How PixelJunk 4am made the PS Move into a new musical instrument

PixelJunk 4am lead designer Rowan Parker approached PlayStation's motion-sensing Move controller in a brand new way for the title, which is part game and part brand new musical instrument.
Learning how to play a traditional musical instrument is hard enough -- how would you make a new one? In a postmortem for the September issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, PixelJunk 4am lead designer Rowan Parker explained how the dev team at Q-Games turned the PlayStation Move controller into a hybrid game/instrument so players worldwide could make beautiful, beautiful music. (The Game Developer September issue is now available via subscription and digital purchase.)

What went right: Fearless hardware experimentation

The PlayStation Move may not have set the core games world on fire, but Q-Games's dev team thought there might have been more to the motion controller. Parker writes:

Going into the project, I didn’t exactly have a glowing perception of the Move—it had always felt gimmicky to me. On the first day, though, we played around with some of the SDK samples and were surprised to discover that the Move actually seemed pretty robust and ripe for creating some wild stuff with tricks that neither the Kinect nor the Wii could do. It occurred to me at the time that it might not be the Move’s fault that it wasn’t being used for crazy new stuff, but that people weren’t making games for it to do crazy new stuff (following 4am’s prototype, we since saw some other notable Move experiments, which warms my heart greatly!). With a skeleton team of two programmers and one designer, we prototyped at least 12 different control methods for 4am, all utilizing the Move to control music in space. Some of the control schemes varied from casting musical “spells” in the air to replicating an eight-way arcade stick and inputting Street Fighter commands in the air. Regardless how ludicrous each idea seemed, though, the only test that mattered was whether we could ask, “Can I make music, and is it fun?” and honestly answer, “Yes.” Dylan supported our willingness to experiment without regard for whether something felt “normal” or “gimmicky,” all the way up until we found 4am’s distinctive Virtual Audio Canvas. Without that support to continue experimenting, we might never have pushed the Move enough to find the Virtual Audio Canvas we have now. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to just implement a menu and pointers, but it wouldn’t have been 4am!

What went wrong: Artist vs. Player

When your game turns into a music-making tool, it's not quite as easy to decide how to balance the "game" to satisfy the artists who make the music, or the players who remix it. Parker explains:

4am began as a passive music visualizer. When it started coming together as more of a music creation tool, a fundamental conflict arose: Players want to manipulate the music, but the artist wanted to preserve their original idealized state of a track. When we began experimenting with DSP effects, we quickly found that people like to warp music and make it their own. The dichotomy within 4am is that we want players to find their own sound, where traditionally produced music aims to have already achieved that for you by the time you hear it. So when making tracks for 4am, should they be prepped for “finishing” inside 4am by the players using DSP effects, or should they be ready to go right out of the box? This internal tension had a direct impact on the ranges available to players within the DSP effects. A flanger or chorus DSP might have a wide frequency or feedback range to play within, but by carefully setting a min/max range under the hood, we could safely trim the performer’s freedom space to something we knew would produce the kind of sound we wanted. Unfortunately, some of these ranges are probably still too subtle for the average user to enjoy, since they can be difficult to hear depending on what track is playing. We had to create effects that were audible and interesting to players, but at the same time stylistically acceptable to the artist. In hindsight, these are two completely opposed ideas, and it was always going to be difficult to satisfy both. The player still needs to have fun, but not at the cost of being a passive appreciation tool for the artist’s benefit.
The full PixelJunk 4am postmortem goes into more detail about what went right and wrong with the development process. In addition, the September 2012 issue of Game Developer includes an in-depth look at the low-lag GGPO netcode used in Skullgirls and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition, a feature on smartly scaling your mobile or social game's server backend, and more. You can purchase individual Game Developer issues or a subscription from the Game Developer web store, or download the Game Developer iOS app.

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