Harmonix made big strides in the dance game genre with the successful Dance Central franchise. At NYU's PRACTICE conference this weekend, Harmonix senior designer Matt Boch took audiences inside the prototyping process and the decisions that were key to the studio's goal: Building a dance experience that made learning fun.
Boch led the six-month prototyping process, and when the game went into production, he helped lead its design and creation. By now he’s been working on the franchise for close to three years.
"We knew that we wanted to make a dance game, and we knew we wanted to have popular music in it," Boch said. The music industry had yielded a number of pop hits with iconic dances, and it seemed like a good time to be working in that space. CEO Alex Rigopoulos had the view that people would enjoy all kinds of dance if the music was strong.
"But there was a huge amount we didn’t know," Boch says.
The first order of business was looking at hardware options – it was in the "post-Wii scramble" for new motion control tech, and Kinect wasn’t yet a known quantity. And there were more unanswered questions, with little idea how to detect movement and not a lot of insight on the potential audience for dance games – not to mention being as yet unsure about how dance would translate in the game.
At first the team decided to use an in-house body tracking system; Kinect came along fortuitously just as Harmonix was beginning production. Over the course of the prototyping process they alternated between a concept of a "dance game" – minimal move vocabulary in simple languages for catch-all audiences, a la Dance Dance Revolution – versus real dance, which requires instruction, a time commitment to learning dance complexity and, importantly, the ability to look at oneself or at an instructor on the screen.
With that understanding, the first Dance Central prototype was underway. It was a simplistic flash-based visual that instructed players to do moves, but it seemed overly simple and uninventive. The team became increasingly interested in a stronger feedback system that would make players feel as if they were actually being taught to dance.
By the third prototype (Justin Timberlake’s "Sexy Back"), Dance Central had a tumbler that called for moves by name while showing how the player was doing at the moves compared to a model on the screen.
"People responded pretty well to this," says Boch, although all playtesting was still being done internally. The team also implemented introducing moves to people in an interactive context before they were supposed to do them on their own, a precursor to the "break it down" mode in the final game.
At this point, the team began to think more about its audience, amid ongoing instructions about how the game was going to take shape. The next prototype featured a dancer on screen whose movements would send gem-images toward the player that would prompt them to repeat.
"People had a good time with it, but we definitely felt like it was not quite dance… we had succeeded in making a tutorial-less experience, but we hadn’t succeeded in making a dance experience," says Boch.
To fully reach for that goal, the team had to let go of the idea that the game could instruct and appeal to people who didn’t dance and wouldn’t otherwise want to try. By embracing the idea that they were making a dance game for people who actively wanted a dance experience and focusing on that, Harmonix could achieve its goal: a game with the kind of complexity that could make people really feel as if they were learning to dance.
An important decision was made along the way: To show dance characters on the screen rather than to shoot for an image of the player, and to provide them feedback through visual icons that were less distracting, so that players could look at the dancing and get feedback about their own all at once.
"We always thought we needed to show someone on screen dancing around so they would know that the system knew they were playing and would be able to see themselves," he says. "But what we found was… if we gave feedback to a HUD-based solution, we gave people the illusion that they were dancing as well as what they saw on the screen."
Production began, and then the fortuitous arrival of Microsoft’s "Project Natal," a perfect fit. The entire Dance Central design team hired professional choreographers to construct the moves – and took classes with them, to learn the way dancers teach so that they could integrate it into the game’s tutorial.
Soon Break it Down mode had begun to take shape, with strong and effective verbal feedback. Yet it was "kind of boring," Boch recalls. That led the team to start thinking about what could make learning more fun, with more excitement and tension.
Audio lead Arthur Inasi's particularly encouraging voice was tapped to create the game’s boombox narrator, and exciting backdrops plus some pacing decisions about move learning started to make it feel much less dry. Boch credits the excellent collaboration from designers and playtesters at Harmonix for the smooth process. But the in-depth numeric playtesting from Microsoft in particular played a role in helping the team realize the game was too hard.
"We decided to take all the worst dancers at Harmonix and bring them down for an emergency dance class," Boch explains, recalling how the choreographers worked hard with the staff to develop a robust set of easy moves that could be used as building blocks.
Players now spend 20 percent of their time in the tutorial mode versus the slim percentage in other games – strong evidence that the team achieved its goal of creating a tutorial that was fun, Boch says.