One of the biggest games announced on the Xbox Developer Direct live stream last week was Tango Gameworks’ rhythm action game Hi-Fi RUSH. Launching on the day of the live stream, the stunning title became an overnight hit thanks to its colorful visuals and satisfying rhythm-based combat.
IGN spoke with Hi-Fi RUSH director John Johanas to discuss why Tango, best known for horror games like The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo, chose to go a more colorful route this time around, and how he managed one of the games bigger. surprises of the year
IGN: My entire timeline talks about Hi-Fi RUSH. I’m curious, when did the development of Hi-Fi RUSH start?
Juan Johanas: In fact, it was right after The Evil Within 2. I directed that and by the time we were wrapping up, we knew that Ghostwire [Tokyo] it was the next game the studio had already begun work on in pre-production. Just from a personal point of view, I felt like I needed a palate cleanser.
And when you develop a game with the other team members, you talk about other games that people like. When we are playing in our idle time, we talk about action games. I had this idea in my head for a while, but with this studio being known for horror, in my mind I’m like, “Oh, this, this will never get approved.”
I wrote this very quick speech on this idea about how good it feels in trailers and movies when it hits the beat and feels like the action feels so much more satisfying. What if we can do that in an action game? And then just the idea of rhythm action, and everything’s in sync with the music, but it’s not a rhythm game, it sparked the meeting.
This is the least Bethesda game you can imagine because we’re showing off the ideas where the visuals would be like a throwback to the cel shaded look of the PS2, Dreamcast and early Xbox era. I was like, “You’re probably not going to buy into this, but I think this is a great idea and I have a really solid idea of how it could work.”
My boss [Shinji] Mikami-san said, “Sounds great. It all sounds very difficult and I don’t know if it will work, but why don’t we try to make a prototype?” That’s actually when it started in late 2017.
IGN: Tango is known primarily, I think to most people, as a horror game studio. There were a lot of rumors about what your next game could be, and when the project was finally revealed, it was this bright and colorful rhythm action fighter. What does it mean for a studio like yours that you are branching out in this new direction?
Juan Johanas: Well, I would say that was always the intention in a way.
If you look at the original vision of the studio, it wasn’t just made to make horror games, it was made to encourage new ideas and support new developers. But we didn’t assemble a team to make the ultimate horror game. Like Mikami-san himself, he created action games. He also has a history of going beyond those limits. We don’t feel like we should be limited or have to be limited by that image that we have of being a first horror studio.
I think it was important to show that we can do more than just [horror] and to do it well, I think that was the most important thing because that is something in which we are very firm.
If we’re going to do it, we’ve got to show people that we can do it and do it well because we can’t go out and half fail on our first try at something different. It has to be good. A lot of time and effort went into this. I see some people calling it an indie release or something like that, or a small project and from my perspective I spent five years on it so it wasn’t small.
Hifi Rush – Xbox Dev Direct
IGN: One of the things I want to mention is that Hi-Fi RUSH is not small. I’ve been playing it, and you can see that every scene matches that beat. How difficult was it to time the cutscenes and game action to a beat?
Juan Johanas: The short answer is extremely, extremely, extremely difficult.
The long answer is, basically, we need to tweak how our animation system works so that every animation you do, whether it’s a little before or after, will always basically tween it so that it lands on the beat. We have to create this new animation flow and people would make these cool animations, but we would find that it didn’t feel like: beat the beat or things like that. It was constantly trial and error. Fortunately, as we progressed through development, most of us learned what was necessary to do this, so it helped.
The scenes were an immense task. Our scene director Jun Watanabe and I talked at length about how we can do this, how we can do it in the stylized material. We had a script and we had a BPM and we would put everything on a click track and animate. I would estimate that it took about three times as long as it would take to do a normal cut scene.
IGN: You mentioned the cel-shade art style, the throwback to the older platforms. You look at a game like Hi-Fi Rush and immediately think of some of the other classic cel-shaded games like Jet Set Radio. Why go to the cell shaded path?
Juan Johanas: It really came from that idea that it feels like a throwback game, throwback but not throwback. We also wanted people to remember the games as fun. I thought, whatever we do, we want it to stand out and be remembered like those games you mentioned.
IGN: Let’s talk about music. Do in-game music choices reflect team preference? Is Mikami-san also a fan of Nine Inch Nails?
Juan Johanas: Amazingly, from the very beginning, the team said, “John, you can select the music.” There are a lot of people’s conflicting opinions about music and I know that sharing a playlist is just about the most embarrassing thing you can do. It’s a weird “open your diary” kind of thing.
But I felt like we were going in a very certain direction, and like I said, it was a weird personal project for me, so I wanted to pick music that I grew up listening to or that reminded me of an era where I really had fun. playing games or things that stuck with me.
I wanted something that felt almost late ’90s, early ’00s, if that makes sense, because that’s the era I was talking about, the Dreamcast, PlayStation to Xbox era. A bit of a throwback there, but also kind of an exposure to maybe some artists that maybe even the younger generations don’t listen to.
IGN: We posted a great interview with Phil Spencer and one of the cool things he said was that the shadow of the game was Tango’s idea.
Juan Johanas: Tango won’t take credit for this, it will be the marketing team’s idea. They pushed him through. We knew Hi-Fi RUSH was a big departure from what we’d done before, but we also knew we had something very special from the start.
It’s not a horror game from a horror studio, so there may be some initial “maybe” questions. When we discussed the idea of a drop shadow, we thought about letting people decide for themselves and play, basically. Because we got a lot of reports when people first saw the game internally and they were like, “It looks like fun. I want to play that now.”
Maybe we weren’t trying to give people the wrong idea, to make people think, “Oh, it’s a lower quality thing,” or something like that. We could show them to you right away. We were very confident in the product we had. I think that worked for our title.”
IGN: I think one of the benefits is something like Xbox Game Pass, where people with the subscription can just dive right in. Was that also taken into account?
Juan Johanas: Oh yeah, that was absolutely a part of it. Again, if you’re going to ask someone to buy something in a shadow drop, it’s probably going to raise a lot of skepticism, but the fact that Game Pass exists allows people to basically almost, you’d say is a demo in theory. But it’s not a demo, it’s the complete game. They can just play and almost naturally they can talk about the game, talk to their friends, tell them how great it is. That’s what we expected because internally we knew it was something special.
Internally, people just wouldn’t stop talking about it. This is actually how it played out within Bethesda. I think that’s a whole different story of how a game like this could come out of Bethesda because internally some people played it and talked to each other about it… They’re like, “Did you see that game they’re making there?” There’s this weird kind of viral positivity just playing this game and Game Pass felt like a great opportunity to let something that maybe the onboarding is a little tricky about or maybe people might be skeptical, lose that skepticism right away. just by playing it.
So far, based on the feedback we’ve seen, people seem to really understand what we were trying to do. We even saw that there was some skepticism in the launch trailer. People were like, “I don’t know…” And then people were like, “No, wait. I just downloaded this. You need to try this, you need to see this.” That’s exactly what we were hoping for, but thank you to the PR & Marketing team for pulling it off.
Matt TM Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. you can reach it @lawoftd.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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