At PAX East 2019 in Boston last weekend, we had the opportunity to chat with Wan Hazmer, lead game designer on Final Fantasy XV, co-founder of the Malaysia-based Metronomik, and director on the studio’s first game No Straight Roads.
Metronomik showcased two demos of the rhythm-based action adventure game, the new “DJ Subatomic Supernova” demo and the previously exhibited “Mother and Child” demo. Here are playthroughs of each, provided to us by Metronimik:
Read our full interview with Wan Hazmer below.
So what is No Straight Roads?
Wan Hazmer, Director: “All right, so this game is called No Straight Roads. It’s a game about an indie rock band trying to topple an EDM empire. It’s an action-adventure game based on music, so we care about music culture a lot, as well as the role of audio in games.
“I play a lot of rhythm games. I have been playing rhythm games since Beatmania 1, so it’s been like 18 years or so. Every time I try to play a rhythm game and invite my friends, they reject me. They’ll say, ‘I’ll just watch you play.’ So this game is like an attempt to dissect rhythm games and put in the joy of a rhythm game without having the pressure of following the beat. You can do whatever you want with the player character—you can jump whenever you want, you can enter whenever you want. But the catch is that every boss and enemy attack follows the music. So if you understand the relationship between the music and the enemy, then you have a big advantage.”
When designing the game, how did you decide on the kind of music you would utilize to base the game around?
Hazmer: “We know that rock-versus-EDM is one of the most classic battles of all time in terms of genres. I personally like both indie rock and EDM, so it’s actually a dream come true to release something like this. My cousin and Metronomik co-founder also loves indie rock, so we tend to fight. (Laughs.) Just kidding, but yeah we really, really want to make sure that we have very strong music vibes in every battle. In fact, the level that you’re seeing right now (the “Mother and Child” demo) is actually based on classical EDM. So you fight this pianist who is a child genius, but later her mother tries to control the stage. We represented each genre with a character: the daughter is classical, the main characters are rock, and the mother is EDM. We divided the song into three channels—[inaudible], melody, and rhythm—and multiplied that with three genres, which are rock, EDM, and a boss-specific genre—this one being classical. So the idea is that depending on the HP, depending on the story, depending on the distance, whatever—we can switch one channel to EDM and the rest to rock or something like that, so it’s very very dynamic.”
Can you talk about how the music influenced the art direction?
Hazmer: “So just for a little bit of background, I used to work at Square Enix in Japan, where I was the lead game designer for Final Fantasy XV, and our co-founder Daim Dziauddin was the concept artist for Street Fighter V and illustrator for Street Fighter IV. And you know we really care about two things, music for one and the other visual storytelling. If you notice in the [“Mother and Child”] demo, the mother’s head has a heart on it because she loves her daughter very much and is trying to protect her from the player. We don’t really like to use cutscenes to explain these things. So if you are asking me whether music effects visual direction, or vice-versa, it’s actually both. I feel that dynamism is very very important in this game.”
In terms of gameplay, do you level up, are there skill trees and stuff like that?
Hazmer: “There’s a cycle in this game. You are literally an underground rock band that lives in the sewers, and that acts as a hub where you can customize your weapons, level up your skill tree, get a mission briefing, and so forth. And after that, you can go up to the city. This is a city ruled by the EDM Empire—and by the way the name of the EDM Empire is ‘No Straight Roads,’ which is also the name of the game. By going through the city, you can talk to NPCs and see just how powerful the EDM Empire is—a lot of advertising and all that—and then you have to choose one of the concert halls to hijack. Once you choose a concert hall, then you choose a difficulty. Then you’ll go through this little sort of mini-dungeon for 10 minutes or so, before fighting the boss. So that’s the general game cycle—once you defeat the boss, then you go back to the sewers again.”
Are there any RPG elements in the game?
Hazmer: “Well not really level-based or anything like that, it’s more so skill-based. Because it’s an action game after all. We don’t have any RPG elements like leveling up and all that, but we do have skill trees.”
How many dungeons can we expect, if you can say?
Hazmer: “Well I can’t say that, it’ll be a spoiler. (Laughs.)”
No Straight Roads is coming out on PS4 and PC, but are you looking into other systems as well?
Hazmer: “Well we would definitely love to explore more options. A lot of people who came to our game shows keep asking us whether it’s coming for Switch. That’s a very popular question. (Laughs.) But thanks to them we are considering putting couch multiplayer even for PC and PlayStation 4, and a Switch version is being considered.”
Can you talk about how couch multiplayer would work in terms of mechanical design?
Hazmer: “Well in this case, you want to play together, right? So we don’t want it to be a split-screen kind of thing, so we decided to just pull out the camera when they go far apart. But if they go too far apart, then they get penalized or something like that. And we’ll just have more props and make it slightly more difficult.”
So how does the game change when you play multiplayer?
Hazmer: “Well the two characters play a bit differently. If you noticed in the [“Mother and Child”] demo, Mayday [the female character] transformed some of the props into machine guns. Zuke the [male] drummer transforms props into utilities, while the guitarist [Mayday] transforms props into weapons. How they deal with it together will be very interesting. Also the guitarist is more like a battle axe user, so more holding and more powerful attacks, while the drummer is more of a combo attacker.”
