Jed Merrill, Producer/Game Designer

Week 9 – Industry Panel

Monday, March 3, 2014.

Tonight is our biggest night of the semester to date, the Industry Panel!

Fifty engineers, artists, and producers put in a ton of brain, pencil, and keyboard sweat to prepare for a presentation to representatives of Disney and six other studios.  The feedback we received tonight is supposed to help us narrow our focus from two games per team to one by the end of the semester.

My team presents This is a Test (formerly Button), and Room 207 (formerly Premonition and formerlier Robot).

Antonio and Brenton were chosen to represent Room 207, while I recorded the presentation and feedback for later evaluation.

Here’s our lightly spruced up white box for a proposed room in Premonition:

The four and a half teams that presented:

Team 1:  [Unnamed]:  re:Genesis, Hostile Territory

Team 2:  Retro Yeti:  This is a Test, Room 207

Team 3:  Rising Cockroaches:  Neophasma, Make A Man Thinketh

Team 4:  Memoryleak Studios: Supernova, Mannequin

Bonus Team:  Flux

What seems to be most missing from Room 207 is story.  I worked on narrative, as did Kyle, but no one seems ready to commit to story until later in the process, even though I think we have something potentially award winning when we do.

I am impressed with all nine prototypes, but the largest cheer goes to Mannequin for taking a chance on a live demo.  Engineer Mark Breeden wears an Oculus Rift.  As an audience, we do our best to follow along through a projected, dually distorted version of what he could see, but the visuals and sound of footsteps were enough to know the game/experience is creepy and want to try for ourselves.

The first team is encouraged to merge re:Genesis and Hostile Territory into an inter-dimensional garbage throwing game. 🙂

My team could honestly go either way.  If we choose This is a Test, I think it should be named Play Test to avoid confusion with final exams or the colorful broadcast lines that came on at 1 am prior to digital television.  We also need to avoid overt comparison with Antichamber and The Stanley Parable, both of which the panel points out are extremely polished.  I have nothing against making a game in the genre, however.

If Room 207, I’d like to see us develop a versatile level editor that we can use for our own development and eventually put in the hands of fans.  I mention this after the event, and a classmate notes that Sony would require us to use our own level editor if we made the game for one of their platforms.

Rising Cockroaches has some great mechanics in Neophasma, though I find the ghosting more distracting than engaging as is.  I would focus more on track designs (They have some wow moments), and could do what Microsoft could not in Forza Motorsport for licensing reasons, make cars (and tracks?) highly destructible!

Make a Man Thinketh is already a great looking game with shades of The Novelist and Don’t Starve.  I don’t think the gaming audience will get the title reference to the book As a Man Thinketh, but the name could unintentionally appeal to women who wish to train men to think their way.  It also sounds indie.

The panel split on racing vs point and click adventures, and it is unlikely they will be able to merge the two…

Memory Leak Studios’ Supernova mechanically reminds me of Super Mario Galaxy, but has its own look and charm.  I like the star child concept, and it looks like it could be a fun 3D platformer.  I would personally move the frost mechanic from the screen to the character, as there is a bit of confusion over whether one is playing first or third person.  It would also be interesting if the main character could glow like a star.  I find it refreshing that, in this game, you run toward fire instead of from it.  The world design is also intriguing, a star made half of fire, half of ice.  It reminds me of a quote about intelligence being the ability to keep two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time.  Robert Frost would be proud.

Mannequin is creepy, and I love the “Climber” and “Abomination” character designs.  My opinion matches the panel’s.  The game is perfectly timed for release on the Oculus Rift, which will make a name for the game and a case for the equipment.  However, to be a commercial (and IGF) success it also deserves to be released with a non-VR mode.  I’m looking forward to trying the game on my own Rift this week!

I suggest to the creator of Flux that he play the game Thomas Was Alone.  With a relatively small team, he has issues of scope to deal with, but I really like his logo, which promises a puzzler with personality.  I’d like to see some of the character in that logo in the primary shape “characters” in the game, and Thomas Was Alone might give him ideas about how to do that.  I also suggest colorful backgrounds, after the title screen.  Black pays homage to 1980’s computer games, but is underwhelming to today’s media desensitized eyes.  The panel strongly suggests the game be made for mobile platforms.

