Marble Popping Maddness: Luxor: 5th Passage Interview

Conducted by Adam Ames

Josh Spigener from MumboJumbo and Lead Producer on the great title, LUXOR 5th Passage, gives us detailed look into the life of a PC games developer.  Josh also talks about DRM, piracy, how Luxor came to be and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Luxor: 5th Passage.

I began my career in video games in the QA department of MumboJumbo as a tester for the games we develop and publish for the PC, Mac, Nintendo platforms, and iOS. Starting at the entry-level of game development exposed me to a sample of all aspects of game development. Since LUXOR is our flagship title, I’ve done my share of testing and logged countless hours playing it. As the position became available for a producer for the new LUXOR, I brought lots of experience playing LUXOR, along with some ideas on updating the franchise and bringing something new.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I’ve always loved playing video games and writing, so when I got my foot in the door at MumboJumbo, it opened up opportunities to have my voice heard by starting as a tester. In the development life cycle, game designers and producers continually prod QA for feedback about improvements, difficulty ramping, and general ideas since QA testers are the closest thing to an end-user that you have in-house. I’ve always had a passion for gaming, and I’m not shy about voicing my opinion on what I like/dislike about certain aspects of a game.

As for MumboJumbo, we recently celebrated 10 years in the gaming industry, and we were originally MacPlay back in the day, developing titles for the Mac.  When casual games started to rise, we began developing for the PC, and found a smash hit in LUXOR in 2005.

Where did the idea for Luxor: 5th Passage come from?

Mark Cottam, our CEO, was instrumental in getting the ball rolling for the newest iteration in the LUXOR franchise. LUXOR is still very popular, it’s available on so many different platforms that we’ve determined it’s downloaded almost 20,000 times a day.  With that in mind, it’s important to us to keep it relevant and fresh. Many of our players have probably played LUXOR even more times than some of our QA guys, completing the campaign mode numerous times; we wanted to reward that kind of loyalty by giving our players something new.

In its current form, how close is Luxor: 5th Passage to your initial vision?

We initially concepted 5th Passage as a “retro arcade style game,” which we envisioned to be more along the lines of an 8-bit style arcade game. Once we got into the design, that idea didn’t seem to gel as successfully as we wanted, so we aimed somewhere between the simpler styles of Luxor and Luxor 2, and the flashy, glitzy appeal of Luxor 3 and Quest for the Afterlife. I think we hit pretty close to our target in terms of the visual style we were aiming for; not overly simplistic, but not so much glitz and glamour that it detracts from the core game play.

Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Luxor: 5th Passage and if you faced a similar challenge.

That’s the bonus of having four different difficulty settings in 5th Passage (Easy, Medium, Hard and Insane). If our hardest difficulty was too much even for us, then it was likely too hard for most players. Oddly enough, properly adjusting the Easy difficulty seemed the toughest, since anything other than the wildest, most difficult setting was deemed easy by our standards. Family members and casual LUXOR players proved to be valuable when adjusting these difficulty levels. I’m pretty happy with the difficulty, and how we can still challenge our most hardcore players while not alienating newcomers to the franchise.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Luxor: 5th Passage would run on the various PC system configurations?

LUXOR 5th Passage was developed on Playground, which is a very popular casual game development engine. It’s used and tested by enough developers that most compatibility issues are addressed in the back-end code, so there aren’t many modifications you have to do in order to ensure stability. We also like to get feedback from friends and family members during the late Alpha or early Beta phases, and this also allows us to run it across a wide variety of configurations.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

Getting any new IP noticed and rising above the noise is definitely a challenge for all developers these days.   The vast majority of our players have heard of LUXOR in one form or another, but may not necessarily check out all of what MumboJumbo does as a company with our other titles.  When we release a new LUXOR title, it’s pretty quickly picked up by our core audience.  But, when we launch a new IP, we have to do a bit more cajoling to bring some of those players into the fray.  Luckily, once our LUXOR players check out other titles like Glowfish or our Midnight Mysteries series, they find that we put the same amount of love and care into those titles, and they quickly become fans.

Tell us about the process of submitting Luxor: 5th Passage to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

Initially, we did have some fears that, since the casual market has shifted to primarily Hidden Object/Adventure games, there may not be as big of a demand for LUXOR, and consequently may not receive as wide and varied placement. These concerns were quickly put to bed when our digital partners got behind the product whole-heartedly because of all of the faithful LUXOR fans out there who continue to play our games.  LUXOR 5th Passage was widely distributed throughout the digital download space and performed well for us.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Having your game available across literally dozens of portals opens up a lot of exposure to your game, and provides easier access for players, so it’s a great thing for developers. While word of mouth is still very much relevant in shopping for a new game, more often than not you find yourself reading a review or a forum post about a game, then finding it somewhere to download within minutes.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Luxor: 5th Passage.

