Today marks the apex of a long journey exploring the boundaries of what a strategy game can be. We are bringing our upcoming funky title Backbeat to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. When we started working on the first prototype in the spring of 2020, I knew there was a lot of potential in the project. It was our tiny indie studio’s second title, and we wanted to add some of the things that were cut from our first game, Hexagroove: Tactical DJ — an onboarding system to introduce our mechanics slowly over the course of the game, a story full of colorful characters, and an experience that feels as good as it sounds. Now refining our release candidate for launch this winter, I’m thrilled to have all those things possible on PlayStation.
When we started designing the foundation for Backbeat, we wanted to carry over some principles from Hexagroove and introduce new ones as well. The game fuses the spatial challenges of a sokoban-style game along with the squad-based resource management of a stealth strategy title. Your challenge is to move a band of four characters through a series of isometric maps within a limited number of turns. How you spend those turns and which paths you choose affect a number of shared resources which grow and shrink over the course of the level. Each of the characters’ timelines are controlled separately but are interdependent. Opening doors and deflecting enemies must be done for the benefit of all four or they will preclude your squad’s successful strut to the stage.
To contrast with the synth-fueled EDM soundtrack of Hexagroove, Backbeat is built on a vast pool of live music riffs, improvisations, and solos recorded from the finest funk masters in Stockholm. Changing direction in the map, interacting with doors, or blowing enemies away with a mighty saxophone all enqueue unique audio clips which are played back together in sequence upon completing a level. This gives your unique solution its own personalized victory song. Every strum, bang, and toot sounded so good I just had to find a way to help them shine extra bright. After experimenting with the dev kit, I realized the PlayStation 5’s DualSense wireless controller was the perfect instrument to back up our studio musicians.
I started by working with our composer Pete Fraser to bring a strong musical element to the most interactive parts of Backbeat: when you crash into something, warp through an oncoming car, manipulate time… I feel these brief moments of interaction, when you push a button and immediately something succeeds (or fails), these instants should all be gratifying… and musical! I copied bursts of chords, fanfares, strums, and drum hits all sampled from the studio musicians and fed them into the DualSense controller authoring tools to produce a haptic, musical harmony that reinforces the sound effects used at the same points in the game. Next, I adjust the vibrations using a stack of filters, amplifiers and equalizers to draw attention to the frequencies that we associate these kinds of flourishes with. After these small adjustments the DualSense controller plays a perfect chorus in time with the music and effects echoing from your hi-fi or headphones.
Great music is only part of the experience I wanted to deliver in Backbeat. The game takes place in 1995, paying homage to the great 32-bit arcade and console games I grew up with in smoky restaurant backrooms and our family den. We worked this in to not only the retro low poly style of our characters and environments, but the iconography and sound effects as well. Time manipulation is the key to understanding the core of Backbeat’s challenge, so we embraced analog technology and integrated sampled video cassette tape skeuomorphism into the UI and feedback. When you change characters, the game fast-forwards or rewinds to the point of time the active character has advanced to. This is accompanied with audio-visual tape distortion, and holding the rewind button in the game loops cassette samples including a speed up and slow down at every interaction. This is another fantastic place to use DualSense to increase the immersion and visceral nostalgia we’re going for in Backbeat. Hold down the circle button and commune with the soothing vibration of DualSense controller, built directly from those chunky, white, rotating spools.
Today we’re bringing you a small taste of the full experience that is soon to come to PlayStation. I hope you feel some good vibes from this short trip through some of the first levels of Backbeat, and follow along as we approach the crescendo of our studio’s sophomore title. Enjoy the show, you’re part of it.
Backbeat Demo Tape is available today on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.