Road to the IGF: Speelbaars' Lumini

"The soundtrack is fully dynamic. The music changes in each environment and when the characters are in danger. It triggers emotions and tells stories in interesting areas."

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Speelbaars' Lumini is a relaxing and meditative experience that casts players as a swarm of alien creatures that must be navigated through a hostile environment, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Flower

The rich audio design plays a key role in making the alien game world memorable. In addition to the dynamic musical score, the swarm and the obstacles and enemies that players encounter all emit noises that track with the emotions players are experiencing, which deepens the immersion immeasurably. The game has been nominated for an IGF award in the Excellence in Audio category.

Two members of the Lumini development team at Speelbaars, lead designer Steven Honders and audio designer Gijs Driesenaar, shared the backstory on the making of the game with Gamasutra.

What's your background in making games?

Steven: We started out as students at HKU, doing some projects together before starting Speelbaars and developing Lumini. Some of us chose to attend the HKU with the idea of finding like-minded people that we could start a company with and develop our own games.

Before the HKU, not many of us have a real history within the games industry. Just a hobby and passion for developing games. But in the end that's all you really need to start making games. Lumini was our first big project that was developed with the aim to actually release it.

Gijs: I studied composition and sound design for adaptive systems. During that study, I started collaborating with Speelbaars. Before I worked on games, I made linear music for other media. But since I got in touch with interactive music and games I was sure that that is where my passion lies. What I like about games is the interactive part, and creating a dimension for a world that comes alive when you play it.

What development tools did you use to build Lumini?

Gijs: I composed the music and designed the sounds in Logic Pro. I used FMOD Studio to implement the sound and music in the game. This way I was able to create the desired interactivity and have full control of the final mix and how the sounds work in game. Thanks to FMOD, I was able to handle a lot of tasks that a programmer would normally have to do. In FMOD I created systems that only had to be linked to a game parameter or triggers to work. I had a lot of flexibility and I could easily go my way without the constant need of a programmer. Together with Niels, we implemented the FMOD events in Unity.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Steven: We started in September 2013. In the 3 months following, we made a first demo of Lumini with the aim to release it and see if people actually enjoyed the game. The demo release was successful enough for us to plan ahead towards a full version of the game. However, we still had to do a mandatory internship in the meantime. So after the demo release, development didn't really progress until the summer of 2014. From July 2014 until 3 September 2015 (when Lumini released) we worked full time on the game with a team of 9 people. HKU provided us with the freedom and space to run our project as an independent development studio.

So we spent 2 years from start till finish, but less on actually developing the game.

How did you come up with the concept?

Steven: As mentioned earlier. HKU provided us with a chance to pitch a game concept, and if it was deemed good enough, the time and space to develop the concept into a full game. We did however, get little time to come up with a concept. We were notified on a Friday that the pitch was a possibility, and had to present the concept on the Thursday following the announcement. So we had less than a week to gather a team which covered all the production roles and come up with a concept good enough to pitch.

We needed two evenings filled with pizza, bad jokes and lots of brainstorming to come up with an idea. It started with a game developed by Yhorik Aarsen, that made it fun and easier to quickly come up with lots of different and weird game concepts, without limiting yourself beforehand. It plays a bit like Wordfeud, but with game mechanics, art styles and themes.

Anyway, after playing the game for a bit, we were left with a concept based on a entire group of bunnies trying to frantically escape a death labyrinth. That idea obviously didn't make it, but the idea of controlling an entire group of creatures instead of just one character stuck. After bouncing back and forth with a couple of ideas we went with a swarm of flying creatures.

The mechanics all came from the question, "What could a player do with a swarm of characters that they couldn't with a single character?"

In earlier projects, Niels and Steven already worked together with Gijs as an audio designer. Being big fans of great audio in games, making Gijs part of the team and process from the start was very important. The whole relaxing vibe and experience that Lumini gives the player was organically formed by combining the strengths of the team with the vision that the experience in a game is the most important part of making something memorable. That's something we wanted to do, make it memorable.

Is the game's soundtrack fully dynamic as relates to the action on-screen? How did you approach and accomplish making it dynamic?

Gijs: Yes, the soundtrack is fully dynamic. I wanted the music to really follow the Lumini creatures on their journey. So the music is different in each environment, it changes when the Lumini are in danger, it tells stories at interesting areas and it triggers emotions during all events that happen. Since there are no loading times or cutscenes in the game, the music had to be one flow from the beginning to the end. My aim for the music was to avoid fading out 'Track A' and fading in 'Track B'. I wanted to create a seamless interactive soundtrack that has a film soundtrack feel.

To accomplish this, I first wrote linear music for each environment, that fits the environment itself and all the interesting areas and events. Then I chopped up the whole composition, added layers and added combat music that matched the music from that environment. The combat music is different in each environment as well. I created a lot of different transitions using different techniques, to make sure the music feels and sounds like one piece of music.

Technically, this was a big challenge. I used different techniques and created complex systems in FMOD Studio. The music is build up with over 300 sound files. Including short pieces, layers and transitions.

Creating music for a game that considers itself an "experience" is quite different to creating background music that just plays along behind the action. Can you talk about this creative challenge?

Gijs: In my opinion, music and sound has a huge impact on the experience of a game. When you watch a movie without sound, you miss a lot and nothing really moves you. So for Lumini, the music has a very important role. Since there is no storytelling through words and there are no cutscenes, the music had to tell the story and carry all the emotions.

Immersion is another important part of an "experience" game. I’ve put a lot of detail and interaction in the sound. For example: the Lumini creatures interact with events or enemy behaviors by making noises, crying, laughing or singing. Or when you shoot the sonic attack, all the birds and small animals from your surroundings go silent, so you really feel the impact. Those details, combined with rich ambiences, add a lot of life and immersion to the game.

Many times audio team members aren't integrated as directly into production and thus audio becomes 'separate.' How did you handle this aspect of developing Lumini, knowing audio was critical to the experience?

Steven: Gijs was part of the team from the beginning. He was part of making the concept and part of the decision making regarding the creative routes we wanted to take with Lumini. He was not 'just the audio guy'. Because it's not 'just audio' that should be part of a game. Audio is a big part of how players experience certain events and how they interpret the situations that they're confronted with.

By giving Gijs a vote in not just audio, he had a chance to mold certain events in the game to accommodate the audio better. Making it a complete package. Try playing the game without audio, it would just not be the same.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Steven: I haven't had much time to play a lot of games lately. I've played The Beginner's Guide, which was an interesting experience. And heard a lot about That Dragon, Cancer, that sounded like something I still need to play.

Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.

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