“Shield the Beat” interview with Mathieu Briau

Posted: 2011/04/05 in Indie Games

This morning I interviewed Mathieu Briau regarding his new game, “Shield the Beat”, which has just been released on the Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) channel. The article discusses the reasons Mathieu left a big development team to strike out on his own as an indie developer, the challenges in getting music labels to agree to provide the music he needed for a game where music is a crucial component, and much more. Here’s a preview video that was released during development (the game is now available for purchase):

Writings of Mass Deduction:
So, for those who know nothing about it, how would you describe Shield the Beat?

Mathieu Briau:
It’s a mix of rhythm and action. You are being chased by spaceships and you need to block their attacks following the music. It’s different from most rhythm games because it is more “analogic”, using the sticks then the classic button mashing. It has great Indie music from very talented bands.

And there is a twist. A bit like Ikaruga did, you need to take care of two colors at the same time. That adds a lot to the challenge.

WMD:
What was the inspiration for the game?

Mathieu:
One of the song, NnGg was the main inspiration. It has a spinning feels in it. The idea was, how could I make a rhythm game where you could get to follow that spinning rhythm. At the time I was very nostalgic of Gradius and this is one of the reason I choosed space for my “theme”.

WMD:
That’s really interesting, but makes sense that a rhythm game’s gameplay could be inspired by the music itself, since music can be so key to them. How did you acquire the music for the game? Are they friends of yours? Are they local Montreal bands, or did they come from all over?

Mathieu:
One of the band are friends of mine (Eugène et le Cheval). But for the rest of them I had to find them by myself. From the beginning I wanted to have local indie bands, but I also knew it wouldn’t be the most difficult part. So I contacted many artists and it took quite a long time. I am very picky, I wanted music that I really enjoyed. So just finding the songs was a big challenge. I was able to get DJ Champion and Malajube. They are very very well known in Montreal and I like them very much. For Franz Ferdinand, the reply from the band/manager wasn’t too long to get.

But one important thing to know is that you always need to clear two different rights owner for each song. One for the song itself and another one for the recording. In the case of Franz Ferdinand, one is owned by Sony and the other one by Universal. It was very long to get replies from big bands. I got the okay from Vampire Weekend about a week before the game launched. Months after we asked for it.

WMD:
Did you have to pay for the rights to the music, or did they agree to participate in exchange for the game promoting it for them?

Mathieu:
Some of the less known bands might have accepted just to get some promotion. But not the big ones. If you talk about Malajube or DJ Champion, they have like a million hit for their best known videos on youtube. I couldn’t really pretend to get them a valuable promotion with at the number of copies I am going to sell. In the end I decided to pay everyone, simply because I think the songs from all the bands are worth it. It’s not possible for me to disclose any details about what I pay for the music. But I already heard some people complaining about the price of the game and I want to mention that getting great music like that comes with a price.

WMD:
Can you discuss whether you pay them on a per copy basis, or a flat-rate? It’s hard to make money as an indie developer when you do everything yourself, let alone when you’re paying royalties.

Mathieu:
It’s not a flat-rate. You would be surprised by how much money some of rights owner asked me. I mean the one that I didn’t sign for the game. I realized something very soon. Making a console game makes people thing it’s a huge thing. It would have been possible to get many big bands if I would have made a game for a portable device. Because they don’t ask the same amount of money.

WMD:
That makes sense, the democratic kind of console development that occurs on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel is likely not well known outside of the Xbox community. Some would argue it’s not well enough known yet inside the Xbox community. The royalty structure really ought to be closer to the mobile one.

Mathieu:
I agree with you. But I can understand why. Correct me if I am wrong, but I never heard of any Indie Games paying royalties for their music. I know many games have great music in it, but I have the feeling that they are usually actual partners for the game or they are being paid a flat rate.

WMD:
I can’t speak for all 2000 games in the XBLIG channel, but I can’t think of any off-hand. In the same way that the NLL Lacrosse title is unique for being an indie game with a sports league licence, Shield the Beat might also be equally unique for the calibre of its music.

Mathieu:
It is a very risky thing to do. Especially since the the number of sales you get on XBLIG is very hard to predict.

WMD:
A few indie games have been huge hits, such as Miner Dig Deep, ezmuze+ Hamst3r edition, and a few others, but they are a few out of thousands. Given it’s so hard to predict, what are your hopes and expectations for Shield the Beat?

