An App Lab success story, Smash Drums is a VR rhythm game that lets you embark on an epic drumming journey, destroying multiple environments through chaos and flames. And today during the Upload VR Showcase, developer PotamWorks SAS unveiled a surprise launch on the official Quest Store.
We sat down with PotamWorks SAS Founder Julien (MrPotam) for the inside scoop.
What was the initial inspiration behind Smash Drums? How did the game change during the course of development?
Julien: I’ve been a longtime fan of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Both games were released when I was in college, and growing up with punk, hard rock, and metal, they really resonated with me. At the time, I was playing piano and guitar IRL, but drums were always something I was drawn to.
A couple of years ago, I was playing Beat Saber and thought that Quest really needed a drumming game, dedicated to rock music. I looked for it and found out about Rock Band VR for Rift and realized that they skipped drums. I knew I had to do it!
Very early on, though, I figured that making a drumming simulation would not be a great idea for two reasons. First, the lack of foot pedals was obviously a problem, and needing an external Bluetooth device would have resulted in too much friction. But the bigger problem was the lack of bounce between the simulated drumstick and the drums—without it, no drumming simulation was possible.
Is that an issue though? Not at all! Creating an arcade drumming game has unleashed the creative possibilities, including destructible environments and the exclusive hitting strength mechanics where crystal drums must be hit softly and burning drums must be smashed hard.
How long has Smash Drums been in development for, all told?
Julien: All in all, it took almost two years to create Smash Drums from the very first prototype.
At first, I focused and iterated a lot on the VR drumming mechanics. I would work on it on my spare time, dream about it, think about it during breaks at my former day job, then iterate again the next night—rinse and repeat until I was 100% satisfied with the latency, accuracy, and feel.
You quit a full-time gig in finance about 18 months ago to fully focus on VR development. What has that journey been like?
Julien: It feels like forever ago already! But for as long as I can remember, I think that game development has been my calling. I just didn’t listen to the little voice in my head until recently.
I’ve always considered myself a software geek, always happy to learn new skills, and it started more than 20 years ago on the family computer, when we got internet at home and I discovered tutorials—first for Paint Shop Pro, then RPG Maker, then Blender 3D. I’ve always loved starting from scratch and learning new skills.
When we had our first daughter seven years ago, I used to take long stroller rides to help her nap and started reading Unity development for beginners e-books while on the walk. I think that’s when it all clicked. All my life, I had been preparing to become a video game developer. I just wasn’t ready yet.
And then Quest came out. It blew my mind and reignited the flame.
You’re a member of Oculus Start. What has that experience been like for you? What’s your favorite part about the Start community?
Julien: Joining Oculus Start has been a blessing. It opened the doors to the wonderful community that is the Oculus Start Discord server with so many talented and thoughtful devs, always willing to answer each other’s questions. I’ve met a lot of great people there, some of whom have become friends in real life, and it has been an extremely important part of my (therefore not so) solo developer journey.
How does Smash Drums set itself apart from other VR rhythm games on the market?
Julien: I love VR rhythm games, but in most of them, the rhythm element is focused on reactions and reflexes, not so much on precise timing. As a drumming game, the goal was to make sure the timing aspect was spot on from the beginning of the project. And all the real-life drummers who tested it can confirm: the timing is precise, and the super low latency is great.
Smash Drums was designed with the ultimate goal of making you feel empowered and awesome—to make you feel like a real rock star. And to achieve this goal, Smash Drums is powered by the following unique features:
1) Strength mechanics
Controlling how hard you hit the drums is a killer feature that adds a lot of depth to the gameplay. And as easy as it sounds on paper, it’s hard to master. That’s why I recommend that new players start with the Barbarian or the Semi-Barbarian modifier and enable the Smash Drums mode when they feel ready.
2) Destructible and interactive environments
You can feel the impact of your performance on the hand-crafted environments, which change before your eyes as you play. Destroy your prison cell, escape from the crystal cave, trash the office, and blow up the Earth!
3) Rock Stars
Every time you complete a song, you earn Rock Stars (experience points) based on your performance, which will help you unlock some songs (three out of 30), features, drum skins, and surprises in the future.
4) Live ranking
Watching your progression on the leaderboards in real time as you play is so satisfying. Climb from the bottom to the top 90%, top 50%, then to the top 100 players! And for those who like a challenge, activate the expert HUD and see your predicted ranking in real time: Missed a beat and you can’t make it to the top or get a five-star rating in this run anymore? The game will let you know.
What kind of response have you seen since launching Smash Drums via App Lab?
Julien: Smash Drums has been in open development for a long time, since the first alpha demo on SideQuest last year. Thanks to the support and feedback of a great Discord community, everything about the game has been constantly refined, and the feedback loop has been very tight for a long time, with frequent updates, adding more features and fixing UX issues reported by players.
Version 1.0 of the full game launched last June on App Lab, and reviews and feedback have been overwhelming, even more so than with the free demo that was one of the App Lab launch titles.
