We Got The Beat: The Birth of a Custom Map

Shane R. Monroe
Jun 10, 2020 · 18 min read

Beat Saber is a virtual reality phenomenon. Using two lightsaber-like swords, you chop colored blocks flying at you; set to blasting music and a spectacular light show all in perfect synchronization to the beat. These play levels are known as charts, beatmaps or just “maps”; authored by unsung rhythmic heroes of the internet. How are these mini-capsules of musical magic created? The answer may surprise you.

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Mediocre Mapper — One of the Tools Of The Trade

If you’re not familiar with Beat Saber, let’s take a look at a little teaser before we continue.

If you’ve played this high intensity rhythm game, you know that timing and flow are everything; a synergy between beat, motion, sound and lights.

What makes Beat Saber special is that these aren’t just procedurally generated levels where someone feeds some little program a song — and a game level pops out.

Beat Saber maps are created by real people using real skills and putting in real time to make maps for everyone to enjoy.

Some attempts have been made to create auto-mapping software, but so far none have come close to matching what human mappers are capable of creating.

Map Basics

Real humans take the music and create a “map”; a collection of in-game elements such as the blocks, bombs and walls. These items are placed along a timeline that syncs up to the music. Some of this is raw timing (which could probably be done with some clever A.I.) but it also includes something called flow and we’re going to be discussing that a bit more later.

While it seems simple to dismiss good timing to just being “on tempo”, not all songs are created equally.

A common way of looking at a song’s tempo is “beats per minute,” or BPM. In much of modern music, especially electronic music, BPM is often an unwavering constant, because all or part of the music is created by a computer with mathematical precision.

However, some modern songs — and MOST songs recorded prior to the mid 1990s do not have a fixed BPM. They have that natural drift in BPM because of humans. This isn’t a bad thing — we’re used to listening to music created by humans and that natural ebb and flow is part of the charm music holds for us.
However, this drift in BPM — even a small amount — can be troublesome in a rhythm game map; because rhythm games are played on computers, where the BPM is expected to be constant.

Even a lot of human-played music (which naturally drifts because humans are not machines) in the modern age are digitally modified to fit a constant BPM.

Creating a map for a song with drifting BPM requires either adjusting the map — sometimes note by note, a tedious process — or using some specialized techniques to “quantize” the drifting BPM into a steady one. For the uninitiated, this is akin to pure sorcery and we’ll be talking about that in another section.

Even constant BPM songs require something more than “spot on timing”; otherwise you’re simply creating a “percussion simulator” and that isn’t what makes Beat Saber the amazing game that it is. To achieve greatness, you need to “connect” the actions in an organic manner— and that is called flow.

One of my favorite “obvious” flow maps …

Flow is the transitional movements between these well-synced, timed strikes. Good flow can change a “drum simulator” map into an organic dancing experience. This can mean the difference between an okay map and a great one.

Since people seem to have a difficult time understanding the difference between timing and flow, let’s do a little experiment together.

Pick a song you really like. Put it on, stand up and raise your hands up and down to the beat. Do not move your feet, your hips, your head — or anything else. Just raise and lower your hands to the beat.

You are demonstrating good timing and it is hardly fun, right? It is mechanical, sterile and rhythmic — but certainly is missing a highly organic feel to it.

Now — let yourself go. Get your groove on. Move those hips, shuffle those feet — dance to that song.

That is flow; the connection of motion to rhythm and this is what makes Beat Saber a great game and what makes quality custom mapping an art form over a generic procedurally created map from some algorithm.

It is worth noting that while Beat Saber is renowned for the dance-nature of its maps, some custom maps are created with a different audience in mind. These players are looking for maps that are simply as-hard-as-possible or may be designed to be particularly artful or visually creative in nature.

Some just like to make their hands go up and down to the beat and nothing else.

Like other art forms, not everyone can make a great Beat Saber map. Hopefully once you finish this article, you’ll understand why.

