these moves to the self-described “bad dancers”
at Harmonix. The choreographers went through
each move, asking the novices to follow along as
the designers watched and noted which moves
they picked up quickly. Using this information, we
crafted four new easy songs, which make up the
first tier of Dance central. Although we succeeded
in making these first songs very approachable,
the difficulty ramp across all songs is not as
smooth as we would have liked.
4} BRAND NEW ROUTINE – UNDERESTIMATING
THE NE W PROCESS. For many years, the process
of licensing and integrating songs into our music
games has been a well-oiled machine. The turnaround time from the moment a song is licensed
to when it’s playable and bug-free in rock BanD is
relatively quick and well-understood internally.
For Dance central, we initially thought we knew
which production practices would work and which
new processes would be needed. We quickly
found out how easily it was to derail an unproven
process and how complicated and dependent all
the steps of bringing a song to completion were.
Unlike rock BanD’s process of licensing, stem
prep, authoring, and testing, Dance central’s
process became licensing, choreographing and
vetting, song editing, difficulty creation, mocap
shooting and cleanup, animation integration, clip
authoring, filter tuning, testing, and a handful
of other steps along the way. Our two-to-three
week-long processes became a two-to-three
month-long process. This new process was
much more fragile than we initially thought. Early
missteps, however small, would ripple through
the months-long pipeline. A single delay in song
licensing or a mocap dancer being out sick for a
day could end up putting an on-disc song at risk
of being cut. With this high wire act performed
by a small team with finite deadlines, we had an
extreme production balancing act on our hands.
Our producers became very adept at shifting
schedules to keep things on track.
It was also easy to underestimate the
physical demands of making a dance game.
Both our choreographers and our QA testers
were constantly being pushed to their physical
limits in order to get their jobs done and stay on
schedule. This physical burden on the testing and
development teams was something we had never
considered when developing previous games.
1 and 2 had selectable prefab characters, they
never spoke, allowing the game to hint at a
narrative context rather than inhabit a developed
story. The rock BanD series has a very loose “rise
to fame” narrative backbone focused on player-created band members, who start as unknowns
and finish as superstars. However, all of this is
presented in a lightweight fashion: characters
don’t speak and are essentially blank slates onto
which players can project their own personality.
For Dance central, the decision was made early
on to create a world inhabited by an ensemble cast
of unique characters. As with our previous rock-focused games, we would keep things simple; any
narrative would be loosely implied and supported
by a lightweight text based player ranking system.
Our characters would have unique personalities,
but these would be communicated through their
dance styles, body language, and fashion sense.
They would not speak.
Quite late in development it became clear
that the decision to mute our characters had
been the wrong one. We reached a point where
the animated mocap sequences that bookend
each song were fleshed out, and featured
our characters doing crazy dance moves and
strutting their stuff. The moves looked killer!
However, with no voice, our characters were
coming across as lifeless puppets. So we made
the decision to add character VO to the game. We
felt that this would bring our characters to life in
ways that the visual cues and animation had not.
In doing this, we underestimated both the risks
and amount of work involved, in large part due to
our inexperience in this area of development.
We kickstarted the process of giving each
of our characters a voice and immediately
encountered a slew of execution hindrances
further compounded by our tight deadlines.
Our staff writer was able to flesh out characters
and turn around quality dialog quickly, but was
not afforded the luxury of time to iterate. We
located a company to secure and record VO
talent, but due to time constraints our choice of
available actors was limited and our opportunity
for pickup recordings and line tweaks was
almost non-existent. We had to roll new code in
to support lip synch animation, and as a result
our already strapped animation department
now had more work thrown onto the pile. Then
there was localization to deal with ... the list of
complications went on and on. The mad scramble
that ensued to resolve these issues and meet our
already aggressive deadline added stress and
distractions to an already taxed team.
GET READy TO GET DOWN
It wasn’t until Dance Central’s reveal at E3 that we
truly understood how our decisions would pay off.
It was an amazing moment to see people engage
with our game for the first time, cast off their
inhibitions and realize that anyone could step
up and shake it. We always knew that this title
would push the Kinect technology to its limits and
we’re incredibly proud to have made a game that
is getting people up off their couches, moving
around and feeling good. In true Harmonix style,
we took on risky work in an unfamiliar space with
a short amount of time, and delivered a game that
fits perfectly within the Harmonix universe.
Lastly, a sincere and heartfelt thank you to
Microsoft and the teams there that worked closely
with us, all of who stepped up and delivered
resources and advice throughout development
that kept us on track and on schedule. Beyond
that, we thank them for creating Kinect itself,
through which we’re bringing new and authentic
experiences to gamers and non-gamers, dancers
Authors include project lead Kasson Crooker, lead
programmer Marc Flury, designer Matt Boch, lead designer
Dean Tate, and programmer Ryan Challinor.
5} IT’S GETTING LATE; LET’S ADD VO AND
NARRATIVE! Nearly all of Harmonix’s games over
the past decade have placed a heavy focus on
creating a deep connection between the player
and the music. Elements that distract from this
have always been given less attention; we’ve
devoted little focus to developing complex
narratives or fleshing out character backgrounds.
Only one of our games, antiGrav, featured
characters that spoke, and while Guitar Hero