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Hi-Fi Rush director reveals the secret to making a great music game

I’ve never played a rhythm game that keeps me on beat as well as Hi-Fi Rush. While I’m a musically inclined person who fronts his own band, even I have trouble keeping time in music games. I’ll inevitably start to drag behind notes and then speed up too much to overcompensate. Sometimes I lose the music altogether and need to stop clicking entirely just to rediscover the beat. But in Hi-Fi Rush, I always feel like I’m completely locked in as I attack, dodge, and zip to the sound of early 2000s alt-rock.

That’s no accident. For Game Director John Johanas and a small development team within Tango Gameworks, “accessibility” was a keyword when embarking on the unique passion project. Johanas knew that rhythm isn’t something that comes naturally to every player, putting a natural barrier to entry over any game that requires precise beat-matching and button timing. If Hi-Fi Rush was going to be a fun and welcoming experience for a wider range of players, it would require a more flexible approach to design.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Johanas explained the ins and outs of Hi-Fi Rush’s musical gameplay. While many of its tricks are immediately visible to players when they fire it up, others function like a background instrument that you might not be able to pick out on a casual listen but would notice if it was removed from the mix. That makes for a more user-friendly rhythm game that makes sure even its least musical players can still keep up with the beat.

Building a rockstar fantasy

When Johanas originally dreamed up the basic premise of Hi-Fi Rush, his goal was to bring the “kinetic energy of live performance” to a Dreamcast-style action game. A musician himself, Johanas wanted to capture the highs and lows of that experience and place them into a succinct experience that wouldn’t overstay its welcome. He compares the game to a good 10- to 12-track album where every song is high-quality and nothing drags down the run time (“all killer, no filler” as he describes it). Johanas would pitch the project to Bethesda after Tango Gameworks wrapped production on The Evil Within 2 and spend a year hammering out the basics with a single programmer before expanding the team to around 20 members.

Chai points a finger gun at a robot in Hi-Fi Rush.
Xbox Game Studios

Though there has been no shortage of rhythm-action games with similar ambitions, Johanas found that nothing out at the time quite matched his vision. That was due to a music-first approach that could sometimes come at the expense of gameplay.

“I was particularly focused on the 3D action brawler feel,” Johanas tells Digital Trends. “I know that there’s lots of games where you’re tied to a track, like the music is the main point. We didn’t like the idea of you being very constricted by the music. We need you to feel like the music is part of the game and it’s almost lifting you up and making you feel better. And we never really found that in a game.”

As the project became a reality, the team would start to realize the challenges of making an action game that encourages players to battle in time with music. The more complicated the rhythmic patterns, the more Tango would risk alienating players. To solve that, Johanas would have to take a step back from his musician mindset and think about what an average, less musically-inclined player might be capable of: clapping along to the music.

“When we started, the natural tendency is to go for super high-level rhythm aspects,” Johanas says. “What if it was triplets and you do these quarter note combos? I almost had to pull back because I’m more familiar with music, so you feel like you want to make it more complicated, but that accessibility was always the main thing we had to remind ourselves of. So we say, what is the thing that anyone can do? It’s probably just pressing a button to the beat. Even the Y attack, which has a beat in the middle, was tricky for some people to handle.”

We were looking at a way to incorporate music that was accessible, yet a positive game loop that made you feel the rock star fantasy.

Creating an easy-to-grasp attack system was only one piece of the puzzle, though. The team would extend that thinking to every aspect of the game, pushing back against rules established in other popular rhythm-action hybrids. Johanas specifically cites Crypt of the Necrodancer as a game that guided the project, though he notes that even its simple beat-matching setup felt a little too restrictive for the broader audience he hoped to reach.

“We looked at Crypt of the Necrodancer, which is an awesome game, but it does punish you,” he says. “If you’re not playing to the beat, you’ll stop or you can’t attack. We saw some people just couldn’t play that game if they didn’t have the ability to do that. Some people love that game, and I thought it was great too, but I didn’t want to isolate people who didn’t have that ability. So we were looking at a way to incorporate music that was accessible, yet a positive game loop that made you feel the rock star fantasy.”