The Beginning — Choosing the Music

Like many other rhythm games that rely heavily on music, Beat Saber’s built-in offerings may not appeal to a wide range of players. Featuring original EDM music at first, then offering DLC packs for certain groups like Imagine Dragons and Panic! at the DiscoBeat Saber lacks a wide-swath of music genres and eras that other big titles like Rock Band or Karaoke Revolution have.

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Karaoke Revolution in this one screen has a more diverse set list than Beat Saber …

Many people get into mapping for the expressed purpose of getting their favorite songs playable in Beat Saber. Some become mappers because there is a ex nihilo aspect to custom mapping and it is a fine outlet to expel artistic juices.

Of course, some are just there to dabble in the technology.

When I asked a couple of great mappers how they choose the music they map;

“I look for music with interesting rhythms and some distinct variety in the rhythms, so I know it won’t be the same all the way through. The song needs to be something I think people would like to listen to and play. It definitely needs to be something I like to listen to, because I’m going to be listening to it A LOT over 10–30 hours of mapping. The most important requirement I look for in a song to map — it’s gotta make ME move when I listen to it.” — Techbutterfly

“There are at least three different scenarios for me . Does a song make me feel like dancing? If so, can I express that feeling through a map ? Does the song make me want to rock out? If so, can I express the feeling of playing the drums or guitar through a map ? The third is what I like to call ‘artsy’. The song is beautiful, well-respected maybe a classic … can I somehow create a map to fit the particular song? The third way is sometimes challenging and does not always pan out but it is always fun to experiment.” — MajorPickle

Measure Twice; Cut Once — Preparing the Music

Once a mapper decides on a song to chart, there is a remarkably complicated process that is performed before they even begin to lay down the first colored cube.

To start, some mappers strive to get the best quality copy of the song as possible. Like audiophiles, many mappers feel lossy, over-compressed or poor quality copies simply won’t do. They aren’t ripping songs down from youTube or using 128kbps MP3 files. For those familiar with audio compression, this sort of makes sense since the song will be re-compressed at least once during the process.

It isn’t all about quality, though. One mapper suggested;

“…it’s much more important to me that the player can hear the music over the blocks slashing sounds — which can be really loud, depending on game settings. A good example is the beginning of Somewhere That’s Green in Little Shop. It’s compressed and hard limited to within an inch of its life.”

Preferred methods would include ripping the music from their own media such as a CD or obtaining lossless copies such as those in FLAC format.

Once the music source is obtained, it is brought into an editor (such as Audacity) where the song is initially analyzed for rhythm conformity (aka constant BPM). If it is found to be variable, then the real wizardry has to happen; warping.

Warping a song requires the use of specialized software such as WarpPro, Reaper, or Ableton. The mapper then “fixes” the slight deviations of BPM with the tool. This requires a repetitive tweaking process. Still, it is totally fascinating to watch and a real piece of digital magic — considering the song doesn’t sound perceptibly different when the mapper is done with it.

See Techbutterfly warp a map using Reaper

Now that the BPM is set, the mapper goes to work actually making edits to the song itself.

These edits could be trimming or adding space, boosting/normalizing audio or even (rarely) removing elements to reduce the length into something more playable. While there are plenty of examples of longer maps, including TechButterfly’s 39-minute Little Shop of Horrors map, most players seem to prefer their maps under 4 minutes.

The song is could also even brought in again for more edits during the mapping process. One mapper I spoke with could go back and “boost” an area of the song that couldn’t be heard well with the saber-slashing going on during test play. This isn’t necessarily determined during the initial editing.

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The first salvo fired in the custom mapping wars … Audacity audio editor

Bottom line: the original song is never just “inserted” into the map. A lot of pre-work is done before any sort of creative process begins. This is why mappers must include the edited audio file with the map — and players can’t just pick some version of the song up off Spotify or Amazon and have it work.

Including the audio file with the map data has the nasty side effect of making the map package illegal in most countries. Unfortunately, that isn’t the only legality behind custom mapping; more on that later.

Oh, and this whole process takes in the ballpark of 1–2 hours; and they haven’t even started to “map” it yet.

Building the Pyramids — Laying the Track

The prep work is done, and now it is time to create the “meat” of the map; the objects that the player will interact with.

