The decline of music sales and the corresponding rise of streaming-music services mean that it's harder than ever to make money as a musician. These days, artists are exploring every possible avenue to maximize their exposure — and trying to steer clear of being labeled as a sellout while doing so. Pop Sandbox, an indie studio based in Toronto, is working on a project that looks to bring bands to new audiences, a rhythm game called Loud on Planet X that does something different from this year's upcoming revivals of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.
"People are looking for new models and new ways to reach audiences, and to engage with fans in more personal ways and in more innovative ways," said Alex Jansen, studio head at Pop Sandbox and creative producer on Loud on Planet X, in an interview with Polygon. Pop Sandbox's previous work includes the satirical mobile game Pipe Trouble and the journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait, the story of an infamous Canadian bicycle thief.
Loud on Planet X transports players to a far-off planet where they must play music to fend off the aliens attacking them. In a demo Jansen showed us, the game looked like a cross between Plants vs. Zombies and Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Aliens in the form of green blobs head down four lanes from right to left, attacking the speakers sitting in front of the stage. The speakers have health, but while Loud on Planet X started out as more of a tower defense title, that has changed over the course of its development.
"People are looking for new models and new ways to reach audiences"
"From initial concept, it was much more tower defense with rhythm tap — so, kind of 60/40 — and I think the way it switched is, it's probably gone more like, 60 percent more like shooter with tower-defense elements," Jansen explained. You still tap to the music and get score bonuses for keeping up with the beat, a la the Patapon games. Weapons include concert-appropriate items like strobe lights and fog machines, and you can earn power-ups by maintaining a streak.
Early in the development process, Pop Sandbox experimented with breaking down the songs into their musical "stems" — the vocals and the various instruments, the way Rock Band does it — and having players keep up with each lane to fill in the different parts of a tune. Musicians and audiophiles loved it, but most testers found it too challenging, according to Jansen. So Loud on Planet X "moved from, like, the idea of creating music through play to — it's more so, like, if you were driving the car and tapping along to the music."
Pop Sandbox is working with Canadian bands as renowned as Tegan and Sara. Lesser-known acts like July Talk are on board as well, and Jansen hopes the game can "help break some of those guys" on a bigger stage. More importantly, the artists' presence in Loud on Planet X doesn't end with the songs: Animated avatars of the musicians themselves appear in the game.
"We're trying to do a lot of stuff to capture the individual personality of the bands, too," said Jansen. "It's very different than just licensing the music and walking away. We're really looking at much higher integration, and with the bands directly."
Pop Sandbox came up with unique special attacks for each artist, designing each special move to suit the band in question. For instance, Damian Abraham is the vocalist for the hardcore band Fucked Up, and he's known for his stage dives. If you activate Fucked Up's special attack, the in-game version of Abraham rips off his shirt and sends copies of himself tumbling toward the aliens.
Loud on Planet X's deep integration of music and musicians helped Pop Sandbox get funding for the game. The project is supported by the Interactive Digital Media Fund of the Ontario Media Development Corporation, which contributed to Ontario-based studios like Guacamelee maker DrinkBox Studios and N++ developer Metanet Software. Pop Sandbox also received funding from a less conventional source: FACTOR, the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings. The nonprofit organization, which supports the Canadian music industry, is helping Pop Sandbox cover some of the licensing fees associated with the game.
"They're really excited about new ways of engaging audiences, new ways of discovering fans," said Jansen of FACTOR.
Even with contributions from those agencies, Pop Sandbox is deep in the hole on Loud on Planet X, which the studio has been working on since January 2014. There's a budget shortfall of more than CA$100,000 ($82,553) on the project, which the team is covering with a combination of personal investment and deferrals of salary.
That's why Pop Sandbox launched a Kickstarter campaign today for Loud on Planet X. The company already locked in eight artists — Tegan and Sara, Metz, Metric, Lights, July Talk, Fucked Up, Cadence Weapon, and Austra — with two songs each. If the studio reaches the funding drive's goal of CA$50,000, it will be able to bring that up to 12 bands and 24 songs.
Jansen said Pop Sandbox is "on track" to release Loud on Planet X in October on Steam for Mac and Windows PC, as well as PlayStation Network for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. The studio is aiming for a simultaneous release on Android and iOS as well, but the mobile version may lag behind the others a bit. The first stretch goal, set at $75,000, would allow for Pop Sandbox to hire an additional developer for a Wii U port. The plan is to get a simultaneous release across as many platforms as possible, including potentially Xbox One.
Pop Sandbox has gotten a great reception from the bands with playable versions of Loud on Planet X, according to Jansen. Many of the artists that the studio is working with are gamers themselves, as you can see in the Kickstarter pitch video. Jansen said it's been gratifying to see the musicians enjoy playing Loud on Planet X — it's just as important for Pop Sandbox to build a fun game as it is for the studio to represent the artists well.
The goal is for the relationship to be mutually beneficial. "The hope is that through the game, that people are going to be able to discover a lot of great new music," said Jansen.