Of the many PlayStation VR games to release last year, one particular title stood out – Drool’s Thumper, a fast-paced rhythmic racer with a daunting soundtrack, sleek visuals and a sense of endless danger. It wasn’t just VR that benefitted – Thumper saw a strong reception on PC, winning over several critics and cementing Drool as a developer to watch out for.
GamingBolt spoke to co-creator Marc Flury, who also works as a programmer and designer at Drool, about the seven year development journey that was Thumper.
"The camera’s field of view also has a big influence over the sense of speed. A wider angle has the effect of making space feel deeper, so moving into that deeper space feels faster."
With all the extremely hyped releases for PlayStation VR, Thumper suddenly came out of nowhere and bedazzled everyone. How long did it take to make Thumper a reality?
It took us seven years to make Thumper. It was a side project at first, but we spent years just making our own engine. And actually, Thumper wasn’t a VR game at all at first. The opportunity to release it alongside PS VR was a happy accident.
What inspired you to create the game? Did other titles in the genre like Audiosurf play a role? How did you ultimately evolve into what Thumper became?
Brian (my co-developer) and I started exploring how a music game might work if it was stripped down and simple. A game where the gameplay and actions seem like real physical sound effects in the world. Of course other rhythm games influenced us, but we wanted to avoid repeating the typical genre tropes. We wanted to make something that was an intense, overwhelming experience and not just another music game.
On the PlayStation VR especially, how much effort was put into capturing that sense of speed? How is this enhanced on PS4 Pro?
Creating a sense of speed involves a lot of different elements working together. First, we made the main character (a space beetle) move as fast as possible while keeping all of the gameplay information legible. Since we built a custom system for generating the path by instancing a string of contiguous slices, we could elongate each slice and tune the distance traveled over a unit of time by tweaking a single variable (without disrupting the beat grid).
The camera’s field of view also has a big influence over the sense of speed. A wider angle has the effect of making space feel deeper, so moving into that deeper space feels faster. Things like camera shake, radial blur, motion streaks and making the beetle itself vibrate are also crucial.
The higher resolution Pro enables helps the game world feel more vivid and clear. That indirectly helps the sense of speed a bit.
"I don’t know if PS4 Pro will be a runaway success, but it probably doesn’t need to be since Sony is being careful to avoid fracturing their user base."
How has the reception been to the game from the general consumer base?
We’re happy with it. After so many years, it’s a relief to know the game found an audience. We’ll be more confident about whatever we do next.
Thumper‘s speed and addictive gameplay has been celebrated as much as the engaging soundtrack. What were the goals of the soundtrack and what went into its creation throughout production?
Brian created the whole soundtrack. At a high level, we just wanted something that fit the gameplay and the dark vibe of the visuals. The end result was the product of trying a million different things and seeing what felt right. It was inspired by a lot of different musicians and albums, but the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack was something that definitely influenced Brian.
What other graphical features does Thumper include aside from 4K resolution on PS4 Pro?
In traditional (2D) mode, increased resolution is the only benefit. We think the game looks great in native 4K and it’s cool that the Pro has enough muscle to pull it off.
How does PS4 Pro enhance the VR quality of Thumper when working with PlayStation VR?
VR rendering relies on supersampling and high-quality anti-aliasing to look good and feel immersive. With Pro, we were able to boost the quality of both, so the game looks clearer and more “present” in VR.
"We’re listening to everyone that’s interested in playing the game on other platforms."
What are your thoughts on the potential of PS4 Pro, especially in the long-term when it comes to such enhanced consoles?
I’m not great at predicting such things. As a developer, I like more power and our game is a little cooler on Pro. As a business strategy, it’s pretty conservative and I don’t think it’s much different than how consoles have been redesigned or “slimmed down” in the past. I don’t know if Pro will be a runaway success, but it probably doesn’t need to be since Sony is being careful to avoid fracturing their user base.
What are your thoughts on the overall direction of the franchise at this point? Do you see multiple sequels in the future or possible expansions?
We’re happy with the game we made and we hope that if feels like a coherent and complete experience. While we are working on future updates and content, we’ll only do that as long as it’s interesting and makes sense artistically. Before too long, we’ll put Thumper behind us and do something new.
Is there any possibility of focusing exclusively on the PS4 Pro in the coming years especially as the PS4 becomes older?
We have no idea at the moment. Whether that is even possible is up to Sony. I think they it’s likely they’ll never allow it.
Will Thumper ever release for Xbox One in the future?
We don’t have plans at this time, but we’re listening to everyone that’s interested in playing the game on other platforms.
In a recent interview, Mark Cerny, the lead engineer of the PlayStation 4 Pro claimed that converting a base PS4 game to PS4 Pro version is just 0.2 Or 0.3% of the overall effort. What is your take on this? Do you think that the extra work required to develop an additional Pro version is actually bigger than the number quoted?
It’s hard to quantify, but it’s not too much work. We were lucky because we could afford native 4K, so all I had to do was change some numbers. I didn’t spend time implementing any of the more sophisticated techniques other games use to approximate 4K resolution (e.g. 4K checkerboard).
"Thumper is just one SKU. Sony requires every game to support both Pro and normal PS4. It’s more work, but it’s nothing new."
AAA game development isn’t easy. What is your take on developing for two SKUs instead of the usual one? Developing for the Pro version obviously means more testing and QA resulting into more dev costs. Do you think that an incremental console is a good move by Sony especially given that very small market of 4K TVs?
Thumper is just one SKU. Sony requires every game to support both Pro and normal PS4. It’s more work, but it’s nothing new. Every PC game has a much more complex set of hardware configurations to support. I’m not sure if it’s good move, but an upgraded option for “enthusiasts” makes sense to me. As I mentioned, I think it’s a pretty conservative move.
Sony are promising an advanced work distributor in PS4 Pro along with new Polaris features that are going to debut alongside the console (like Delta colour compression). What is your take on these features and do you have plans to take advantage of them?
We designed the visual look of Thumper around linear color spaces (our engine doesn’t use HDR of any kind), so we’re not up on the latest trends. But it all looks cool and it’s likely our next game will take advantage of this tech.
The Pro still has a development challenge. Its CPU is still pretty archaic…how is the development working around this problem given that the engine is CPU bound?
Well, Thumper isn’t CPU bound and most of the work happens on just one of the PS4’s six available cores. Every game is different, but it’s clear that the Pro was designed with a specific set of GPU-based enhancements in mind (4K rendering and improved VR).