Formerly known as PixelJunk Lifelike but since renamed PixelJunk 4am, the first (and hopefully not the last) foray into the wild lands of motion controls by Japanese studio Q-Games is quite unlike anything you've ever "touched" with PlayStation Move before.
Coming from such an inventive protagonist of modern videogame industry, responsible for some of the shiniest PSN gems you will ever risk your credit card information for, from debut title PixelJunk Racers, through PixelJunk Eden and PixelJunk Monsters (series), up to the recent PixelJunk Shooter (series), PixelJunk 4am is an original take at digital music synthesizing, powered by Kyoto multimedia artist and long-time Q-Games collaborator Baiyon.
Despite his very busy schedule as founder of Q-Games, ex-Argonaut enfant prodige Dylan Cuthbert took some time away from his overseeing duties for the upcoming PixelJunk Sidescroller and the browser-based version of PixelJunk Monsters (currently in alfa testing) to shed some light on this rather unique and experimental project.
How did you come about the decision to create PixelJunk 4am and when did the Move controller become a fundamental part of it?
Dylan Cuthbert: Initially we were planning a strange organic-like music visualiser but then Move came along and one day it struck me how cool it could be to use the Move to interact with the visuals... and from there on we just started experimenting. I noticed that there is a whole unused side to the PS3's SPUs, and that's audio DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effects, so we started playing around and then discovered that the Move has really high precision which is perfect for doing tiny adjustments to the timbre of sound.
What would you say was most difficult part of developing PixelJunk 4am? Researching audio technology, the Move one or marrying them one another?
DC: The audio tech is primarily all in the standard libraries and just not used much by other games, although we did have to write a no. of our own effects to supplement the standard ones. The main tricky part of development has been the visuals, making them react well to the different frequencies in the tracks you play.
Being more of a tool than a game, PixelJunk 4am might seem like a departure from your usual PixelJunk productions, with their strong emphasis on extremely polished and unique gameplay mechanics. Would you say this is an exception to the PixelJunk ethos?
DC: I wouldn't say it is a tool, it is more of an "experience" and can even feel like a fun toy at its most basic level (kids have a great time with it too). Q-Games has always been about technology and fun user experiences, so I think this is a good fit for us. It won't be in the standard line of PixelJunk games however (1-1, 1-2 etc), and we'll probably give it a different sub-class - perhaps "alpha, beta...".
Considering your previous collaboration with Sony in creating both the Earth and the Canyon music visualizers (along with the animated XMB background), did you explore the possibility of having PixelJunk 4am deployed as a music application accessible through the XMB Music section?
DC: No, we wanted this to be a standalone title from the start, so we can make money from it! However, it is the kind of thing that would be amazing to have as a built-in app (the free viewer at least).
The PixelJunk 4am experience has been described as akin to painting music on a virtual 3D sound canvas. In more practical terms, how does it work?
DC: The visualization reacts only to the music but on many different levels. Part of the "exploration" of the game is feeling these reactions as you create your sound. To bring in a new track you reach out to one of the corners of the "canvas", pull the trigger button, then bring the Move back into the center of the canvas and release the trigger button - it feels as though you are "grabbing" the tracks from the space around you. The four face buttons on the controller switch between track types and tend to be beat, bass, synth and percussion, and you can grab a track from the four corners of the canvas for each of those types giving you 16 different loops you can play. On top of this if you simply "whack" the side of the audio canvas either left, right, up or down you can trigger "one shots". There are also 4 of these per track type, giving you a choice of 16 again. The really fun part comes in when you start playing with the multitudes of DSP effects on each track; by pushing the Move button (the big center one) and then moving the Move in 3D within the audio canvas you can totally control the sound, and you can also twist the Move for even more control giving you 4 axes of manipulation. This is when things go crazy!
At any time you can also push Select and choose to switch over to a completely new set of music and tracks which you can then start bringing in one by one, mixing in with the previous music and creating a continuous blend.
With regards to gestures and tilt detection, will there be options to tweak the Move sensitivity?
DC: When you start using 4am there will be a screen that lets you calibrate the scale of the audio canvas (which in effect tweaks the Move's sensitivity).
How do you make sure the user understands what a given action does to the music? Will you provide some sort of tutorial or is it up to the user to find out by himself through experimenting?
DC: Yes, there will be a small tutorial of some kind - we find that everyone picks up all the nuances with just a few simple explanations as the feel of the controls is very natural.
The visualizer of course provides visual feedback of the music being played. Besides its obvious equalizer-like behavior, what else affects those visuals?
