The crowd screams. Anticipation rises. Two dancers pace up and down the screen. Finally, the music starts and the battle begins.
In 2007, a short animated film about street dancers went viral. Set amidst Jonathan Ng’s entrancing hand-drawn 2D animations and the uptempo musical beats of Eric San (better known as Kid Koala), Floor Kids brought to life the energy, fluidity, and the frenzied pace of break dancing.
Focusing on two dancers (B-Boy O-Live and B-Boy Nugs), the film shows them duking it out with dance moves aimed to impress, entertain, and to challenge each other. Capturing the essence of street dance culture, the film achieved some success. However, for both Jonathan and Eric, there was always this desire to further explore the culture and its characters beyond what the short film could offer.
“Nobody really knows what to do with a short film [after it’s done] but we all love short films,” explains Jonathan. “Eric was playing [the film] at his shows, using them as bumpers [clips shown during his musical performances] and there was talk at some point to try to make it into a series but we really didn’t like the way those deals were being offered. We just felt there was something else out there.”
While it would take several years to find, that something else would become a video game. During the film’s early days, ideas of turning the film into a video game were already floating around. Jonathan tells me, however, that it was their lack of game development experience that tempered their interest in exploring the medium.
With backgrounds rooted in art, animation, and music, neither he nor Eric knew how to make a game. “We were always in that mindset of ‘Who’s going to make it?’ and the idea that games are really expensive to make,” recalls Jonathan. While they considered pitching the idea to big companies, they feared they would lose the original spirit of the film. So they turned to Montreal’s independent game development scene.
hey are there any indie video game designers/programmers in montreal on here? I need to talk to you.
— kid koala (@kidkoala) July 25, 2013
“Eric had this idea of showing up [at indie game meetups] and meeting with indie programmers,” says Jonathan. “We would show Floor Kids [the film] to different groups of developers to see how they’d react to it and to see if they cared about it.”
Not only were they looking for collaborators who could transform the film into a game but they were also looking for teams who had experience navigating the world of financing independent games. Eyeing the support of the Canadian Media Fund (CMF is a non-profit organization providing financial support to Canadian-based digital media projects), Floor Kids wanted people who have “already been through the ringer.”
They found their collaborators in Mike Wozniewski and his digital media studio team at Hololabs. With game development experience and a successful track record with the CMF, Hololabs felt like the missing piece Floor Kids needed to complete their crew. All they needed now was funding to go forward.
In late 2013, they submitted their application to the CMF. “I don’t think Rhyna [Eric’s manager], Jon, and Eric really understood what they were getting themselves into,” says Mike with a laugh. Indeed with everyone involved having other projects on their plate, the team took a wait-and-see approach.
In early 2014, they got their answer with CMF granting the team development funds to kickstart the game. “When it actually happened, [I just said] ‘Oh!’,” recalls Jonathan of his surprise. “Now, things are moving because you got funding for it. Now, it’s your job.”
With funding in tow, the next challenge was translating the film into a game while still retaining the original feel and style of the film. “The simplicity of the art [in the film] was awesome. There was so much richness in how the bodies moved,” recalls Mike of their decision to maintain the art style. “It was super simple yet super effective at communicating physics, motion, momentum, and all that sort of stuff.”
“When we started digging into [game ideas], we started realizing that with the characters, it’s really about forming a crew,” says Mike of the game’s origins.
“It’s about becoming friends and this whole other story on top of it that motivated a lot of the game itself which led to keeping the animations as they were and be really true to Jon’s original art.”
This decision though posed a problem because the dance moves in the film weren’t originally made for a game. Whereas the film allowed Jonathan to fully dictate when one movement would start and end, ceding this control to the player within the game meant re-working the whole animation process. Since the moves in the film weren’t perfectly cyclical, Jonathan needed to re-animate them to be more loopable so that the transitions between one movement to another would appear organic and natural.
As they were still exploring how the game could work, Jonathan’s re-worked animations inspired the rest of the team to come up with the earliest prototype of, what is now, the core of the game. When they all met again, Jonathan’s animation cycles were thrown onto a tablet – with loopable animation cycles controlled by touching, spinning, or sliding the character with your fingers. Playing the prototype for the first time, Jonathan was in awe.
“In the game, what’s really interesting is you do a bunch of moves that can loop and then you do a bunch of transitions between moves,” says Jonathan. “But when you start doing multiple moves in succession, you have these unpredictable things I didn’t necessarily see the character doing.” This was a turning point for the team, the moment when they found their game.
Though they found the core of their game, it was not without its challenges. As Mike tells me, the hardest technical challenge they’ve encountered thus far was staying true to Jon’s animation. While their original prototype only had a few animation cycles, when Mike and his team started expanding the movements, they realized they needed to create their own system to manage all the animations that Jon was creating.
“[Jon] has thousands of drawings and there are just so many different permutations,” says Mike. “Each [dance] move loops and within each move there are other outputs that go to other in points. It’s a horribly complex structure that’s really hard to visualize.”
