Hello Mr. Ward, thank you for this interview.
Can you introduce yourself for those who don't know you?
My name is Kyle Ward, I am an avid dance game fan but also a dance game producer now for almost 17 years. I'm an entertainment entrepreneur and music producer, specifically electronic music and I guess I would say a dance music fan from the late '90s to early 2000s period.
I fell in love with this concept because I have a strong connection with music and audio in general. Dance games are the one thing that gives you a full immersion, a full experience with the music. You're basically moving and your mind is in the music as you're repeating back the sequences but it's also good for health and fitness so it's kind of what originally drew me into the concept.
What was the first arcade game you were involved in the development?
I started with Roxor games with the "In The Groove" series in 2004. I became involved after I was heavily into StepMania development around that period and Chris Danford reached out to me about this opportunity with Roxor games and that's what began my career with dance games in general.
I was very lucky to have this opportunity at such a young age because I was still going to school at the time and thought of dance gaming and development for dance games as a small "hobby" at the time - I had no idea it would become a career and such a large part of my life later.
In 2007, we produced Pump It Up Pro with Andamiro and in 2008, I helped produce iDANCE with Positive Gaming in Europe. In 2012, I co-founded Step Evolution to produce the ReRave touchscreen series and this was heavily influenced by dance games of the time and led to ReRave Plus which is a redesign and rehash on the original ReRave from 2012 and that's what brings us to StepManiaX in 2016.
At the moment you are busy producing content for StepManiaX, the new music game from Step Revolution.
How did you come to create StepManiaX?
So StepManiaX, it started with the concept of wanting to improve dance game hardware. There had always been issues with the dance pads or dance stages of the past that basically leads to someone always having to service or provide technical support for them. It's always challenging with the dance games because the hardware is put under pretty heavy use during the gameplay and during the lifespan of the game. So the first goal was to basically create some hardware that would help eliminate some of that concerns for people and I would say that the original hardware for the dance stages that we use today has started in 2015, it was kind around the same time as ReRave Plus was ramping up production and that was mainly just because there was a clear demand; the dance games were still part of people's life and they wanted to see it evolve and see the technology improve so that led to the testing different sensors and other methods besides the standard on and off switches that had been used ever since 1998. That would lead us to start using pressure based sensors like load cells and eventually led to the use of FSRs but after the hardware was produced, the next step was making a new software. What we wanted to do was recapture what everybody loved in the past like the powerful features with the options and the stuff that a lot of the previous projects accomplished. But at the same time, we wanted to make it user friendly and easy to use because one of the biggest difficulties with dance games today, and this is wide spread with all of them is that they're still very hard for people to use and so we wanted to make software that was easy to understand and easy to use for everybody and that didn't need special training or someone to explain what to do. And that sparks recreating software from the ground up that was also just really efficient and could run on a modern device that is the size of your cell phone. When we look at the StepManiaX project, it's really marvel in multiplayer, it's not only the dance stage software but the hardware itself and even the components that realize this. It basically simplifies the process and I think, provides almost the best experience today because of the knowledge from all of the previous projects that we have been involved with.
Many people remember the In The Groove dance game, which was a real success. Is StepManiaX a spiritual successor to In The Groove 2?
