Full Interview: Hi-Fi Rush director John Johanas on the game’s development and surprise reveal

Recently, we got to interview Hi-Fi Rush director John Johanas, and he shared lots of interesting details about the game's development.

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Recently, we got to interview Hi-Fi Rush director John Johanas, and he shared lots of interesting details about the game’s development.

In case you missed it, Hi-Fi Rush is the latest game from Tango Gameworks, the studio behind The Evil Within games, and Ghostwire: Tokyo. While the studio’s previous games are horror titles (well, Ghostwire is more horror-adjacent), Hi-Fi Rush is a major departure as it’s an interesting mix of action and rhythm gameplay.

Along with the unique gameplay, Hi-Fi Rush was also announced in surprising fashion at the recent Developer_Direct from Xbox and Bethesda. It was launched right after the announcement, and it quickly got acclaim from critics and players alike for its engaging gameplay and impressive style.

In our interview with the game’s director John Johana (he also directed The Evil Within 2), he shared with us the origins of the game, the challenges that the team faced, and the decision to launch the game shortly after its reveal.

The following is the complete transcript of our interview with John Johanas (edited for clarity):

You mentioned before that this was a dream game from a long time back. How exactly did you come up with the idea for the game?

JJ: It started with just a very basic idea long in the past after I joined the game industry. When I was working on a previous game, I would just casually say to some people ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have like an action game where everything is synced up to the music?’  But I didn’t have the technical knowledge or understanding of what it would take that to do something like that [at the time].

That idea came from me naturally liking music. I’m the type of person who, when they walk and listen to music, they kind of walk at the speed that the music is. So, it’s like you keep the pace of it, and I just wanted to create an experience like that. But I guess that I really didn’t know how.

After we finished The Evil Within 2, I felt like I had a much better understanding of not only just game development in general but also how to realistically put that idea into a game concept and execute it. And so, after I wrote up a pitch for that and, and pitched it there.

It all just stemmed from my love of music, growing up playing music, and wanting to combine it with a genre I liked which is the action game genre.

You also mentioned during the game’s recent showcase that Hi-Fi Rush was inspired by Shaun of the Dead and other films by Edgar Wright. Do you and the team have any other inspirations while making the game? Be it movies, games, or others.

JJ: From a movie perspective, it’s right in the pitch document that we wanted a sort of kinetic action scene like in an Edgar Wright movie.

But from a game perspective, we looked at the genre of action games. We knew we wanted to make an action game that featured a colorful cast and over-the-top action. And so, we looked at games in the same genre as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. But then we also looked at a lot of straight-up rhythm games like Guitar Hero or PaRappa the Rapper. We even looked at what we call musical experience-type games like Rez or Lumines.

We wanted something that was somewhere kind of like in between those genres because in rhythm games, you basically don’t have the freedom to move how you want and you’re kind of restricted to what you can do. You have to just play with the song. While musical experiences have more freedom, but you don’t feel like you’re actually playing to the music.

So, we wanted a nice medium where it felt like an action game where you have you have control over the player and their technical ability to do whatever move you want. While in the meantime, how do we keep that there while keeping it in tune with the music as well?

There wasn’t any one game that we can say like this was the main inspiration. But I think there are a lot of games that use music, and we kind of saw how they were using it and saw how we can improve on that experience and make it more interactive in that sense.

What was the story behind the game not being announced and instead being revealed only during its launch day? Was this strategy something that you and the development team had a hand in or is it mostly the publisher’s decision?

JJ: We initially had the idea of teasing way back, but then, it was the worst time possible as it was right when the coronavirus pandemic began. So, we weren’t able to tease it at an event because all the events were canceled. We then held it off and waited a while for a good opportunity.

Then, we thought, okay, what can we do now because we know we have a really interesting product and we’re thinking of ways that we can show it off. We knew that those who played it initially wanted to play it right away. So, the initial idea was to have a very short campaign. I think the idea during the first pitch was an announcement then a release after three months.

Slowly, that time period between announcement and release got smaller because we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cooler if we launch a title a bit closer to its announcement.’ And then, as we’re nearing our anticipated release date, we were looking at opportunities on where we could announce it to make the best impression. There wasn’t quite a good spot that fit well within the timeframe that we’re doing it.

So then the idea came up for the Developer_Direct that Xbox was doing, and that’s when the marketing and PR team thought about shortening that window to literally as short as it can possibly be to this shadow drop. There was really a push from marketing and PR to get this one big moment to show the game and have people just immediately go and play it.

