Sound Shapes for PS Vita: Jonathan Mak Demystifies Music Creation

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Sound Shapes for PS Vita: Jonathan Mak Demystifies Music Creation

Last week I finally had a chance to go hands-on with Sound Shapes, the upcoming PS Vita platformer-cum-music-studio that left critics reeling in its E3 debut. Coached by co-designer and Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak and co-designer Shaw-Han Liem, I discovered a deceptively simple platformer that gave me the tools to build a series of game levels – and a corresponding song – in seconds flat.

Sound Shapes’ level creation and music composition are inseparable. As you use the PS Vita’s front touchscreen to place objects – platforms, lasers, obstacles – that you’ll interact with during gameplay, you’re simultaneously laying down beats and musical cues that will evolve into a full song when you play. During the creation process, you’ll use PS Vita’s rear touch panel to resize platforms and objects to further tweak your level’s gameplay or musical style. Where you go from there is entirely up to you: the final version of Sound Shapes will enable you to upload and share your creation via PSN for others to enjoy.

Sound Shapes is a strange but eye-opening experience that’s completely unlike any music-creation game — or platformer — I’ve played. After I set down the PS Vita, I was bursting with questions for both Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem. Read our full conversation below and leave your questions in the comments!

Jonathan MakShaw-Han Liem

Jonathan Mak, co-designer of Sound Shapes (left); Shaw-Han Liem, co-designer

PlayStation.Blog: Jonathan, we didn’t hear from you for years after Everyday Shooter came out on PSN. What were you up? How long were you working on the Sound Shapes concept?

Jonathan Mak, co-designer, Sound Shapes: Shortly after Everyday Shooter, I met Shaw-Han Liem. I went to one of his shows, and I ended up showing him Everyday Shooter. We were sort of on the same wavelength — not necessarily video games and music, but…

Shaw-Han Liem, co-designer: …interactive music?

Jonathan Mak: That sort of thing. So we ended up collaborating on some stuff. We worked on visuals for shows, and later worked on a few gaming concepts. We spent two years prototyping concepts — I think we prototyped enough stuff to make another Everyday Shooter. But we kept upping the ante. While we had a bunch of cool ideas, we happened upon this prototype [gestures to Sound Shapes sitting unassumingly on the nearby table] and decided to pursue it. We decided to contact PlayStation, they showed us the early development hardware for PS Vita, and that’s how we got started.

PSB: Did you come up with the side-scrolling gameplay first, or the idea of creating a level that played music? What was the genesis of that concept?

Jonathan Mak: I think we came up with it partially out of frustration. We kept making prototypes for ways for people to actually make music, as opposed to games like Everyday Shooter where you can play musical sounds. We wanted players to actually make their own songs, which you can do in Sound Shapes.

I don’t know, I think it all came together at the same time. We chose platforming because it’s a well-known form of gameplay, where a shooter is kind of abstract — “I’m dodging bullets in space, weird!” With a platformer, you know you’re in this world and it makes more sense immediately. It seemed like a natural fit to introduce gamers to this idea of making music.

PSB: How did you work into the process, Shaw?

Shaw-Han Liem: We started collaborating on a pretty casual basis, just trying out different ideas. Some of them weren’t game-related at all, like “what can we project behind a rock show that will look really cool?” We wanted to find ways to use technology as a way to interact with and experience music.

Jonathan Mak: The interesting thing about this collaboration is that it’s not a case of me being the programmer and Shaw being just the music guy. We’re both capable of writing code and creating music….You can’t think of the gameplay first and then cram the music in; it doesn’t work that way.

Shaw-Han Liem: In order to make a game like this, we’ve realized that you need a musician who can make a game and a game person who can write music. Having gone through this process, I think it’s been a key thing. We both have access to the same toolsets and we can work off of each other.

Sound Shapes for NGP (PSN)Sound Shapes for NGP (PSN)

PSB: Did you always plan for Sound Shapes to be a portable game?

