[How did the PlayStation Vita’s puzzle star take shape? Producer James Mielke (formerly of developer Q Entertainment) walks through early concepts for the game, outlines production difficulties, including never-before-seen in-progress screens and video.]
Officially greenlit in August of 2010 — in Paris, where I had brought a handful of pitches to our publisher, Ubisoft — Lumines Electronic Symphony (as it was eventually dubbed) had originally been conceived as Daft Punk Lumines.
In my quest to reboot the Lumines franchise, which had diminished somewhat since the original first took gamers by surprise on PSP, I thought that one way to avoid criticisms of “just another Lumines with new skins and new music” would be to focus solely on the work of one particular artist. And what better artist to approach than Daft Punk, who had clearly transcended the pitfalls that engulf most music acts.
Not only were they as relevant in 2010 as they had been in the mid-’90s, but they were now iconic, with Adidas/Star Wars crossover appearances, their own movies (Electroma and Interstella 5555), high-quality action figures, and a soon-to-be-released soundtrack to Disney’s Tron reboot on the way. Besides, even old ladies who don’t know a thing about club music know the song “One More Time”.
What I wanted to do was put the player in the cockpit of Daft Punk’s pyramid-shaped DJ booth that they tour with, and — as Daft Punk — rock the crowd by performing big combos in Lumines. Everything in the game was going to be Daft Punkified, from the HUD, to the soundtrack, to the bassy aural ambience found on their 2007 Alive live album, to the special effects, real-time lighting, bouncing 3D crowd, etc. Since we were developing this for the PS Vita I planned to use the rear touchpad to allow players to manipulate sounds and visuals in real-time (like laser spotlights for visuals, and tweak the audio like a Korg Kaoss pad).
Alas, while communication with Daft Punk’s management was good, the duo (who have both met Q Entertainent creative director, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and professed to loving Rez) didn’t want to use previously released music, and didn’t have time to create new music, because of a high pressure schedule to finish the Tron soundtrack. Understandable, but at this point it was obvious that we (Q Entertainment) had to move forward conceptually.
While driving to the airport one day with Tetsuya Mizuguchi (who I will refer to as “Miz” from now on; he’d want it that way), he began talking about how he wanted to see a Lumines with flowers and bright colors. I, on the other hand, had been thinking about taking Lumines players on a journey into space and beyond, so I started thinking about how I could reconcile these two vague ideas and make them work together.
It was at this point that I came up with the idea of creating a sort of “concept game” (like a concept album, in musical terms) that would start with a stage of classic, pure Lumines that would be interrupted about three minutes in before all the blocks onscreen exploded in a “big bang”. This is where the new Lumines would truly begin, right after surprising players for the first time.
I had a number of different names I was working with, inspired by the concept. Having a name in place really helps me visualize where I’ll go with the game concept, so some of the internal names for the concept were Lumines Forever, Lumines: Light Years, and Lumines: Electro Light Orchestra. The last one was actually one that we almost went with before the legal department thought that the band Electric Light Orchestra would give us problems down the road. Ultimately we went with a variation of that name, which turned out to be Lumines Electronic Symphony.
If you look closely at this screen, which clearly shows placeholder fonts and a notable lack of HUD elements, you can see that the blocks aren’t perfectly aligned. This was, at the time, one idea we were considering to reflect the physics and impact “engine” we had in mind. We wanted to add velocity and physics to the blocks so that when you dropped a block hard (by pulling down on the D-pad) it would cause the surrounding blocks to shudder from the impact.
This could have had further implications; for example if the blocks were designed as corn kernels, and the alternate blocks were butter cubes, and the skin design was of a frying pan or fire, when you cleared a combo it could create popcorn particle effects. Physics for that skin would then be light and fluffy, allowing the resulting popcorn to pop happily off the screen. Conversely, imagine a skin with ice cubes, water, and snow.
The concept for this variation of Lumines would be to take players on a conceptual journey, with skins arranged and grouped — post-big bang-effect — into phases: Molecule, Seed, Flower, Oceans, Sky, Civilization, Astro, Nebula, Heavens, and Beyond. Each phase would consist of three or four songs grouped to fit the vibe — for example I had selected songs by Towa Tei, Big Audio Dynamite, and The KLF to soundtrack the Civilization phase, to convey the feelings of business, a hectic pace, and the claustrophobia of modern living.
Following Civilization’s decline (originally planned to be a series of crumbling, wireframe, 3D Rez-like buildings symbolic of mankind’s self-immolation) was the relief offered by the Astro stage which, if I would have had my way, would have surprised people on a number of levels.
First, the song that would have kicked off the Astro phase was Supertramp’s “Give A Little Bit”. Yes, it’s not what anyone would have expected, but it’s a great song, and it’s uplifting, and it would have been a “Say Anything moment” in the game, one that players would have remembered years down the road. It was meant to send a signal of hope and promise (common Q Entertainment themes), an antidote to the musical rush of “What Time Is Love” that was originally planned to close out the Civilization phase.
The second thing that I was planning to do with the Astro phase was — since the skin would have been space shuttles slowly exiting the Earth’s atmosphere — reverse gravity. I was dying to hear the reactions of players who, upon entering the Astro phase, suddenly saw their blocks float to the top of the screen.
The gameplay would have remained unaffected, except that blocks would now begin rising from the bottom, as opposed to falling from the top. I thought, “If I can create a moment in puzzle gaming that people still talk about years down the road, I will have accomplished what I set out to do.” In the early stages of planning we discussed having blocks come in from all directions to a rotating cluster in the center, but we decided that would no longer feel like Lumines. A lot of things fell by the wayside for not feeling like Lumines — but I’m getting ahead of myself.