It’s a total departure from what we did before. Maybe some people’s first instinct is, oh, it’s totally different [from Tango Gameworks’ other titles] so it’s probably not that good.  But we were very confident in the product and we wanted people to play it right away. In the end, it wound up working out better than we could have imagined.

The game was under development even before Xbox’s Bethesda acquisition. How did that affect the game’s development when it happened?

JJ: It really didn’t have any effect on the development of the game. When we were making the game and the platform wasn’t decided yet, we were just making it on a PC and we didn’t know which other platforms it was going to be on. We also didn’t know what the future consoles were going to be at that point either.

Then the acquisition happened, so that made it a bit easier for us because we were able to focus on which platforms it will be released to help us polish the experience.

Other than that, it really didn’t have any effect on the development.  I think Xbox is set on having Bethesda still manage their company like they did before. So, we always communicated with Bethesda and, and ZeniMax about how the game should be. That was where all the conversations were from the beginning to the very end.

In that sense, the experience with Xbox was positive, because there was no interference in a good way. They were like ‘go ahead with what you think sounds cool.’

Tango Gameworks is known for horror games. Even Ghostwire: Tokyo has some horror elements to it. How did you and the development team feel about creating a game that’s far from the studio’s identity? (so to speak). Was there any pressure from within or externally?

JJ: I don’t think there was that much pressure about making something different in that sense.  Like you said, Ghostwire isn’t exactly a horror game but it was within kind of the image at the studio. But internally, we always knew the vision for the studio was not to be pigeonholed into one genre or just being only able to make horror-themed games. So, we kind of saw Hi-Fi Rush as an opportunity, both to expand our capabilities as developers and to try something new. It was also like a palate cleanser for us as you can only do horror so many times before you need a sort of refresh.

It’s almost like a challenge, you know, it’s just an interesting concept. I think the development team was interested in it and wanted to see if they can pull it off.

Also, it didn’t feel like it was a complete stop for the company because we had Ghostwire in the making at the same time.

You mentioned that Ghostwire: Tokyo and Hi-Fi Rush were developed at the same time. How difficult was that compared to before when you only had to work on one project at a time as a studio?

JJ: Having to do two projects in general, is just very hard to control. But luckily, because the focus was on Ghostwire when we were starting production with Hi-Fi Rush, we started with a very small team.

Initially, to make a prototype, there were just two people which were myself and our lead programmer. We then slowly added members to the team. It wasn’t like there were these two giant teams working at the same time competing against each other. It was like one main project and in the background, we were like, slowly working on Hi-Fi Rush.

It wasn’t until Ghostwire was finishing up that we finally added more people to the team. So suddenly, near the end, there were almost two full teams going. But like I said, it worked to our benefit because it let us have a small team concentrate on making sure that the gameplay experience and the visual side and everything were defined and polished so that when new members were added, we weren’t still figuring it out. We knew exactly what we were making.

I thought that was a good experience on my side compared to other projects where you just kind of go into the next one with a lot of people who are waiting for work to do. We didn’t have that problem in this case.

Coming from The Evil Within 2 which is a survival horror title, what was the biggest challenge in developing Hi-Fi Rush given how different the two titles are?

JJ: I feel like the biggest challenge was just the core concept of the game. It’s something that we saw a lot of people say ‘oh, I’ve seen people try this, but they were never able to get it.’ This feeling like you can play to the music, but not feel restricted by it.

So early on, I think that was the hardest challenge. And the thing that made development more difficult was having to work through the pandemic and working from home as it made it very difficult to communicate, especially when you’re talking about a game where everything has to sync up to the music. That’s difficult if everyone’s a little bit laggy while trying to watch a video and trying to get the time right and make adjustments. That was very painful, but that’s not the game development, per se, it was just the conditions.

While the whole project itself is very challenging, I think our vision is solid. So I never felt like I was in a war or had something that we had to fight with. I mean, there were always problems that needed to be overcome, but we knew that we had something very good, and we were always excited to see how far we can push it.

What was the day-to-day like for you while working on the game amidst the pandemic and working from home?

JJ: For me, it was very hard. It was a different experience because I’m a very feet-on-the-ground developer if that makes sense.  I don’t have an office and I sit with the team, and I’m there making stuff and checking stuff as I walk around.

