[Gamasutra is talking to this year's Independent Games Festival finalists, this time interviewing KranX Productions' Alexander Porechnov about Musaic Box, a hidden object game featuring puzzles that have players arranging blocks to complete music arrangements -- nominated for the Excellence in Design and Audio awards.]
At a glance, Musaic Box's casual "hidden object" gameplay might not seem noteworthy, but closer inspection reveals a fascinating music-based puzzle component unlike anything else in the genre.
In the game, players comb their dead grandfather's home for compositions to play with his "musaic box" left behind. To render the song, however, they have to listen to and assemble its pieces on a puzzle screen.
Presented as tetrimino-esque block groups, each piece contains a snippet of a song with up to four instruments. Players have to properly arrange the pieces on the board to form the whole tune. A basic version of each song is available to guide players, as are symbols on each block corresponding to the melody's instruments and bars.
We spoke with KranX's Alexander Porechnov about Musaic Box, nominated for both Excellence in Design and Excellence in Audio awards at this year's Independent Games Festival (part of Think Services, as is this website).
Porechnov discusses how he devised the music puzzle game's mechanics, why he chose to pair that component with hidden object gameplay, and KranX's plans to produce handheld ports for Musaic Box.
What kind of background do you have making games?
Alexander Porechnov: Iíve been a programmer since I was 10 years old; my first program was written on Fortran and was stored in punchcards! I also have a music degree in piano.
My first gaming and game programming experiences were with the Yamaha MSX computer (which had very advanced audio hardware for its time). My favorite games on the MSX were Metal Gear and Vampire Killer (Castlevania). I picked out tunes from these games by ear on piano and performed several spontaneous concerts for friends. I suppose that was when the union of video games and music was created in my life.
Up to 2003, I programmed business software, but I wrote unique mini-puzzle games in Java and inserted them as Easter Eggs for corporate time-tracking tools. All the employees were happy! I hope to recreate it in Flash some day.
And in early 2003, I was hired by [Russian developer] K-D LAB and participated in creating Perimeter, a real-time strategy game based on terraforming. Now Iím working with Kranx Productions.
What sort of development tools did you use?
AP: Outside of the usual tools for casual games, I chose a MIDI sequencer with scripting abilities, and then wrote a script for splitting tracks by bars. I've also done that work by hand because it was faster.
I used skeletal animations to control musicians in Musaic Box, so I coded a plug-in for a 3D modeling tool and animated the musicians myself.
What made you decide to create a music game with puzzle elements?
AP: Once upon a time, I was staring at my screen with a midi sequencer open, full of channels -- the idea of breaking this screenshot into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle came to me.
I'm sure this thought isn't unique, but I started analyzing it. I wrote down problems and solutions on a sheet of paper.
Some of those problems include:
1. Music has a disproportionate size in comparison with a jigsaw puzzle; a song usually has a long width (length of song) and a small height (number of instruments).
2. If we present music the same way we present a jigsaw, there is no challenge. Solving the puzzle will be too simple.
3. In jigsaw puzzles, we usually have a original small picture
So, if we want to have a fun puzzle:
1. We should take a small music fragment, like single verse of a song.
2. Mix channels with each piece, making them like Tetris forms.
3. Give players the ability to hear the original sample (only the lead melody). Solving the puzzle will play the completed arrangement, which will be the player's reward.
I also wanted to bring in an additional geometrical gameplay aspect, designed to provide additional challenge but simplify the puzzle for those who don't have a musical background. The game should be easy enough for players who aren't musically inclined.
So, I was needing an experiment from this point...
Were there any puzzle, audio-based, or other kinds of games that you took inspiration from with the puzzle portions of Musaic Box?
AP: On one hand, of course I've played Tetris, Sudoku, and so on, and I'm sure all these games played a roles during development; but on the other hand, I can't say I was inspired by a specific game.
I like music games where music is a part of the gameplay. In Musaic Box, player should both "hear and think." I suppose Musaic Box helps train the synchronous working of left and right cerebral hemispheres, because you work with music and logic at the same time.
You created the entire game by yourself? How long did you spend developing the game?
AP: I created the playable demo by myself in two months, even the art. Here's my first Musaic Box Logo.
The final game was made by 4 Alexanders and one Vadim in 10 months -- myself; artists Alexander Yuzvovich and Alexander Oleynik; menu programmer Alexander Drymov; and musician Vadim Chaliy (PhD in Philosophy!).
