With the recent decline of the music genre over the past year, there has been a positive silver lining of indie developers trying to breathe new life into it. Rather than rehash old formulas that players have seen dozens of times, smaller indie studios have sought to take music games in different and interesting directions.
Cold Beam Games is among the developers that have managed to reinvigorate music games. The highly acclaimed Beat Hazard series is musically-driven and set it in an arcade space shooter. It uses different music to create dynamic scenarios so that no two play sessions are the same. It’s one of the most unique gaming experiences that I’ve come across.
Recently, Cold Beam took the experience a step further with Beat Hazard Ultra. This DLC package offers new game modes, enemies, weapons, and over an hour of new music tracks. Beat Hazard Ultra is a cool new way to play along with your music, and PSN owners are about to find that out firsthand when Beat Hazard Ultra arrives on PSN in September.
I took the time to talk to Steve Hunt, the CEO of Cold Beam Games and the creator of the Beat Hazard series. He was happy to open up about Beat Hazard, its upcoming arrival on PSN, its unfortunate rejection from Microsoft, and where Cold Beam Games goes post-Beat Hazard.
IGC: For those that may not know, tell us a bit about Cold Beam Games and the Beat Hazard series.
Steve Hunt: I formed Cold Beam Games after I got made redundant from Juice Games. Rather than look for another job I thought it was time to try going Indie. I’ve wanted to do my own thing for a long time and had a real itch to try more experimental games. With such great digital distribution channels available today it’s a very real alternative to working for a big company. So far it’s working great!
Beat Hazard is a nuts out music driven twin stick shooter – (Asteroids on steroids). The USP (Unique Selling Proposition) is that it takes any one of your own music tracks and turns it into a level. Every part of the game is derived from you music in some way. It purposefully energetic and in your face. So it’s an intense shooter where you blast away at spaceships while rocking out to your favourite tunes all combined with eye bleeding visuals. What more could you want?
IGC: Where did this idea come from? How did you come up with the idea of a shooter driven by uploaded music?
SH: Well I’ve always been mesmerized by music visualizers, and after playing Geometry Wars I thought how cool it would be to combine the two and make a game. That was about 4 years ago and the idea just sat there in my mind. I’ve got a book full of game designs at home, but this was the concept that I thought could do really well and could be written by myself.
IGC: For anyone that has yet to move from Beat Hazard to Beat Hazard Ultra, talk about the main differences between the two games.
SH: Ultra has a whole bunch of new features: Online Play with both Co-op and Head-to-Head play. More Bosses and bad guys, from a huge serpent boss to a host of new bad guys like mine ships, stalkers, and the swarm. I’ve also added a new perk and upgrade system so now you have 3 cool new weapons, Ultra Beam, Reflect Shield and Micro Missiles. There’s also a Boss Rush mode too. So just more fun stuff to do and kill!
IGC: As the Beat Hazard series has moved forward, you’ve found new ways to implement custom music, from MP3’s to iTunes files and even to streaming music from places like LastFM. It must have been incredibly difficult to take those different types of files and have them work within the fabric of the game. Take a moment to talk about how you were able to make this possible and some of the obstacles you encountered along the way.
SH: Yes, there has been quite a few hurdles. Getting the game to actually play different music types is pretty straight forward, as it’s all handled by plugins to the BASS audio middleware that the game uses. But integrating it all into the game can be complex. For example, LastFM was a nightmare as you need to talk to their site via HTTP messages. LastFM doesn’t supply the means to do this and I couldn’t get any of the open source methods to work in the game. However, the guys at Valve just added an HTTP API to SteamWorks which then made LastFM integration possible.
Adding iTunes was a bit of a problem too. I had to license the right to use the AAC decoder in the game and pay royalties (hence the decision to make it a separate at cost download).
Radio streams were tricky too as all their tag data is different and I had to tweak various parts of the code to handle music that didn’t have a fixed duration or an end.
IGC: Beat Hazard Ultra is about to make its PSN debut in September. Have you found it easier or more difficult to develop this game for PS3?
SH: Developing for PS3 has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced in my career. It’s such a complex beast and Sony has so many departments and systems. It’s taken about 9 months of very hard work to get it finished and given that the game part was already done and all I was really doing was porting over low level systems and code, it gives you some idea of how hard it is. I have got to say though that the guys and the support system at Sony are awesome. They were great in helping me get the game going and supporting me when I needed it.
IGC: A major disappointment that you’ve encountered has been Beat Hazard Ultra’s rejection from Microsoft. Why do you feel Microsoft refuses to put Beat Hazard Ultra on XBLA and what happens to the Xbox 360 version from here?
SH: I have no idea why Microsoft doesn’t want BHU for XBLA. They’ve never said in their feedback. It was just a flat ‘No’. Speaking to a lot of industry insiders, I get the feeling there’s lot of politics involved too. It’s a shame, really, as I’m a massive fan of the Xbox and if it wasn’t for XBLIG, there wouldn’t be a Beat Hazard.
At the moment I’ve got no plans to change the Xbox 360 version. The main reason is the game is now in C++ but the original version for XBLIG is in C#. There’s been way too many changes for me to port back to C#.
I did hear that they might make a C++ version of XNA at some point. If they did this, then I could port Ultra to XBLIG.
IGC: Mainstream music games (Guitar Hero, Rock Band, et al.) have seen their share of troubles in the last year or so, in terms of sales and appeal. Beat Hazard brings with it a sense of innovation and a new direction for the music game. Do you feel that indie games like Beat Hazard represent a renaissance for the music genre or do you consider the Beat Hazard series to be something else entirely?
SH: I feel BH is quite different to Guitar Hero etc. Even though they both use music in gameplay, the game mechanics under that are quite different. But I think in general there is a renaissance in all genres thanks to Indie games. A lot of Indie guys are coming up with awesome game ideas that you would never see from a big studio. And these games are make a massive impact in the games world. And this is all possible due to all the cool Digital Distribution channels that Indie guys can use.
IGC: Finally, take a moment to talk about what’s influenced you as a developer. Having been a gamer for a long time, what are some of your favorite games and how have some of your favorites influenced your work?
SH: Well, going back to the really early days when I played games on my old Atari 800 I just loved the LucasFilm games like Rescue on Fractalus and The Eidolon. I just loved those games. More recently I seem to be playing a lot of online co-op games. It seems I’m not so keen anymore to play single player games. (Maybe that’s down to the fact I work alone – who knows)
In terms of development influence I’m a bit of a scavenger. I see parts of games that I like and try to change them and see how they would work in a different context. I don’t really like to copy things piecemeal (But then again some things work so well you don’t really need to alter them).
IGC: Where does Cold Beam Games go from here? Are there any more updates planned for Beat Hazard Ultra?
SH: At the moment I’m on the tail end of finishing the PS3 version. The Mac version is nearly ready too. iPhone/iPad and Android versions are also in the works!
I’m going to take a break soon but after that I’ve got 2 very cool ideas for new music driven games. One is a twist on Beat Hazard and the other is in a completely different genre. I’m really excited about working on them next year.
IGC: Thank you, Steve Hunt, for talking to us about Beat Hazard Ultra!
Look for Beat Hazard Ultra to arrive on PSN in September. Anyone looking to get their Beat Hazard fix sooner can purchase Beat Hazard on Steam right now. As mentioned, fans who own Macs, iOS, and Android devices will have to wait a little longer. Indie Games Channel will continue to follow the progress of Cold Beam Games and their upcoming titles.
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