I wouldn't say that StepManiaX is necessarily a spiritual successor. I would say that you can think of it as a project that went a different direction because at the time of the "In The Groove" development, it was originally designed by a small team to provide a continuation of 4-panel arcade dance games - when it was believed to be ending after DDR Extreme in 2003. And so "In The Groove"'s purpose was really to push the limits and provide people with more of an experience or just a challenge and more options than what the other 4-panel options provided you at the time. With StepManiaX, I would say it's a little bit different, and the reason why is today in 2021 (we started the game in 2016 but it has certainly evolved and become more mature today but I would say that the bigger need is introducing new players to the concept because all of the other dance games, and I include "In The Groove" in this, they are not user friendly, either very hard for people to get into and understand. I think it's a real problem for the dance game genre in general. It's fairly niche as it is but there hasn't been really any improvements with an outlet of providing new players with something to experience and StepManiaX really does that the best, out of anything else that's available out there. There are lots of other dance games today that use other technologies. "Just Dance" is a good example that either using motion captures or cameras or other types of things to encourage movement but there are a lot of people that are still faithful to the traditional panel dancing concept. In some cases they consider it vintage software at this point which in some ways, that's absolutely accurate because in 1998 wasn't necessarily yesterday, it was quite a while ago. But there is a new generation of people today that are completely unaware of the concept. And they don't have necessarily a place to begin or find it. StepManiaX is probably the one dance game that is the most user friendly to introducing people to the new concept and at the same time it obviously does have some standardization and some continuation from the previous projects that we've done. So I would say that people that are familiar with things like "In The Groove 2" will definitively find some things in StepManiaX that they will enjoy as well as there are some difficult step charts in there and there are some things that still push the limits and do things a little bit differently but I wouldn't say that it's exactly a continuation or a spiritual successor of the "In The Groove" series at all, it's become much more than that.
What can players of In The Groove find in StepManiaX?
"In The Groove" players can certainly find a lot of cross-overs and inspirations that occurred in the "In The Groove" series and we've gone back to some of the original artists and re-evaluated, presenting what we came today with in a different way and I would say that people that are familiar with the "In The Groove" series will be pleasantly surprised because there's a lot of things and cross-overs that relate to the "In The Groove" series. But again, StepManiaX is not necessarily a spiritual successor to the "In The Groove" series because it handles a different purpose in comparison to what "In The Groove" did at the time. I would say that anyone that's familiar with any of the previous projects that we've done whatever or not that's "In The Groove 2" or "Pump It Up Pro" or even "ReRave" and I would even say "iDANCE", there is something for everybody in StepManiaX and it's kind of neat because you get a chance to see it has all of the views together and sort of become the ultimate dance game of today.
Are there any ideas originally planned for In The Groove 3 that have been used in StepManiaX?
I would say that StepManiaX uses a lot of inspired ideas mainly from all the past projects because at the time of the "In The Groove" series, it was a completely different market, it was not the same as it is today. At the time, we had books and pages of several ideas and it definitely has given us a chance to reintroduce some of the concepts we wanted to eventually bring into the previous projects years ago. But it also led to new ideas and presenting in a way that is far more improved than it would have been. So "inspired by", yes, I would say that but I would also say that there's a lot of completely brand new ideas that originated from ideas from long ago and that's really what makes StepManiaX so great is that it utilizes the past in a way it's almost inspiring and improves upon it to make it even better.
What makes StepManiaX different from Pump It Up and DanceDanceRevolution?
That is an extremely large question. I would say there's a couple of things and one of them is the user interface. Today, there is a huge problem with the user interface or the experience with navigating the games and "Pump It Up" has always been an issue for people to navigate and be able to use but recently DanceDanceRevolution is sort of in the same boat, there was a point where it was very user-friendly and easy to use but that has certainly changed today. I would say that StepManiaX does an outstanding job, even in comparison to things that "Pump It Up Pro" did or even the "In The Groove" series, it's just very easy to use. We were able to see people that are sometimes much older and also some young kids that are less than 10 years old that are actually able to use the game without even being told what to do and that is a perfect example of why StepManiaX is so accessible and doing so well, is because people are actually able to use it and navigate it and figure out how to use it.
Another thing I would say is "the content and the music". To me, I'm very inspired by music from the late '90s and early 2000s era and some of the songs just are timeless in a way that they are always memorable and it doesn't matter how you were introduced to them, they are just great songs and the StepManiaX song list is the best song list that we have ever put together for any project. The way we were able to do that is because we're so familiar with the market at this point and the previous projects so we're able to bring in a lot of cross-overs and songs from so many different places under one song list. Anybody who experiences the game for the first time is almost wowed because it's the best of all songs that were in any previous projects and there's a lot of cross-overs from several different games now that we have. The music is really one of the best aspects of StepManiaX.