I originally planned on releasing new content every quarter, and to keep on tweaking the overall UX, but something amazing happened: The game was approved for Quest Store launch!
So I’m really sorry for not being able to update the game until now and for keeping players in the dark for six months, but I can assure you that the wait was worth it.
Smash Drums is relaunching with a 2.0 update that will blow your mind:
Bigger (+9 songs, +1 environment), better (tons of quality-of-life requests from players, and visuals overhaul), together (8-player online arena)!
Can you tell us more about the multiplayer mode in Smash Drums?
Julien: I love online sessions with friends, especially in VR, where presence makes it feel like we’re sharing the same physical room. But most of the time, it can get very frustrating because we don’t have the same skill level in all games: Play with less skilled players on easier difficulties, and you can get bored easily. Play with more skilled players on harder difficulties than you’re used to, and it can become extremely frustrating to get kicked in five seconds and watch the game from the bench.
Smash Drums’ online multiplayer mode has been designed with conviviality in mind: Each player can decide on the difficulty and modifiers they prefer.
How is this possible? The solution is quite simple actually: The players are ranked by absolute score and by rating (relative score) at the end of the song. And bonus Rock Stars are awarded to players who manage to be ranked #1 on both charts.
So there is an arbitrage to do in the versus mode, depending on your opponents: Easy mode might get you better ratings, but Extreme mode allows for higher absolute scores. Anyway, everyone will have fun, regardless of their skills.
Smash Drums’ online multiplayer mode also features co-op mode. Share the combo multiplier with your fellow band members and collectively climb the leaderboards as a band!
And rumor has it that if the players vote unanimously for co-op in the lobby, an ultra co-op mode is unlocked where the stakes are even higher—but breaking your combo also resets your friends’.
Finally, with the goal of creating a great place to hang out with friends, voice chat is enabled by default in private rooms. Let’s party!
How did you go about selecting the game’s initial track list? Anything you can share about what songs might be coming in the future?
Julien: I felt like we’ve had enough EDM in VR rhythm games, and that rock music, even though represented with some other games’ DLC, was long overdue a comeback!
Rock is a very diverse genre of music, and I wanted to celebrate this: Smash Drums’ initial track list ranges across hard, metal, folk, soft, progressive, grunge, and punk rock, and I focused on having a balanced selection that would appeal to as many rock fans as possible.
In the future, based on feedback and player preferences and requests, I will expand the playlist and probably open it up to other genres. And iconic rock bands are definitely on the roadmap for future DLC.
Tell us more about the strength mechanics (Smash Drums mode). How did that idea come about and what went into its development?
Julien: The “Smash Drums” mode is one of the most unique features of the game: Burning drums must be smashed hard to get the highest score, while crystal drums need to be hit gently. And normal drums fall somewhere in between.
The idea came from the first play sessions: As I watched real players interact with the game, I realized that, as the song progressed, some of them would hit certain drums harder—to mark high notes in the song, as they were in a flow state.
Then I realized that I was also unknowingly doing this too when I was playing. This core gameplay mechanic was born!
It took a lot of iteration and playtests with many players to refine it, making sure it wasn’t too punishing, yet still challenging enough. And the result is so satisfying.
Burning drums usually correspond to high notes in the song, so smashing them is a thrill in itself! On Quest 2, it also produces a shower of sparks that bounces off the ground and unleashes a shockwave that sends surrounding environment debris flying.
And what about the environments? How did you come up with the eight different designs? Is there a fan favorite?
Julien: VR is an incredible medium, where the only limit that exists is that of the imagination.
Initially, I wanted to create concert environments for the game. But one day, as I was designing the core strength mechanics, I realized that it could be more interesting to actually destroy the environments, like a classic rock star who trashes their hotel room—except we could do it over and over again, and the insurance would never complain!
The idea was to create nightmare scenes that the player would escape from through music: a prison cell, a deep hole in the ground you fell into (yes, look up in the crystal cave environment), an open space at the office—and that’s why the player starts the game in what looks like a destroyed room with a simple bed and nightstand. Every environment has been handcrafted for the game and optimized to run on Quest, even with all the physics and explosions.
So far, the absolute fan-favorite environment is the moon: Standing on the moon and blowing up the Earth while drumming is epic.
But there has been a long-standing request and I’m happy to finally offer it to players: a concert environment. Raise your arm, and embrace the cheering crowd: yes, you are awesome!
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
Julien: What’s next for me is to play drums with friends online, then recharge my batteries with my wonderful wife and daughters during the holidays and come back super-charged for what’s next for the game: more songs and environments of course, but also new online multiplayer modes, and more crazy things that I can’t wait to share.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Julien: Come join us on the game’s Discord server (discord.smashdrums.com) to share feedback, swap tips, and help us make this game even better!
Ready to party like a rock star as you climb the global leaderboards? Check out Smash Drums on the Quest Platform today.