Somewhere in one of my
Songs folder in StepMania, you’ll find a pack titled “SMASH! 2014”.
Nine years later, one of those pack iterations would manage to survive its journey from the depths of my
hard drives SSDs (yeah, it’s been a while) to the surface – that is, showcasing In The Groove (“open source DanceDanceRevolution” as I like to call it) at SMASH!.
I have to thank Martin, founder of Blue Spring Express, for captaining this year’s organisation of the rhythm games and ultimately enabling me to bring my cabinet to the event. In the past, I used to communicate with SMASH!, and then all people involved would set up their own things. However, by having a person under the name of a business, this simplified and enabled things logistics-wise given we were technically exhibitors.
Also, shout outs to Koko Amusement for approving of the cab to go to SMASH! with incredible ease. Whilst part of the reason may have been that the cab is mine – and therefore liabilities and whatnot stays with me – I guarantee you that if we were dealing with a more formal arcade franchise like Timezone, this process would be a lot more complicated. Getchu an arcade that actually cares about growing their player base.
One thing’s for sure: next year, I gotta learn the ways of the typical Instagram/streamer personalities and go full on snap mode.
Context: What’s the Deal?
It was some time around 2010, when it was at Town Hall, that SMASH! held an ITG competition using one of our friends’ cabs. Since then, a community-run ITG cab didn’t make an appearance.
So, you could say that it’s been an aspiration for me to step up and host a competition there, given that I’ve had previous experience running various tourneys like EO[FYT] and the Timers series.
In my view, to host an event at SMASH!, this would involve at the bare minimum:
- Getting the cab over to the event location (in today’s case, that’s the International Convention Centre Sydney)
- An exclusive song pack
- A competition of some unique sort to showcase the pack
When you think of “competition”, usually you think of something like a standard bracket tournament. However, one of my learnings that I’ve since incorporated into Timers is that in ITG, the skill level of participating players are far too wide. It would serve better to be more inclusive and think of something that can cater to more players, such that even a casual player (who puts the effort in) can still have decent odds of winning.
I also had an opportunity to get a little creative and unorthodox, as I have several years of programming skillz behind my back to enable such a thing.
The Rhythmic Towers
With that in mind, I thought up of the idea of having a co-op tourney, emphasis on “co-op”. The full details can be found here, but the tl;dr:
- 23 (for 2023) “floors” to “climb” and unlock, rated 2 to 12 on the ITG scale as advertised (actually, the final floor is a 13, for dramatic effect). The tourney starts with only one song, and players need to “explore” the floors by passing them
- Every fourth floor has a “special aura” with an additional requirement, phrased in a way that implies the need for two players
- Accolades (term shamelessly stolen from SRPG, for the lack of a better word) are also awarded to players for simply passing (1, repeatable), being the first to explore (2 for regular, 4 for special), and getting the highest score on a floor (3). This incentivises progression but also allows low level players a chance to win
- Two prizes: towerblazer (whoever successfully explores the 23rd floor) and captain (most accolades). Players can only get one of these, so there will be guaranteed two winners
Tracking scores and keeping tabs on accolades is, of course, practically impossible without the help of a system (grabbing scores without interruption, processing and resolving them, and doing so faster than the scores that are coming in, etc).
That was why I leveraged 🤖ｔｅｃｈｎｏｌｏｇｙ💻 and wrote my own tracker to monitor the incoming scores. Its package involves the public facing website, an API to interface with the game’s scores, and an unlocking system. If you’re interested in the technical details of these, I’ll cover them in a separate article I’ll get to soon™.
The Special Aura Requirements
The songs and its requirements are as follows. Note that the requirement shown here is phrased verbatim.
|Bluerose / Hoshimachi Suisei (VTuber)
|Achieve two full combos per attempt
|たぶん (Tabun) / YOASOBI
|Clear with a score > 80% but average < 60% per attempt
|恋愛裁判 (Ren'ai Saiban) / 40mP feat. Inugami Korone (Vocaloid, VTuber)
|Clear with a combined score > 188.88%
|ｉｓｏｐｈｏｔｅ / Pasocom Music Club feat. punipunidenki (maimai)
|Clear the song
|D2 / FIRST AID (DJMAX Technika)
|Clear the song (Hint: watch for the roll notes)
The first three songs are standard charts that have performance-based requirements. isophote is a routine chart (aka co-op in Pump It Up terms, requiring two people to play on both sides). D2 is... haha, uh, how should I put this? It’s an “experimental” chart, with a certain scroll gimmick that can be summarised as needing to read both sides at telegraphed moments. It’s a lot easier to explain through demonstration, so here’s an article I wrote discussing the chart in more detail.
