Play as the heroic frog Norman on a daring adventure across the world in the upcoming A Frog’s Tale, a ribbiting pixel-art RPG adventure with a unique rhythm combat system! Dan sat down with its creator, AJ Norman, to discuss the game, it’s musical roots, and where the project’s going.
I’m sitting here with AJ Norman, the developer of A Frog’s Tale. Also, the composer is such an interesting thing to say because we love music here. So, AJ, how are you?
Doing good! Thank you for having me. That was a very nice, professional intro. I enjoyed it.
Thank you! Hey, that’s what we are here, professional. And that leads me to my first question. I’m not sure how much you know about us. But, we are known as pretty hard-hitting journalists in all the different worlds of entertainment, and you’re the first gaming person, so I hope you’re ready for this.
Okay, haha, I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best.
What’s your favorite sandwich?
Ooh, okay. So, I live in Minneapolis, and I’ve been looking for the best Philly cheesesteak around, and I’m having a really hard time finding a good local Philly cheese, but that is probably my favorite sandwich. It’s a bit heavy, you know? You gotta be ready for a meal. So if you’re looking for something lighter, there’s a local cheese shop that has a bunch of really bougie cheeses, that has a ciabatta sandwich, some goat cheese, some salami, and then this spicy pepper jam. It’s amazing.
That sounds incredible. Are you from Minneapolis?
I am! I grew up in a suburb a little bit north of Minneapolis called White Bear Lake and then moved to Minneapolis around college.
Because I’m from Philly.
Oh, right on!
That’s why [the sandwich] is like, are you from here? Are you from there? Interesting.
I’m just a Philly enthusiast looking for the best Cheesesteak.
Yeah, it’s an interesting place, especially the sandwiches. So this game has a lot to do with music. It is a rhythm-based RPG. Is that what you’re describing it as?
What is your connection to music?
I grew up playing in a bunch of different bands. I was kind of enamored. I had a friend that played the drums. I grew up taking piano lessons, and then in about seventh grade, I was in this group of friends that liked rock music, and I didn’t really have that much exposure to that at the time. So I was enamored by my friend who played the drums, got to play drums, and with piano knowledge and drum knowledge, I kind of had everything I needed to make music by myself digitally.
It was kind of frustrating playing a bunch of bands growing up and trying to get everybody together and coordinate schedules. And actually, writing music as a group is really hard. So for me, it was about writing complete songs and trying to build a career for myself doing electronic music and play DJ sets. So that’s what I was trying to do for a while. I went to school for audio engineering at a school here in Minneapolis called IPR, the Institute of Production and Recording. So it’s pretty cool. I got to learn on a bunch of big mixing gear and analog stuff that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, recording on nice microphones and learning cool, proper recording techniques from people like Steve Hodge, who is like Michael Jackson’s recording engineer.
Yeah, that’s really, wow, that’s incredible. As someone who’s just learning to edit, after our editor who was doing it for a long time, went to school for all that kind of stuff, I appreciate hearing that.
Yeah, it was a bit of a different world in 2012 (I graduated from there.) There wasn’t as much YouTube content out there for learning that type of thing. I think if I was doing this ten years later, I probably wouldn’t have gone to school, and would have just try to learn as much as possible online. But at the same time, it was really cool to have access to all that gear and being able to book studio time whenever you want it and learning from people that have that type of experience working with big artists for decades was interesting, you know, because the industry and recording tech evolves so fast. So some of the advice you’re getting from these guys is so outdated, especially a lot of the guys that were big engineers in the 70s and 80s and have just been teaching since then. Some of them weren’t really aware of all the latest tech trends, so you’re learning all these super-dated techniques, but it’s still valuable information.
And a lot of this project you’ve done solo. I know you have other people working on it with you, but you would say you’re heading most of it?
Yeah, it’s my big passion project. The grand ideas, gameplay, and the characters, and the setting and the story and stuff is all kind of living in my brain. I have really, really talented people that are able to kind of extract those ideas from my brain and get them into visual, solid concepts and realistic gameplay features. I don’t have a ton of like game design background. So, it’s been a very quick crash course from people that are way more experienced than me, showing me what we can and can’t do how much certain things cost. It’s a crazy puzzle to put together for someone that’s new to it, you know.