DC: We run Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) analysis on all four tracks which gives us a lot of variables to play with for input into the visualiser. Normal music visualisers only have one input, and perhaps some very rare ones will have two (stereo). However because our tracks are mixed in realtime we put the analysis in there right after the DSP effects are applied to each track and that makes the visualisers extremely responsive. Because of this there just isn't a need for other forms of input and our experiments with making the visualiser react more directly to the Move felt "tacked on," so we stopped going in that direction and instead aimed for a more "emergent" style of visualiser.
From the demonstration conducted at E3, it looks like the Move sphere provides some visual feedback as well. Could you please elaborate on that? Also, is rumble supported?
DC: Rumble is used and the colour of the Move "sphere" changes to show which track you are manipulating. We are also considering some kind of beat indication too if the detection system can cope with small pulses (the sphere is used to track the Move controller so we are being careful to preserve the accuracy of that).
Could you please describe some of the other visualizers included in PixelJunk 4am? Will they all adhere to the amoeba-like template we has seen thus far?
DC: No, the amoeba style is just the one we showed at E3. They are greatly varied. For example, another one is like a screen full of waving hair or strands, and another is an abstraction of an old Korg analog synth patch board.
It is my understanding Baiyon is providing about 40 tracks for PixelJunk 4am, but there will also be an option to import your own MP3s. How much control will the user have over those MP3 tracks compared to the ones tailored to PixelJunk 4am?
DC: There won't be an option to import your own MP3s, because the tracks have all been mastered and tuned to work with each other. Also because of the global broadcast ability, we can't risk music publishers breathing down our necks when people start DJ-ing their entire Beatles collection. Baiyon will be providing 5 full sets of tracks which consist of a grand total of 80 tracks and another 80 one-shot sounds. It's a pretty crazy amount of content!
Has a decision been made about the possibility to record your performance to the system hard disc drive?
DC: We want this to be a broadcast/live performance tool, so there won't be any "saving to disk" - if you want to play it back, pick up the Move and do it again. This way you'll discover other techniques and have more fun.
Being a music generator software rather than a traditional game, what kind of requisites did you came up with for earning trophies in PixelJunk 4am?
DC: We're still working on those!
Locally, multiplayer is supported by allowing two users to conduct music simultaneously, even generating unique effects by bringing the Move controllers close to each other. Is it feasible for a single user holding two Move controllers to create music like that or is it too much waggling?
DC: Yes, a single user could easily use two Move controllers if they like, although it might get confusing! Who knows though, there could well be some master DJs out there who pull off this technique and create music we didn't even imagine possible! I really hope this is the case!
PixelJunk 4am online functionality will enable users to live stream their performances for others to listen. Listeners will also be able to provide feedback via some sort of “Like” system. Will this be tied to a search engine for easy finding of the best online DJs?
DC: Yes, we are still fleshing this stuff out, but we will be including a no. of features like this.
Will listeners be able to also “watch” a live performance through any of the PixelJunk 4am visualizers?
DC: If you mean watching the actual person perform then no, because of privacy rights, etc... I think it would make people uncomfortable. And of course, the bandwidth for video is far greater, so the net would soon collapse under the strain when a million users tune in to watch Baiyon in his boxer shorts DJ-ing for the world. However, you will be able to see the PS3 visualizations the performer is creating in full 1080p. That is to say the visualiser information is sent over in our internal format and not a compressed movie stream.
Since this is all about music being streamed online, are you considering the possibility of building a dedicated web page acting as some sort of PixelJunk 4am radio station so that people can listen at (and perhaps even vote) live performances while away from their PS3s?
DC: I'm not sure yet. It is certainly something we could consider if 4am is as popular as we hope it to be! I would prefer people to boot up their PS3s to listen in though, because then you get the whole experience.
Is PixelJunk 4am open to future upgrades and extra content delivery? If so, any plans you can share at the moment?
DC: Sure, make sure everyone around you buys it and then you'll find out!
A few months ago you went on record saying PixelJunk 4am “is going to be our first and probably our only foray with the Move controller”. Would you please explain why you don’t see Q-Games developing any more games using the Move controller?
DC: Well, who knows what the future holds for the Move controller, but that comment was with regards to PixelJunk in its current incarnation and on the PS3. Right now we simply don't have any other ideas that could use the Move well. We've used them all up for 4am! Over and out!
Many thanks to Dylan Cuthbert for taking the time to answer my (many) questions and to Assistant Producer at Q-Games Ariel Angelotti for all the support.