The Speed Metal of Thumper

This ’80s-themed heavy-metal rhythm game really gets you tapping.

Thumper: Pocket Edition

Rhythm Violence


Thumper: Pocket Edition is the winner of a 2019 Apple Design Award, which recognizes the creative artistry and technical achievements of developers who reflect the best in design, innovation, and technology on Apple platforms.

The heavy-metal rhythm game Thumper is all about blistering speed, glowing electric visuals, adrenaline, and something its creators call a “space beetle.” All this may sound wild, but after a few minutes of heart-stopping action, it makes perfect sense.

Watch out for lasers! (Note: This is good advice every day.)

The idea is simple enough: tap the screen to keep your metallic beetle on a sleek chrome track. It’s a rhythm game, but instead of kicks, snares, and chords, the soundscape is created by the beetle scraping and pounding against surfaces. Layers of audio are added as you “whoosh” in and out of tunnels, slam the ground, and send “pulses” careening down the path ahead. The masterful combination of ’80s neon, thumping electronica, and smooth 60-fps gameplay is like nothing else you’ve tapped.

Cocreators Brian Gibson and Marc Flury work on Thumper: Pocket Edition in their studio.

Here codesigner, programmer, and engine creator Marc Flury—veteran of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises—talks about how to amp up rhythm games.

The game took seven years to make. We made the engine, tools, and in-game assets ourselves. But during every one of those years, we said we were just one year away from finishing. We were continuously surprised by the amount of work and time it takes to develop an entire game.

We thought grounding the audio in the physicality of the game world would increase the sense of immersion. We were really trying to reduce the feeling of abstraction that’s typical in rhythm games by unifying the audio and gameplay UI with the fiction of this space beetle navigating a brutal landscape. Eventually we came up with the term “rhythm violence” to describe this approach.

Keep your beetle on the sleek chrome track. How hard could it be? (Answer: It’s actually very hard.)

We first designed the game world on a 2D grid-based editor and the audio on a linear timeline editor. Then we used various techniques to sync them up. Once we realized we could create a unified tool to author our gameplay levels and audio together—like musical compositions in a step sequencer—we knew we’d reached an important turning point.

We use directional swipes for turning and pivoting, but our gameplay also involves left/right lane switching, which is also directional. Finding a way to accommodate both of these actions using only simple thumb gestures was a major challenge.

Early-level sketches of the heavy-metal racing track and boss monsters.

Ultimately, we reconciled the controls by using thumb gestures for turns and pivots only and the gyroscope/tilt sensor for lane changes. It feels great and lets you play the whole game with one hand. Of course, some players have a strong preference for touch-based controls over motion controls, so we also created a “two-handed” lane-switch option that doesn’t require tilting.

Some of the equipment that the team used to create Thumper’s heavy-metal vibe.

It’s been gratifying to make an experience as strange and otherworldly as Thumper and have people connect with it on an emotional level. We feared most players might dismiss it as too weird or niche, so its popularity has been a wonderful surprise.

    Thumper: Pocket Edition

    Rhythm Violence