Crash Course is probably the best way to learn things. So, now, where did the idea of making it a rhythm-based RPG come from?
My favorite games to play are Zelda games. I love turn-based RPGs because they’re very chill and nice to play. It’s not as action-based, so you’re not getting so sweaty playing or gripping the controller super hard. I like a nice, chill, comfortable experience. But I love that kind of problem-solving and stuff in Zelda, and the world-building is—I don’t know, being able to use items and interact with the world a little bit more than your standard RPG is great.
Being a musician, I was playing Mario and Luigi somewhat recently. It has action commands where if you jump on an enemy during the turn-based battle and press A at the right time, you do more damage. All the characters in that game, when you’re selecting your action, have these idle animations that look like they’re dancing, and the battle music is so good. I found myself just sitting there tapping my fingers on my Gameboy as I’m playing it, and I’m like, ”Man, it would be so satisfying if all of these action commands landed on the beat of the music.” And I was jamming as hard as Mario and Luigi are in their idle animations, and it was gameplay significant. So that was kind of what sprouted the idea.
There are a lot of games that have tried to do like a rhythm RPG type thing. Like, there’s the Tyco RPGs that have come out. And a lot of them are kind of gimmicky in the sense that, yeah, you’re a character, you’re walking around in this world, but then you get into an encounter with an enemy and switches to basically just playing a rhythm game or playing like a full song stepchart. And then whether you do good enough in the song, you either kill the enemy, or you don’t—it’s not that exciting to me. It’s just kind of a mesh of all the things that I love, like exploration and interaction outside of battle, cool turn-based battles with something that I like that keeps it fresh and exciting, like action commands, but with a rhythm twist. Handling all the music and thinking about the gameplay systems, I’m kind of in a unique position where I have all this music knowledge, and I’m putting together the systems of this RPG, and the rest of the team has a really foundational knowledge of music theory, too. So we can kind of craft something super dynamic and complex with different audio being triggered by different moves. And it’s really cool.
It’s funny that you say the animations where they’re kind of like dancing because I watched the trailer a couple of times, and the way the frog jumps is such a fluid motion that goes along with the music it’s like, ”Wow, this is beautiful.” What do you think are some of the features of your demo your game that set it apart from other pixel-art style type games other than the rhythm?
Ooh, that’s a good question. Attention to detail is one; you mentioned the smooth animations. So, the game originally wasn’t meant to be an actual game. I was doing this DJ thing and trying to build a brand as a DJ producer playing live shows and stuff. I was gonna use this frog character as my music alias. I was gonna use frog-related visuals and started making A Frog’s Tale as a mock-up soundtrack for a game that didn’t exist, just writing a bunch of music that sounds like Super Nintendo RPG style: character themes or location themes. Oh, my gosh, I kind of lost my train of thought here. Sorry.
Okay. Actually, if you don’t mind me going off of that, you mentioned character themes. Have you written those specific characters? Will their motifs show up throughout the game?
I’ve posted an update on Kickstarter that showcases how I’m reusing certain melodies. So there’s a certain frog melody that gets used in all the frog areas, but in very different contexts. So you’ll see the same melody reused in this exploration area, the village, and the dungeon. But obviously, the dungeon area sounds threatening and menacing, and the village area sounds nice and cozy. The game started as a mock-up soundtrack, and it was kind of a way for me to try to break into the video game industry because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I didn’t really know how, so to try to flex my songwriting, range, and skills and showcase all that it was like, ‘’Well, I want to be able to write happy songs, I want to be able to write sad songs, be able to write epic boss themes; everything in between.” So over time, it just kind of snowballed into a soundtrack that is like 45 songs now, which is still like just a fraction of the full experience of an RPG.
Wow, 45. That is a lot. Good for you! All of the music that I’ve heard so far that you’ve put out there is very striking in a way that is very recognizable. It brings back those feelings of the games that I’ve always played, as you said, like Mario. I love it. But it’s kind of got this more adventurous and relaxing tone. And you were in the Wholesome Game Showcase, so I’m very excited about all of this. What was the process of creating songs for your world? I knew you were writing it as an imaginary thing. But as you’ve started to develop visuals, has any music changed?