And then, I would say the other thing is the standardization. "In The Groove" suffers from this a little bit today in my opinion. There's not a lot of public accessible machines today and you also have players that are just interested in different things making the standardization nonexistent. You've got some players that are interested in technical step charts and aspects that are very technical based, you also have people that are interested in foot speed and pushing stamina limits. You think of sort of it as a teeter-totter; you've got very spectrums of people on either sides and it leaves a lot of other people with nowhere to go. StepManiaX does an outstanding job with creating the standardization and bringing people together because as a new player coming into it, you have no idea how to get into it, you're relying on people introducing you to the concept but with StepManiaX, you don't need anybody to do that because it's very user-friendly and easy to get into because of the interface, the music and all of the other things that I mentioned before. So StepManiaX is a product that also is very nostalgic in ways because it reminds a lot of the older generation today of the past memories when they first began getting introduced to dance games but at the same time, it's also introducing a new generation of people 20 years later that have no idea about the politics or even the past projects. There are a lot of people that had discovered the game today have no idea what "In The Groove", or DDR or "Pump It Up" is.
At the moment, new songs are added every month for free, will this always be the case?
We have shifted to our strength to offer content and keeping content coming from people as often as possible and free. A lot of this is really dictated by our agreements with the music partners and labels and the people that have partnered with us to provide music for the concept because they see it as a promotional benefit and also a health and fitness benefit. We have always tried to do it in a way where we don't think of it as capitalizing off of DLC or pay locking features in the software because that's one thing that most of us within the project don't like about other projects out there and we do our best to prevent that from happening. Will it always be free, there may be a case where some updates in the future whatever or not software or hardware, that requires us to charge something as some sort of way to keep innovating and doing new features for people but in most times, we're doing what we can to keep things coming for free and keeping content fresh for people. It's really the music artists that help us make that possible and we pledge that if it's possible for us to keep doing with support, we'll try to keep things free as much as possible for people to enjoy.
How many songs are in the game now?
There are currently 254 songs offered in the software. Some of the previous songs that we started with required us to charge something for just because of the agreements that we had in place for the music artists and the labels but as I mentioned, we're trying to offer as much content for people as free as possible going forward and we intend to keep that model going.
Besides new songs, do the updates add new features to the game?
Yes. Actually, we are always updating the software with new features, sometimes even between the content updates that we do. We mainly introduce features or improvements to things over time just in general so that it improves the experience for everybody. Most of the time, obviously everything like with the content has been free of charge as we indicated that we try to do as much as we can but if there's a major feature or something major in the future, it might require us to either change the hardware or charge something for that. What dictates our ability to provides things for free is really the cost that is associated or involved with providing whatever the new features are so either the software or the hardware but we really try to ingest the cost as much as possible. We don't have any planned paid features at the moment but I can't say for certain that it will never be a possibility in the future. We're really just trying to make everything as accessible as possible for people and it's equally been important for us that the software and concept can be used offline without requiring someone to be linked all the time because we know not every place is capable of being online or linked all the time. So we've really done the best as we can to make sure that the software accommodates that when possible.
In addition to the songs you have produced, what other artists can be found in the playlist?
We typically work with independent artists or organizations that are able to provide licensing or agreements to represent their songs for every territory and I'm really fortunate because we've got the chance to work with some people like Naoki, and Yahpp from BanYa, a lot of familiar artists that people will recognize from other music games or dance games of the past, really from all over. The best way I like to describe it to people is: if you think of other dance games that you really enjoyed in the past and you brought the best hits to one song list, that's really what the StepManiaX song list is; it provides nostalgia for those people that remember the songs, it's also just great music that people might not be familiar with. We also do a really good job at introducing new modern songs that are sort of a similar vibe and they're great songs. We put a lot of attention into the songs that we add. We also have a lot of requests that people have asked us to bring over to the project as well which if you look at our Facebook group or canal Discord channel, it's really active with fans and people communicating. We ask for some suggestions all the time and we do our best to try to appeal to that. I've been really happy with the artists in the music organizations that we're able to represent in the project and we are really just fortunate to be able to work with so many great people throughout the industry still and we look forward to continue.
