Don’t Pivot, Just Polish!

This past week it seemed most teams in our cohort were suffering from a post-IGF submission hangover. Since we all worked tirelessly to make a build to submit to the competition, this week many of us came down from this hectic time and began reflecting on our games and what we wanted to do with the time remaining. I know some teams wanted not just to iterate on their submitted build, but also make a pivot. In other words, many of us wanted to revisit our game’s fundamental design to see how we could change it to make it better.

However, thank God Amy came in to speak with us producers last Thursday. Her brief lecture focused on the importance of utilizing the time we have left to complete and publish our games. Specifically, she wanted us to know we shouldn’t make any pivots, but rather iterate and ultimately polish our games. To make her point, she drew on a white board the timeline for our games from start to finish. She then roughly marked where we were all currently at in the development process. What she emphasized from this timeline is the lack of time left we have to complete our game. And because of this, we should focus on iterating on our design and polishing our games.

What I’ve learned from Amy from my time as a student and working for her as a producer is that she notes the importance of polishing. She contends that the true quality of the game doesn’t come from constant iteration, but spending a significant time polishing. Amy feels that most student games spend little time polishing but instead iterate until the day they are published. To stand out, polishing the game helps to make it standout and play much better than trying to come up with a new killer feature or mechanic.

Thus, what we need to focus on moving forward isn’t changing the overall design but spending the majority of our resources polishing the heck out of our game. This will prevent us from pivoting too far away from the original design therefore causing us to publish late. Instead if we spend time polishing so we can make the best game we can in the little time we have left while at the same time meeting our milestones.

I thank Amy for her time. Her words were the cure for the hangover we were all feeling.

Hostile Territory, Welcome to IGF Submission!

The moment we submitted to IGF! Photo by Topher

Today I’m proud to announce that we finally submitted to the IGD completion our game, Hostile Territory. It has been a long and sometimes arduous journey to get here, but it has been well worth it. I am proud of our little demon themed indirect shooter, and even though we have submitted our IGF build, it is only the beginning. Nevertheless, this post is going to briefly address the happenings of this momentous day.

The day began with an interesting twist. When we began our standup this morning, Jose informed us that we would give a “formal” presentation of our game to the faculty. They of course did not give us any forewarning. As a result, we attempted to balance the need for working on the submission for our game with the requirement to present it. Luckily, Topher was working on our trailer for the game and we quickly put it together a brief presentation to coincide with the trailer.

The presentation sadly went poorly. With little preparation, we had barely enough time to envision it let alone perfect it. Luckily, the feedback we received on our presentation and our game was worth the mediocre performance. Since we became accustomed to presenting to the faculty, they game us advice on how to present to industry professionals. Thus, we needed to tailor our message better to articulate the ideas behind our game to this audience. The faulty also loved our trailer and gave great suggestions on how we can create an effective gameplay video to use for future presentations. With the advice we received today I know our next presentation will be much more effective.

The words that made me very happy to hear is how people really like our game and that our faculty noted how much work we had done in such little time. We went from a shell at the beginning of the semester to finally having a fully functioning multiplayer game. It took a ton of work and sleepless nights, but here we are with a game people are excited about and seeing the potential for an even greater experience.

Making games is hard, and making great games seems like an impossible task. I am glad to be at a point where we are seeing the fruits of our blood, sweat, and tears. Now time to relax and enjoy Halloween. But don’t worry, next week begins the next phase of our game.  So continued to stay tuned!

Below is the IGF trailer of our game. Enjoy!

Catching Fire: Pressure Can be So Motivating!

My time at Avalanche Software has enabled me grow tremendously as a producer. From my time in Dev Support and now working as a Production Assistant Intern, I am learning the ins and outs of what it takes to be successful in the game industry. But it’s not only the work that is allowing me to grow, but the stories you over hear along the way. These experiences people share help one to understand game design and development in new ways.