Jonathan Mak: Because Everyday Shooter came out on the PS3, so we thought we might have a lead there, though we weren’t really thinking about a platform at the time. The PS Vita was a happy coincidence, because the touchscreen makes it a lot easier to compose and edit in the game.

PSB: How would you define Sound Shapes, if you had to? A music creator, a platformer…?

Jonthan Mak: It’s weird, because I had to do that a few weeks ago…and I couldn’t do it. [laughs] Um…it’s equal parts musical instrument and equal parts videogame. Sometimes I pick it up and I pretend it’s just a musical instrument — that there’s no game. It’s cool to sit there and make music, even using it in ways that it’s not intended.

Shaw-Han Liem: It’s sort of two things. If you’re a musician, it is a cool musical composition tool that also allows you to experiment with making these game worlds. If you’re a game player, it’s a platformer that also has this musical element and introduces you to the idea of writing a song. So depending on who you are, you might look at it in slightly different ways. We’ve never come up with a good, one-sentence way of summing it up…but once people try it, they get it.

Jonathan Mak: We’re hoping it’s a bridge for people. If you just play videogames, it would be a bridge for you into making music. If you’re a musician, it would be a bridge into making game levels. I think we really want to empower people to make music, though. As musicians ourselves, we take for granted how awesome it is to be able to write music. But it’s actually not that hard — it’s very simple.

Shaw-Han Liem: Just put a bunch of fingers on the screen [he places three fingers on the PS Vita touchscreen] and you already have a loop. That took three seconds and you have a drum beat. That’s the whole idea — to demystify making music. If someone who never thought of themselves as a musician tries out Sound Shapes and realizes they can do it, and then later picks up a drum machine and sequencer…that would be amazing.

PSB: So if I picked up Sound Shapes loved making music, where would I go next? What would be the next logical step, in terms of music creation?

Shaw-Han Liem: The musical logic, once you figure it out, is very similar to the way a drum machine works. So it’s basically a 16-step sequencer with an eight-note scale. As you’re playing through the levels, each game screen is like an instruction manual for how to make that music. It’s like you’re looking at the sheet music as you play the game, but you’re visualizing it differently. As you play, you’re learning how to write music. And once you grasp that concept, you can take it to other music software, drum machines, sequencers… Those all use the same concepts.

PSB: During E3, a lot of media raved about Sound Shapes; some have even said it’s one of PS Vita’s killer apps. Did you expect that reaction? What does that feel like?

Jonathan Mak: Uh..well, I didn’t think people would get it, or like it, so… [laughter] It was really awesome when it was the exact opposite of what I expected!

Shaw-Han Liem: Going into E3, we both had a certain amount of terror because we couldn’t describe it in a sentence, and because it’s a new idea and so different…

Jonathan Mak: …and it doesn’t have that neat one-liner. Like, “oh, it’s in HD!”

Shaw-Han Liem: What was a surprise was that everyone who has seen it has approached it with an open mind. Once we explain it, people seem to be enthusiastic.

Jonathan Mak: And to be honest, the version we showed at E3 was pretty barebones. It was just about introducing the premise, so we showed a very simplified version of what it’s going to be.

Sound Shapes for NGP (PSN)

PSB: So if this is the framework, where does Sound Shapes go from here? Where will you focus your attention for the remaining development time?

Shaw-Han Liem: On a general level, the goal is to build out the tool set so that you have enough entities to build a really interesting world with a lot of gameplay. And to also add a lot sounds to allow totally different styles of music from one level to another. Basically, giving the tool more power — which will allow us to create cooler levels, but also giving more options to the players.

Jonathan Mak: From the gameplay point of view, there are some classic platform mechanics that aren’t in the game right now because we haven’t had time. If you like platformers, you’ll know there’s some obvious stuff we could put in there. And every time we add one entity, we exponentially increase the number of levels you can create.

PSB: Do you have a name for the, uh, protagonist?