Accessible design

The word accessible comes up frequently during our discussion, though not in the context of optional settings tucked away in menus. Rather, the team wanted to keep that idea at the center of its core design process. Reducing the punishment for going off-beat would help take down those barriers, though the goal was still ultimately to make a combat system that encouraged players to stay on beat.

The right way to do accessibility was actually making a lot of accessibility …

The team would have to get clever if it was going to make that experience satisfying at scale. In the final game, there’s no shortage of visual and audio cues that act as natural metronomes. Objects in the environments sway in time with the music, UI pulses when players hit a button at the right time, and there’s even an optional beat-matching interface that can be toggled on or off to offer a more traditional guided experience. The wealth of indicators all builds towards the same goal, giving players as many cues to latch onto as possible.

“Early on, we thought there was one solution for understanding where the music was,” Johanas says. “The more people we internally got to play, the more we found that people see beats in different ways, so we knew that we had to go all out in that sense. Even in the first UI, we had that it was going to the beat and would react if you pressed it correctly. And then we look at how else we could support this. With 808 on your shoulder, some people found that they played the whole game and didn’t realize the cat was there. But some people were like, ‘because of that I was able to land all these combos.’ That helped us realize that there’s no correct answer. We had to think of lots of different things that some people may pick up, some people will not pick up.”

“The right way to do accessibility was actually making a lot of accessibility, and almost more than necessary because there’re so many ways to interpret the melody.”

Chai slashes a robot in Hi-Fi Rush.

While the team spent time focusing on how to make a more user-friendly music game, it inadvertently demystified the character-action genre in the process too. Hi-Fi Rush isn’t too dissimilar to a game like Devil May Cry, giving players tons of combos to memorize and execute. From a personal perspective, I found it was much easier to keep track of Hi-Fi Rush’s different attack strings, whereas I’d usually resign myself to button-mashing in something like Bayonetta 3. Johanas believes that the rhythmic aspect of Hi-Fi Rush helps unlock some of the high-level skill required to fully master those games.

“We were thinking of more technical action games,” he says. “We always found that we were never able to actually remember the combos. You’d find one or two that you’d get into the groove of and you’d just use those for the game. They’re almost made for those who really want to memorize a fighting game level of putting in the effort. I thought that by distilling it to the beat, it was almost easier for people to understand the concepts that were in those games. In some of them, you wait a little bit to diverge to another combo set. Here, you wait one beat, and that’s clear, and then another combo will start. And then there’s a natural rhythm once you’re used to the combos of saying X! Y! X X! You sort of have these rhythms in your head that help you with that.”

Build up

Though many of Hi-Fi Rush’s nuances are noticeable when playing it, others are more invisible to the player. When Johanas lays out the specifics of song choice, he notes that each piece of music chosen or composed for the game lands in a 130- to 160-beats-per-minute sweet spot. Bosses are specifically timed to musical tracks, with HP bars big enough to make sure the accompanying song can get all its lyrics in before switching to the next phase. Though the most intricate revelation comes when Johanas breaks down its approach to pacing.

“Going from fight to fight to fight, you get burned out quickly,” he says. “Just like a song, you want to have ups and downs. We actually literally wrote out the level design in these bar graphs, like a song: intro, verse, and then it goes up to a chorus. The chorus would be the fights but we almost literally bring you up. A lot of the platforming is vertical because we want to lead you into the chorus.”

Details like that are what make Hi-Fi Rush such a benchmark for the rhythm genre. It doesn’t just slap a good Spotify playlist on and reduce gameplay to a metronome simulator. Every aspect of it has been meticulously crafted to make players feel like they’re performing with a band, not just watching one. That’s made possible through user-friendly design that aims to reduce the genre’s inherent skill ceiling and help players sink into its world’s natural rhythm. If you’re worried you’ll lose the beat, don’t worry; it’ll always find you.

Hi-Fi Rush is available now on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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