This takes me to a story I heard at the beginning of the month. One concept artist, Jon Diesta, speaking to people at Avalanche while we made the rounds, related an anecdote about a game Avalanche was working on for four years. This game was the company’s pet project. However, after years of working with the said project, it eventually was canceled. Jon rationalized that the reason why the game was unsuccessful was that the game never “caught fire”. In other words, since there was little the pressure to complete the game, the creativity and drive to take it to the next level never transpired. It was this lack of pressure that nullified the determination needed to finish the game.

Why do I relate this story? Well during this past month, our game has grown significantly. We have accomplished more in the recent days than we have in weeks prior. Ultimately, I believe that this growth has stemmed from the fact that our game has caught fire. Because we are under a pressure to have the game complete before the IGF submission on October 31st, this pressure to complete the game I feel has pushed us. So much so that the game is looking and feeling a thousand times better than what we presented earlier this month for the cohort’s playtest. This fire thus appears to be forcing us to realize that if we want to get the game done, we’re going to need to hunker down and just get it done.

This pressure has also stimulated our creativity. We have created some late features that are improving the design and polishing areas of the game to make it better. The pressure to finalize our IGF build has pushed us to playtest the game as much as possible to see aspects of the game that can be improved. After the past few weeks, we are imagining the game more vividly than before.

As we stand here with one week to go before the IGF deadline, Jon’s hypothesis appears to provide a perspective as to why we our game has grown so much in the past few weeks. Catching fire has pushed us beyond our limits. And I think this fire is inspiring everyone to make the best game we can make. The next week is going to stretch us more! So stay tuned!

What’s In a Name? The Long Circular Journey to Finding a Title for Our Thesis Game

Some new art

One of the most exhausting aspects to making our thesis game has been something that a person wouldn’t generally determine as a difficult. Nevertheless, selecting an appellation for our game has been one of the most draining and arduous part of this thesis project.

As to why this has been difficult, let me take you through the process of creating our game’s name. Early on when we were prototyping the initial idea, Mark Jarman, our lead artist, came up with the name Hostile Territory. Since early on our theme revolved around two parallel universes fighting each other in a wormhole in which conquering territory and using it to attack your opponent was key to winning. Hostile Territory was a natural fit for the game since it described a key feature of the game and its design.

However, after presenting the game to the industry panel and ultimately selecting it as our thesis game, some faculty were not enamored with the theme behind it. Thus, they forced suggested that we change our theme. As we made this change, we were not so sure how the title worked with the theme. For example, we changed our premise to an underworld battle for the souls of humanity after judgment day. This new theme compelled us to revisit the name. After the faculty ridiculed evaluated this new theme, we decided to appease our tormentors change the theme to one that addressed the rapid evolution of technology and thus the need to stay relevant. This also caused us to reassess our game’s name.

When the fall semester returned us to our project, the artists wanted to return to the underworld theme we originally conceived last semester since we were all having trouble conceptualizing the technology idea. We as a team decided to move forward with it no matter what anyone said. As a result, we kept Hostile Territory as a working title until something would come along and change this title to fit better with our theme.

This proved to be a lot harder than it sounds. We spent hours conceptualizing new names and created lists to sift through. We later had the team vote on the ones we felt could be worthy to move forward. However, none of these names felt right. Either the proposed name was dark, too convoluted, too obscure that no one would associate the name with the game, or too comical. But we needed a name, a good name so that we could move forward and finally begin submitting our game to the IGF competition.

Well it all came to a head on Tuesday. We sat around for a good hour-and-a-half writing out names, brainstorming new ones, and even clustering ideas. This all proved to be fruitless and we became frustrated with the process. Because of this, we spoke with the team about the name. Most of our team members felt that Hostile Territory is fine for our game and that we should just end the search for that ideal title and keep the name. We voted to keep the name Hostile Territory. And finally we had one name for our game.

So as of this past Tuesday, our game is now officially named Hostile Territory. We like the name because it still describes our game well in spite of it not encompassing our theme. For this reason, we welcome Hostile Territory to the world.

*Note the strikethroughs were meant to be comical. If you’ve made it to this point and had a good laugh, then we can be friends. Thanks for having fun with me.

