Gaming Frequencies: Aaero

Jan 29, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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Under the Radar’s newest column focuses on the many roles that music and sound design play in video games. These are not game reviews, but are intended to shine a light on an aspect of the industry that players can occasionally overlook – but many developers, thankfully, do not. (And whenever we can spotlight a fantastic game soundtrack, all the better!)

Released last year across Steam, Xbox One, and PS4, Aaero is a rhythm rail shooter that combines high speeds, a cool, future-minimalistic aesthetic, and a thumping EDM soundtrack to create an exciting, uniquely synesthetic gaming experience. Given the way that game’s music is so ingrained into Aaero’s design, we felt it was the perfect title to kick off Under the Radar’s new Music in Games Spotlight column.

Explaining Aaero is simple enough. The left stick moves your ship; the right stick, your aim. You have, for the most part, only two responsibilities. Enemies will drift into your path: you need to shoot them down, along with their projectiles. At other points, bright white ribbons appear on the horizon: you’ll need to do your best to follow these with your ship as closely as possible. (After the first couple levels, you’ll be tasked with both at the same time while also avoiding crashing into obstacles.) The music – 15 tracks in the base game, from well-known EDM artists – plays a huge part in the gameplay: ribbons and aliens correspond to elements of the songs. The better you perform, the more of the soundtrack you’ll hear.

It’s the sort of game that rewards dedication. Your first attempts at any level are almost guaranteed to crash and burn. After numerous failures, you’ll start learn patterns and anticipate bass drops. Your skills will improve, and by the time you’ve mastered a level, that piece of the game’s killer electronic soundtrack will be ingrained in your brain, which will send signals to your fingers that correspond to the beats, melodies, or modulation of the music. Once you get good enough at a track, it will almost feel as if you’re the one making the music.

It’s also an incredibly attractive title. Your sleek spacecraft speeds over alien landscapes and through futuristic tunnels at an impressive velocity – the high-contrast colors are especially eye-popping. Boss fights are particularly cool-looking, as you’re taking on humongous, leaping sand worms and metallic, stories-tall spiders. It’s all very stylish.

The team behind Aaero are continuing to add on to the game with expansion packs. The first of these, the 1000 Days Wasted Drum & Bass Pack, dropped just this month. Not only does it bring to the game new ships, but new songs and levels to master. (A second DLC pack is already in the works – you can follow announcements about it on the studio’s Twitter page.)

To mark the occasion, we’ve conducted a Q&A with creative director Paul Norris – one half of Mad Fellows Games, the developer duo behind Aaero – to ask him about how the game came to be, the thought process that goes into the curation of its soundtrack, and to pry into what Aaero’s future may hold.  We’ve also got a handful of game codes to give away – you can find out how to enter to win one after the interview!

Under the Radar: Tell me about the genesis of Aaero. You're a two-man team -- what sent you down the path to making this game?

Paul Norris [creative director, Mad Fellows Games]: Well, myself and Dan had been working in the trenches at Codemasters and later FreeStyleGames/Activison for around 15 years before we finally decided to ‘go indie’ so we could make the games we wanted to make. We started developing Aaero in Jan 2015.

We wanted to make something that took the amazing feeling you get here the gameplay, visuals and music all come together but we wanted to open that up to gamers that normally wouldn’t play a rhythm game. We didn’t want to make another plastic instrument controller to clutter up people’s cupboards and attics. Instead, we looked at a standard Xbox and PS4 controller and asked ‘what does this do best’. This guided us away from emulating musical instruments and towards flying games and twin-stick shooters.

We didn’t want to make just another game where you follow the button prompts to tap along with the music. We wanted the player to have full control of the ship and when they fire their weapons… but we wanted it to all be in time with the music. The controls needed to be immediate and responsive but the action needed to be on beat. It was thinking around this problem that resulted in the first designs for Aaero. Instead of focusing on tapping a rhythm, we instead created ribbons of light for the player to follow that represented elements of the music. These ribbons could be shaped to the melody of a vocal line or the modulation of a filter on a synth. Crucially, by tracing them using the controller, you get a very strong connection to the music.

The player can move and shoot whenever they like and the game will bring everything in time with the music. For example, a player can shoot a barrage of missiles immediately by pressing the trigger. The trajectories of these missiles are adjusted by the game to ensure that they reach and destroy the enemy on the beat.

