Music games have become increasingly experimental and inventive in recent years, driven by a surge in indie game developers who have focused the genre away from titles like Guitar Hero and towards more intricate and complex mechanics. Of course, music games have always fostered a more experimental approach, happy to mix and match genres like in Otocky, which as early as 1987 was integrating music-making into a shoot 'em up.
The latest addition to this canon is new game from Berlin-based indie studio 2Beats. Born from 1990s Zürich where "cyberpunk, Paul Bowles, PlayStation, Cthulhu, BBSs, Aleister Crowley, AD&D, Robert Anton Wilson, and Japanese game culture would merge into a potent cocktail" the company was founded by friends Samim Winiger, a musician, and Marc Lauper, a 3D artist.
It was while hanging out in the back room of a club called Neverwhere at this time that they learned that "play can and should be mind-expanding, improvised, and sometimes even dangerous." After designing pen and paper worlds as teenagers, and having both spent time harnessing their separate skills in the music and advertising and design industries, creating computer games was a long-held desire and they decided to take the plunge.
And so, after Winiger had enough of being a musician (even though he had a global hit with "Heater" which became the theme music for Euro 2008—"a bizarre exercise" he says) and Lauper didn't manage to live up to his ambition of becoming a professional inventor ("My hero was Gyro Gearloose") the pair, inspired by the efforts and buzz surrounding the indie game scene, formed 2Beats in 2011. Their remit: to create "mind-expanding, artistic games for broad audiences, focusing on players creativity while avoiding traditional mechanics like violence."
Since then they've been developing a music game called MokMok—among other things—which aims to bring ideas of synesthesia—seeing color as sound, taste as texture, etc—together with the world of user-generated content. In a stunning-looking environment, "Wow. Daft Punk the video game" says one YouTube comment, they've created a gaming adventure where you interact with characters, "Moks", which are living musical instruments. The Moks are split into different "flavors"—Beat, Wind, and String—with the creatures in these having different functions like kick drums or hihats. Different sounding Moks look differently—hihats are thin, bass drums are fat—with different Moks from different lands each having different musical styles. So the game becomes an immersive environment, one giant musical instrument, where players interact with music through the characters, and the narrative is evoked through the sounds and atmosphere these create.
Equally important is the range of composition tools (above) where players can create and share music and collaborate together and jam in real-time—music created with these tools can then be used to customize the single player mode.
We spoke with the pair over email to find out more about MokMok and why indie gaming is the medium that matters.
What made you want to start up an indie studio?
Samim Winiger: At 2Beats we deeply believe games are the primary medium for storytelling and entertainment in the 21st century. Right now we are in the early days. It's remotely comparable with cinema in the 1930s where mass adoption of audio and color was just emerging and there was a tremendous excitement and sense of discovery.
The rise of massive online developer communities, cheap off the shelf game technology and direct to player distribution channels, were the missing pieces that finally gave us the confidence to quit our jobs and dive into the jungle full time. Having an ongoing, two way relationship with audiences and participating in the truly global, vibrant development scene, make us smile every day.
Which aspects of music are you hoping to explore?
It was in Berlin that I discovered that the process of producing and performing electronic music is essentially the same process as developing and playing a game: rhythmically pushing buttons on a drum computer is reminiscent of a Super Mario Bros. level. Musical structures and buildups seemingly modeled after a WipeOut race track. Music software hacks use very similar tools used in game development. Screaming audiences resemble achievements and level ups.
In the music world I found myself gravitating the most toward things like "networked interactive creativity", "user generated content" or "interactive music". All topics that translate wonderfully into the game world. Music, in a sense, is becoming a substrate of games one could say.
Are there similarities between gaming and playing music live?
In English and a bunch of other languages they say "to play a game..." and "to play music..."—the connection is right there in the language. Both art forms share a sense of improvisation and playfulness at the core.
When I was performing music in front of 10,000 people at a festival, from time to time I would forget what to play or do next due to the pressure. In those moments intuition took over and saved me from failure. This is when magic happens. The closest I've ever come to that feeling off stage, was playing multiplayer games with friends where you are constantly challenged to rethink your approach and go with the flow.
One of the aims with MokMok is to provoke exactly these kinds of moments and enable a broader audience to experience the thrill of playful improvisation. Fundamentally games should be at the core of every good live stage show. The current non-integrated approach with visuals and music coming from different sources is anachronistic. Signs of this merger are clearly visible in Korea, where videogame events are now bigger than any concert.
