The team at Mumbo Jumbo had just discovered that those who work with bugs walk a very fine line.
They had decided to make a game that would fuse Galaga, Zuma and Centipede, and had even kept the latter’s aesthetic, going so far as to use the working title “Bug Blast.” Unfortunately, bugs had become problematic.
“They’re tricky,” said lead designer Scott Hansen. “You can make them too real and you get the yuck factor. But if you make it too cutesy it looks childish.”
Hansen, coder Darren Walker and artist Chad Woyewodzic began hunting for a new toolset with which to create the game. Luckily, Hansen, a self-proclaimed amateur Egyptologist and history buff, didn’t have to look much farther than his own psyche.
“Management said ‘You could do something like ancient Egypt,’ but we didn’t know if they were too hot on the idea,” Hansen said. “They had rejected the theme before.”
Wanting to be sure, Hansen asked a simple, six-word question that would define their game.
“So… you’re letting us do Egypt?”
He got his answer, and by the end of the day knew the game he would create.
Lean, mean designing machine
The team began tweaking mechanics on their hybrid, removing Zuma’s rotation mechanic and replacing it with a vertically moving figure at the bottom of the screen, ala Centipede.
“I grew up in the late 80s, and I played lots of those coin-op games like Centipede, Galaga and Joust, things like that,” Walker said. “I noticed that nobody had really done anything in the realm of Centipede, but I also recognized it as being much too hard for the casual gamer.”
Over the next few weeks, the team would create several prototypes of the game until they found one they were happy with. After a history creating mainstream video games, Hansen was in for a surprise with his slimmed down three-man team, especially how quickly they were able to bring his ideas to life.
“It was really cool because everybody was really focused, I worked on design, Darren did the code and Chad did the art,” Hansen said. “We were all focused on working as a team and giving the others what they needed.”
Hansen would discover in early November 2004 how important his team’s speed and flexibility would be when they learned that their Egyptian-themed prototype would need to ship in less than two months.
The crew had to whittle features away quickly, separating the wheat from the chaff with little sentimentality.
“I write everything down before we go through what’s basically an elimination process,” Hansen said. “We say ‘OK, these power-ups here are the best, they offer the most variety,’ then the secondary ones we like and the rest are the worst. Then we have X amount of time to implement them.”
The team also had to vastly reduce the game’s scale to fit their accelerated time line.
“Originally, Luxor had a big storyline and bonus rounds and a few more power-ups,” Hansen said. “Those got dropped mainly because of time restraints.”
Though the grand story may have been extracted, its chapter names remained in the final game as level titles. Hansen said that many players actually used those titles on the game’s world map to fill in the blanks on their own.
“People were ‘loving the story,'” Hansen said with a laugh. “We didn’t need to give them the details, they made it up as they went along from the chapter names. They put themselves on their own adventure.”
‘A winner on our hands’
As the team got the first few levels in place, they were struck by an unforeseen, though not completely unwelcome, development snag: Namely, they couldn’t stop playing their game.
“We got ourselves hooked on the game, with just the mechanic, no art or anything, just line drawings,” Hansen said. “As the game got tighter, Darren refined the code and new art started to go in, we had to be careful because we would play to test something then just forget to stop.”
Like a giant ball of duct tape, Hansen said the game continued to pick people up as it went along, capturing many at the company even in the early stages.
“That’s when we knew we knew we had a winner on our hands.”
Few with an Internet connection and a computer need to be told what happened next for Luxor. Not only did it go on to become the best-selling casual game on both RealNetworks and MSN, it’s inspired sequels and spin-offs including Luxor 2, Playstation Portable’s Luxor: Wrath of Set, Luxor: Amun Rising, even Luxor Mahjong.
There are plenty of factors that you could credit for Luxor’s success, maybe it’s Hansen’s passion for the Egyptian setting, or Walker’s love of classic 80s games. But Hansen believes that it comes down to simply respecting the player, and remembering that a game, after all, should be fun.
“The philosophy is that the player is not our enemy,” Hansen said. “Every game that we do tries to give you a positive experience. If you notice in Luxor, there are no negative power-ups. That’s by design. It’s always positive reinforcement. Everything that you’re doing is pushing you forward.”