Mathieu:
My first objective was to create a game I could be proud of. This was more a personnal challenge than an attempt to make alot of money. But. My second objective is to be able to make another game. So I would really like to get enough sales to keep doing that full time. My objective is to sell 10 000 copies. I wouldn’t mind selling more :)

WMD:
You mentioned you have a producer, Debbie Debas. Did she run interference for you on these music rights issues? Who else is involved in the game, and what did they do?

Mathieu:
Deborah Debas helped me greatly for getting the music rights. She is also a fantastic wife. :) She is currently in maternity leave for our little girl.

WMD:
Was there anyone else who participated?

Mathieu:
People helped me testing the game, but apart from that, no. At least not directly. What I mean is that I payed for the 3D models for the game and the game woulnd’t have been the same without the work of these people. But it’s stock art, so they might not even know about the game.

WMD:
I know you’ve been active on Twitter, but how else are you promoting the game?

Mathieu:
There will be an article very soon in a newspaper called the Mirror in Montreal. I should do an TV interview soon for a channel called Musique Plus. We are knocking at many doors at the same time. If the game has a good start, I have a few promotion ideas, but I prefer to keep that secret for now.

WMD:
Getting mainstream press coverage is great, not only for your game but for the XBLIG channel in general, that’s great to hear. Were there any games that were part of the inspiration for yours? Something like Space Channel 5, or another rhythm game?

Mathieu:
I know Space Channel 5, but never played it. I like DDR, Guitar Hero, Rock Band. I think the only unconventional ryhthm game I played is parappa the rapper. I am just a big fan of music in general. So making a game with music was very natural for me.

WMD:
One I would recommend then is an XBLIG called “Battle Beat”, it’s another unconventional rhythm game.

Personally, when I first watched a video of Shield the Beat, the first thing I was reminded of was a moment in Robotech: the Macross Saga when they implemented what they called the “Pinpoint Barrier System,” where three roving dots were moved around the hull to absorb incoming enemy shots. Were there any non-game inspirations for Shield the Beat?

Mathieu:
Ikaruga was a game inspiration. For non-game inspiration. Cowboy Bebop was an inspiration. I used that inspiration for the look of the menus. I never watched Robotech.

WMD:
You worked on big projects for major publishers before striking out on your own as an indie developer. Why did you make that transition, and was there anything about the transition to being an indie game developer that surprised you?

Mathieu:
I did that transition for many reasons.
One of them is that when you work in a small team or by yourself, every hours makes a difference. No more time spent in meetings, wasted by broken builds or building assets. You can see an improvement almost every day you work. I wanted to be at home for my little girl. It was difficult for me to work and have a baby at the same time when I had my son 4 years ago and I wanted to avoid that. To answer your second question, I wasn’t really surprised. I always valued the work of the artists, game designers and level designers working on Wet. So I knew it would be difficult to do their job.

Now that I think about it, there is one thing. I didn’t expect it would take me that much time to get the music and to do the promotion for the game. So I guess I now have even more respect for the people doing the communications. :) Programming the game wasn’t the real challenge. It was everything else.

WMD:
Was there anything else about the game, about the experience of the development, or of being a part of the indie games community you would like to share for our readers?

Mathieu:
It’s worth taking time to contribute and use the indie games community. I was both surprised and pleased by the quality of the feedback I received while playtesting my game. I also learned many things while play testing and reviewing other games. I started to do that a bit late, but now I really see the value of the XNA community.

One last thing. You need to decide from the start that you are going to finish your project no matter what and stick to your plan. I suggest to set a launch date as early as possible. And to do that, submitting your game a contest is a very good idea.

WMD:
Was Shield the Beat submitted to a contest? DBP? [Microsoft’s annual Dream.Build.Play XBLIG competition]

Mathieu:
It will be submitted for DBP. But I also submitted the game for the IGF. I wasn’t really expecting to win anything. The game had only 2 levels at that time and wasn’t really polished. But it gave me an objective and it was very worth the effort. The game was so much better after I finished my sprint for submitting for the IGF.

WMD:
That’s interesting, because many big development teams often complain about the disruption that getting a portion of the game playable for E3 can cause, yet you feel it assisted in the development.

Mathieu:
There is a major difference. When you are making a big game you already have very frequent milestones and stabilizing a huge beast that maybe a hundread people worked on is nothing like polishing a one man game.

WMD:
That makes sense.

Mathieu:
Making the E3 version for WET was very challenging :)

WMD:
Any parting comments?

Mathieu:
I really hope people will enjoy playing my game. I challenge the gamers to do a good score in Mirror Mode. It really mess with your brain.

WMD:
Thank you for your time.

Mathieu:
Thank you very much.

click here to download “Shield the Beat”, then please come back to review it.



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