How did the concept for MokMok come about?
We have been fascinated with the rise of user generated content in games for some time. Titles like Little Big Planet or Minecraft have rapidly developed into giant creative spaces with millions of players contributing tiny bits of content—ad-hoc collaboration on a scale never seen before. These platforms are all of a primarily visual nature though—we were searching for something similar in the music video game space.
Another long held passion of ours has been synesthesia—or WYHIWYS ("what you hear is what you see"). You see this trend playing out nicely in the motion graphics world where audio reactive stuff has taken over. Unfortunately we could not find many interactive projects that actively tried to invoke synesthesia, so this became another cornerstone of MokMok.
Lastly we were left with a classic problem of user generated environments: curation. Mid-production we decided adding a single player adventure was going to be key, in order to set "tone" for MokMok's multiplayer music community. We learned a lot from titles like Journey on the PS3 on how to design an adventure without using traditional reward/punishment mechanics. After much experimentation we've finally arrived at a place where the gameplay is highly engaging and every player action has a clear musical reaction. It's a mysterious P-Funk electro space opera, sung by crazy creatures.
And how will the game work? It looks like there's a discovery mode as well as music creation mode.
"MokJam" is our multiplayer jam mode. This is a very free environment where you can meet with up to 16 players players online and play, create, and share music. We're offering a suite of simple to use but powerful in-game composition tools.
The “MokBrain” lets you compose beats and melodies. “MokSound” let's you browse freesound.org and discover over a million free sounds. The “MokPedia” lets you share your songs and discover other players creations. Additionally you can use your microphone to tap in new beats or use an external midi keyboard for ultimate control. This is what makes MokMok not a toy, but a full fledged musical instrument.
"MokAdventure" is our highly crafted single player experience, where we make the entire world into one big musical instrument which you play, without realizing it. Here practically every action has an effect on the music. A Mok's music changes if you make him angry, the vegetation pumps in the rhythm of the music, the ocean's creatures accompanies you with music.
Will the gameplay be an open world style?
Not open world in the sense of a GTA. That is simple not possible with a small team. Open world though in the sense of YouTube, where the steady flow of new content gives users a sense of space. Our “MokWorld” feature enables players to save, share and explore entire customized worlds which invokes a sense of an infinite world.
How is MokMok different to the music creation games currently out there?
The legacy of previous music games of course is great. Some of our favorite past titles include Rez, PaRappa The Rapper, Sound Shapes, and Electroplankton. Nonetheless the genre still seems overly associated with titles like Guitar Hero or Wii Music. Those things, as fun as they might be, are gimmicky and dexterity based. The recent revival in indie music games shows us the way forward: titles like Sound Shapes or FRACT OSC are fascinating.
What makes MokMok unique is that for the first time we're offering a highly integrated, powerful music editor—again it's not a toy but an instrument. The ability to meet and jam with your friends in real time is immensely powerful. We've observed sessions where five people jam on a nice hip hop (or MokHop as we like to call it) beat for 30 mins and then competing against a group of other players who were jamming on a jazz song. It's ten times more interesting and dynamic than a DJ mix.
The graphics look great. How did you decide on the aesthetic?
Marc Lauper: One of the particular challenges I faced was how to visualize an inherently acoustical experience into a visual sensation. A key design principle for the creatures has been minimalism. Expressing a variety of sound types and emotions while still keeping the design simple, was extremely challenging. The visual associations people have with sounds are very personal and vary greatly. There was a great deal of iterative experimentation to finally arrive at a creatively satisfying place. At one of the early alpha playtest sessions, we heard from a player “Hey, these things all look like giant dicks”—I knew we were on the right track.
As for the design of the world, I aimed for a slightly toonish, yet painterly look. One of the main themes I had in mind for MokMok was "daybright night". To create the world's mood and atmosphere, I established a dim general lighting scheme, contrasting with brighter, complimentary colored hotspots.
The highly musical nature of the game play required very carefully planned level designs. Often we were trying to design a musical build up, making the level design an integral part of the composition. How long you have to walk until the next musical instrument joins the party or where a crescendo moment unfolds has enormous impact on the musical score.
MokMok is due for release on PC, Mac, Linux in fall 2013. www.mokmok.com