Rhythm Doctor‘s catchy riffs and clever one-button gameplay have mesmerized a few notable indie game events this year. It was an official nominee at IndieCade and earned a spot at Double Fine’s Day of the Devs festival. It also won the award for best audio at the Indie Prize Showcase in Asia, the Busan Indie Connect Festival, and more. Though these particular accolades are recent, it’s been a six-year journey for 7th Beat Games, the three-person studio behind the innovative rhythm game. Now it’s nearing completion, with plans to release its debut for PC, Mac, and iOS and Android devices in the first half of 2018.

As the name might imply, Rhythm Doctor’s story takes place in a hospital. You play as an intern who’s in charge of a remote defibrillator. While the music plays, you press the button on every seventh beat. The visuals echo the theme as the song dances along a line, pulsing like a heart monitor. Then the system begins acting strangely, infected by a virus that glitches out the screen and even affects the music. That’s when the real challenge begins. The concept is straightforward, but the gameplay gets its hooks in fast, especially as 7th Beat has just added co-op play. The one-button mechanic draws inspiration from Nintendo’s touchscreen-based Rhythm Heaven, as well as the desire to make the game accessible to folks who are visually impaired.

Programmer and musician Hafiz Azman came up with the idea when he was a university student, and he partnered with his friend and classmate, artist Winston Lee. They submitted it to Independent Games Festival’s student showcase and was accepted — though they almost didn’t make it. Azman says that he woke up from crashing after an all-nighter and realized they needed a trailer to be eligible for the showcase. He threw something together, and a mere second after he turned in Rhythm Doctor, the submissions closed.

“It was one of those moments where I can look back and know that if I had woken up 5 seconds later, I would not be a game developer today,” said Azman in an interview with GamesBeat. “Literally one refresh after I submitted, the page updated to say that entries had closed. That lucky break led to the IGF nomination which then led us to seriously considering continuing developing this game after we graduated.”

Giacomo Preciado joined last year to help with the code after he and Azman connected at the Game Developers Conference industry event in 2014. The three are a remote team, as Azman and Lee are based in Malaysia and Preciado in Peru.

When Azman first conceived of Rhythm Doctor, he thought for sure it was going to fail. He shared with me some of the entries from his developer diary back in the early days. It took him 100 hours to put together an early prototype in 2011. And in 2012, he took the plunge and released a public demo.

“This moment has been two years coming now,” Azman writes. “I’m about to release a demo of my first game. It’s called Rhythm Doctor. My long-time college friend Winston is doing the graphics. And statistically, it’s going to bomb big-time.”

But it doesn’t. It grabs the attention of John Polson, then-editor-in-chief of IndieGames.com, who’s now a senior business developer at Humble Bundle. It gets a writeup on Eurogamer, and it trends in the web gaming section of the social media site Reddit. When 7th Beat released a requested level editor tool, fans created around 400 custom levels, some of which the studio paid to include in the final game.

“It’s hilarious and at the same time I feel like the biggest fake in the industry, ever,” writes Azman in his dev log after Polson asked him if he was going to GDC. “But what I do know is that right now, I feel I’ve earned the right to call myself a game developer. I want to shout it out to the world. Guys, I’m a game developer!”

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: What was the inspiration for Rhythm Doctor? Can you tell me more about the story? 

Hafiz Azman: In short, the setting is that the player is playing as literally themselves, sitting at their computer, controlling the game. It’s long been known that exciting the heart beat of a patient in perfect synchronization with their natural resting heart rate can heal certain afflictions in patients. What computers have not been able to do yet is execute millisecond-perfect defibrillation. Instead, hospitals are recruiting people selected for their mastery of rhythm, to control their defibrillators via the Internet. The player is one such person.

Through the story, they get to know the doctors in the hospital they are working at, and help them at their jobs. The hospital is underfunded and pay is being cut, so everyone is just trying to get by.

The story itself is heavily inspired by stories from doctor friends about their lives, of burnout and staff shortages, of not being able to spend as much time as they’d like with patients because of the workload. It also has a lot of surreal aspects, but they all make some kind of sense in context.

GamesBeat: How has the game changed since you started the project?

Azman: A lot has changed, looking back it is some kind of scope creep horror story. Originally it was meant to really be a summer project while we were in school. There were no glitchy boss battles, it was supposed to have 7 levels and be an hour-long Flash game. We released a short three-level demo to TIGSource which got picked up by IndieGames.com and were pleasantly surprised at the good response.

Then in 2012, we submitted for the Student IGF (back then it was free too! We wouldn’t have entered if we had to pay because we were so completely sure nothing would come of it, looking at the other entries from previous years that seemed way more impressive).

