No Straight Roads' innovative design fuses rhythm-based gameplay with dynamic action

By Jimmy Thang |
August 28, 2020

Metronomik

Metronomik, a game company based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was founded by cousins Wan Hazmer and Daim Dziauddin. Both have rich game-industry experience working in Tokyo, Japan. Hazmer worked for Square Enix as Lead Game Designer for Final Fantasy XV, and Daim was concept artist for Street Fighter V and illustrator for Street Fighter IV. Now employing 20, Metronomik aims to create original video game IPs that seamlessly integrate music with gameplay, starting with their debut multi-platform action-adventure No Straight Roads. The company is also looking into nurturing local game talents to enrich the Malaysian game industry.
The recently released No Straight Roads blends the rhythm game and action platformer genres. The title, which received an Epic MegaGrant, features a compelling rock music versus EDM motif and is Metronomik's first game. 

In our interview with the two founding members, they talk about how they wanted to design a game that blended action and music in a unique way by creating combat that locked in with the soundtrack's rhythm. They also share some of the challenges along the way, which include developing a title that would appeal to both action-adventure fans and music enthusiasts. 
 

No Straight Roads has an interesting premise being both an action platformer and music-rhythm game. How did the studio come up with the concept?
 
Daim Dziauddin, Co-Founder & CCO of Metronomik, Creative Director of No Straight Roads: The original concept came from Hazmer. We used to hang out on Saturdays where we bounced ideas off each other. Hazmer wanted to make a game where music plays a central role in the world. He said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all the bosses are based on EDM?” Once we established the rock versus EDM theme, I then tried to flesh out the world with the characters and stories.
 
Wan Hazmer, Co-Founder & CEO of Metronomik, Game Director of No Straight Roads: Daim converted a shallow "bad guys do bad things" idea to a premise with unique characters who actually have their own human reasons to perform music. From the get-go, we told ourselves that we have to pay tribute to music in its entirety. We didn't want to just stop at music-based mechanics; we wanted to tell the story of a clash of values and motivation between musicians. That forms the basis of No Straight Roads.
With such a diverse concept, did No Straight Roads have any influences?
 
Daim: For the visuals, we had a fondness for the Dreamcast games from the early 2000s. Games like Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio were very stylized and colorful, so we wanted those elements in our game. We also loved the Tim Schafer adventure games in the ‘90s for their quirk and humor, so we injected that zaniness into our characters as well. Also, I’m a huge Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fan. If you’re also a fan, you might pick up on some of the weird fashion and poses that are sprinkled throughout the game.
 
With hacking and slashing coupled with rhythmic gameplay, can you delve into how you designed No Straight Roads’ combat system?
 
Hazmer: I've been a rhythm gamer since the ‘90s, but I just couldn't get Daim to play with me (laughs). It then occurred to me that the role of music in game mechanics can go beyond having the player pushing the button to the beat. Just like game design, there are so many rules in music that you can play with: beats, structure, pitch, rhythm, etc. I wanted to make games that utilize all of this without requiring the player to tap to the rhythm.
 
Hence, I applied the very same natural instinct that allows an average person to identify when the chorus is coming after listening to the same song a few times. Enemies attack on the beat. It could be overwhelming at first, as visual cues lessen as you fight more bosses. However, the music and the attacks will loop, so understanding the relationship between the music and the attacks are key to defeating enemies.
Was there a lot of iteration involved to ensure that players’ parry and dodge inputs felt satisfying in relation to the beat of songs?
 
Hazmer: Definitely, and it was a LONG process! One example of this iteration was how we designed the parry system. Rhythm games would typically have you press the button when a bar/note reaches the line. It is consistently traveling on the screen, so the game can compare the timing of your button input to how far it is to the line, resulting in either a "perfect” or a "bad" hit.
 
However, in our game, parryable enemy attacks only appear on the beat! There was a time when you could only parry when the attack appears, with a 0 to 0.5-second leeway window. As soon as the attack appeared, the game was trying to figure out whether you intended to parry. Being a rhythm gamer though, this was a horrible game experience because the accuracy of a hit should also depend on whether you pressed it slightly earlier. Now, thanks to our very patient programmers, the game detects your input even before the visuals appear, giving you a plus or minus 0.3 second leeway to parry an attack.
 
On top of the technical issues, there were also creative ones. Nailing the timing of every single attack required trial and error and a lot of testing. We were bouncing between difficulty and satisfaction and did many minute adjustments to achieve both.
 
Was it challenging designing a game that appeals to action-adventure fans and music-rhythm players?

Hazmer: A million yesses! I would say that this was the core challenge of No Straight Roads. We have elements that would cater to both, but there are times when they would conflict with each other. For example, action gamers tend to want more freedom, whereas rhythm gamers want more music accuracy with their actions. I would say that in terms of game mechanics, we opted for the former. At its core, No Straight Roads is an action-adventure game, no two ways about it.
 
However, being a rhythm gamer myself, I wasn't satisfied with just having the enemies attack to the music without a systematic way of involving the player rhythmically. Hence, the parry system. The best thing about it is that action-adventure fans can avoid it if they want to, but I'm sure some of them can't resist giving parrying a try. To tell you the truth, my secret goal with No Straight Roads is to make players aware that they do have a rhythm sense in them. I hope the plan works.
The character designs and art style are very stylized and vibrant. How did Metronomik come up with the look of the game?