- Due to us being late on schedule on the Friday when we were setting up, I was unable to make time on Saturday to reduce the pad sensitivity of P1. Players could so much as just step hard on P2 (not even stomp) and still trigger P1. Usually at Koko, P1 has been tweaked for “slide form”, but this totally did not fly at SMASH!. The increased sensitivity made Bluerose’s full combo challenge unfair for people who had to play on P1.
- For some reason, even when I had set the fail type to
Immediate(i.e. the song ends on the spot once both players fail), fail off first easy/beginner also off, and the game running on non-event mode, gameplay still continued after both players failed. Immediate failing was intended to cycle through games faster, but also give the special aura floors that grind experience – think DDR’s encore extra stage content, especially the perfect full combo challenges.
- OMG (the NewJeans song) and Idol (from Oshi no Ko) were the most requested songs to be played from the pack, confirming my guesses that (a) there was an appeal for K-Pop with the audience at SMASH! and (b) you’d be kicking yourself for not having the most trending anime song in your set list. Heck, OMG was one of the songs on the DJ setlist at SMASH!’s after party Hoshi After Dark, according to a friend who went. Unfortunately, during Saturday, players didn’t make it to unlock Idol.
- Tabun turned out to be significantly harder than I expected it to be. The most experienced players had to try multiple times to get very close (82 + 41.12). It took just over three hours (of the available eight) to complete it, of which it required my assistance.
- Some players were confused as to what “per attempt” meant. I intended to use it as a clarification so that playing it multiple times didn’t count. Players still had to ask for it to be explained.
- About half of the players who discussed Tabun’s requirement understood the implication. Those who did subsequently thought of strategies to attempt to meet it, which was great to see.
- Ren'ai Saiban was also a significant challenge. The average score across all passed attempts were 84.66, median 86.55; the requirement implied 94.44+ between both players. Initially, I had the threshold set to 177.77 (88.88+) but thought that was too easy.
- Ren'ai Saiban additionally was a long song (3:41). Its intention was to make it a battle of attrition sort of vibe; can you keep your accuracy up for a while kind of thing. Of course, the downside to this was that it took up more time per turn for every failed attempt. It was probably a better idea to have it as a non-special chart; maybe I might use a trance song next year. (Aerial Flow? zts? Watch out people, get ready to play a song that takes as long as an entire DDR credit!)
- isophote was seriously mis-rated as a Lv10 couples chart; it’s more of an 11+/12– due to the roulette’s difficulty spike.
- D2 was basically out of the question as a sightread chart. Only one of our booth assistants was able to meet the requirement; not to also mention he’s a high-level all-rounder in most arcade rhythm games here, and no stranger to mod charts.
- The winner of the accolade prize was the one who played the first game of the day. She only played a few games (8 passes), but for the first three floors got high score (3) and first explored (2) accolades, giving her 8 + 3(2 + 3) = 23. Meanwhile, the runner-up played double the amount (15 passes) and only got two first exploration accolades, giving him 15 + 2 × 2 = 19. My original expectation with this was that good players would sandbag the most easiest difficulties to try to claim the high score accolades, but instead players were occupied with progression on the special aura floors, due to how difficult it was.
- For the record, despite asking multiple times about prizes on the day and before (up to a month in advance), I never received anything. Last year, we were given tokens from a gacha booth to hand out. Thankfully, players weren’t expecting any prizes in the first place.
- I believe the expectation was due to two reasons: (a) I didn’t explicitly state what the prize was due to not knowing (I just said “prizes” on the website and in various posts – and, looking at this from the player’s perspective, if it hasn’t been mentioned, it’s likely because it’s something not worth mentioning), and (b) I had difficulty trying to let people know of the competition.
- Players who attended on Saturday also came on Sunday. In fact, I’ve never heard a person answer no when I asked “will you be here tomorrow as well?”.
Throughout the day, most players who weren’t frequent rhythm gamers had only a choice between five or so songs in the 2 – 4 difficulty range, which was limiting.
On the contrary, the floor unlocking mechanic hard stuck players looking for more of a challenge. I had a few comments from players stating that they didn’t want to wait for others to unlock content.
Some regulars wanted to play on Saturday, but couldn’t due to the competition exclusivity. Whilst I did warn players before the event that they should instead come by on Sunday, I understood this was a missed opportunity. However, I was concerned about leaving the competition optional and as a result getting much less participation from players.