Shaw-Han Liem: It never even occurred to me that it should have a name, but a lot of people have been asking…

Jonathan Mak: The key is that we didn’t want the avatar to steal the spotlight because the focus should be on the music that’s being created. So we made him a little bit low-key just to allow the music to come to the forefront.

PSB: In terms of a single-player experience, what’s your philosophy? Will I sit down with a campaign of sorts, or just a big, hot mess of levels to play?

Shaw-Han Liem: The metaphor that we’re using is that you’re sitting down with your record collection and you’ve got a bunch of levels – tracks – to leaf through. As you progress, you’re unlocking tunes, a new record… I guess people don’t sit down to listen to records anymore, but I still do! In terms of a “narrative,” that’s what we’re thinking. It’s about creating the atmosphere and interacting with music in a cool way.

PSB: What’s your vision for the online sharing element? Can I pass a level along to a bunch of friends and have them all leave their mark on it?

Jonathan Mak: Right now, it’s simple because we’re focusing on the core game. But you’ll be able to share levels with the community and download other people’s levels. There are a lot of good ideas kicking around…that we probably shouldn’t even talk about!

Shaw-Han Liem: The high-level goal is to capture the fun of making music — playing it for people, sharing it, making a record and sending it into the world to see what happens to it. If you can share your work and be proud of it, that’s going to encourage you to make more cool stuff.

Jonathan Mak: On the internet, people are like, “check out this song I found!” Once we get enough community-created levels, it would be cool if that happened to Sound Shapes. There might be a niche audience who really likes one guy’s levels.

PSB: Are you guys gamers?

Shaw-Han Liem: Five years ago, when I started this collaboration with Jon, I wouldn’t have considered myself a gamer. Around that time, people like Jon and some others introduced me to games that interacted with music in a cool way, like Rez. That’s what got me interested, and now I love Call of Duty. I don’t know what it was, but about a year ago I became a fiend.

Jonathan Mak: I play a lot of Tetris. I’ve always played Tetris. I hope to turn pro one day. Maybe…

PSB: What draws you to Tetris, Jonathan?

Jonathan Mak: I guess it’s a game that grew with me. I started playing it at eight years old, and I thought it was a piece of crap. But then I watched my brother’s friend play it like a speed run, so I started playing it that way. As I grew older, I started reading deeper meaning into Tetris: it only gave you certain shapes, so it’s kinda like life — you have to deal with what you’re given. Then came the poker craze in the 2000s, and I started applying that to Tetris: Even if you’re given crap, you can rearrange it in a way that’s fruitful, grab onto an opportunity. So it was all about probability and playing the odds .

Shaw-Han Liem: You should watch him play Tetris sometime, he’s like Rain Man.

Jonathan Mak: The funny thing with Sound Shapes is, I’ve never played platformers. It’s not a genre that I like and I was never good at them. But having worked on a platformer now, I can finally play and appreciate those games now. They used to be way too hard for me.

But yeah, it’s mostly Tetris. [laughter] There are a lot of games I want to play…I really want to play Journey when it comes out. I broke down and played a little Portal 2.

Comments are closed.


14 Author Replies

  • It’s awesome seeing what the talented folk of Toronto can do. This game really looks like nothing I’ve evar seen before and really hope to hear more on it in the coming months!

  • I can’t wait for the Vita and Sound Shapes to come out and I already paid both in full. Glad to hear from ya again Johnathan. Everyday Shooter was a great game back in the day and Sound Shapes looks to be just like it with a different experience.

    • My first words to Jonathan last week were, “Man, I *love* Everyday Shooter.” It’s one of those games that I make a point to show my non-gaming friends.

  • Wow! can’t wait to get my hands on this.

  • So will we be able to save out creations as MP3 files… I’d like to build some backing tracks with this and output it to Sonar and add guitars, bass and vox over the top. This looks really cool… got my PSV pre-ordered and this will be a must have for me.

