Two weeks ago, one of the biggest musical moments yet happened in Beat Saber. We released the Imagine Dragons Music Pack — a 10-track selection of the band’s most popular hits accompanied by a brand-new industrial-inspired environment. It took us months to make this Music Pack a reality. Sometimes, people do not realize how much effort is behind every release like this. The right selection of tracks, the quality and flow of levels, and the immersiveness of the environment is crucial for us. To better understand the philosophy behind the levels in Beat Saber, I interviewed Josh Joynes — alias Freeek — our Full-Time Level Creator and author of the Imagine Dragons Music Pack levels.
Michaela: Freeek, why do you think experiencing music in VR feels so special?
Freeek: VR as a whole allows us to experience the world in many different ways. Music is not an exception to this. Beat Saber brings a different type of experience to music. One that’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself. Just like listening to a song you’ve already listened to thousands of times but now on a high-end pair of headphones, Beat Saber gives you a new way to experience music, and it’s unlike anything else.
The simple way to explain it is that you experience the music both physically and visually. A dancing game is physical, and a lighting show is visual, but we’ve never really had it all combined before, especially at home. Things like the environment and lighting play a key part in this feeling, but this new experience is primarily driven by how it makes you move. Every Cube, every direction, every bomb, and every wall is hand-crafted with the intention of letting players experience the music in a whole new way. All of this put together is what we call a ‘Level.’
Michaela: Can you tell us more about who’s creating the levels now and how it was at the beginning?
Freeek: The original 10 levels were all handcrafted by Jan ‘Split’ Ilavsky, with future content being a team effort. This team was hired post-launch and has contained several members, but now sits as Split and GreatYazer, with me being our Full-Time Level Creator.
Michaela: Compared to the early beginnings at Beat Saber, what changed in the way how you – level creators – work together?
Freeek: Our music guy, Jaroslav, gives the team music to work with. We start off by listening to this music (practically on repeat) for a good couple of days, to really learn and understand every aspect of the songs. I remember listening to Crab Rave for a full week before even touching it. I do this so I can determine whether there is anything unique in the song that can be utilized.
With Pop/Stars, for example, I watched the ‘behind the scenes’ dancing videos more than the actual music video itself. Then I determined which parts of the dance would be fun to match the player’s movements to, and went from there.
After the level and its difficulties are completed, a lot of testing follows. We play the songs on all difficulties over and over again. I test songs at varying speeds to make sure they are flawless, I play on my knees when testing Easy and hold my arms in, trying to imitate what it’s like playing as a kid. On higher difficulties like Expert+, every section is also tested to make sure it’s physically possible to Full Combo, rather than just hypothetically. After the levels are crafted, they are given their own final testing by Jan himself, with any necessary adjustments made.
Michaela: What’s the psychology behind the patterns in the levels?
Freeek: Many ideas we implement into the levels are usually inspired during the period of time when all we do is listen to the songs. We take inspiration from multiple things, including some you might not have even thought of. Lyrics are an obvious one, but others include if the song is currently in a major/minor scale, the current instrument, and any external meanings or traditions about a song, amongst other things. This added ‘layer’ of the song is the type of thing I try to convey when thinking of patterns. It’s not all just about the difficulty. There are several of these extra ‘layers’ in the levels in the game that many people might not realize. Some examples include:
- During ‘Overkill,’ the main drop has an upwards lifting feeling. A pitch-rising massive synth with a big snare hit between each one. During this section, the player is forced to make increasingly large upward swings with a big downwards hit between each one.
- During ‘Crab Rave,’ the majority of the song is focused on patterns that move from left to right, matching the sway of the Crabs’ dance in the music video.
- During ‘Whatever It Takes,’ there are a few sections in the verse with special cues. “Run me like a racehorse” feels like using the reins when riding a horse. “Break me down and build me up” has the player slicing blocks in descending then ascending order.
- During ‘Unlimited Power,’ the lyrics that say ‘From red to blue, from blue to red, and ducking the red from overhead” have the player performing the exact moves to these lyrics.
Crab Rave (Expert+)
These are just a few examples of the attention we put into making levels. Even the difference between the types of instruments can be used while mapping: if a piano is being matched, the pattern will be more stylized towards a simple flow, and the position of the blocks may match the pitch of a piano roll. If it’s a drum, the angles will be more up/down focused. Bass guitar will have notes more in the bottom row, whereas vocals will be higher up in the air. A lot of the time, these habits are mixed with multiple instruments.
Michaela: Lighting is a super important aspect of every level. It seems quite complex to put together such a light show — how do you approach lighting while mapping new levels?
Freeek: Yes, lighting has a lot of time put into it. In most cases, there are even more lighting triggers than blocks! Even in Expert+! For example, ‘Digital’ has 951 blocks to hit in Expert+, yet it has over 3000 lighting events!
Lighting events in ‘Overkill’
A lot of thought processes that are applied when creating the blocks for the levels are also used in lighting. In ‘Thunder’ we primarily use blue (for obvious reasons) but we’ve even tried to re-create specific lighting events to imitate a thunderstorm. In ‘Radioactive’ the blue and red lights never mix until the lyrics sing the song’s title. In ‘Crab Rave,’ we changed the color of the entire environment to match the tropical look of the music video, and we changed the Monstercat logo to orange… because of crabs haha.
A lot of lights are also hand-synced with lyrics. Next time you play Pop/Stars, pop on no-fail and try to pay attention to the large ‘X’ lights. Even for an upcoming song we are releasing, I studied the way lights look on a carousel (especially when powering up/down) to then imitate that in the level. For every song, we even have unique lighting for Expert+, specifically so that more intense/strobe based lighting doesn’t outweigh the lower intensity of lower difficulties. We also make sure that some of the more intense lights match the frequency/Hz of different HMDs so that they’re actually visible!
Michaela: With the current selection of the music in the game, which artists or bands you would personally like to see in Beat Saber the future?
Freeek: If there’s one thing I have learned about Beat Saber, it’s that any genre works. Songs I may dislike listening to can be very enjoyable when done right in the game. But if I had to pick out some artists, I’d love to see Gorillaz, Linkin Park, Daft Punk, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arctic Monkeys, Deadmau5, Flume, Black Keys, Skrillex, Will Sparks, Caravan Palace, Metallica, AC/DC, Guns n’ Roses, Kygo, Avicii, Nero, Pantera, Pendulum… hell, even some Outkast, Eminem, Hilltop Hoods or Kanye West wouldn’t be too shabby. Oh, and of course, more Jaroslav Beck!
There may be quite a few there, but honestly, they would all work. Even an official Level Creator can dream… right?
Michaela: Good selection! Let’s see who’s coming next! Our goal for 2019 is to bring as many genres as possible to Beat Saber so everyone can find the music they enjoy the most.
In the meantime, I would like to invite all PS VR players to try our fresh new Imagine Dragons Music Pack – a selection of the band’s 10 biggest hits. Theis now available at PlayStation Store.