The game comes with a map editor of its own, but instead the mapper will open one of the community supported tools; ChromaMapper or the more widely used Mediocre Mapper Assistant 2.

Using this three dimensional timeline, the mapper will put down the red and blue blocks — each with an arrow dictating the swiping motion required to execute a correct cut. This is the core of the scoring mechanism of Beat Saber.

Along with these bright cubes, they can put down walls and bombs — these might be considered the enemies of the game as hitting them can cause you to fail the level.

Watch a map being built in Mediocre Mapper …

The map can have multiple difficulties — Easy to Expert+ — which allows the mapper to cater to a wider audience with a more diverse skill set. Each difficulty has its own map.

Since each difficulty requires a significant level of effort, many mappers will choose only to support one difficulty level (often Expert).

For those of you that complain when a map is out of your skill set because only Expert difficulty was included, hopefully you understand why. Additional difficulties require a considerable amount of extra work for someone that is probably mapping for themselves.

Oh, and every 90 degree or 360 map doesn’t just magically happen either. Those (and each difficulty within) requires yet another separate map to be authored.

As I mentioned before, “laying down to the beat” just isn’t good enough and this is where the art in artist comes into play.

I spoke with mapper Techbutterfly about his approach to “flow”:

“I consider flow to be when each hit leads naturally to the next. The easiest way to achieve flow is to make sure that each hit with a given saber is followed by a hit in generally the opposite direction. This is not the only factor that affects flow but it’s the predominant one. That said, finding ways to achieve flow while NOT following that simple rule is one of the joys of mapping for me!”

There are some established foundation rules surrounding what constitutes “good flow” in Beat Saber. But not all mappers conform.

“I don’t stick to the Beat Saber “rules “ regarding flow . If I can dance to something that I’ve mapped and it feel good then I’m happy with the flow.”

With the timeline filled with colored boxes, nasty bombs and well-placed walls — it is time to brighten things up by lighting the map.

Shooting at the Lights — Adding Color and Environment

Lighting in Beat Saber is much like music in movies. The only time you really notice it is if it is missing or very poorly done.

“There are some mappers who do amazing things with lights in Beat Saber. They make maps that are meant just for watching the awesome lights. I’m always greatly impressed when I see those incredible light maps. That said, I don’t feel that lights are that important to the core game play of Beat Saber, which is slicing blocks with your sabers.”

The “lighting of the map” isn’t just creating lights effects, but also about changing and animating the environment around the player as they are striking the blocks frantically.

There are static lights, rotating lasers and various environmental objects that can be triggered during the song’s playback. Lights can be turned on and off, faded, flashed, flipped in color; environment rings can be rotated and absolutely none of it has any actual impact on the skill required to complete the level or contribute any scoring benefit to the player.

Some players don’t like or are sensitive to flashing/strobing lights. Because of this, some players turn on the in-game option for static lights, which bypasses the map’s lighting altogether and can reduce the artistic impact that good lighting can provide.

Yet, lighting can degrade a great map to good status or even promote a good map to great status.

If making maps is making art, then great lighting is yet another art form within it; and there are mappers out there that are simply fantastic lighting artists.

THAT, my friends … is a light show!

There are some mappers, though, that find it tedious and cumbersome and some of them profess a particular disdain for doing it.

“I spent too much time concentrating on the feeling of the map to care much about the lighting. I will admit that lighting can be powerful if done right . I spend more time on synchronizing my walls with the music.”

The best mappers will still do their own lighting and environments, but others will fall back on an automatic lighting program that you can feed a map and it will kick out a usable pattern for you.

Unlike maps that are generated by code, automatically generated lights are often hard to spot by many players and rarely impact the overall enjoyment of the level; but they aren’t likely to enhance it either.

“For me, I like to have the lights blink, or pulse, with the basic beat of the song, with occasional flashy bits when there’s something to emphasize in the music. I don’t like using autolighting programs … I don’t like the results … there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on anything. So I spend an hour or two manually lighting each map.”

For experienced mappers, auto-gen lights can stick out like a sore thumb.

Auto-lit maps are better than maps with no lights at all; but great lit maps can surprise and delight the player.

