‘Sound Shapes” Designer Shaw-Han Liem Talks Influences, Gameplay, And Lasers

Sound Shapes is shaping up to be one of Sony’s most anticipated digital games. Blending music and plaforming in an entirely new way, Queasy Games, in conjunction with SCE Santa Monica Studio, is lead by Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem, a team well-versed in making creatively crafted games and music respectively. Co-designer Liem, who is also known to perform on stage as I Am Robot and Proud, took some time to answer our questions about some of the concepts behind the game, as well as what it is like to collaborate with some of the industry’s most well-known artists.

MTV Multiplayer: How has the evolution of game music over the last 30 years inspired both the creation and existence of Sound Shapes?

Shaw-Han Liem: A. The interaction between music and games has always been something that has interested us – there have been certain games (Rez, Electroplankton) that have connected gameplay with music in really engaging ways. We are also really interested in musical hardware and software (Tenori-On, Monome) that uses design to encourage and teach people about music creation. I think Sound Shapes will be part of that conversation, about how music and interactive media (including games) can evolve together.

MTV Multiplayer: How were the in-house levels created? Which came first the music or the designs?

Liem: There was really no set rule. Some levels started with a gameplay concept (“How many interesting ways can we use a climbable rope?”). Some began with a visual idea (“What if there was a pixelated world of asteroids that you had to traverse?”, “How would Superbrothers art fit into a musical level?”). And still others will start with music, or a musical idea (“How do we turn this drumbeat into a playable level?”). These three things constantly influence and inform each other in our process.

MTV Multiplayer: How were the decisions made regarding the Vita’s touch screens in regards to the gameplay?

Liem: We were interested in using the touch screens to make the “music creation” side more immediate and tactile. We really want making a level to feel like you’re playing an instrument – using your fingers and gestures to manipulate something and getting immediate audio/visual feedback.

MTV Multiplayer: Compared to other music oriented games, the gameplay could exist without the musical element (as it’s similar to other platformers out there), so why was this genre decided upon as a good direction for the game?

Liem: We wanted to wrap the music creation concepts in a kind of metaphor that would make it easy to understand for people. So with a platformer, you have a lot of rules that are already understood by the player (I can walk, run and jump, interact with gravity, etc). This allows us to connect game ideas with musical ideas in a pretty unique and friendly way (if I walk across the screen, that is a bar of music, if I grab notes higher on the screen, they play higher on the musical scale, etc). Putting together the idea of a platformer and a musical instrument is a really fun way to think about music and explore making music.

MTV Multiplayer: Sometimes gamers with portable systems find themselves in environments where they can’t listen to their game. Is Sound Shapes enjoyable without the music? Is it even playable?

Liem: Haha. you *can* play it without listening to it, but we really recommend listening! For example, there will be times in the campaign levels where you’ll need to listen to a beat or rhythm in order to predict enemy behaviors.

MTV Multiplayer: What do you think players will enjoy more, the gameplay or the music?

Liem: I don’t think we’ve even answered this question for ourselves. There are days when we have tons of fun coming up with diabolical platforming puzzles, and watching people die and swear over and over, but we’ve also plugged in the game into giant PA speakers, and basically used it just to make beats as a live composition tool. It really can do both of those things in a fun way, but the real magic is when both things are happening at once.

MTV Multiplayer: Do you have any advice for anyone that is thinking of creating their own levels?

Liem: Just try it! Put down a few musical notes, and experiment with entities and how they behave and sound. Try everything! We’re really excited about how the community side of the game is going to shape up. We’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s possible in our campaign levels, so there is so much to do in the community. For example, take a bunch of loops from the Jim Guthrie album, mix in a bunch of stuff from the Deadmau5 album, slow the whole song way down, or set the pitch to super high and see what crazy sounds you’ll get. And add a ton lasers. Always a ton of lasers.

MTV Multiplayer: What artists would be your dream get?

Liem: There are so many people that we’d love to work with and I think Sound Shapes can be a cool platform for any visual artist or musician that is interested in letting their fans remix and interact with their music in that way. It is also a pretty cool way to allow musicians and visual artists to collaborate with each other (as we did for example with pixeljam and deadmau5). The list is too long to get into, but rest assured we’ll be bothering everyone we can think of in the near future!

MTV Multiplayer: Did any of the musician-designed levels need touching up once they were handed off?

Liem: We worked with the musicians throughout the level creation process, so there weren’t any huge issues. It was a two-way street as well: we showed them how the system works and how we expect people to use it, but then a musician will come back to us and say, “Hey what if this entity behaved this way? What if the game could slice the loop in this way?” The game/music system evolved every time we interacted with a musician because we were always trying to find new ways for it to make cool noise.

MTV Multiplayer:  There is a lot of buzz about Sound Shapes being a killer app for the Vita. Why do you think this game may have crossover appeal to bring new players to the platform?

Liem: By being a musical instrument and a platforming game, the game is living in two worlds, so naturally it will appeal to a lot of people that thought “hey, I love games, but I never thought I would write a song,” or “I’m into making beats, but never tried making a game before.” It has the potential to give people a unique experience, and we’ve been really lucky that people have gotten excited about the idea and encouraged us during our process. We can’t wait for the game to come out and for people to give it a try.

PlayStaion 3 and PS Vita owners will be able to get their hands on Sound Shapes later this summer when it hits the PlayStation Store on August 7, for $14.99.

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