The Genesis of Lisssn

Dr.Robert Wolff, em. Univ. Prof. University "Mozarteum", Salzburg


Actually, the initial title of the game was "Luxohr" at first, which is a German malapropism, translating to something like "lynx-ear" and implying that one should have a very sharp sense of hearing in that adventure. But ultimately, I chose Lisssn (the phonetic equivalent of the imperative listen!) as the more international option.

But let's proceed step by step: Out of a series of e-learning seminars, arranged by the Landesmusikdirektion of Upper Austria, held at the castle of Weinberg, close to Kefermarkt in Upper Austria,

the idea emerged in 2007 together with a small number of participants, to create an edutainment program using Adobe Director as framework, aimed at helping children to pass the entrance exam into a public music school in a playful way, but also to give other, grown-up people a simple access to the basic ideas of music, utilizing Adobe Director, about which I had held lectures in Weinberg and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and Innsbruck as well. 2008 already saw the first basic concepts of the game to be and I tested with some crude graphics elements the realms of programmability in a first test scene. (Shamefully, Adobe has stopped supporting Director, which makes it necessary for potential programers to nowadays use Adobe Animate, the successor of Flash).

As time went on, the project turned more and more into a genuine point-and-click game. The basic idea behind was:

Everybody wants to save the princess.
Kids often are hooked onto computer games.
This time, they will have so overcome musical obstacles in order to reach the goal.

And such were the first ideas: The concept of the octagon originally was the train station of Kefermarkt - without rails, but therefore with a horse buggy, because the first of 4 planned games (working title MK0) was supposed to be settled in the baroque era and therefore provide a matching environment. This idea was basically preserved in Lisssn, with the one breach that there are electric lamps and vehicles. According to future plans, MK1 deals with classic period, MK2 with romanticism and MK3 with modern times.

After Walter Domberger and I had documented the castle, and foremost its most outstanding aspects, in June of 2008 with 344 photos, I started the following month during my vacation in Greece the first trials to make moving pictures interactive. It wasn't a Tizian, but the buggy moved. From there, the intromovie developed, which we owe to Winfried Hakl and students of the University of Arts and Industrial Design Linz. This first concept of the UI already included a dock in the lower part with a compass needle for orientation purposes.

In the next step, a small group of music teachers of Upper Austria (Helmut Gugerbauer, Walter Domberger, Martin Fiala and Helmut Hakl) collected information from all kinds of curricula and textbooks that could prove relevant to the content of MK0, whereupon we restricted ourselves to the really elementary aspects in the areas of recognition of pitch and rhythm to the extent that are rquired for a child to pass the entrance exam into a public music school.

It was possible to group the tasks into 4 groups, to which I attributed colors ans letters for being able to recognize them immediately. G (green) for ear training, T (red) for theory, I (blue) for organology and K (brown) for composers. (The letters make more sense in the original German context). The small circles with color transitions indicate puzzles that touch two areas at the same time.

(The title of the picture translates to: The riddles and games of Lisssn).

The next step was to bring all of these tasks into a pedagogically reasonable sequence, so that it is ensured that the player moves forward according to his learning progress and would not reach an area, for which he was not yet prepared. That led to the flow chart that depicts the logical connections.

In several brainstorming sessions all of this points were turned into game ideas and arranged conforming to the logic of the flow chart into a game world that would allow only a certain course to be followed - with some variants though, yet not violating the pedagogical concept.

This game world was alreadyan interactive document as it evoke information, pictures and sometimes even little minigames that were meant as drafts, when certain areas were clicked on. For example did information on the rough concept of the cemetery look like that.