At the end of the night, as we help clean up and enjoy one last slice of pizza from The Pie, I reflect on the potential of all nine games, and honestly hope they all get to see the second life of further development.

Secondly, in future classes, I believe we should have the option between developing a game for IGF or for commercial release.  The best games may walk the line and have a chance at both.

Finally, I think our cohort might benefit from a suggestion box, real or email.  We had a chance to talk to each other after the panel about ideas, but if we could write out feedback and direct it to a team, maybe the team could address it as a group during stand up meetings instead of one person hearing it but never passing it on?  If we really believe in QA and play testing, I think we should be open to new ways to receive and process valuable feedback.

Bob rewards our diligent effort with an extra hour to sleep in in the morning.  Thanks Bob!

Tuesday.

Quote of the day:  “As the business environment around us has shifted with the times, we have decided to redefine entertainment as something that improves people’s quality of life (‘QOL’) in enjoyable ways and expand our business areas.” ~ Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata on Nintendo’s transition toward gamification of fitness.

The mood in class Tuesday is mostly celebratory.  We discuss as a group what went well and all of the notes we took on the panel’s feedback.  Kyle shares stats on who in the panel preferred which game.  While the split is fairly even, those who like Premonition / Room 207 prefer it more strongly.

We then as a class go over what we learned and what we heard.  Two groups are already decided on which projects to abandon.  Supernova bids a sad goodbye in favor of Mannequin, as does re:Genesis in favor of Hostile Territory.  Ragwheel/Neophasma and Make a Man Thinketh are apparently at each other’s throats, with a team member from each threatening to quit and move to another team if their game is not picked by the team as a whole.  Our team begins to lean toward Premonition, but as Producers we are sensitive to the desires of the whole team, and decide to discuss pros and cons of each project on Thursday, after things sink in.

At the end of class, I speak with Mark about my idea for a suggestion box for each team.  He likes it, and suggests I just make it happen.  I stop by OfficeMax on the way home and buy six boxes, one for each Cohort 4 team and two extra for Cohort 3’s Vinyl and CyberHeist teams.

Wednesday.

Joseph Bourrie’s Virtual Worlds class Wednesday night is fascinating.  We all pitch our level design ideas so we can divide into groups of two, pick one, and make a level for our final project over the next few weeks.  I select Marble Madness, and end up pairing up with Swapnil Sawant, who wants to make a level using the level editor in Amnesia.  We are going to explore both options before discarding one or the other.  There is no level editor perfectly suited for Marble Madness, but someone in the class looks up Super Monkey Ball level editors, and there is apparently one in Banana Blitz, which I already own.  The most popular games to make levels in are Skyrim and Halo Forge from Halo 4.  Dayna would like to do a level based on The Cradle in Thief 3.

I believe EA has the rights to Marble Madness, so it would be fun to pitch a reboot of the franchise to them sometime.

Thursday.

Nicholas Bowman speaks to us about experimental psychology and games.  The most interesting part of his lecture focuses on violence, which he breaks down into graphicness, justification, and realism. People are very turned off by unjustified violence, he says, but have little problem witnessing what they see as justified violence.  Nick published a study on the subject called Violence is a Many-Splintered Thing.

He says justification is more important in games than in film, perhaps because in games you have to justify doing it vs just seeing it.  You are the agent of the violence, not the watcher of the violence.  This doesn’t mean games make you violent, however.

He also addresses video game “addiction.” (Are we addicted to the keyboard? the chair?)  Games are just cognitive challenges, he says.  Is it bad to be addicted to cognitive challenges, to brain food?

He shows a really interesting graphic about meaningful games.  Players tend to buy games because of the characters, the story or the environment, not the mechanic, so why does the industry claim story is not important and spend so little time on it?  He suggests it could be that fun and meaningfulness can actually get in the way of each other.  In Roger’s words, an elephant balancing on a ball is both fun and meaningful, but the animal rights issues (the meaningful part) spoil the fun of watching the elephant balance. Nicholas suggests it is possible for gameplay and narrative to cooperate.  Games in the past were not narrative heavy, like Chess, but today it is becoming more and more important for a game to say something meaningful.  “Games are not just games anymore.”

