Rhythm is in almost everything, and Student IGF finalist Rhythm Doctor has found it in the heart.

Hafiz Azman and Winston Lee of the University of Cambridge have worked on their one-button Rhythm Heaven-like game for the past three years, mostly during holiday vacations. They've spent several hours refining their engine to support a margin of error of a mere few hundredths of a second, which rhythm game fans can begin training for with the browser-based IGF build.

Continuing our ongoing Road to the IGF series, Gamasutra speaks to Hafiz Azman about the musical and medical inspiration for Rhythm Doctor, old prototypes for the project, and the design challenges of being restricted to one button while playing many rhythms.

How did you come up with the gameplay concept?

The main seed of the idea was really 'polyrhythms'. Back in my first year of uni I dabbled in a bit of street dance and music composition for a play. Somewhere in between all the counting of dance steps ('One and two and three and four...') and daydreaming in electromagnetics lectures, the idea came up to have a game in which the main point was to keep track of different rhythms at the same time. I remember trying to explain it to friends:

"So imagine I have quavers on my left hand, right, and like crotchets on my right. And then it goes like, untz untz untz untz... but you need to hit it on the seventh beat of each hand!"

I was clearly out of my mind, convinced it was the greatest idea ever, but it didn't seem to have been done before, and so I set to work and ended up with a prototype.

After making that first prototype and sending it to friends to test, I realized that it was actually much too hard for the average person to comprehend, and that's how the prototype became a late level in the game, and levels were added before that to build the player up to this grand opus I had in mind.

How did you come to pair rhythm and health?

I think it started with realizing the link between the moving beats and the heartbeats on an electrocardiogram. From then on it was just expanding on that idea. I made a mockup using ripped Spelunky sprites (Thanks, Derek!) to show Winston sort of how the layout was going to be. And I let him work his magic; all the offbeat ideas, like the heart cracking to form a chick, the Matrix-style intermission part of the boss being comprised of musical notes instead of data bits, comes from his insistence of always doing something different from what I ask him to do.

crude mockup.png(This was the very first prototype)
first prototype.png(And a crude mockup)


complete.png(And a completed level)

Rhythm games have seldom been restricted to a single button. What have been the pros and cons of your approach?

Playing a melody, a guitar melody say, with buttons that have nothing to do with the pitch has always felt somewhat unnatural to me: it was like, you're playing an eight note ascending run on five buttons, and in the end you can't really mentally map a button to a note! (This doesn't apply to drums of course, in which you do map each button to a sound - playing the drums on Rock Band to Yeah Yeah Yeah's Maps is one of my greatest gaming experiences.)

The want to do away with arbitrary beatmaps is why I wanted it to be one-button. It also lets me put much more emphasis on timing, Rhythm Heaven style. The downside is that we have to be careful to make sure it's not possible for the player to mean to hit on one row but be have the hit be detected on another (since all rows are triggered by the same button).

Playing three different rhythms seems challenging enough in the demo. What lies in the future of Rhythm Doctor?

Oh, plenty of things. Our goal is to have every successive level introduce some new kind of element, and to never break that rule. I first saw this implemented in Matt Thorson's Dim, almost ten years ago now, but it's stuck with me ever since as a great idea. It's a lot more work to do this of course (making the stuttering mechanic and drawing the backgrounds for that one boss level took us a long, long time), but we're confident it'll make a more fun game all round.

As to the actual ideas, it'll be more fun going into it not knowing what to expect, so we'll keep mum for now. All we can say is it will definitely still be restricted to one button!

What development tools did you use?

For programming: FlashDevelop with Chevy Ray's FlashPunk. I used to use Game Maker way, way back when it was just Mark Overmars who was working on it. FlashPunk allowed me to use that same way of thinking in Flash instead.

For audio: FL Studio Mobile for the music, and a bit of recording on my old acoustic guitar.
For graphics: Winston uses GraphicsGale with a good old mouse. He wishes he had a tablet.

How long did you work on your game, and why did you choose your target platforms?

It's been a really on and off thing as we're both university students studying our non-game-related degrees. But we've been working on this during the summer and winter vacations for the past three years now. Flash was chosen primarily for the reach, and also because there weren't many Flash rhythm games out there. We were thinking we could be a pioneer species!

What did you go to school for, if not to make games, and how did that influence your game?

I'm a third-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, studying Engineering. Winston is a second-year undergraduate doing Actuarial Science at the London School of Economics.

Our degrees are fairly unrelated to video game design or this game's development process; they aren't by definition 'creative' kinds of degrees. Rather, much of the inspiration comes from our own backgrounds. I've been playing the piano all my life, up to the point of getting a diploma in it. Winston spent more of his younger days scribbling on school desks rather than listening to teachers. And both of us have always been avid gamers.

The direct influence on the game has come more from studying Music during A-Level. We were taught how to really listen to music in a way I didn't know how to before. We studied Van Morrisson, we studied the Kinks, we studied Monteverdi and Cuban music. It was an eclectic mix but as a result we were introduced to all these snatches of techniques the songwriters would use. A few of these techniques were ones I tried to directly implement in Rhythm Doctor.

In contrast, the Engineering degree here is sort of a combination of many different disciplines, from mechanical to electrical to civil. The cool thing about it is that as students we're taught all these different practical skills, and thanks to that I've just finished fashioning a homemade arcade controller for the exhibition at GDC!

rhythm doctor.jpgWhat indie games have you played in the past 12 months that impressed you and why?

Pause Ahead by Askiisoft. Tower of Heaven was always one of my favorite half-hour games, and was for me a great demonstration of how much quality you can cram into such a short play time. Pause Ahead is no different - it's short and clever and beautiful and it leaves you to discover things for yourself (like the main mechanic!). It's a huge inspiration for Rhythm Doctor, and we're trying to get that quality to playtime ratio as high as possible.