  • Vita is a MUST HAVE…I will be pre-ordering mine soon :) If your not a tard then by all means send a request :)

  • Sound Shapes and Uncharted: The Golden Abyss will be the first games I buy when I eventually get my own PS Vita.

    • Two rock-solid choices. I very much enjoyed what I played of Golden Abyss as well — using the built-in motion sensing to aim the sniper rifle was a very nice (but purely optional) touch.

  • @4: MP3? god, I hope it’s better quality than that. default quality in most music-oriented games is at least 256kbit/sec VBR AAC or OGG.

    The only thing holding me back from pre-ordering a Vita is the lack of information about the RAM specifications. When that information (512MB to presumably match iPhone 4/iPad 2?) is posted and confirmed, and it meets the general consumer expectations for a device like this , I’ll jump on it.

    Sound Shapes is the only game I’ve seen so far that qualifies as a “killer app”, to me. The other stuff makes for an interesting canned demo, but I’m not convinced any of the rest can add up to any meaningful, long-term experiences. This concern is exacerbated by persistent rumors that the RAM (and CPU speed/cache) specs were downgraded from the develop documentation provided even 3 months ago.

  • PS: will we ever get a trophy patch for Everyday Shooter? My husband and I still keep going back to that game on a weekly basis, even though it was one of the first PSN games we ever bought!

  • Amazing! I can’t wait to put my hands on Vita!

  • any chance of a trophy patch for EDS? :-)

  • Hah, never saw Mak being a Tetris nut. This is a lengthy interview! Must read the rest in more detail now.

    This is THE game to buy a Vita so far. For me anyways. I love niche games with musical ingenuity.

  • Game looks very promising and it might be one of the early ones that I get for the Vita along with Uncharted and maybe LBP. If creating levels is that easy then I can’t wait!

  • interestin title but i wonder why the players in this advertisement used headphones.arent the speakers of vita potent enough?anyways, its always nice that more companies are joining the vita’s launch because the more the merrier :)

    • You’re always going to get a much better audio experience using headphones/earbuds on a mobile device. That, and you won’t annoy your fellow commuters on the bus or train :-)

  • I saw Jonathan Mak at E3 up in the Sony booth. I waved and shouted out his name from below, he turned around and looked at me with a confused look on his face and then I shouted “No, you don’t know me! I love your games!”. I want to say that he gave me a thumbs up.

  • Sid, are there any forthcoming dates for this software and Vita? All we know is a generic date of 12/31 which means this year (hopefully). Should we expect an announcement any time soon? Thanks.

  • oh man that looks so awesome. I used to be a music major before i turned to computer science (so i can design games :) ) and this looks so awesome. I REALLY want this game with the vita. so excited for this

  • 2 questions:

    1. About how long will the main campaign be? (assuming no creation time involved and no user generated content played)

    2. How many instruments and what kind do we get for the create portion?!

    This and vita are day 1 for me btw!

  • cant wait for this 2 come out…does anyone knw if they will have it in white color it will be awesome….n i keep hearin rumors abt a ps4 is that true

  • looks awesome want it bad sony makes everything awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I hope Sony makes it easy and really cheap to make games on PSV as this has so much potential. Just like Apple did with iPhone and see where it is now. If Sony really cares about this awesome device, I hope they don’t make it too expensive to publish games on PSV. Do it like iOS development and see this device take off.

  • i have great question for you sony will PS Vita be out before Christmas or after? I want to get my hands on that PSVita, it so cool and i love to play the games on it.

  • Wow i’m so excited for this game!
    I already pre-ordered the Vita…
    is there anyway i Can pre-order this game too?
    And when will it come out?

  • This is freaking HOT!!