So when we had to switch to a pandemic workstyle, that sort of just quickly checking something became something like we team members had to book a meeting with me. So a whole day was basically being in online meetings checking things that would normally take, you know, five or 10 minutes. They have to take time, and they’d have sent me a video first and I have to download a new build. So that was very frustrating from a director’s standpoint.

Though working from home is different depending on people’s positions, and it is great for some. I think for people who focus on making animation or environment pieces, having a work-from-home setup gives them an environment where they can just kind of zone out and be in their own place is nice.

But when you’re trying to overlook the quality of a whole project, it is very difficult. And so it just took, us adjusting to being a bit more structured than we normally are. It’s very fluid when you’re in the studio because you can walk over, and you can check. But we had to make meetings and then find time to do actual work. That took a while, to be honest, and it was probably one of the more difficult things to do during the whole development process.

Given the game’s glowing reception, how do you think will this game’s success affect future Tango Gameworks projects moving forward?

JJ: I don’t know, honestly. We just finished up this project, so for now, I just want to vacation. But I spoke to the team when we finished and I said to them that the fact that we were able to go from The Evil Within 2 to HI-Fi Rush, it’s like an ad that shows we’re able to do something like that, a game that people enjoy.

I really think that as a studio, we have an immensely talented team here. So, I think that as long as the game idea is interesting, and shows potential, I would never count anything out for what we’re able to do.

How long did it take for you and the development team to nail the rhythm and feel of the game’s core mechanic?

JJ: That basically took a year. Granted, like I said, we were a very small team in the beginning. But we just kept iterating on the core gameplay. My theory was that normally from a game perspective when you press a button it should instantly register in a rhythm game so it feels good. But in an action game, you press the button then there’s an animation, and only after the animation will it hit. So we kind of had to think backward so that no matter what, the animation will hit on the beat.

So the challenge was that it had to feel good from an animation perspective, then a sound perspective, and a feedback perspective. But also, we wanted to create a gameplay loop where you felt like you wanted to press the button on the beat.

And I think the normal instinct is that when you’re making a game is to show that there’s an easy-to-understand failure state. Like if you don’t press the button on the beat, you don’t attack. But we found that was frustrating from a player’s perspective, because if you’re not perfect, then nothing happens, and that’s frustrating.

We just kept iterating on it to find this sort of positive gameplay loop where you’re rewarded for playing with the music but aren’t punished so everything syncs up regardless of what you do. But you know, pressing the button on the beat will give you extra points and do more damage. And so that way, we didn’t feel like a person who couldn’t play rhythm games would be punished for not playing by the rules, but it’s an incentive to learn the rules. It seems simple now that it’s there, but it took a while to figure it out and get it to work.

So, it took around a year to get it to a spot where we knew that, okay this is good. Then we slowly made it feel better as we went along.

Many players of the game (myself included) are loving the song choices in Hi-Fi Rush. How did you decide on the songs that were included in the game?

JJ: I initially made a playlist of songs that we would like to have in the game, and it was just based purely on my own interests. But in general, this game is kind of like a throwback to the late 90s and early 2000s when we felt like games were a lot more colorful and playful and geared towards fun, and just trying new, interesting ideas.

We were aiming in that direction. So, I looked through my music player and made a playlist of songs that reminded me of that period. And when we were making the game, we realized the songs had to fit a certain speed and they had to be at a certain BPM to fit within the constraints of the game. Then we have to work through all the licensing issues to see if they would work in terms if we can actually use the songs or if they are too expensive.

There was a lot of work to solidify that list. But I think we ended up with a really good list of tracks that worked well with the game. And even the original tracks, too.

What is your favorite thing or what do you like most about Hi-Fi Rush?

JJ: I, along with any developer will tell you that seeing people’s reactions is the best part about a game. We had to wait a long time to get to that point, but it was, it was very interesting because we got to see people’s reactions in real time. We didn’t get to see people react to a trailer and maybe get negative responses. What we saw was that everyone was playing the game together.

[We were happy to see] everyone getting blown away by how fast it was, and how exciting it was. Being able to see people positively react and people using the same words and referencing the same things that we would reference just made us feel extremely happy That was I think the best experience.

Hi-Fi RUSH is available now on Xbox Series X|S, Windows, and Game Pass.

Want to know more about Hi-Fi Rush? Check out our review of the game here:

Hi-Fi Rush Review | Don’t Sleep on this Banger