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The secret to happy UX, according to a legendary game designer

The famous rhythm game Lumines is back, and it’s a reminder of where things went wrong.

The secret to happy UX, according to a legendary game designer
[Image: courtesy Enhance Games]

I don’t remember the last time that I looked at a screen and smiled.

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But right now, I’m staring at my Nintendo Switch with a stupid grin on my face. It’s been at least a decade since I played Lumines, the rhythmic block-dropping game that was first released in 2004 for Sony’s Playstation Portable, and I’d forgotten how ingenious it is. Now that it’s being re-released in a “remastered” version for modern consoles, I’m playing it again.

Lumines‘s premise is simple. Tiles drop from the top of the screen, much like Tetris. But instead of lining up their geometries, you line up their colors. Your job is to create quadrants of four colors that match. And when you do, the blocks disappear, and your score goes up.

But to liken Lumines to Tetris is as ignorant as calling a flaky croissant “stale bread.” The game is designed at its core to induce synesthesia, to mix pixels with animations with sounds with music, to hotwire your senses and just make you feel good.

Five minutes into playing Lumines Remastered ($15 for Switch, Xbox One, and PS4, out now), I’m reminded that for all the Silicon Valley talk about designing “surprise” and “delight,” many of today’s apps are a stand-in for joy. They’re dopamine drips for happiness that mask their real intent of engagement for profit.

I don’t know if there’s a cure hiding in Lumines, but I can’t help calling up the father of Lumines–legendary Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who recently founded his own studio, Enhance Games–to get his take on why his games make people happy while so many things on screens do not.

[Image: courtesy Enhance Games]

“How can we make you feel good?”

I’d forgotten in the decade since our last conversation that everyone just calls him “Miz.” Miz started his career at Sega, making arcade racing games, before taking over a new team that would make Space Channel 5 (1999) and Rez (2001), two landmark “rhythm games” that made you play to a beat. Rez, in particular, was anachronistically ambitious, simulating the player flying through a VR world a full 15 years before the Oculus Rift came out.

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Lumines was next, and it was created specifically for the PlayStation Portable (aka The PSP). The PSP’s legacy has been quickly forgotten between the age of the iPod and the iPhone, but it was really the first high-fidelity portable gaming system that had a color screen with a wide gamut and powerful processors capable of 3D game and movie playback, along with audio quality that was on par with CDs. It was like having a home theater on the go.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi [Image: courtesy Enhance Games]
“Sony announced, ‘this is the interactive Walkman,'” recounts Miz. “So I got inspired from that concept, ‘what is an interactive Walkman? What kind of play feel would it have–what kind of interaction with the sound and music and visual change?'”

Miz actually tried to license Tetris for the PSP, but he narrowly missed the window to get rights. So his studio developed Lumines instead. What a wonderful mistake, because the relationship between the PSP and Lumines became somehow intrinsic, as though they were literally made for one another. The PSP made it possible to play Tiger Woods PGA Tour or Tekken–some of the most popular 3D games of the time that were, until then, only possible to play through PC-sized consoles hooked up to televisions. And yet, I remember a fellow game journalist from the era casually calling his PSP “The Lumines Machine.” Lumines would be re-released for consoles like the Xbox 360 in subsequent years, and it was still good, but it lacked the same inexplicable pull that seemed to resonate every bit of the game right through my skin. It wasn’t until I played the latest rebuild for the Nintendo Switch, in handheld mode on my couch, headphones in my ears, did I feel it again.

“Many people mention the same thing. I don’t know why, exactly, but I think, maybe it’s a toy sensation,” says Miz when I ask why the game plays so well in your hands. “The moving, the blocks, the sound, and the music, and the colors, happening in your hand. It’s a gadgety or toy feeling, like a Rubik’s cube.”

This sensation is by design. Most games are built on the idea of introducing a cadence of novel mechanics while increasing difficulty at the same time. So Mario gets fireballs or a cape because the enemies get tougher or the gaps get too large to jump. The game keeps getting harder for the player, who has to attain new levels of mastery. Miz’s games have some of those mechanics, but they’re far less about the progression of challenges than the progression of what he calls the “feel-good feeling.” Or what, to me, sounds much like the meditative concept of flow.

[Image: courtesy Enhance Games]

There’s one constant, driving question behind Miz’s games. “How can we make you feel good? Or feel in a trance,” he says. To get there, Miz architects his games at the UX level first and foremost–bits of user interface amass to become the game, rather than a means to play the game. “It’s about very small pieces,” says Miz. “The rolling and the moving the blocks, and falling blocks . . . matching the colors, making a square, and the timeline to swipe and wipe out the blocks. Each action has a meaning.” Each action must also feel fun.

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Eventually, those UX elements stack into explosive sensory overload, but during the design process, it starts as simply as possible. Miz’s team pares the interactions down to see if they’re even just a little enjoyable before designing them into a game, scrubbing them of color or animated flourish. If so, that’s when the design team layers on the audio-visual sprinkles–the satisfying glimmers, sparkles, or explosions–to see how far they can increase the fun factor via UX. Sound is key, Miz mentions again and again. Each level in Lumines is defined as much by its audio as its visuals. Locking in blocks sometimes sounds like chimes, and other times, the wet thunk of a bamboo pipe. As a result, the same game feels constantly new, despite never introducing new mechanics.

“It’s very simple, it’s like, the Japanese love that kind of design. It’s like a zen kind of style. Maybe it comes naturally to me,” says Miz, referencing how these basic components stack to a greater experience. “I love to do that kind of process, the making, game design process. It’s like architecture.”

[Image: courtesy Enhance Games]

The Problem With Lollipops

But if Miz’s games are successful at making you feel good because they build up the experience one tiny bit of interface at a time, why are our smartphones–filled with the “surprise and delight” of animations and sounds–making us so miserable?

He points out that smartphones are quite “task-based,” and that’s a theme that spans productivity apps and the popular “free-to-play” games that have conquered mobile devices. Free-to-play games are designed to exploit the human need to progress at a task, then gradually require people to pay real money to do so. He calls this type of game “a psychological trap that’s already defined itself as something that’s not as delightful.”

I’d posit that you can say the same thing about smartphone apps themselves. They’re not designed with the end goal of making you happy. They’re built to engage you, with the end goal of selling you something, directly or indirectly. While many of the UX techniques may look the same at first glance, the difference seems to be intent. The Valley has no impetus for satisfying you emotionally like Lumines might.

The results are “like licking a lollipop,” says Miz of gaming apps. “There are so many different kinds, and maybe so many different flavors. But you continue to lick the lollipop, and there’s no depth to it, it feels like a routine.” Miz, however, has not given up on smartphone gaming. He sees processors getting stronger, and cloud-based computing allowing people on all sorts of different platforms to come together to play the same game. Give him two to three years, he muses, seeming to allude to an unannounced project.

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As for why I love Lumines? It’s for every reason Miz already said–and maybe a few others, too.

Lumines came out in a very optimistic time for technology, before social networks and smartphones. No one had heard of FOMO or Cambridge Analytica, of location tracking or ad engines. And that optimism is reflected in every pixel on the screen–pixels that live for no other purpose than to create “that feel-good feeling.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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