For most of the project, Mike and his team focused on this challenge by trying to figure out a way to visualize, classify, and categorize all these different dance moves and transitions. Over the past year, they have even created their own internal taxonomy of break dancing moves. This taxonomy shows how each of the moves are categorized and what the move can and cannot do among other things.
Their team is essentially mechanizing the medium of dance in a way that can fit within a game form. In addition, Mike says it was really important for them to “empower people to arbitrarily control it.” A challenge that seems quite unique to the game itself.
As a comparison, Mike mentions B-Boy for PS2 as one break dancing game that stays true to the culture and form. Unlike Floor Kids though, the game uses 3D models. While 3D computer animation is a hard problem, it’s an area that has been covered well. He gives an example of an animation of someone running and another standing with hands waving. Because you can identify the joints and how they are moving in 3D models, there are algorithms that can blend the two animations together. In that sense, you can have someone running while waving because we can use a physical model that is based on joints and human anatomy.
In Floor Kids, the challenge is having none of those models. Usually in 2D animation, movement is limited. There could be a walk, jump, crouch, or standing cycle among others. However, there is never as much animation as found in this game. For the team then, they had to find a way to take these sequences of motion (that are very stylized and manually constructed) and make them as seamless, intuitive, and controllable as possible.
One of the other more interesting aspects of the game is its gesture control system. Building upon the gestures they designed in their original prototype, the team wanted to develop an even deeper set of gestures that could translate the rhythmic movements inherent in break dancing – mimicking the feel of “dance” through the player’s fingers with taps and swipes.
To help solve this, they enlisted the help of JoDee Allen. With a 15-year background in break dancing as well as experience in gesture interfaces, she acts as Floor Kids‘ movement and gesture designer. For JoDee, she wants to figure out a way to “make the player feel like they’re dancing with the character”. Because of her long history with break dancing, she intimately knows how these moves feel in real life. Translating them into taps and swipes is a matter of trying to boil down the moves to their very essence.
For example, she cites the controls for “Top Rocking” (a move where the character is dancing up and moving their feet) as more about rhythm which translates into a more tapping rhythm. Connecting speed to the music also plays a part in emphasizing this finger “dancing” by mapping the speed of the moves to how they feel in real life. If the moves feel faster in reality, the player has to move quicker in the game or if they can slow down a little bit, they move a little slower on the beat.
“It’s choreography with your hands,” explains JoDee. “[The gesture movement] needs to make sense to the players while also being accessible.”
JoDee maintains these gestures still need to have a kind of logic that the player could understand. With the game having several playable characters (with different move sets), they need to design a control scheme that make sense for those characters even though their moves are slightly different. In effect, they are creating a new “dance” language centred around taps and swipes.
“It’s definitely more complex than other mobile games in terms of the control scheme,” says JoDee. “But there’s an entry level where you can just get the character dancing that’s very accessible and then we have the more complex moves that needs practice that’s pretty satisfying too.”
While Floor Kids may still be in the midst of their development, it’s been fascinating to see the story’s transformation from a short film into a full-fledged interactive world. After CMF’s development funding in 2014, they were awarded an even greater amount by CMF in 2015 for production costs. At the time I spoke to them, they were about to apply for the last phase of CMF’s funding, the marketing phase, inching closer and closer to the finish line – a prospect that was just an idea only a few years ago.
“It’s funny, we’re entering a time of reflection in a way,” says Mike. “We’ve been pushing really hard lately to get to the halfway point in our funding. After our application for the CMF marketing funding goes, I think we’ll go back to the drawing board and really find the best design to tie all this together.”
With the team aiming for a 2017 release, plans are afoot of possible concerts, break dancing events, and other experiences to accompany the release. If successful, they’re hopeful the game could became a gateway to creating even more content for the Floor Kids universe. The main focus now, however, is in finishing the game.
With next year marking the 10th year anniversary of the film’s release and the ever increasing work required to ship the game, sustaining the game’s momentum is at the forefront of the team’s minds. For a small team tackling such an ambitious endeavour, I ask Jonathan if he ever fears losing interest or burning out. For Floor Kids, he doesn’t think so because “something about the style of the characters always makes [him] laugh” with their little dances, different movements, and personalities.
Mirroring the game’s own narratives of growing with a dance crew as you gain skills and move up the world, Jonathan also points to his team as being one of the most fulfilling parts of the experience. “I’ve never really been in a team like this,” says Jonathan of the equal ownership and partnership between the four companies (operating under the MERJ Media umbrella) behind Floor Kids.
With everyone coming from different backgrounds and expertise, they are like the characters in the game, constantly pushing the limits of what they can do together and within their respective crafts. What pushes them forward is this respect and the desire to make something larger beyond what they can do on their own.
“It’s really about the crew, it’s like a family,” says Jonathan fondly. “To be part of all that, it’s exciting.”