new rev of the engine specifically to support Amplitude at that resolution, so yes, we’re definitely going for it.
Why the aversion to licensed music this time? Cost?
Lesser: We’re very experienced with licensing music; we’ve licensed literally thousands of songs for our games. There’s no plan to do that with this game, for three reasons. One: it’s prohibitively expensive for a game we’re trying to be nice and lean with. And it’s difficult to make songs that fit the Amplitude template. We need six tracks [lanes, as opposed to songs], they need to be really rich and fun to play, and they need to have something to do pretty much the whole song through. Most popular songs don’t do that, so we had to really struggle with the songs that we had in [the first] Amplitude that were licensed because they really didn’t fit the mould.
The third is that we’re actually really excited to theme this game very strongly – what I was saying about the concept album idea. That was always a little bit of a bummer in Amplitude where you’re in this digital space and suddenly you’re playing a P.O.D. song or something. Regardless of whether you liked the song or not, it didn’t really fit, and neither did a bunch of other ones. But 50 per cent of the music in Amplitude, a lot of which people thought were bands from out in the world, was made here at Harmonix. In fact, Pete Maquire, who was on the audio team for Amplitude, is now on the audio team for the new Amplitude.
DET: What modern visual effects are you keen to bring to the Amplitude experience?
Lesser: Well, I’m really excited to use nice modern lighting to reveal the world based on your success. The old game was fully bright, fully saturated all the time; I didn’t love it back then and I think it was a mistake in hindsight. We’re going to be a lot more naturalistic and a lot more beautiful with modern lighting, and hopefully tell the story of how well you’re playing using that.
We have some amazing pixel and vertex shaders which I’m really excited to use to deform the world and track in ways that are really expressive. That piece of concept art showing the Crippler was our first attempt at describing it, but I’m really psyched to do that kind of thing for individual gem notes and player-to-player aggressive power-up launching – all that kind of stuff. And of course just having really nice surfacing; we’re not going for the fully lit, exposed wireframe geometry-type look like the original Amplitude. The current thought is that the world is shut down and decrepit, and you’re cleaning it and revitalising it. I’m hoping to use nice surfacing to tell that story.
DET: How about emotional manipulation? Is there more to the effects than just feedback and eye-candy?
Lesser: We pay a lot of attention to the hue, saturation and value of pixels on screen in order to push either the success levels for the player, music composition, or both. There’s also a very large focus on animation to serve as cues for musical drama. More than almost anything in the original Amplitude, we use value to push a tension level, or success level. You can see this in the ‘connector’ line and the flares; both ramp up in scale and value to increase tension. Things become whiter or brighter on the track to show that you’re getting closer and closer to capturing the phrase. The original game was a bit of a mess when it came to HSV, mostly due to design-by-committee and inexperience. We’ve improved with each game over the decade since, and for the new Amplitude we’ll be following the classic rules of colour and composition to get the desired results.