Jungle Rumble: Freedom, Happiness, and Bananas by Disco Pixel
Published: October 29. 2014
Going bananas with Disco Pixel’s manic music game
“I was in Puerto Rico at a wedding,” recalls Disco Pixel founder Trevor Stricker, describing the roots of his studio’s first iOS title, Jungle Rumble: Freedom, Happiness, and Bananas. “The dance floor was packed—this happens at weddings in Puerto Rico—and suddenly, the DJ stopped. Silence. I was confused. The sound of frogs in the jungle came through the windows. A band strode through the crowd. They smiled. They started banging drums, blowing horns, and rapping, and the crowd erupted. The band would blow their horns at the mother of the bride who would go crazy. The band snaked through the crowd. Uncle Tito grabbed a cowbell and followed along.” Stricker wanted to make a rhythm game that was like being that band.
Jungle Rumble is a new variation on the rhythm genre, letting players control a clan of monkeys as they protect their bananas against invaders. You tap out a drum beat to move your monkeys, and direct them to attack. “I wanted to make a game that you actually controlled with rhythm,” says Stricker. “I love rhythm games—if having enough DK Bongos for four player Donkey Konga doesn't say ‘rhythm game freak’, then having spares for when they break does.” In his mind, however, rhythm games always tend to tell the player exactly when to press and then grade on timing. Why must playing with rhythm mean following a script?
Since the team didn’t have other games to use as reference material, they had to make things up from scratch. Stricker started with a little demo that a player could tap around and move, and it play-tested well. But that was just a mechanic; spinning it into a complete game would require a lot of work. What goals does the player seek? What decisions are they making? What tradeoffs are they making? “Here's a crudely stated thing about many games: Games present the player with choices requiring a level of effort both more than trivial and less than herculean,” he says. “A drum can be banged in an infinite number of ways. It takes a lot of time and practice to become one of those guys who bang on buckets and sound thrilling—the effort is herculean. However, there are a few very simple rhythms. Anybody can bang-bang-bang-bang on a car dashboard—the effort is trivial. The hard part is exploring the middle.”
Disco Pixel chose Unity as its development environment for Jungle Rumble on day one. “Unity is lightning in a bottle,” says Stricker. “We wanted to spend our time making a game, not futzing with texture swizzling, makefiles, and building yet-another-tool chain. Is there a better way to make a video game? That gets it onto every conceivable platform?” The game uses a dynamic soundtrack that reacts to the player in realtime; to achieve this, the game builds out the music as the player performs actions. “We need direct access to the PCM data going to the sound hardware to do this,” says Stricker. “This was especially useful of Unity.” When the studio showed its game at BitSummit in Kyoto, Jungle Rumble resonated particularly strongly with Japanese gamers. “Some people spent as much as two hours playing our demo in a convention full of loud, blinky games,” recalls Stricker. “We heard from a bunch of different publishers, but in general they don’t add much for mobile.” He don’t need help getting onto tons of platforms, and as he was showing a Japanese version of the game, obviously didn’t need help localizing. “I’m very wary about giving revenue to a company for a vague promise of advertising, but Unity Japan was earnest in their belief in the title and the Japanese market. They didn’t make unreasonable claims, but they did reveal flashes of insight over many conversations. This is typical of all my experience with Unity as a company. When the game launched on iOS in Japan, it spent the first week in a banner on top of the App Store. This is a credit to their reputation for releasing awesome games, and I’m very glad we’re working with them.”
Gameplay evolved over the course of development. Players receive a gold, silver, or bronze medal after each level; originally, this was a very complicated decision that depended on whether players got rid of enough enemies, and maybe even did some combos—criteria that depended on the specific level. Stricker spent a great deal of time building a data-driven system, where every level had different criteria. Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail spent a few hours with the game and hated the medals. “Why not just reward the player for getting rid of all the enemies?” he asked. “Why not reward the player for not losing a single ally?” The solution was much simpler and easier to understand. “I’m very grateful for his thoughts,” says Stricker.
One of the finest moments came shortly after release, when a user’s App Store review called Jungle Rumble “a new genre” of game. “That was a proud moment,” says Stricker, who recalls watching the game climb up the Japanese music game charts on the first day of release. “That [kind of] response in the land of Parappa, Rhythm Heaven, and Space Channel 5 really means a lot to me.” Disco Pixel is currently working on a number of updates to Jungle Rumble, slated for release this summer. A level editor will allow players to make their own puzzles, and the team is building its own levels to explain the game’s deeper layers of strategy. Finally, a music editor is coming to let players create their own soundtrack.
Pop and Lock
“With the art style, Trevor had a distinct vision for a very geometric game with bright and vibrant colors,” says Jungle Rumble art director Luigi Guatieri of the game’s visual style. The team wanted the game to exude a party atmosphere throughout; characters and environments needed to bounce and move to reinforce the rhythm of the game, which meant that the form very much followed its function. “We wanted the monkeys in the game to have a unique style that worked well at small scales on mobile devices, so players could keep track of them in a busy and musical environment. The art in Jungle Rumble pops as much the beat.”/
“Dynamic audio involves working with lots of data but at low latency,” explains Disco Pixel founder Trevor Stricker. The data is especially large when it’s CD quality, stereo sound, and when they first got the system working, it killed the game: gameplay would stutter, the frame rate would drop, and it would sometimes even run out of memory. Quite simply, the soundtrack responding to the player in realtime appeared too involved for mobile devices. “It was pretty stressful,” says Stricker. “We changed the engine to precalculate a lot of things, which explains why the game sometimes stutters before gameplay starts.” They sliced up the calculations so they could be performed across frames, and read a lot about C# to figure out the most efficient way to operate on large blocks of data. “Eventually it was working in realtime on some pretty old devices, and we breathed a sigh of relief.”
Most recently, Disco Pixel has been focusing its energy on bringing Jungle Rumble to Sony’s PlayStation Vita. “Consoles are where good games go,” says founder Trevor Stricker of the decision to port it over. “Console games have to be deep and have interesting mechanics and challenge; console gamers are willing to go through a learning curve if it gets them into something that prods their mind in interesting ways. It’s very different on mobile, where successful games have to claim to be free and basically trick players into spending anything. I’ve been a gamer since game problems were fixed by blowing on the cartridge and not by futzing with the router. These are the games that I love.” In terms of tech, Stricker says that having fixed specs was a big help. Jungle Rumble does a great deal of audio processing in real time, and knowing that the Vita’s quad core A9 CPU was there to let them offload audio to another thread (and keep the gameplay smooth) was key. Knowing the screen resolution helps as well, obviously, as they didn’t need assets that work on other screen sizes—there are no legacy devices to support.