Daim: From the beginning, we had a pretty clear direction on what kind of art style to go for. It needed to be big, vibrant, and colorful. The most important thing is that we needed to make sure the visuals could keep up with the high-energy music. Regarding the characters themselves, we like to be a little silly with our product, so we opted for a more bizarre body proportion, and having everyone in a wide variety of colors that aren’t necessarily human-like helps to further emphasize the craziness of the world.

From an intergalactic planetarium to nautical environments, the levels in No Straight Roads can be very surreal. Can you share how you designed the game’s world?

Daim:
We made a pretty simple rule when designing the bosses: each boss needs a primary theme and a secondary theme. Let’s take the first boss, for example: DJ Subatomic Supernova. His main theme would be DJ. That alone is not enough to make an interesting world. And that is where the secondary theme comes in. The secondary theme has no relation to the primary theme, but its function is to add and elevate the primary theme to the next level. In the case of DJ Subatomic Supernova, we decided on a space theme, as it not only has some fun visual elements to play with, but it also fits perfectly with his story. In the early stages of production, we made sure that all the secondary themes are vastly different for each boss so that we have a huge canvas to tinker with.
The multi-stage bosses are a big highlight of the game. How did you approach designing them?

Daim:
For all of the boss fights, we set our goal to achieve two things. One is that the gameplay needs to evolve for each phase within the fight, and two, there has to be a sense of progression in the story as the fight continues. We made sure that each boss fight has a self-contained story to tell, and we designed the narrative in such a way that it creates a new arena whenever a new phase begins. We want the players to feel that every fight is epic, so we put a lot of care into designing them.
 
No Straight Roads’ soundtrack is awesome. Was the music composed in a way that would serve the gameplay, or did you shape the gameplay to match the music?

Daim:
Funnily enough, there was no definite rule that we adhered to. Usually, a draft of the music would come in first. The draft would then be passed to the game designers, and it might spark some ideas for some of the boss attacks. Those ideas would then be passed back to the musicians so that they might try to elevate certain elements in the music to accommodate the game design. It was quite a back-and-forth process.
No Straight Roads is poised to be one of Malaysia’s most prominent releases. How does it feel to represent your country with the release of the game?

Hazmer:
Man, it's very surreal to make it this far, to be honest. I knew that Malaysia had a lot of talent, so I left Square Enix and Japan to prove this, but of course, people were doubting whether we could release a full-fledged video game. We had many bumps along the way, but thanks to the support of our government via the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), our publishers Sold Out, and our team of talented individuals, I feel that we were able to produce a game that Malaysia would be proud of.
 
With founding members who worked on acclaimed titles such as Final Fantasy XV and Street Fighter V, how might those experiences have helped shape No Straight Roads?
 
Daim:
The biggest takeaway I got is that a big project requires a lot of people from so many disciplines. It is important to know that we work together as a team, and often compromises are needed to ensure smoother development.
 
Hazmer: I applied a lot of the workflow and know-how from Square Enix into how we run things in Metronomik. The biggest lesson, however, that I learned from my experience with Final Fantasy XV was a focus on user experience (UX). FFXV taught me that giving emotional context to the game and having it dictate almost every aspect of the game, the romance of a road trip being FFXV's UX, help to make the game more relevant to the user. The UX for No Straight Roads is "Your music can change the world" and we made sure to apply that in the story, game mechanics, visuals, and also the audio.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?

Hazmer:
I have fond memories working with Unreal at Square Enix. It is a spectacular tool, and the wonderful people at Epic Games were very supportive to us developers. Moreover, the trust that Square Enix had in Unreal for huge IPs like Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy VII tells me how much they can rely on Unreal for graphic fidelity and development flow. That trust totally brushed off on me (laughs). I know it's a simple reason, but I have no regrets using it for No Straight Roads. It was the perfect fit.
 
What did it mean for the team to receive an Epic MegaGrant?

Hazmer:
It meant the world to the company; this is not an exaggeration. Not only did we get extra funding to push the game further, it showed a very young team of Malaysians how their first video game was accepted globally. Being new to the industry meant that it was hard to tell whether we were heading towards the right direction, but the Epic MegaGrant told us, "You have something great there, please go on." It was a huge confidence boost for the team.

With No Straight Roads being Metronomik’s first game, what have you learned from forming the studio?

Hazmer:
Actually, most of our team members were new to the video-game industry. Yet, No Straight Roads happened (laughs). So, one thing I've learned from all this is how a group of individuals, regardless of background, can make a video game as long as they work together, head towards a common direction, and learn to convert their passion into a tangible output. There were things that we struggled with and could've done better, like the lack of a proper workflow for some aspects of the game, but we're learning from this and taking notes to improve the production of our future projects.
 
Do you have any tips for aspiring game designers?

Daim:
If you are a young artist, don’t worry too much if you feel like you haven’t found your voice yet. Keep on experiencing the world, visit places, and talk to people. You will eventually develop your own style through all the life experiences you have accumulated.

Hazmer: I totally agree with Daim. In fact, the thirst for experience should be applied to people of all disciplines, not just art. I always felt that good game designers just design games, and great game designers spend more time experiencing the world. The next step would be to deconstruct your experiences and construct them into digestible chunks that are relatable to a human being. Humans make games, and humans play games. Daim and I feel that having an aspect of humanity in everything you do is a must for all game developers.

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