Highlights Black Dragon Mage is a game that draws upon the principles of songwriting to create its gameplay experience. The developer, Tom Nemec, composed the music for the game early on and used it as a foundation for the visual development. The game’s encounters follow a tension-and-release structure, similar to that of popular music, creating a familiar and rewarding gameplay cycle.
It isn’t uncommon for a game’s developer to want the end result of their effort to play like a well-crafted song. What’s special about Black Dragon Mage is it isn’t a rhythm game and it doesn’t incorporate rhythm actions; it’s a survivorslike built on the principles of songwriting.
On its face, it’s hard to see the musical influence in Black Dragon Mage. It’s a game following in the footsteps of Vampire Survivors, about the titular mage surviving a hellish wasteland and incubating the egg of a dragon. It has action the developer calls “bullet heaven” and arena hazards that would be at home in Bomberman. Even narratively, music has little to do with the overall journey. But, according to solo developer Tom Nemec, it was composing that built the central gameplay of the upcoming title.
In a recent interview with Today Technology, Nemec said he started composing music for the game relatively early in its development. It isn’t uncommon, he explained, for music to be drafted much later in a game’s development, but for him, it was central to establishing what he wanted to see and feel to first know what he wanted to hear.
“But I’ve always really enjoyed composing music, writing music. I have this big back catalog of unused music on my hard drive that I go back to, and there’s a lot of stuff on there. When I listen to it, I immediately visualize what a game would play like if it fitted that soundtrack. I wrote some orchestral music, worked on that for a while, had four or five tracks, which are now the soundtrack of the game. And based on those, I pictured what the game would look like and progressed the visual development of the game based on that.”
He broadly wanted a high fantasy feel for the game, so settled on full orchestration with elements evocative of both Dungeons and Dragons and the iconic soundtracks of The Elder Scrolls. Those weren’t the only musical stylings he wanted for the title, however, adding some more overtly game-like elements like synthesizer and chiptune soundfonts for the process of leveling up. Nemec also included Arabesque elements for the game’s central hub, to give it something distinct from the rest of the more aggressive game world. These three modes create the broader soundtrack of Black Dragon Mage, and from there guide the visual aesthetic of the world.
But music wasn’t just fundamental to the aspects of environmental design. Encounters, too, function on the philosophy of good song. Particularly on the tension-and-release structure of popular music, Nemec explained.
“I wanted to be very accessible, but also challenging around the mid-level of the game. Rounds in the current mode take 30 minutes, so it should start out with you feeling comfortable, then there’s an intensity curve that matches what I think also good music should match. Good music builds up to the first chorus with more and more tension, and then there’s a release. And then you build up to the second chorus. This is more pop music, with more tension, tension, tension, tension, and then another release. But you keep the hype intensity for the entirety of the course. That’s how I kind of envisioned these rounds.”
This, Nemec explained, creates both a familiar and rewarding cycle for the player, ramping up toward bridge and chorus before the boss’ key change. Without ever seeing a note or engaging with an instrument, the player performs a song through the actions of combat and engagement by following the structure, if not the tones, of music throughout. Nemec’s goal was to make the game feel kinetic overall, something many rhythm games excel at, so the underpinnings of each song are one of the ways Black Dragon Mage aims to achieve that goal.
Black Dragon Mage will release Q4 2023 on Steam.