You have managed to get songs from Naoki Maeda, do you think that you will be able to attract other BEMANI artists in the future?
With this project, we're typically targeting artists throughout the entire industry rather than just being focused towards a small group of artists that are already known. I feel like there's a lot of great music out there that is completely unknown or that people might not discover and that's exactly the type of thing that we're looking for for StepManiaX because we want to introduce a new audience. Primarily our biggest interests are introducing new songs or songs of the past that were so marvel for people that they want to hear them again. So, it not necessarily aligns with the interests of StepManiaX to introduce artists that are already active in other music games elsewhere, we really try to bring attention to new artists or songs that have not been discovered or those songs of the past that people want to hear again that don't have another opportunity elsewhere.
How a music producer can have his/her song appear in StepManiaX?
The best way is to submit the song to our song submission form which you can find in our Facebook StepManiaX Player Group and you can submit the song and our content team will review it. I can say that majority of the songs that are considered for the game are usually vocal based, or more pop music because we find most success with this area because it appeals to everybody not just technical music game players because we're really trying to broaden the audience with it as much as possible. But I would say that anything is obviously up to debate and there isn't any particular requirement cause there's always cases where we have some songs that are not vocal either. So any music producer can always submit their songs to us and we will consider everything.
The sports aspect is an important part of StepManiaX, StepManiaX Tracker App can now be connected to Apple Health and Google Fit, what other features will appeal to sports amateurs (or simply those who want to lose weight while having fun)?
This is actually a particular area for StepManiaX that's really important that none of the other dance games seem to have an interest in. In some cases, the other brands have been around for almost 20 years at this point, they've not done anything in the sports category or the competition aspect because they typically think of the game just as a video game. With StepManiaX, we certainly have a different vision; it's a health and fitness tool but also competitive e-sports potentially. At the same time, it's just appealing to those who want to move to music for fitness reasons. Again, I think the other projects out there just aren't as user-friendly for this aspect so it's really not possible for people to consider it as a health and fitness tool. They are only really focusing on it from a game perspective but there's so much more from the concept, there's been several different studies at this point that shows how it improves other functions for people whatever or not it's just weight and fitness tracking or even socialization and making friends. That's the basis of our entire company at Step Revolution and why we started production with these games really is just because of the other benefits that come with it. Going forward, we absolutely have an efficiency in this area and right down to the actual name of the project. The reason why we wanted to call it StepManiaX versus any other name out there is because there are so many products now that are dance focused or have "dance" in their name but they aren't necessarily "dancing". We think of StepManiaX more as like a foot/eye coordination tool and more in the line of stepping for fitness. So we came up with the name originally because it sort of tips the hat the original StepMania project as well as which is obviously the origin for all of us today, having been involved with all of these projects. So it's fun for us to utilize that name and push the branding towards stepping and fitness purposes rather than a dance game that is behind a paywall that has been designed to basically get as much income as possible from people.
At first, operators were a bit reluctant because they didn't know the name, but the game is starting to gain popularity in the US with many new installations in the last few weeks. What feedback do you have from these installations?
