Art and music director Baiyon and lead designer Rowan Kaiser talk us through how their PlayStation Move music creator/DJ simulator changed over the course of development.
It's probably not much of a leap to imagine that a game as odd as PixelJunk 4am started as a soundtrack.
Following the release of PixelJunk Eden Encore in 2009, Eden Encore musician/artist Tomohisa Kuramitsu (better known as "Baiyon") and the developers at Q Games wanted to work together again, but weren't sure in what form. As time went on, and they thought about making a soundtrack for Eden Encore, and one of the ideas that came from that was to make the soundtrack into an interactive visualizer for PS3.
PixelJunk Lifelike was born.
The team unveiled the game, if you want to call it that, at the 2010 Tokyo Game Show, by way of a teaser trailer in which Baiyon and a friend "dance on a mountain," he says.
Soon after, the team decided that a visualizer wasn't enough to make into its own product, so they began to experiment with making the music interactive, and to allow players to create their own music as well. At first, Baiyon was hesitant, not knowing what his music would sound like under a player's control. But a team of three at Q Games began to prototype ideas, aiming to convince him it would work, being inspired by the Move controller, and wanting to make a game without an on-screen interface.
In February or March that year, the team found the idea that made everything click into place. The trio discovered what it would eventually call the "virtual audio canvas" — essentially a series of options that exist invisibly in the air between the player and their screen, where the player can pull in certain tracks and sounds to create their own music, while seeing these tracks represented in an eccentric visual style on the screen.
"We were searching for a lot of different Move control systems — you know, a lot of different ways to manipulate sounds and music," says lead designer Rowan Parker. "And when we came across the idea of actually creating entities in space, and having you actually touch them and grab them and manipulate the air with the Move, that's when we realized, not only was it awesome and cool, but it was actually the most comfortable way to use the device."
PixelJunk Lifelike was dead. And through the shift from visualizer to music creation software — neither of which the team likes calling a "game" — the project took on the name PixelJunk 4am.
"[It's] ironic because the original project was meant to be a visualizer, and then we trended so far away from that with using the Move, and then towards the end, we sort of thought, 'Well, we could just put that back in.'"
With that sorted, the team added another programmer and an artist, and started iterating on the idea. Baiyon created new music — "I wanted to put more of the sexy intensity of house music in," he says — the art style shifted a bit further away from the PixelJunk Eden style, and late in the project, the team even decided to come full circle and bring the visualizer back in as one of the game's side modes.
"[It's] ironic," says Parker, "because the original project was meant to be a visualizer, and then we trended so far away from that with using the Move, and then towards the end, we sort of thought, 'Well, we could just put that back in, I guess.'"
Easier said than done, of course — in adding a visualizer mode back in (the only part of the final product that players can use without owning a Move controller), the team had to make the art style fit what 4am had evolved into. If you look back at the original Lifelike teaser trailer (embedded above) there's a brief scene at the end showing early concepts that look quite different from what you'll see in 4am.
In total, Q Games had a five person staff on the game for approximately one year. Which seems appropriate, considering that even with a visualizer, it's hard to deny that 4am is targeting a niche group — it being a hard-to-describe music game limits the audience somewhat; it being only available on PSN limits the audience more; and it being a Move game slices off another chunk of that pie chart.
As you'd assume, Parker is proud of tackling something specific. "We could have made a brown gray paste to try and satisfy everyone, but I think having a vision and being able to have something you can pour love into that a certain group of people can enjoy has given us something really really different and unique," he says, noting that he's seen kids pick up the game and enjoy it right away.
As for what's next, Baiyon says he wants to continue to work on games, and "has a couple ideas" in which he'd focus less on the visuals and more on the general concept, atmosphere, and music. One of those is in the "just walking" genre — a gameplay style where there are few traditional game mechanics apart from interacting with the world, ala Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Proteus, with the "just walking" name rooted in a quote Baiyon made years ago upon seeing Sworcery for the first time and being surprised that's what the game was about.
"I love that kind of game," he says. "It's an amazing experience. And I can feel the guidance — like they spent a lot [of time] on the music and the graphics, you know?"
But, he says, "nothing's decided."