Five design learnings from comparing Beat Saber to its competition

Five design learnings from comparing Beat Saber to its competition

This post is a brief revisit to the topic of my earlier essay on rhythm games for Virtual Reality. This piece was triggered by the ‘early access’ release of Audica, a new VR rhythm game from Harmonix, a studio who basically reinvented and owned the rhythm game genre on video game consoles for years. They rode on the tremendous success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which perfected the formula the studio had previously explored with titles like Frequency and Amplitude.

Harmonix had done a music-themed title for mobile VR devices, SingSpace, which was a karaoke game, but Audica was going to be the real deal. Therefore, expectations for Audica were high. Beat Games, and their hugely successful Beat Saber, had conquered the throne in the genre, and now Harmonix would take it back with Audica, or at least challenge for it. I think it’s reasonable to assume this been the minimum goal for the project, right? Hence the comparison is justifiable.

Well, Audica will not surpass Beat Saber. It’s not that Audica is bad, it’s actually quite good, and there is a lot of polish that tells about the great craft(wo)manship residing at Harmonix. However, the designers at Harmonix have made a number of choices that I believe will keep Audica as a niche title.

Audica is a combination of:

My take is that folks at Harmonix have not quite identified the details that make Beat Saber’s gameplay design shine — or, the stakeholders at the studio have insisted on keeping some of the proven design from the past, which doesn’t work to their advantage in VR as well as it did for “flat screen” games.

Let’s look at these choices in detail, because they can be generalised, to an extent, into general design learnings in the domain of ‘immersive’. I argue that the following five design details explain why Audica is not able to win many Beat Saber players’ hearts over:

The simplest task Audica asks its players to do is to aim, using your hands (as laser pistols) at a target appearing in space, roughly in your field of view in front of you, and time your shot to a contracting circle closing at the bullseye of the target, according to the beat of the song. A gif I made to illustrate this:

This is a proven rhythm game mechanic lifted from a game series for Nintendo DS handhelds, originated with Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and its sequels, known in the west as Elite Beat Agents. In order to bring it to VR, it had to be adapted from the flat screen and its stylus interface to physical 3D space, i.e. ‘spatialised’ for VR. In the process, playing Audica slightly resembles Skeet (the sport), i.e. observing space before you and reacting at things appearing on it by shooting at them.

This Harmonix has done adequately, embellished it with impressive visual effects, and added some variety through a few variations to the basic mechanics, as evident from the clip above. The question is, was adapting this mechanic the correct design choice in a market dominated by Beat Saber?

The answer is that the EBA mechanic is not the root of the problem, but it does mean that Audica can go only so far in truly spatialising the design, i.e. making the core mechanic make use of the 3D space around the player. Visually and spatially, it’s hard to see how those targets could ‘come at you’ in a way that makes the game fully embrace the space around the player. The mechanic has introduced a constraint that influences a number of other gameplay aspects, and not always in a positive fashion.

The more advanced targets in Audica do ask the player to make e.g. diagonal hand movement when hitting them, but this hand movement follows (literally) a dotted line in a curved plane in front of you. It’s as if using lightsabers’ tips to point at a 2D plane in front of you, rather than slicing freely while targeting objects at varying distances from you.

More on performative aspects later with my third point.

In Audica, your ‘tools’ with which to execute the mechanics are pistols and their ‘bullets’. Therefore, the margin of error regarding timing, and the target’s physical relation to your body are different to Beat Saber, where the lightsabers function as extensions of your limbs.

In Beat Saber, you can still manage a hit at the very last fraction of a second, very close to your body, because the cubes are coming at you, and you can even make a correction to the direction and angle at the very last moment by a slight adjustment of your wrist. Furthermore, you do not need to look at the cube to do this.

In Audica, when you press the trigger, that’s it. The margin of error exists as a combination of your initial aim before pressing the trigger, and then the timing of pressing the trigger.

These two margins of error combine in a way that one might rule out the other: miss the timing or the aim, and you miss the target. No last millisecond correction is possible, once you’ve sent your shot away, and you always have to look at the target. Result: less satisfying moments resulting from keeping your combo going because of that correction; more cognitive load in trying to achieve both goals: aim and timing.

Furthermore, the height and direction of the targets have more variables; at least for a newbie, predicting where they appear is rather random — whereas in Beat Saber you learn the possible areas of appearance, constrained by the track, quite quickly, and hence there are less of these potential points of attention: less cognitive energy is spent in anticipation.