Well, you're absolutely right. When we first started the project in 2016, a lot of people weren't aware of the name or the branding at all. It was sort of starting from the ground up with the entire project. When we originally started with it, it was more focused on health and fitness centers and areas outside of amusement and that's because we see the demand and the potential for this project in those types of facilities. Specifically things like trampoline parks and family recreation centers that a lot of people have available in their local cities. But over time, there was a huge interest in the amusement area and bridging that gap and the reason why StepManiaX is so unique in comparison to the other options is it's one of the only products that works in all of these settings. So we absolutely can thank the experience from the past projects for that, because we've had experience in the amusement and arcade industry, we had experience in the school and fitness industry, and in some cases we had some experience in the home market a little bit. StepManiaX actually lends itself to all of these settings at the same time and actually does a good job of blending it so that everybody has the same experience. Some of the feedback we've received since it's been installed in these places is "Wow, people are actually using this!", the earnings are great. In some cases, the earnings are almost $600 every couple of days which is unheard of for a video game, let alone a dance game. I think that part of the problem that a lot of the dance games have faced in the last couple of years, is that they just don't earn very well for the amount of space they take up in a facility and we've really been turning that around because of the places that are introducing it are seeing those earnings come back to what it was in the early 2000s, and in most cases we attribute that to just how easy it is to use the software in addition to the content that the game offers. It's just very user-friendly and fun for everybody. The appeal is very broad and that's been sort of our secret success in the project that everyone that we have introduced to it sells it itself and it's turning those non-believers back into believers again that dance games can earn well and generate a lot of interest for facilities.
Do you have a message for music game fans who might not be familiar with StepManiaX yet?
There's a lot of people that might not be familiar with StepManiaX yet and they might be familiar with the past projects like "In The Groove" or "Pump It Up". My big thing that I've always told people is that it's really great to have options in the market and when you only have one option to use something then you basically get one vision from somebody that is no necessarily aligns with everybody's interest. The advantage of having multiple products is that you have different things to be able to play and enjoy for different purposes and I would say that it's great that there are multiple dance games available from our competitors today in the market. It's important that there's always a choice for people, there never should be a monopoly on a concept or only one option available. It's great for the market when people have multiple options and I'm just happy that we were able to come back to this concept and really use that expertise from the past to benefit everybody. If you haven't tried StepManiaX yet, it's not that hard to get used to. A lot of people, when they first try it, they are a little put off by the new central panel position and it only takes a few games to adjust and really compensate for. The reason we wanted to introduce it is just because the 4-panel format over the years has got a little bit stagnant and also because people are so focussed on conserving energy and moving less, so by introducing the new central panel position, it basically makes people step wider again but it's also very user-friendly for the new players who always try to return to the center when they first try the game. This kind of forces position a step in the center to utilize as well so really helps people get into the concept as well because we can keep the input system simple. So it's not confusing for those new people, it basically just aligns at that point and it helps us keep the step charts in the sequences interesting for fitness purposes but also not too over the top for someone to get into. So I would say that if you're familiar with our past projects, you absolutely will feel right at home with StepManiaX and I would encourage you to give it a try because I think that you will really enjoy it among the other options that you have.
And for operators who are hesitating to buy this machine?
I really encourage people who operate a facility or even home users or fitness centers or recreational areas: try StepManiaX because you would just be surprised by the response. In most cases, we're not having to actively advertise or sell the game, people are actually discovering it on their own and coming to us. We typically have stage sales where people even buy our stages at home, we sell almost 200 units in less than 5 minutes, sometimes even in less than 1 minute. They just completely sell out and we're constantly shipping stages and products to people all over the world. StepManiaX truly is a user-friendly plug'n play device that is really fun for everybody to use and it doesn't matter what age you are or your experience with dance games. It's beautiful because if you are experienced with past dance games, you're gonna find something in there that people are going to love and they are gonna keep playing the machine. And if there's new people that have no idea what the concept is, I would say that StepManiaX is the only option that presents in a user-friendly way and it's certainly a machine that would provide the earnings without a lot of technical support needed. It's truly a plug'n play device. It's really fun for everybody to use and I would encourage you to check it out. And, join us! Cause our community is building every day and it's not just necessarily in North America, we're shipping stages and machines internationally all the time and we look forward to you trying the product and joining us. Thank you.
Thank you very much for your time.
Interview: Xavier Vincent
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