I should say that work with Vadim was quite interesting -- I'm in Simferopol [Crimea, Ukraine], while he is in Svetlogorsk [Kaliningrad Oblast], a 2000km distance between us.
It was something like simultaneous musical improvisation. For example, Vadim started with the base tune, I continued with supporting audio, and so on.
The musicians in Musaic Box were created using our team as models. I'm the one with the violin!
What did you find most challenging during development?
AP: I spent quite a few hours coding the audio portion of the game because it's very important to avoid any gaps between bars. All the other development tasks were more creative than challenging.
I did, however, take on both producer and project manager roles. In further projects, I hope to avoid this and spend all my time on more creative tasks.
What compelled you to couple the music puzzle game with a "hidden object" type game?
AP: I suppose we all want our games to reach as many people as possible. But if you have a new gameplay mechanic, you can miss all those people who are afraid of having to learn something new. So, we covered the unique music gameplay by adding the more familiar hidden object gameplay. It works like candy with a unique filling -- you start with a known flavor, and then taste a new experience.
Of course, we have some players who only like the hidden object portions and some players who hate hidden object gameplay. But our hidden object part is simple and adds a story while creating an environment.
I put in a lot of historical information about famous musicians and composers in the game's text. There are also some ancient and exotic musical instruments that can be found in Musaic Box.
Some gamers who might like the music puzzle portions might just want to play that component -- do you have plans to ever produce the music puzzle component as a standalone game?
AP: I'm not sure about the PC version, but we're planning to port Musaic Box without the hidden object part to iPhone, and maybe to Nintendo DS, too.
Do you have plans to further explore this mixing of puzzle games with music?
AP: I have several new ideas -- we have successfully prototyped one of them, and it will be one of the mini-games in our next title.
What songs did you end up having to abandon because they didn't work as puzzles?
AP: We used all the songs that we could find. The fact is that we could only use popular and free public domain songs while covering as many countries as possible. These requirements were quite pressing, and we didn't have a long list to pick from.
Each block in the puzzle forms have different and colored symbols. Can you describe how you developed these and how they aid players?
AP: Each instrument has its own color, so you shouldn't place two pieces with a similar color on the same column -- the musician won't be able to play two bars at the same time. If you look at the musician, he'll be breathless. This is explained in tutorial.
Returning to that screen with the midi-sequencer -- I drew the hieroglyphs in a similar way. If the melody goes up, then down, and then has three staccato notes, I drew a line going up and down with three dots.
So, you can use this, at least in the case of two or more identical bars. Signs will be identical, too. Moreover, if you see one pattern in a few pieces with different colors (instruments), you can place all these pieces in one column easily.
The game includes an unlockable "create a tune" feature. Can you share how this works?
AP: When I gave the demo to our first focus testers (my friends), I found that after some time, they forgot the goal and just arranged their own combinations with enthusiasm.
So, I put an additional "creations" mode into final game, something like sampler. I broke up all the pieces for each melody into the smallest atoms and prepared a big board. Some players call this mode a "casual sampler." This mode is just for fun, there is no goal. Some melodies can produce very funny combinations.
If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?
AP: Nothing. Really, it was completed smoothly and in time, with a very creative mood. And, we have had great responses. If people say, "Each time I solved a puzzle, I would do a little happy dance in my chair while the music played," then I think we did all right.
Were there any elements that you experimented with that just flat out didn't work with your vision?
AP: Only one thing. I used bars' splitting into odd and even notes in several songs, but focus testing revealed that this is a good idea only for "The Entertainer" and "FŁr Elise." Other tunes with this presentation were extremely hard and not fun at all. It was the only time I redesigned finished puzzles.
What do you think of the state of independent game development, and are there any other independent games out that you currently admire?
AP: Indie game development is a huge and strong creative stream; if you plunge into it, you will be taken away. My last favorite game was Auditorium Ė great visuals and music performance.
What is the independent game development scene like in the ex-USSR?
AP: If you browse indie flash game portals and look in the credits, you will find many Slavic names. For example, yesterday, I enjoyed Splitter by Evgeny Karataev. As for Kranx, look for Yumsters. We have a few innovative prototypes on PSP and Nintendo DS.
So, I think the indie game development scene is alright in ex-USSR.