Thumper is a game about turns

February 27, 2017 by Laura Michet

How Thumper's developers figured out what their game was actually about

Last year’s Thumper is a brutal “rhythm violence” game where players control a chrome beetle hurtling through space at truly ridiculous speeds. Getting in the zone and playing well with all those notes smashing right into your face makes you feel pretty damn powerful— and the triumph you feel when you conquer those speeds and deftly navigate the turns they throw at you is really the core “thing” about Thumper.

But in its original stages, Thumper wasn’t about speed or turns at all. It began as a grid-based game where the beetle moved forward constantly, but could turn corners and navigate around beats or  enemies. For a while, it even had a constantly-draining health stat, replenished only by successful beat hits. Its gridded platform had edges that the beetle could just fall off of. At a Thumper postmortem talk at the Game Developer's Conference today, developer Mark Flury said that in this early version of the game, “it was really easy to mess up and it wasn't... really clear what was going to be interesting bout a grid based rhythm game. But we stuck with it for a long time.” He and musician/artist Brian Gibson went through years of development before deciding to abandon the grid aesthetic. He said that they “didn't really figure out what the game was until we figured out how turns work.”

In Thumper, the player must react to turns in the track by sort of ‘leaning in’ to them with a thumbstick. Initially, in its first grid-based iteration, Thumper didn’t have these turns. For a while after they added the turning mechanic, the track was still gridded up, and turns were still sharp angles between grid-lined rectangular track segments. “There's a weird discontinuity between these rectangular sections,” Flury said. By this point, they’d figured out that high speeds made players feel great— but the weird angles between he track segments and the awkward, sharp corners they made meant that cornering didn’t look or feel particularly good.

But when Gibson began to push for changes to the way that turns were depicted artistically, the game suddenly started to come together. "Turns and the feeling of the turns in Thumper are what really make it feel good and what make it fun to play,” Flury explains. “In action games there's one fundamental action that you play the game hours and hours for.” In FPSes this could be something like, say, getting a headshot. In Thumper, Flury says, it’s the turns.

Thumper was built in a custom engine, and Flury didn’t have a ton of graphics programming experience, so it took him a long time and a lot of experimenting to figure out how to make the track corner, change slope, and scale smoothly. The result, however, totally changed the player’s experience. Once it was polished up, the kinetic feeling of successfully taking on all these relentless, screeching turns was the core action that the game had been searching for. Flury said that Thumper is “a music game that found itself through visual experimentation.”

Visually, Flury and Gibson always wanted Thumper to be a dark, hellish experience. Certain elements— like the boss monster, whom they call “Crackhead”— have been consistent throughout development. The music changed constantly throughout development, however. Flury said that gameplay and visuals were a priority, and they adapted the audio to match what whatever gameplay and art they ended up with. Gibson did all the music and sound design himself despite having never done audio design on a game before. Although he was a musician, he’d never composed electronic music before, either. In general, Thumper’s development involved a lot of firsts for both Flury and Gibson. It’s actually a shock that they were both so new to so many parts of Thumper’s development: the game looks and sounds excellent, and I had no idea they were so new to so much of the skills involved in its development.

Flury finished the talk by explaining how the VR version of the game differs from the original version. When you slap Thumper on someone’s head, it turns out, tons of tiny little details need to change to preserve the feeling of speed and power the original conveys. In VR, the boss skull is four times the size of the original, relative to the track. The beetle moves twice as fast and is a completely different size. The result, though, is that the game feels “basically the same.”

Thumper got an extremely positive review from me when it launched last year. It felt so polished and masterful to me that I didn’t suspect its development story had been so long and strange, or that it had required its creators to learn so many new skills. Every year at GDC I attend a postmortem talk which reveals that a game I liked has a hidden history ten times odder and more complicated than I expected. This year, Thumper is definitely one of those games.