Interview – Mathieu Briau

Ambitious rhythm-action game, Shield the Beat, has hit the Xbox LIVE Indie Games marketplace. The game features music from, among others, Franz Ferdinand and DJ Champion. Achievement Locked caught up with Mathieu Briau to talk about his game.

How would you describe Shield the Beat to someone that knows nothing about it?

How to describe the game… Twin Sticks Rhythmic Rail Shielder? Seriously, I think half action, half rhythm game is a good start.

Where did the original idea for Shield the Beat come from?

I had the idea for the game while listening to one of the songs I used for the game: NnGg from DJ Champion. The rhythm of that song is really nice and it has some “spinning” sounds in it. The spinning is hard to explain, you would have to listen to the song. But anyway, I asked myself what it would be like to play a rhythm game with a spinning move. Something that would be more analogue and less pressing buttons.

The combination of unique looking rhythm action and using established artists is very ambitious for an Xbox LIVE Indie Game. How did you go about getting music for your game?

Making a game with known bands is ambitious. It wasn’t easy to get the music for the game. First I worked for 8 months to make the game look good enough to have any chance of convincing anyone. This is where Deborah [Debas] started to help me. She worked really hard to get the rights for the music. We had to learn many new things: understand the different contracts and rights, find the rights owners and learn their language. Finding music with enough “spinning” is also a real challenge.

My first motivation for getting music I loved for my game and not just any stock music was simple. I knew I would have to listen to each song countless times to create each level and I would have gone crazy if I had to listen to crappy music all day long.

We asked many bands to be in the game. Some of them refused simply because they don’t like video games. Some asked for too much money for our budget. Franz Ferdinand is the biggest band we signed and it’s one of the first I asked. We are also very proud of signing Malajube and DJ Champion. They are very well known in Montreal. DJ Champion was used for the Borderlands trailer.

At the same time I wanted to promote Indie bands and less known artists and I am really happy with what I found.

Did Shield the Beat’s development go as smoothly as you’d have liked?

The development was fairly smooth. I am satisfied with the XNA “engine,” making the switch from 3.0 to 4.0 wasn’t too difficult.

But the big thing was really to find the music and to get the rights. One thing that makes this difficult is that you need to get two approvals for each song. One from the artist/publishing side and another one from the recording company. That also means that you need two pay two times. This is not the case for less known bands since they usually own the recording.

Not having an artist to help me was difficult. It took me quite some time to create each the visual effects and the menus. Since I don’t have any talent for drawing and I didn’t know how to use all the art software, it wasn’t easy to make the game look good.

For someone with no talent for drawing you’ve made a pretty incredible looking game! How did you manage it?

First by knowing my limits. The choice of making a game in space is partially based on that.

At one point, I figured that I could have enough movement by making a pursuit around huge space stations. By doing that, I was able to make a game with a very small amount of assets. Essentially, six space stations, three different ships for the player, one ship with four different colours for the enemies and four cube map backdrops for the different worlds, missiles and a texture for the purple shield.

When you are in the menu the actual 3D models are being rendered. All the colour effects are programmed, not drawn (like the spinning space stations).

Even the reactors of the ships are not drawn or modelled; I don’t know how to use any 3D software. It’s only good old coding. Like they must have done for Star Fox back in the days.

The only things I had to draw myself were the projectiles, the shields and one menu screen. And it took me forever!

I also think it looks good because I used a simple yet strong artistic direction. Always the same four colours, black everywhere I could. Most importantly, I used very nice models. It took me forever to find good models that would also match with each others.

So in the end, I guess I was more clever and patient than talented.

Tell us about you. Have you released any games in the past?

I worked for a company called A2M on a game called Wet for three years. I worked as a graphic programmer and a technical lead programmer for the game play team.

I left the company about 4 months before the game was launched. So you will find me in the credits as an “additional programmer” even if I played a major role in it. On the other hand my name also appears as an engine programmer for Naughty Bear, but I did almost nothing for that game. Go figure. This was a very good working experience since we created our own engine for the game.

After that, I worked for one year for the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer as a bioinformatician.

I left one year ago to create Shield the Beat.

What made you want to leave professional development and take the indie route instead?

I wanted to make an indie game for many reasons. First of all, I have a little boy of three years old and a little girl of six months and being able to work when I want is just priceless.

It was hard for me to have a baby while I was working on Wet. Long hours, short nights, deadlines and the game took so much more time than it was supposed to. Working on a big project also means working with a big structure. Meetings. Triple checking your code to make sure you won’t break the build. Not being able to work because someone broke the build. Waiting for your assets to build. Work on the same 30 lines of code over and over again because requirements and the API are always changing. So the first year on Wet was fantastic, the second one was difficult, the third one was a real pain. Mostly because when the project doesn’t go well, people get nervous, stressed and lose their motivation.

Now, every single hour I work, I improve my game.

But the most important reason is a mix of a very adult desire to prove myself and a very childish: “Wow, I am going to make my own game. This is soooooo awesome!”

Shield the Beat is available now for 400 Microsoft Points.

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