We really wanted to focus on the best of LUXOR in 5th Passage.  Not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but enhancing the experience and offering up a few twists that we had been kicking around for a while.  We used the Ancient Egyptian theme heavily throughout level construction, and lots of hours have gone into researching Ancient Egyptian architecture, cultural items, and what may have been seen and/or used during that time period.

For 5th Passage, the levels were actually designed opposite the way we designed them in previous titles, meaning the backgrounds were constructed, and then the splines were introduced on top.  We rejected lots of backgrounds until we had 30 that we really liked, that were interesting for the player, and that allowed for the most unique paths for the chains to travel across. Music was done in-house by our brilliant musical mastermind, Vasiliy “Lavaman” Shestovets, who also composed the music for our Midnight Mysteries franchise.

For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does.  Why do you think this trend is occurring?  Tell us why released a demo for Luxor: 5th Passage and the difficulties in doing so.

Most casual or indie game developers follow the, “try before you buy” mantra, and we’re no exception. We do it because it’s what our customers have come to expect, and it’s what most of our portal partners do with their DRM. In the casual market, players have more selection than they have ever had in the past, and before plunking down their hard-earned money for a game, it’s nice to give them a demo of the game to evaluate whether it’s the title for them or not. The hardest part of doing this for a game like Luxor is determining where a player might end up after that hour, which proved nearly impossible due to the infinite number of playing styles out there.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Luxor: 5th Passage from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Early players are invaluable to us when it comes to fine tuning our games. Whether it’s a certain level that proves to be too difficult to pass, or a certain PC configuration that we weren’t able to test on, we immediately look for this instant feedback once a game goes live. After releasing a game, you can normally find me scouring every forum that mentions our game, and what people have to say about it; not only to read the good reviews, but also to see if there’s anything that needs to be addressed so we can release a prompt fix.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Luxor: 5th Passage professionally?

At the end of the day, all that matters is what our players think, even though I value professional opinions very highly, both positive and negative. Players actively look for reviews on games, and these opinions have the potential to heavily influence traffic to our games, but the best judge of whether you’ll like a game is you. Download the demo and give it a try!

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

It’s a novel concept, and one that we have been keeping an eye on. When I found the Humble Indie Bundle, I initially thought, “If you’re only asking for a penny, that’s all people are going to pay.” Luckily, I couldn’t have been more incorrect. The sales were really impressive and helped restore my faith in people and their support for indie devs.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

Piracy is so invasive, and we definitely monitor how the industry is approaching prevention and DRM.  There are a couple of lines of thought on the subject, one being that invasive DRM does more harm than good and can even drive away legitimate users. If someone buys a game and wants to install it on the three PCs they own, who are we to tell them no?  And people who pirate software are going to do it whether there are measures in place to prohibit it or not because there’s no such thing as an unhackable DRM.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  How do you feel about individuals outside of MumboJumbo posting videos of Luxor: 5th Passage?

It generates a lot of buzz for our games, so I think it’s great! People often find these videos if they’re stuck in a level and are able to look to see how someone else completed it. It’s great to see people from all around the world playing your game and talking about it in forums.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

As long as the DLC doesn’t feel like it should have been included in the main game, or a cheap add-on, then it’s a win-win. DLC should provide the player with an added benefit, or with a substantial boost to the game experience to make it worth while. Game elements that change the conclusion of the game, or anything that provides more to the story, making the player feel like they know more about the game than people who didn’t buy any of the DLC, are good examples of DLC done right.  In Midnight Mysteries, we’ve really focused on making the bonus chapters feel substantial and like a legitimate bonus, not just an after-the-fact add-on.  We start thinking about DLC when the GDD is outlined, and give it just as much attention as the other missions in the game.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders.  How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Luxor?

If modders aren’t using your game maliciously or tarnishing the reputation of the IP, I see no harm. This was actually tossed around in the concept phase of 5th Passage; we considered providing players the tools to create their own levels. At the time, we decided against it because it was too invasive with our original code, but it’s a consideration we haven’t completely abandoned. Creating the level editor UI for players takes time, and we would have to do it in such a way that doesn’t threaten our release schedule if we choose to experiment with it in a future LUXOR game.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Don’t be afraid to over market yourself. If you’re an up-and-comer, it’s impossible to overuse social networking and blogs to generate buzz about your new game. Get your game in the hands of as many reviewers as you can, start your own blog, shout about it on Facebook, whatever you need to do to make yourself heard. -End

We would like to thank Josh once again for the time and effort he put into this interview.  You can check out Luxor: 5th Passage on MumboJumbo and Steam.

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