Fortunately, the essence of Beat Saber’s greatness lies in the maps’ rhythm and flow and the lights aren’t going to drastically affect that (unless they are REALLY bad).

What do our other mappers have to say about the art of lighting?

“I think it does add something to the overall enjoyment of the map, and it’s also part of the process, part of the skillset, part of mapping, so I don’t like to leave it out. One exception among my maps is Little Shop — after spending 150 hours over 10 weeks on the mapping, I didn’t have much energy left for lighting a 39 minute map, so I used Lightmap, the autolighting program, and then went through and added a few flashy parts for emphasis.” — Techbutterfly

Testing Testing 1,2,3 — The Importance of Pre-Release Play

“You’re too close to this to be objective!”

After working on a map for several hours, mappers are very familiar with the patterns they’ve mapped. When they play test their own map, they don’t even notice things that would trip up a player who’s never seen it before. This is called “mapper’s blindness” or “mapper’s bias.”

This is why mappers rely on a huge community organization of testers to test maps in development or at the very least — kick the tires on them before the maps are released. You’ll understand why this is so important in the next section.

Mappers can use a variety of methodologies when it comes to testing. Some choose the “test soon, test often” — especially newer mappers that are still figuring out their signature patterns.

During my short stint at map making, I tested soon and often …

Others wait until the map is done (at least the primary difficulty) then tap testers to cross-check their work.

Some mappers will use the community-at-large — the Beat Saber Modding Group discord has a protocol for submitting maps for testing; others have their own cadre of private testers. Many exchange maps between themselves for testing — so that their maps could be a surprise; or be an entry in some kind of contest.

What are testers looking for when they test?

It starts with the guideline set forth in the BSMG wiki under Pattern Best Practices.

  • Vision Blocks (sometimes called Face Blocks)
  • Double Directions & Resets
  • Forbidden Patterns
  • … and a lot more!

It is almost Tolken’esque literature and most newbie mappers break some of these best practices; some break many of these practices.

“My advice to new mappers is do not use vision blocks or double directionals EVER until you have at least 5 or 10 maps under your belt. And then, start slow and make sure they work. I use DDs and VBs all the time, everywhere, but I know what I’m doing. I don’t think I knew until around map 20 or so.”

These violations and poor practices can impact the map’s score at the map repository Beast Saber. Without solid testing, maps may not achieve this kind of rating.

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How Maps Are Rated …

Some of these are self-explanatory; Fun Factor, Rhythm, Flow … but what about some of the others?

Patterns are collections of the objects that the mapper put in the map. This could be how walls drive a player to a certain place, the way bombs are used to force a player’s hands into certain positions for the next set of blocks. The repeated placements of collections based on chorus, verse or bridge. It can contribute to flow.

Readability has to do with the ability to see upcoming blocks before it is too late to react to them. It doesn’t have to be blocks — could be bombs or anything else that could be considered “cheap” or “cheating” by the mapper to ensure loss of score or failure. Placing objects at “eye level” of the player (face blocks) is considered a cardinal no-no and the popular editors will actually warn the mapper if they choose to do so. Of course, skill mappers can use these blocks effectively as part of a flow — but it takes a lot of experience and skill to pull it off.

The testers are looking for all sorts of things. They report back their findings, often providing videos or time stamps to the mapper in hopes of making the map better. Mappers can grow from this; or refuse to learn and see their maps suffer as a result.

It should go without saying that great testing is a skill of its own and good testers are always in high demand.

Said And Done — What Happens After the Release

The map is authored, lit, tested and ready to go.

The mapper may create a “preview” video of their map being played — or maybe use one provided by a tester. Of course, youTube might ban the video based on copyright — which could even create copyright strikes against the mapper’s channel. Fortunately Bittube.tv exists for those songs.

The mapper selects some cover art, adds some metadata, packs it up and submits to to a repository, Beat Saver.

From there, it echoes up to the “public’s repository” known as Beast Saber — a full-featured web application designed for the searching and consumption of custom maps.

Since this site is the public interface for mappers to share their work — and be evaluated — they pay great attention to how many players download, play and rank their map.