After Nick speaks, we get together as a group for the solemn task of choosing between our thesis game prototypes, nicknamed Button and Premonition.  Antonio proposes we make a list of pros and cons of each one, and discuss how we can turn the cons into pros.  Rachel Leiker steps in and suggests we vote now to see where the team stands before going in too deep on pros and cons.

“Who wants to do Button?”

Zero hands go up.

Converts discuss the various reasons why they now prefer Premonition to our original, nearly unassailable darling Button.  Feedback from the panel.  Feedback from Roger.  James Hulse, who came up with the idea for Button, says to proceed we would have to discard the parts of Button that made him want to work on it in the first place.

“Who wants to do Premonition?”

Every hand goes up.

It’s official.  Baby Button is dead.  Premonition lives.  What have we created?

We take a moment and soak in with awe and reverence the feeling of unanimity that so far has not characterized the group.

Premonition, a game that was not even among our original 100 ideas, has beaten out all 100 game ideas to become our thesis project.

What’s next?  Deciding on a game engine.  UDK 3, CryEngine, OGRE, and Unity are our primary choices for now, though Bob says he thinks he can get us UDK 4 because of the program’s relationship with Epic Games.  My vote is UDK 4 or Snowdrop, though Tony says Snowdrop is exclusive to Ubisoft for now.  If those don’t work out, then UDK 3.  CryEngine is probably out, since it is best suited for outdoor scenery, and our game takes place mostly indoors.

Roger gives a twenty minute speech on GDC, which is coming up in less than two weeks!  He walks us through how to work the room, tells us which parties to go to (EA has one for students), and says if we have to collect swag, do it all on day one and leave it in our hotel rooms.  He also tells us how to get internships without asking for them.  I record his speech and email it to all of Cohort 4, since nearly a dozen had gone to La Frontera for lunch to discuss game engines.

The rest of us were treated to pizza by the Protocol: Transcendence team, who just won $10,000 from Microsoft with our votes and publicity support.  Congrats!

I also explain my box system to three of the four teams.  We get lots of feedback late in the process when it is time for QA and play testing, but that is also the point in development when it is most costly to implement feedback.  Why not provide a “box of voices”  to each team now so the suggestions we got after the industry panel (but were only heard by one or two people) actually get full attention from each team during stand up or sit down meetings each week?

The artists are excited to customize their boxes.  Team Rising Cockroach says they are going to paint theirs like a roach motel.

Amy told us last semester that we as Producers are responsible to be the voice of the player during the development process.  I tried to do that last semester, but met some resistance from those who were interested in making a game for their own tastes first and foremost.

I’m hoping the box system gives other players and teams a chance to provide their own feedback and representation early in the process.  No matter how many games I’ve played, my gut feeling as an insider about what the player wants should carry less credibility than the player’s own voice, so I now see my job as facilitation more than representation, validation more than opinion.

I make a conscious decision today to also expand my service as a Producer beyond the borders of my team.  If there are ways I can make all four thesis projects successful, while contributing to the systems and success of the program as a whole, I want to help.  While my main role here is as Producer, there’s a lot I can learn from the faculty about being an [unofficial] Executive Producer.  I plan to learn both skill sets while in the program, along with as much business and monetization data and strategy as I can gather.  The most important thing is learning to contribute on a larger scale.  With six Producers about to be focused full time on Premonition, and with our four artists already contributing some art talent to other teams, is there any reason why I can’t branch out in contribution a bit?

After lunch, I attend Corrinne’s Narrative class, but Corrinne is on holiday this week, so Amy fills in. Her subject?  How to be a video game writer…and survive!

I won’t go into too much detail…  I’ve blogged your inner ear off today.  It is enough to say we learned the difference between being “a writer” and being “the writer,” attached to a team and responsible in many ways for its success and failure.  We conclude the class by helping Amy and the creator of Star Fox to write questions for a mobile trivia game.

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