The World was the abstract template for the virtual world that had yet to be crated, in which the players would move. The diode symbols show passages in one direction, but not into the other. Every point of the map is connected to a card that has come out of the brainstorming sessions. A click onto G7 shows, for example:

Color and G indicate that this is a game belonging to the group of ear training. Its title is rhythms + 3 pitches, indicating an advanced game. It therefore can be found towards the end of that training section, right before finding the first part of the magic flute. In the finished game it is the portativ being played by ear and from sheet music at correct pitch and correct rhythm. Prerequisites are T2/G4, G6 and #2. T2/G4 is a riddle that progresses in theory and ear training, G6 is ear training only and #2 a kind of barrier with no musical context, but necessary together with the other components, to steer the player such that he has to follow systematic learning steps.

As we did not find a suitable graphic artist in our ranks, I decided at the onset of 2009 to contact Knut Mueller in Leipzig, whom I knew from his Rhem-games. His way of designing computer generated worlds using Bryce was exactly what I envisioned for Lisssn. We invited him for a lecture to Weinberg and decided to ask him to join our team, which he agreed upon. As working basis, I had sketches and, of course, the photos besides the schematic overall map of the world. With that, and with further ides of his own, he created the topography of Lisssn. Here are a few examples of implementation:

Park Station  


Entrance to the Labyrinth  


Passage from underground tunnel to chapel  

With that we had accomplished a crucial step. The coming process comprised roughly the following steps:

1) Designing a schematic map of the world (the following picture, as it also appears in the final version of the game, already contains elements that have been implemented later, such as the position of the memory game cards).

2) Separating the world into individual sections for designing the details and programming. There are subprograms for zones from LisssnA to LisssnU. LisssnA, for example extends from the octagon up to leaving the well area, in other words the transition to the Star Place, which in turn is LisssnB, from which the sections C (cemetery), D (Park Station) etc. are branching off.

3) Creation of the necessary pictures by producing single shot from different perspectives in the 3D-world. These pictures had partially to be further refined in picture editing programs. Many times a shot would have to be varied in order to enable a kind of animation such as the candles in the cemetery or a train ride. Also different language settings require some perspectives to be issued in two versions. There is also a map for each section of the world. Take for example LisssnF that describes the castle and its near vicinity:

Each number represents a standpoint and for each point there are 4 views into the different directions of the cardinal directions.

4) Concept of programming, in which variables had to be defined and attributed reaching through all of the subgames (e.g. indicating whether a certain gate is already open or to which extent the drawbridge is lowered, or which language option had been chosen), as well as variables which only have a meaning for a limited section of the game. Furthermore, I had to make maps that indicated in which way a variable would have to react to inputs of the player. This takes, as a first step a general map, like the one for the instruments and the cases in the instrument rooms (LisssnR):


5) Creating hotspots in the pictures to mark areas which react to certain mouse actions of the player. The following picture contains approx. 15 interactive areas, which, depending on the state of the game, may be activated or not


6) The actual programming consists in orders that have to be fulfilled, if certain events happen (e.g. cursor is moved over a hotspot which is supposed to play a given sound, or the player wants to use his inventory and so on). Like any communication this one is held in a language too. That looks approximately like this.

7) Testing and correcting where necessary and/or refining. Some ides only develop after a spot has been played through several times and also the adjustment of tolerances is a matter of experience.

8) Getting the finished program onto the different commercial platforms is a task by itself, accomplished by Knut Müller, since the finished game still has to be adjusted to the requirements (e.g. for the AppStore), which can be an issue, particularly if you write and read external files as it is needed to keep score

The number of pictures and programming handlers Lisssn contains, I cannot say. They are too many to be counted even within several hours. I have recorded the time ressouce necessary for the developing and programing work, since I had been asked about that for previous project and could never say for sure how much it was, as I work on projects with interruptions due to "normal life". Since Lisssn turned out to become a huge project, which required programming of such complex tasks as recognition of rhythms or music editing in realtime and with extensive use of probability algorithms, the time for developing and programing alone added up to app. 4000 hours. I estimate that Knut Muller spent about a similar amount on the creation of the 3D-world and the store implementation.


A big 'thank you' to all, who have contributed to Lisssn in one way or another, from me and my Co-author Knut Müller.


-- © Robert Wolff, 2018--