  • man i just hope sony releases the ps vita before christmas that way lots of people will defintily buy it for their kids or themselves and so will i

  • Looks like this might be a cool game. The only thing that bothers me is the placement of the objects on the area when it comes to creating the sound. Does it matter where you putt the object for when the sound is played? Also can you tie different sounds to different objects. Now that I have seen this one in action it looks like this one might have some potential, since when I first saw it all i thought it was was a music generator and we have plenty of those on computers and consoles.

    Also when you said that updates for info on the Vita was coming in the coming weeks and months did you mean that we will getting updates pretty soon?

  • Would love to stay on topic, but how come none of my ideas make it on share. I check the ideas that could match and none of them are even close. I have submitted 5 ideas over the past 6 months. Do you guys even look at ps share anymore?

  • The Vita has a great launch lineup but even if it didn’t I would get one just for this game

  • Ah~ I really love this playstation blog~ I found out about this when the network was down. One of my main sites I go to everyday now ^_^

    I’ve got my 3g model Vita preordered!!! I’m so excited~ The launch lineup for the Vita looks sooooo good!
    I might have to buy like 3 or 4 games right from the start!! Love the fact that its BW compatible with my psp games i have on psn. ^_^

    • Glad to have you on the Blog! I’m excited for Vita too :) What game are you most looking forward to playing?

  • If this has dubstep……O_O my freinds gonna kill me over my vita ._ .

  • The 3ds is done. :)

  • The ps vita looks cool!

  • This game looks very good, a day one buy along with the Vita :)
    I’m just hoping for a FIFA 12 announcement. Then I’d be a happy Vita gamer :)

  • So when is ps3 gonna get in game voice chat party system? Its been since 2009 when naughty dog thought Sony would be smart enough to release it. I guess Sony really is a joke.

  • Why does every one feel it necessary for Sony to change the way that the chat system for the PS3 works. Yes it would be nice for some features to be added in but in my opinion they chat system is good as it is. Besides before you go calling Sony a joke or just flat out dissing Sony keep in mind that not every thing we want can be put in place as fast as we want. After all the chat system as it is has been extremely integrated into the network and the games as well. So adding the functionality that you want so badly can not be added in as easily as just flipping a switch, it will take more time than that. So to every on that is complaining about an ability to do something to do something being added in KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON!!!!!!

  • anyone update for ps vita resistance and killzone

  • I’m glad everyone else digs this ! But I’m going to have to pass on this one, so far on the PSvita I don’t see anything I can’t live without. At this point I think I’m cancelling my preorder for the vita everything seems to be focused towards kids. I don’t see any info on any shooters or anything stimulating enough for the price of 250$
    If I want to play uncharted I have 1&2 on PS3 and 3 will be out before this thing even releases and I’m sure will be way for fun on an actual console. Nothing that new or original same ps games rehashed for VITA !

    • Thanks for the feedback. You might like UNCHARTED: Golden Abyss and RUIN (which looks *awesome*, especially if you ever played Diablo). There’s also a Call of Duty game in the works, as well as Killzone and Resistance games, plus a new BioShock game, so there’s no shortage of shooters :)

  • Thanks sid, hope to see new psvita info soon, cant wait to play sound shapes!!!!!!!!

  • This and Uncharted……Cant Wait!!!

    Any news if their will be a White Psp Vita version? All the stores displays preorders for the regular PSP vita only.

  • i cant wait. i hope to see more info on Vita soon im going crazy lol

  • I’ll get for sure….just hope It will be possible to made hip hop songs.

  • if ucan get minecraft on ps3 or ps vita that would be great and plz reply because minecraft would begreat on both systems!

  • Sid I hate to ask again but I want to know when it comes to the sounds that you create in this game does the placement of the object matter? If it does mine would turn out to be a jumbled mess just to make a techno song. So could you please let me know about this thank you.

  • the psvita (NGP) is going to be the best portable out till 2014 i bet

  • I can’t find the right response for this…

  • will the wifi version of ps vita come with gps

  • anymore info on ps vita

  • When will the PS Vita come out?

  • can ps vita play psp games cause i hav a lot of them

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