That’s a cool question. Yes, I think one of the things I originally tried to do, when you think about—it’s interesting, you talked about how it reminds you of a bunch of these old songs. I think there’s a distinct line between classic video game music and modern video game music. I don’t think it takes a music genius to see that a lot of modern soundtracks are super ambient and moody. And there’s not a lot of melodies that stick out, just kind of very, very ambient. I really miss super confident melodies like that. Zelda soundtracks are a great example; they’ve had tunes that traveled through from the NES games all the way to the current games. These big, iconic melodies. I think that was something I tried to capture a lot there. These big, confident, romantic melodies and hummable tunes. A lot of the songs share the same key too, so it’s easy to make kind of medleys that include a few different motifs. It’s been really fun to mix and match different moods. Like if a certain character meets another character, you can blend pretty seamlessly from one character’s theme to another, and I think that’s a lot of fun to do.
I love the word confident in reference to the songs because, The Legend of Zelda theme, when it shows up in something, it’s something that has lasted so long because it’s not that moody, kind of subtle [theme], it’s there the entire time.
Yeah. And even when they play on it, like, every Zelda game has ‘’Oh, did you hear this theme is actually his eldest lullaby backwards,’’ and upside down or whatever. So like, even when it’s subtle, people find a way to pick it out because they’re so recognizable, you know?
Yeah, it’s very interesting that you come to all this with a music mind rather than a game developer mind. I’m so pumped to play this. The ideas going into this and being able to sit there and listen to the soundtrack and try to pick up the things you’re doing is going to be super exciting.
Yeah, I’m excited for other music-minded people to kind of pick up on different things because there’s a lot of things that like Nintendo does, for instance, that if you’re not musically minded, you might not notice it, or you might, but they are pulled off in a way that it blends really well, like sound effects that harmonize with the music. In Mario Galaxy, you’re going to Warp Star, and it plays a harp Arpeggio of a chord that’s currently playing in the background music, and that kind of stuff is so cool to me.
Having the systems in place from day one where it’s like, okay, we’re doing a music game. We need to know what chord is playing in the song at all times, what the tempo is, and have anything in the world be able to animate, react or interact to that. Thinking about any gameplay feature we’re trying to implement (or as we call them, GPI, gameplay ingredients,) so like a switch or a lever or something, Zelda games typically have switches that you would hit, and then the counts down on a timer, and then it’s inactivated. It’s cool that we can kind of sync everything up to the beat of the music, so if you hit a switch, it lasts for four beats or whatever before it inactivates itself.
You’re blowing my mind right now. The sound of a lever in Zelda, is it that *hums in rhythm*? Did you do like something like that? It’s not something I was audibly aware of until you just said it. Wow.
So like, we could, um, we don’t necessarily have a MIDI engine that plays the notes real-time in engine. So, what I have to do is, for certain sound effects, like opening a chest where it plays that little jingle, we have a bunch of different exported variations for each area because certain areas have different tempo or whatever, so that’s pretty fun.
So cool. How do the RPG elements play into A Frog’s Tale? What are we going to see there?
Um, so like I said, I like turn-based games because it’s just a less sweaty experience. You can chill and play at your leisure.
A less sweaty experience.
Yeah, I mean, it might be challenging for some—the rhythm elements, it might be super easy for others. I think that a huge challenge is finding a good balance. My big challenge that I’m trying to overcome is making this RPG that has these rhythm elements appealing to people that don’t necessarily like rhythm games. Mother 3 is a good example of an RPG that had somewhat of a rhythm element to it. You could do a combo attack up to like 16 or whatever if you hit the A button to the beat of the background music, and it was not necessarily a key part of the battle system. But it was something that was there. There was still a ton of strategy, even if you went the whole game without knowing that that rhythm thing existed in Mother three. So yeah, finding a balance that people who have a bunch of rhythm knowledge and are really sweaty rhythm game players can enjoy and something that people that don’t even have no interest in rhythm games can enjoy because they like RPGs. That, to me, is a fun challenge to tackle.
Thinking about rhythm games as a whole, the thing that sets most of them apart is how they present the UI. I’m not a UI designer, so it took me a while to figure out how we were going to represent—you have to press a button at a certain time; how is the player supposed to know that it’s rhythm-based? How is the player supposed to know exactly when it’s pressed? One of the things that the Mario Luigi games could have improved on, I think, is letting the player know exactly when to press the buttons. If you think about the Burroughs attacks, time kind of slows down. When you’re doing these multi-button inputs, and it waits for you to press the button. Then we’ll say like good, great, wonderful, or whatever. There’s no real feedback there to tell you if you did it at the best time. That was one thing I wanted to find a solution to as I saw that as a problem because every time I play that game, I’m thinking that.