Initially, games were three songs. Two per game was a much better option, especially when the queue was four or five.
Challenges of the special floors need to be significantly toned down 😅
Ideally, I would’ve wanted SMASH! to repost/advertise our marketing content, but our team and I were disappointed to learn that they didn’t decide on them and instead posted their own last-minute. It was pretty evident that we had significantly different levels of commitment to PR – I even reverse engineered their image + title format so all they needed to do was post the image with our provided copy. Complications include:
- I had to forward media posts and related images through a middleman rather than have direct communication with marketing people
- I didn’t have any more suitable photos ready to share, given I rarely had the time to go into the city to source them in the first place, e.g. a pic of two players playing
- To be absolutely clear, if it wasn’t yet, this was a 100% solo project. I couldn’t even start to find other people who’d be bothered in assisting
- The companion app had no specific mention of any of the rhythm game cabs. Whilst I did point this out, and SMASH! was advised, ultimately it wasn’t addressed. (To be fair, the 9k impressions on said social media post was far greater than the number of app users who viewed our stall posting, so who cares)
- It seemed to me there was a general reluctance – one of our fellow organisers sent them an edited time-lapse that I recorded last year, but never got a response back
I wouldn’t know because the news never got to me. Maybe something was discussed and there was a reason why we couldn’t show off our games. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I have been told, though, that this year should be treated as a testing-the-waters pilot event, hence the lack of promotion, and that future events will definitely have opportunities to pick up to pace.
On my end, my marketing reach was limited to members of the Aus DDR Events and SOUND VOLTEX AUS Discord servers, having member counts in the mid 300s. It would be a bit shitty of me to join the much bigger maimai AUS server (~1390 members at the time of publishing this) solely to advertise a different game.
On Sunday, the cabinet was set to free play, and players had access to our regular 26k+ song library. Whilst most of the SMASH! 2023 pack was unlocked for play, we still had the tower progression challenge up for players to attempt to continue.
There wasn’t much I could comment on this day since it was the day for me to actually browse the venue; I had hiccups with my competition system on Saturday, which caused me to be stuck to the cabinet all day. As a result, I missed out on attending LAM’s illustration process panel, which for me was the highlight of SMASH! this year 😥
- A significant amount of onlookers stopped by to watch taro4012’s Mawaru series of mod charts (think goofy, fun mini-games that stretch the capabilities of StepMania’s LUA scripting, all in a music simfile). I saw one person take video clips.
- There were opportunities for players to enter the wrong mode (casual vs ITG, 2 player vs doubles, etc). Whilst accidentally entering casual mode was fine if players intended to play my song pack, one of our crew had to message me asking how to switch out of doubles.
- Players who were used to the modern DDR navigation of hitting 9 at song select were not aware of how to enter the options screen. When players accidentally bypassed options, given that each player is supposed to be guaranteed two/three songs per game, I had to start another game and skip the excess stages. Not a game-breaking issue, but unnecessary effort nonetheless.
- I wrote a feedback survey for visitors to fill in, and put up a link on one of the whiteboards on Sunday afternoon. There were no responses.
- Our rhythm games area was positioned behind the concert stage, which caused a bit of audio clashing. In the map below, south of our area were the itashas, then the performance stage. (Check out the feature image at the top too that I captured in my time lapse for another view.)
- Additionally, a few long time ITG friends of ours had showcased and ran a panel on the development of their rhythm game, but ended up having a table far away from the general games area, thus losing a lot of potential visitors to their booth.
Here are some things that I’ll consider, or have been suggested from other team members and visitors, for future events:
- I originally wanted to write a game navigation primer similar to this one about Sound Voltex, but didn’t get the time to this year. It’s something I’ll check off first when I get back to updating the website – the next competition format is expected to be similar to this year’s, so thankfully most of the implementation work would’ve been done already.
- Don’t enforce players to the competition on one day; make it optional.
- Additionally, I could hold the competition on both days, and hand out prizes on Sunday. This, of course, brings a critical, but not observed, disadvantage to those who only had a day pass: Saturday people would be ineligible to receive any prize, and Sunday people would be a day behind for the accolade prize. (Did I really just imply a Pay To Win model? Damn, I might be onto something here lmao)
- Have two divisions for the competition: lower can focus more on easier difficulties (maybe 2 – 9); upper can then give me more freedom to cater to regulars (7 – 14).