Does music influence the level design as well? How did you come up with the stage in the “Mother and Child” demo, for example?
Hazmer: “First of all, we think about the message our story is going to tell. My cousin and co-founder Diam is very big into why people play music, so we actually dissected those motivations and turned them into bosses. From there we treat every boss like a musical, where the characters change from the beginning of the music to the end of the music. We want to do that here, so whether the enemy changes or you change, that’s what will dictate the level design of the game.”
Were there any other games that you looked at for inspiration?
Hazmer: “We actually looked at—and this is a surprising inspiration—but Dark Souls. Because in Dark Souls, when you play against the boss for the first time, you won’t understand the rhythm and die easily. So it’s the same for us—well you won’t die that easily, but the first time you play the game it might be a bit hard to grasp as rhythm-like, but once you get used to the music you can play better on the second try, the third try, and the fourth try. And we were also inspired by games like Jet Set Radio—I love that game, man. Although it’s not a rhythm game, it respects music a lot and understands how to integrate the music into the culture of the game. We also want to respect music in the same way.”
Since music plays such an integral role, are you releasing a soundtrack as well?
Hazmer: “(Laughs.) Yes we are! We are planning to release the EDM version and the rock versions of the same boss music, so yeah.”
Can you talk about the new demo you brought to PAX?
Hazmer: “This is our brand new boss level for the public. It’s called ‘DJ Subatomic Supernova.’ He’s a type of DJ that thinks that he’s the center of the universe, which you will see by playing the demo that he seriously he thinks that everything revolves around him. So he’ll be spinning the solar system like a disc, and obviously the props are different for this fight—we have different props for different stages. This is actually the very first boss in the game. The boss from the previous ‘Mother and Child’ demo is the fourth boss in the game. Anyway, because this is the first boss, we have to ensure that action gamers get used to the concept of the game, hence there’ll be more visual cues than seen in the ‘Mother and Child’ demo. In that demo, there were targets on the floor, and usually in other action games they have it blink before the bomb falls, but because this is a game based on music, we don’t we don’t have it blink. So you have to really listen to the music. But for the first boss, we obviously have to be a bit lenient, so we just made sure to have a lot of visual cues. And there are very clear visual cues in the first level that you can see, but you know for harder levels of the same boss you might not be able to see much of the visual cues, and will have to listen to the music more.”
We’ve established already that music plays an integral role in the game, but are you making any strides to make the game accessible to players that are hard of hearing?
Hazmer: “We have we have faced this question before, and we really care about all players, so we might want to put a UI that shows the beat, possibly an indicator to show the visual cues that replace the audio cues in the game.”
Do you think that would influence the game design at all, or will you integrate it in a way that…
Hazmer: “Well I think the idea is, if you’re hard of hearing, it’d be nice to be able to feel the music in visuals, so I’m okay with that, no problem.”
(Hazmer turns his attention to the “DJ Subatomic Supernova” gameplay demo.)
Hazmer: “So yeah you can see now that he has transformed the stage into a solar system, and this dialogue is not in the game yet, but DJ Subatomic Supernova treats the two characters like Pluto—very insignificant and no longer in the solar system. So yeah, there’ll be a lot of this funky kind of dialogue in the game.”
Speaking of which, can you talk a bit about the game’s voice acting?
Hazmer: “Yeah, so they’re voice-acted. For the English version, they’re 100 percent voice-acted by Malaysians. We don’t have a very big voice acting industry in Malaysia when it comes to games, but we plan to help. We have a lot of good talent in Malaysia, so we definitely want to give voice actors an opportunity. And not only that, we have 20 people in our company now, and half of them are fresh graduates. So in general we’re about giving opportunities to people to work on games.”
Can you talk a bit more about creating Metronomik and utilizing local talent?
Hazmer: “As I mentioned earlier, I worked at Square Enix for seven years, and I had already told my director [Hajime] Tabata-san that I’m going to leave the company after Final Fantasy XV and bring my know-how to Malaysia. I find it very fascinating because Malaysia has a lot of talent, and some of these talents are really wasted on games that might not be able to sell. We have a lot of good games as well, but I want to make sure that it becomes better overall. The idea is that we want to provide opportunities for people—in fact the art that you see in the game, while directed by my cousin, the concert artist’s name is Ellie Young and she has no prior game development experience. She was a mural artist for hotels and restaurants. The guy who is creating the advertising within the city in the game also had no prior experience—his name is Brian—and he was actually was a senior director for an advertising company. You know, I love doing all this, bringing in people who are not from the industry, who have no prior experience, because they will provide a fresh perspective to the game.
“For me one of the happiest moments as a director is—I just give very simple direction, not very concrete—is when the team comes back with amazing stuff. We have meetings every two weeks, and every two weeks I’m just boggled by how much work they have done within such a short time. I’m really really proud of Metronomik as a company.”
Well all the hard work shows. The game looks great.
Hazmer: “Thank you man. I mean for us we tried our best not to follow the anime style and tried not to go for a western style too much. We really just get the mural artists, come up with something amazing, doesn’t have to be game-related, and we all just work hard to make sure that it looks that that good when it’s created in 3D.”
Thanks for talking to us, Wan!
No Straight Roads is due out for PlayStation 4 and PC in 2019.