In fact, a mapper’s reputation depends a lot what happens to their map after it hits Beast Saber. Let’s take a look at these factors closer.

According to some mappers, maps live and die by the thumbs up and thumbs down metric. For them, once a map receives enough thumbs down, it essentially becomes a map pariah — it will rarely be downloaded or considered for curation.

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A well-received map — 10 people still didn’t like it.

What makes this thumbs system fascinating is that it is one of the most protected data within the ecosystem.

A player cannot thumbs up or down a map without playing it all the way through; and then only inside the game — not on the web or any other way that could be easily hacked or compromised. You cannot change your vote. Mappers cannot replace their maps with better or worse ones to change the vote. Only the modded PC version of the game has the ability to vote (Oculus Quest folks have no way of thumbing a map).

If you have more thumbs down than thumbs up early on? Your map is liable to drop into obscurity quickly.

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This map is headed for trouble…

These scores also affect the map’s abilities to get on machine-generated playlists generated by Beast Saber. These playlists are automatically consumed by Beat Saber players all over the world.

Despite the thumbs system potentially being the life’s blood of a map’s existence, there is a Beast Saber rating system where players can rate and leave comments.

Finally, there is a human-selection element going on as well. These are called curated playlists. Many people prefer to use these “people selected” lists for discovery instead of simply searching for songs they know in the database.

One mapper doesn’t put the same weight on the up/down rating system:

“Lots of people download maps because they like the songs, and then are disappointed that the map sucks. They are either not aware of the rating system or are ignoring it. Bad ratings definitely can affect amount of downloads, but I’d argue curation is more important — and harder to come by.”

As with any online community, mappers are looking for recognition from their peers. What happens after the map enters the ecosystem has been known to make or break mappers; some can be so discouraged, they never map again.

Conversely, maps that do well often lead the mapper to continue mapping, providing more quality content for the community. The bottom line is, if you like the map and have the ability to vote, give it an up-vote so the mapper knows his or her maps are appreciated!

It is all another part of the mappers’ Great Circle of Life.

The Dark Side of the Moon … Er, Map

Earlier we discussed the fact that mappers rarely use “stock” music; songs are trimmed, altered, stretched, warped, nipped and tucked — so those audio files (in the free and un-patented OGG format) must be included with the data files put together by the mappers.

This is, of course, distribution of unlicensed music which is illegal in most countries. It is long argued that a “legal” means of “plugging music into” a mapper’s data should be possible, but you should understand now why that simple isn’t possible. Your MP3 of Michael Jackson’s Thriller will not even be close to the one distributed with the custom map. You can learn more about this topic here:

Even if you could get around the coupling of unlicensed music with the mapper’s data files, custom maps are illegal for another, largely unknown legal violation; Synchronization rights.

So it is actually illegal (in most countries) to provide the audio file as well as the file containing synchronization data.

Sigh.

That being said — it’s unusual that anything is done about all this “piracy”. There are occasionally DMCA take downs but they are very rare. It’s true that it could all go away tomorrow, but so far we’ve been able to have pretty much all the custom songs we want.

… And The Beat Goes On

Hopefully this article revealed some things about custom maps and the artists that spend dozens of hours lovingly crafting the levels you love to play in Beat Saber.

Like any other art form, there are great examples of the work as well as not-so-great examples. Some genres of music get radically over-exposed with Beat Saber, others under-exposed.

People will desperately look to short cuts to auto-gen songs in an effort to get music they want into the game — others will take up the mantle and try it for themselves only to realize that it is far harder to churn these things out in quality. Some will beg or hire others to do it for them.

Some will become the great mappers of tomorrow.

We as a community need to appreciate these purveyors of these little slices of rhythmic magic and it starts by understanding what they go through to bring them to us.

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Thanks to Shane Draft Monroe

Shane R. Monroe

Written by

I write, blog, record and review anything that interests me — including humanity, parenting, gizmos & gadgets, video games and media.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

Shane R. Monroe

Written by

I write, blog, record and review anything that interests me — including humanity, parenting, gizmos & gadgets, video games and media.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

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