I was playing Hatsune Miku at a gaming convention recently, the Hudson AMI Project DIVA rhythm game. And that game, if you watch gameplay, you can see the inspiration of A Frog’s Tale UI and how we’re presenting the button flying across the screen and the little circle that fills up counter or clockwise or whatever. Hatsune Miku Project Diva solved the issue that I was trying to figure out where it’s how do we present buttons that can come from anywhere on the screen and land from anywhere on the screen and do some funky things in their pathing. In the gameplay in the trailers we presented, we see mostly single-button attacks and defenses with the button traveling in an arc path across the screen horizontally.
We have systems in place where you basically set a beginning point and end point, and you can set as many points along the way that the button will travel to. So if you’re doing a lightning elemental attack, for instance, instead of doing an arc path we do a jagged straight line that looks like a lightning bolt and have it hit the corners of the lightning bolt in time to the music as the button travels to the little circle that’s filling up if that makes sense. Or we could do a fake-out move where it looks like the buttons are about to hit the circle, and then it does like a little loop de loop for an extra beat of music before it actually hits like a flinch move or something. We have the systems in place to kind of support a lot of fun things.
So you mentioned the trailer, and in the trailer, we see all these expansive varieties of levels; there is the Wild West, pirate ships, the forest frog community, or the one I saw where they’re playing gorf. That made me laugh. So what was the process of combining all of these into a single, comprehensive world? Did you build out a map? Or how does that work?
I did build out a map! That was one of the early things that I did. And I’m a big fan of when collector’s editions of games come with a cloth map, you know. So I started early on making a nice appealing map. We kind of took a lot of inspiration from the Xenoblade games as far as the world design. I don’t know if you’ve played much of those, but you’re playing on planets that are big creatures. I thought that was really cool, how it doesn’t assume that you’re just on some random planet; you have to really think about building the world from ground level there. So yeah, that was something I started to think about early. In like the Paper Mario games, for example, it is very segmented chapters that clearly have their side character, their partner character that you meet, you’re in their little zone, you do a bunch of puzzles involving their skill. And then the rest of the game, or previous parts in the game, have some elements that you will use them for. But having that kind of segmented experience that feels like the side journey that somehow connects back to the main journey? I love that, and it makes the game feel longer. Do you know what I mean? Like you’re going on all these mini-adventures that all connect together.
Love that. So as my final question, as I told the gorf thing, I have to ask how many frog puns are in A Frog’s Tale?
Do you know what I realized? After reading a few articles that people have written about the game, other people are so much better at writing frog puns than I am. My brain is just not there. And there was one article that was just—every other sentence had a good one, cropping this and ribbiting that, and I was like, ‘’Man, I need help writing.’’ I get the plot and stuff, you know, but making appealing, flavorful text is such a challenge, props to writers that are able to infuse charm into characters via text. Not easy, you know?
Yeah! Well, thank you so much for being here. After the Kickstarter wraps, do you know when the demo might be out? Or is it still to be determined?
We have some tiers that give you somewhat early access to the demo. We’re looking for the general public to have access to it in February of 2023. It might be earlier than that, but we don’t want to make promises we can’t keep. So February 2023 is what we’re looking at. If you have one of the early tiers, it’s either January or December if you’re a beta tester. So that’s what we’re looking at. And then, you know, it’s pretty promising so far, the developments behind the scenes as far as landing the rest of the funding we need from a publishing partner. But no news to share there yet. That’s kind of the next step of the plan. We make the demo, we need to get the rest of the money to make the full game. It turns out making a big RPG where you’re traveling around to the Wild West, and pirate ships and stuff is not cheap.
Haha, yeah, it takes a little bit of time and some money.
Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. Thank you for reaching out.
It’s not a problem, thank you for coming!
Of course! Yeah, I’m looking forward to people getting their hands on the demo.
Yeah, I’m very, very excited. But again, thank you for coming, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Take care, Daniel!