What we’ve ended up with is something that anyone can play and experience the gameplay, audio and visuals all coming together. It also has harder difficulty modes where the timing and musicality becomes much more critical for the players that want that sort of thing.

Are songs commissioned for the game, or are they all sought out from existing libraries?

Initially I was going to create the music for the game myself. After making a few test tracks, I decided to try throwing some Noisia in to see how well it worked and to try to get an idea what sort of music I should be making. Noisia being as amazing as they are makes it very tough to replace their music with my own and not be a bit underwhelmed. We decided that it was at least worth a shot to get hold of Noisia’s management and see if they would discuss licensing tracks for the game. Fortunately for us they are awesome people and gamers too. Once we had Noisia on board it was much easier to be taken seriously by other labels. We were then approached by a representative from some big labels who, much to our surprise and to their eternal credit, went out of their way to accommodate our pitiful music licensing budget because they believed in the project.

What do you look for in songs? What, in your opinion, makes a track perfect for an Aaero level?

The main this we look for is something that has a strong element we can use to create interesting shaped ribbons to follow. I’ve spent days trawling through music while fiddling with a game controller and imagining how it might play. Obviously, it also has to be a great song in its own right too.

Music-based shooters are typically, at least, indebted to the classic Rez, which broke ground for games of this style. What prior video games were your inspiration for Aaero?

We started developing Aaero more with a list of what we wanted to achieve than any direct inspirations. The ribbon following gameplay was the ‘eureka’ moment and was fun right from the first prototype. The shooting gameplay didn’t come as easily. We’d originally had a completely different way of shooting enemies, it was fine but it didn’t fit the original brief as it require tapping buttons in time with the music. As I redesigned the shooting it became more and more…. ‘Rez-like’. I’m a big fan of Rez but it wasn’t until well into the development of Aaero that we saw the connection. I agonized over if the shooting was too similar to Rez. I wanted Aaero to be its own thing but I also didn’t want to compromise what the game could be just to avoid comparisons to Rez. After all, there’s not many games these days that don’t have at least some cross-over with a previous title. We felt that Aaero had enough originality and identity of its own to justify this. It’s intimidating making a decision that will put an indie project from a couple of scruffy herberts working from the back room of their house in direct comparison to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s beloved and revered, huge budget masterpiece… but that’s where the project was naturally heading. In fact, in my opinion, the title we owe the most to in terms of inspiration is one from 2002 called ‘Gitaroo Man’.

Are the any music-related gameplay tips or advice you can give players? Are there cues we should listen for, or another approach that might help someone improve their game?

Yeah! As I mentioned, there’s a deeper level of gameplay for those that want to get into the musicality. This is what you’ll need for the harder difficulties and also to challenge the top of the leaderboards. The missiles always reach their target on the downbeats. The more direct your missiles are, the more you score. So, if you release the missiles way off beat, they’ll splay out and curve towards the target and not score well. If you hit *just before* the downbeat, a direct straight laser appears that gives you the best scores. From a musical point of view, the ideal time to fire missiles is 1/16th of a beat before the downbeat. The hiss of the missiles is designed to sound like a quick open hi-hat before the explosion. The danger is that if you accidentally hit it a touch later than the beat, it’ll not reach the target until the next beat and you’ll get the worst possible score. It’s a system that causes much controversy for players moving from Normal to Advanced. Some people feel that the ideal timing should be ON the beat… but once you grasp the feel of the offbeat presses, it feels amazing! If in doubt, there are a lot of videos on YouTube of high score runs that are great for getting an idea of what timing to aim for to get the big scores.

You just released a new track expansion pack. What does the future hold for Aaero? Is there a chance we'll see ever DLC set outside the electronic and bass genre?

I really hope so! I’d love to try out more genres of music. We’ve been talking about making a DLC pack that explores genres more. At the moment we’re working on the second DLC pack and, if Aaero finds enough of an audience, maybe we’ll be able to experiment with different music styles after that.

(www.madfellowsgames.com)

***

Under the Radar is excited to have a limited number of codes for Aaero to give away. For a chance to win one for yourself, send an E-mail with the subject “Aaero Giveaway” to austin (at) undertheradarmag.com. In the body of your E-mail, please include which game platform (Xbox, PS4, or Steam) you prefer. The deadline to enter is Friday, February 2nd, 2018, at 12pm EST.



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