Developer interview: One Hand Clapping

One of the most interesting concepts coming out of the indie scene this year is One Hand Clapping. Developed by Bad Dream Games and published by HandyGames for all major platforms (including mobile), it’s due out later this year and features voice-operated mechanics to help you pass its puzzle platforming levels. We got in touch with creative director Thomas Wilson to find out more.

Who is in the development team at Bad Dream Games, and how did you come up with the name?

Bad Dream Games is composed of five full time members who work together in the Arts District of Los Angeles, California, as well as a number of other teammates who live all around the world. Our names and roles are Thomas Wilson (creative director), Zach Lower (lead designer), Tamara Chang (art director), Charles Voita (lead engineer), Adam Weesner (game engineer), Aaron Spieldenner (composer and sound designer), Louisa McNicoll (lead artist), Milo Lu (animator), and Benjamin Erdei (technical artist). The company was founded by Zach and me, Thomas, after the success of our 30 minute One Hand Clapping demo that we developed while students at the University of Southern California. For almost everyone on the team, this is our first time working on a commercial game, so we’ve come into it with open minds and have been supportive of one another as we navigate the game development labyrinth together.

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While working on the student demo we used to joke that one of our artists was inspired by their bad dreams while creating concepts for our game. Zach and I thought that was a cool idea and that it also sounded like an intriguing name for a game studio, especially since we’ve made such a cute and non-nightmarish game!

One Hand Clapping’s voice mechanics are so unique on a conceptual level – how did you go from high concept to full game concept?

This was a long process! When I first came up with the idea to use singing as a game mechanic in 2016, I knew that there was a lot of exploring to do. I started reading a book about the psychology of music, and it inspired a wide variety of game mechanics within the framework of a 2D platformer. I turned those prototypes into a short game with two other students, one of whom was Aaron, our current sound designer. The game had no narrative, no art, and gameplay that required a precise synergy of movement and singing. Here’s a video of our trailer – it’s very crude so please don’t judge:

The idea of a singing game that consisted of a stream of diverse mechanics felt exciting and fresh, but it was easy to see that the punishing platformer we created didn’t foster the right environment for unabashed singing and creative expression. Consequently, we formed a larger team of about 20 students and remade One Hand Clapping with a new goal: ensure that the player has the time and space to focus on their voice and become more comfortable singing over the course of the game. With this intent, the narrative of our main character came very naturally: they would escape a muted and judgemental place and enter a vibrant world of musical wonder. We wanted to empathize with how hesitant or uncomfortable our players might feel when singing for the first time in the game, and then take them by the hand and show them the power of their voice and all of the different ways it can change the world. Here’s the trailer from that demo:

As we began turning One Hand Clapping into a full length experience, our most important consideration was how we could provide structure to a game that introduces new mechanics every five to ten minutes. To address this, we divided the game into a series of biomes. We then allowed the concepts of atonality, melody, rhythm, harmony, and improvisation to each define a biome’s environments, characters, narrative, and gameplay. For example, Fugue Forest is all about harmony. Here the flora and fauna generate recordings of your voice that then loop on top of each other to compose multilayered songs. Among the trees lives the Harmony Hermit, who is shy at first, but, once you learn to understand and help each other, your voices soon join together in beautiful harmony. This overall structure, combined with everything we had learned about prototyping singing mechanics that were empowering, thought provoking, and easy to grasp, helped our team develop something cohesive and comprehensive. Our most recent trailer is here:

How has development on One Hand Clapping progressed since the initial concept?

One of the first things we did when developing the full game was roughly and quickly outline all of the mechanics, characters, aesthetics, and narrative that would construct each of our biomes. Using this game outline as a guide, we focused on each of our seven biomes one at a time and attempted to make some semblance of what we had envisioned. This, as you can imagine, is a very humbling process.

For each biome, we first quickly prototyped as many different mechanics as we could and created an example level for how each of these mechanics could be introduced and expanded upon. While we quickly realized some mechanics just wouldn’t work, other mechanics required many iterations in order for us to figure out how to make interesting levels around them. There were occasions where we spent a long time trying to make a mechanic work, only to end up removing it completely, as painful as that was. There was one idea we had called “Melody Association” where you had to match a tune to an image, but it was extremely confusing and once you finally figured out what was going on… it still wasn’t interesting. Eventually we had to say goodbye.

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Once we had a list of mechanics for a biome, we ordered them in a way that made sense in terms of game feel, environment layout, and the narrative we wanted to convey. As a result, our narrative is often directly told through our game mechanics, which gives the game a symbolic, mysterious, and operatic atmosphere. This whole process of roughly prototyping and laying out the entire game took about a year. We then spent another year revisiting each biome, improving the puzzle designs and NPC interactions, adding in art and sound assets, and in some cases completely remaking a biome from scratch. The development of this game has been incredibly iterative from the start, not only because we learned so much about how to make a game while attempting to do so, but also because a singing game of this kind has never been done before, and there was so much experimentation to be done to figure out what worked. I am incredibly grateful for our team at Bad Dream Games and our publisher, Handy Games, for being so understanding of this process and doing everything they can to help realize our unique vision.

A lot of the voice-controlled gameplay in One Hand Clapping seems to revolve around hitting and holding notes while singing. Have you experimented with other auditory inputs?

Yes! Maestro Mountain is the biome that explores rhythm, so it includes a variety of mechanics that encourage the player to sing in a percussive and atonal way. One of these mechanics we call the “Beat Machine”, in which you help a ball roll down a slope by making quick noises to lift up the obstacles in front of it. Every time you lift up an obstacle we record the sound the player makes. By the end we can loop a beat made up entirely of these voice clips the player has generated. This usually ends up sounding really goofy or profane, but I’ve heard people create some real juicy beats.

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How complex do the puzzles eventually get?

Everyone has a different level of exposure to singing, so there will be puzzles that are more challenging for some players. Some of the most difficult sequences in the game are the songs you have to sing with the Harmony Hermit. At this point in the game you have only ever sung in unison with other characters, but now you must listen carefully to Harmony Hermit’s notes so that you can harmonize with them. These puzzles are essentially a gamified version of sight reading sheet music, which, for most people, is an extremely difficult thing to do. It was a fun challenge for us to write music that tells a story and also has a tonal layout that tutorializes its own harmonies and teaches the player how to sing along in real time.

How far into development is One Hand Clapping at this point?

The development of One Hand Clapping is so very close to being finished. At the moment we are in Early Access on Steam and Stadia, so we’re getting a lot of good feedback from our players, which has helped us improve our level designs in the past few months. With that being said, the game is now content complete and we are currently in the process of testing and fixing bugs for all of the platforms on which we will release: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Stadia, iOS and Android.

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