For me at least, these aspects equal a considerably steeper learning curve. With Beat Saber, I only really fell in love with the game once I started to get to grips with the hard level, and that took some effort. With Audica, the perceived effort in my mind in reaching similar skill level feels overwhelming. At times I get a taste of this when I hit a good sequence, but then one miss sets me back and makes me feel bad as the song sounds worse (see point 5. below why Beat Saber does not do this).

In my rhythm games essay, I mention research regarding the ‘energising’ potential of body postures and poses, and how Beat Saber and other VR games that emphasise embodiment tap into this. Beat Saber does this particularly well with the performative aspects of wielding a lightsaber, and the associated cultural meanings such wielding carries with it.

While academics still debate whether e.g. so-called power posing has emotional effects and behavioral consequences, the notion of embodied cognition does imply that what we do with our bodies affects our mind; we think with our body as well.

Consequently, performative poses in rhythm games can be argued to amplify the already positive emotions we gain from successful sequences of slicing cubes or shooting targets to the beat. Wielding lightsabers as the only ‘verb’ in a game has good chances of drawing from that energising potential, again when tied with the cool-factor of make-believe Jedi Knight-esque activity. Audica has tried to make Skeet as cool as possible, with solid audio and visual effects, but it’s no lightsabers.

(I am not discussing the so-called melee objects in Audica here, because they seem just an afterthought in addressing the space-embodiment problem. Maybe this is just a personal thing, but to me, they are just annoying, like swatting away flies while you try to focus on something important.)

In Beat Saber, the objects are always the same, it’s the angle and posture you are meant to hit them that changes. This means that embodied gameplay becomes less about hitting the beats, as in Audica, but also about the transitions from one target to another.

In terms of human motor skills, Audica asks us to do more discrete movements as sudden shifts of attention from one target on one side of the space to another target on the other. Beat Saber asks us to perform continuous movements, implied by the lightsabers and the cubes coming at us, and therefore the transitions between slicing one cube and the next feel continuous, rather than points in space which we have to dart to with our gaze.

Consequently, the craft of ‘level’ or track design in Beat Saber, in my view, is at its best in enabling coordinated transitions from one pose to another in a satisfying way, in line with not just the beat, but the melody of the song. This also feeds into why Beat Saber has a natural feel of exercise.

I find that Audica’s shooting pose is not only less varied but also less energising and performative; even if they try to bring variety to it with the chained targets, etc, the system does not enable to design for the joy from transitions in a similar way than Beat Saber.

Hence, in Audica the marriage of gameplay and audio feel less organic. (Maybe this is true on the higher levels of difficulty and skill, please let me know!)

One aspect of the Harmonix rhythm game formula Audica retains is the ‘deterioration’ of the song if you miss a beat. A track in the song takes a ‘hit’ by being decreased in volume or applied a filter, which makes the song sound wrong — until you manage to ‘restore’ it by subsequent successful hits.

This became a de-facto design feature in the Harmonix portfolio for giving negative feedback to the player, and an incentive to get back on track. This was fine when it was a twitch in your brain and your thumb, but when the active agent is your whole body, I find that it becomes too much of a negative. It takes away from the fun of the game; it reduces the cues for you to dance along while playing, effectively implying you shouldn’t dance; “no fun for a while, loser”. This might just be me sucking at playing Audica, and therefore constantly being affected by the feature, but the important takeaway here is:

Beat Saber does not do it. It throws a punishing sound effect, which I have been habituated to physically flinch upon hearing, but the song is not affected by your mistakes. Fun and dance go on, without interruption.

Whether not going for this was a conscious observation by the folks at Beat Games, or just something that they did not end up implementing, doesn’t really matter — it just works. The design acknowledges that when your user’s whole body is in play, you should not reduce the player’s embodied engagement by distorting the flow via manipulating the song.

In summary, what is going on here reminds me of the classic formulations about how innovation works by Clayton Christensen, in that Beat Games, as an entrant to the field, has not had to unlearn the conventions a studio like Harmonix has in its console-based rhythm game DNA.

Therefore, Beat Games can be characterised as a disruptor in the genre, at least in its VR manifestations. Harmonix is giving the VR rhythm genre a good shot with Audica, but the end result is a mash-up of old truths and experiments with a new platform.

I guess partially this post rose from frustration: I really wanted to like Audica, and still do, but with Beat Saber’s DLC out and being an absolute joy, I probably won’t give Audica many more chances, which is a shame.

Harmonix, please prove me wrong.

Five design learnings from comparing Beat Saber to its competition

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