We made this glitchy boss battle because we thought we needed something unique to stand out from the other amazing entries. Just that one level took a hundred hours on my own side of figuring out how to glitch the screen in time with the music, composing the music, executing it — and a similarly big effort on Winston’s side to do the art for it.

Anyway, after graduation, we started a monthly levels mailing list where we worked on a level each month. We built up a thousand or so people each month that we’d send the levels to, and get feedback on them. We also gave a survey asking what features they would want to see in the final game. “Level Editor” was overwhelmingly the biggest request.

So! We decided to take a chance and spend a good couple months building up the level editor. So far at least, it looks like it was the right thing to do. About 400 levels have been made so far with the early alphas of the editor, and shared in a Discord server created by two of our fans, Shaun and Okamii. Something we didn’t expect was that, by releasing the level editor before the actual game, we were given a ton of new ideas by the community level designers that we could use in the actual game campaign. Seriously inventive original ideas that we had never thought of.

For some of the best levels, we even just outright paid some of the level designers to make their levels official levels in the game. So far the level editor has been tweaked over the months by listening to what features fans want the most on the Discord. Some people like “SomeGuyNamedDavid” even made video mockups to showcase the kinds of features he wanted, like a “push VFX.”

The video mockup impressed us so much that we’re adding this as a new feature now.

GamesBeat: What are the kind of challenges you’ve encountered? 

Winston Lee: As an amateur artist, I find that there are so many things to learn on the job — workflows, efficiencies, and techniques. Every once in a while, assets I make don’t end up the way Hafiz had pictured it. Hafiz is pretty liberal with what I make though — I’m thankful!

Giacomo Preciado: Before Rhythm Doctor, I used to work in a normal day job (also as a game developer). When I started working on this project, it was all very different because you have to handle your work hours and sometimes you could end up working much more than you should, so I had to learn to improve my work/life balance. Also coping with the uncertainty of the project success, instead of working on a normal job where you get your paycheck every month.

Azman: Yeah, the project has taken time but thankfully we haven’t had any doubts on the mechanics or needed to outright change them. Music games for me is nice to design for because it’s not like a platformer where you need to physically play it to see if it works, tune the jump height or something. With music games you can play out the rhythms in your head while driving or doing random chores, and have a good feel whether it works or not. (For years every mindless task has been accompanied by playing random rhythms or melodies in my head, by now it’s just a reflex, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop after this game is done.)

Sometimes I do get it wrong, in the sense that a mechanic is too hard for players to grasp, but the core has not needed changing. For me the challenges are less game related and more the crushing uncertainty of whether it will all work out commercially or not. That and seeing my coursemates from university move up their Goldman Sachs or plushy consulting jobs…it makes you doubt yourself at times. But on the flip side, I can also look at people like Ming-Yang Yu (CEO of Rayark), remember how huge their office was with their hundred employees working on rhythm games that started out from a small indie project, and be very inspired again.

GamesBeat: What’s the indie community like in Malaysia and Peru? Where do you go to find support? 

Azman: In Malaysia, the government right now (more specifically the government agency called Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation or MDEC) is really supporting indie game developers. They are giving us so many amazing resources, from free coworking spaces to grant money. Every day is quite a joy now that I get to work in a coworking space with six other indie developers.

They’ve also started up their own annual conference called Level Up KL. We have a good indie / game dev community now thanks to everyone’s initiatives. Our current coworking space has become a sort of safe haven for indie developers to come and mingle for events. Our current [International Game Developers Association] Malaysia head, Shawn Beck, organises Ludum Dare game jam meet-ups and monthly meet-and-greets, it’s all amazing and I hope we can make our country proud in return.

Preciado: Well, the indie community in Peru is small, it’s basically a bunch of companies, one-man indie developers, and teachers and students from game development schools. But the great thing is that because of the size, most of us know each other, and we actively try to support each other by giving advice, doing meet-ups, and finding a way to make our industry successful.

GamesBeat: Who composed the music and what was the inspiration for the style? 

Azman: I’m composing most of it. The style is mostly informed by my own musical background. So I try to actively listen to a broader range of music than I usually do. I also have a whole list of 100 different kinds of short rhythms that I’ve built up with time, and I match up the kind of gameplay and rhythms I want with different genres of music to feel out what combinations works best.

There are some super cliche choices in “quirky” rhythm games, like using reggae or ska when you want to have a level that emphasises the upbeats. Or using waltz if you want a triple time, or using jazz if you want a swing-time piece. We try to actively differentiate ourselves from games like Rhythm Heaven by choosing more contemporary styles, glitchstep or lo-fi hiphop… rather than “fun colourful world” staples like mariachi music or reggae.

And then for the more advanced levels I twist them by adding those uncommon music theory elements like irregular time signatures or hemiolas.

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s new weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.

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