- Don’t forget the goal of targeting the general audience first. Even if our conversion rate across all SMASH! attendees to our free play area was 0.5% (this year, that would equate to be ~70), this number is still significantly higher than, say, 50% of regulars who happen to have had a ticket to the event (low 10s). Thus, more thought should be put into the decisions made creating content for lower division.
- Have better communication in regards to setting expectations and keeping on schedule, both with the team and with other parties. I’m usually uncomfortable with nagging people, but sometimes it just needs to happen.
- Find a way to reliably test out my competition systems on the actual cab. Yeah yeah, I know, it worked on my machine, but this time we’re talking about it working on the actual ‘production’ environment a week before the event, and then – surprise surprise – it breaks on the day. Team members with the SDVX setups also had a similar issue with networking, and came across peculiar issues like the game crashing when selecting charts Lv17 or higher.
- Keep in touch with the local game dev community, especially if it’s a rhythm game of some sort, to see if we can be gathered around the same spot.
- Don’t be shy about reaching out to other mods/members of larger communities. A close-to-zero percent reach is infinitely better than zero, especially if the member count is massive!
- Put up the link to the feedback survey at the very start of the event and let people know they’re supposed to fill it in later, rather than waiting towards the end of the second day to show it.
Proactiveness clearly seems to be a recurring theme here.
Also, I might as well mention it:
where maimai lmao was definitely the meme quote of this year’s event. Rest assured laundry folks, Martin’s got figuring that out high on his list for next year.
Yeah, we will have maimai next time. That’s the first thing [our SMASH! representative for the games section] told me on packdown
What A Great Revival
The ITG community in the 2010s was certainly of a different kind and vibe compared to now, a decade later. Yet, having a cab at SMASH! in 2023 brought friends together from that ‘era’, and it was incredible to meet these individuals again to catch up.
Or rather, should I say, it didn’t have to be all rhythm games. For instance, at last year’s SMASH!, I bumped into a friend at a panel who’d left the ITG scene a while back, to learn he’s been doing great within the VTuber scene.
Regardless, old or new regulars, one thing remains the same – the experience of meeting players again, in real life, in front of a variety of rhythm game cabs.
It’s having great chats – be it animu/mango, VTubers and their works, typical discussion of hitting notes to the music, etc – with Pump mains, maimai mains, and new peeps to DDR. Seeing people, first time or not, coming down from Brisbane, or up from Melbourne. Finally putting a face to the user names I see time and time again on Discord.
The Big C along with its lockdowns was just as well the final nail in the coffin for the Sydney community (and many others around the globe too, without a doubt), as players started to source pads and main their home setup.
But, I do have hope that the second iteration of ITG at SMASH!, or perhaps at a different con, will help past players rediscover the joy of simply hanging out, and maybe having fun over games. After all, that is the reason why I bought my cab in the first place, and let it chill at such a convenient and accessible place like Koko.
Maybe, just maybe, I could also revive the local scene and witness the beginnings of another “new generation” of players in some way. But if not... I’ll be more than happy just seeing people enjoying the company over the weekend of SMASH!.
That, I’d still consider a win in my books.
 In fact, I’d doubt you’d find an established arcade franchise who’d agree to store a cab that belongs to someone else.
Recall that places like Timezone need to do things “the right way”. Like exclusively ordering parts through official channels ($25 a DDR sensor vs $8 somewhere in a Chinese store). Or, the hierarchy must be consulted to obtain permission to do something. Or, external volunteers like me who wish to tweak the cab must go through safety induction and be signed on a log book.
It’s all for a good reason: warranty and liability. SMASH! requires stallholders to be insured with a cover of at least $20 million (a standard amount for businesses dealing in public spaces like the ICC).
 Well, strictly speaking, there has been a hired ITG3 “clone” cabinet, amongst other DDR cabinets, but its quality was obviously inferior in all aspects that you really couldn’t count it.
 Both of these tournaments were held back in the good ol’ days of Timezone George Street.
- EO[FYT] is short for “End of Financial Year Tournament” where I made the most out of a terrible pun given that it was held on the weekend of July 1 to mark the end of the financial year. Of course, we suited up for the event.
- Likewise, Timers is short for “Timezone ITG / Melodic Evolution of Rising Stars”, where I tried to focus on new players through having a timing-based tournament (and TCG in the second event) instead of pure difficulty.
 A DDR tournament, hosted by another regular, was held earlier this year and (not surprisingly) one of the national rankers rocked up. Knowing that, even before it started, I joked, “hey man, congrats on winning the comp”. Of course, he won. But what can you say? It do be like that.