“What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate”

After a summer working in development support for Disney Infinity 2.0, I learned the value of playtesting a game. Playing Disney Infinity every day (for sometimes up to 13+ hours), you learn the ins and outs, and what designers could do improve the game’s overall design. This experience enabled me to appreciate the value of consistently playing a game during the development process.

Using my experience in dev support, I began to explore our playtesting. After the past two weeks playtesting our game internally and externally, playtesting has uncovered some issues we have with our game. Specifically, what I have learned about our game has a communication problem. Playtesters would traverse the environment and not know clearly the objective behind our game. They would press the triggers on the controller, see the environment color change, and yet not understand what the point of the game ultimately entailed. And the playtesters’ avatar would die and yet they were perplex as to why. As a result of these miscommunications with our design, I have been exploring better ways better to communicate our design and in this post I will detail some of the ideas I hope to implement soon.

One of the critiques we have received is people do not know when they occupy an opponent’s territory. They would be in the territory and it would fail to register that the character was taking damage from being in the opponent’s territory. One idea, which came from our engineer, Skip, is making damage more significant when occupying the opponents territory may help communicate this more effectively. The idea behind this is to clearly show that being in the different color area kills the player. Making territory a bit more hostile (pun intended), helps to refine and focus the design.

Another communication issue we have noted is that when occupying an opponent’s territory, there is little visual indication that the player is taking damage. For instance, when traversing through the environment, it can be hard to know when a player is being hurt by the territory. The only indication is a small numbered health meter that isn’t the easiest UI element to see during the heat of battle. As a result, we are improve the design by showing other indicators such as a flashing health bar and possibly a steady graying UI. We hope that immediate feedback will enable the player to know that they are taking damage.

Playtesters, especially faculty, felt that the game provides little indication dealing with progression. In other words, people have little knowledge if they are winning, losing, or when the round/game will end. We do have this information linked to a button on the controller. However, the player will need to know to enable it to see his or her progress. Taking this critique into account, we decided to add more UI elements showing the number of kills so the player will know who’s winning. A timer will indicate the time left in the game. We hope that these simple UI elements will be suffice for the gamer.

Playtesting has been a wonderful tool to iterate on our design. Even though it can be hard to digest and cause one only to see the negative aspects with the game, playtesting can assist in making the game the best it can be.


It’s Beginning to Come Together

Fun with art

This has been a fantastic week for our team. Everyone has hunkered down and focused on making our game a reality. For most of the semester, our process left little to be desired. What we had was everyone working on the various aspects of the game, but most of what was being created sat alone by itself like a castaway on some deserted island. The work was being done, the features were being created, and the art was being conceptualized and made into useable assets. However, all these assets were not being implemented into the game and thus we did not really have a game. The issue over time seems to have become problematic and ultimately lowered the team’s morale.

But this week, things changed. Maybe it was the thought that we still didn’t have a game; maybe it was the need to create something for the cohort playtest with the cohort, alumni, and faculty this Friday; maybe the thought that the IGF submission deadline is closely upon us; or even possibly the fear that the Ebola virus may just kill us all before our game is complete. Whatever it was, this week the team concentrated on creating a fun and compelling game and it showed.

Ultimately seeing what the game can be is inspiring for me. Conceptualizing an idea is one thing. I have spent countless hours fleshing out the game design document, worked closely with level designers, and artists to visualize the game. But when you see it play in a way that you dreamed it could, then you feel vindicated.

Environment for our game

Why do I feel this way? Well first off one of the concerns we have had for a while is controls and camera movement. As I noted in a previous blog post, this has been a challenge getting them to feel just right. Today playtesting the improved controls felt amazing. It finally felt like I had control over the game’s character. Thus, the controls at long last felt identical to what I had imagined it should be. Furthermore, it was amazing to see the art implemented within the level itself. The beauty of the level was so visually impactful that people surrounded our artist Rob in awe of it. Our professors even noted their joy at witnessing the appearance of the level. Seeing the game beyond the white box I believe helped to further strengthen our excitement for the game – I know it did for me.

Even though the game is still a week or two away from a true alpha build, it is fantastic seeing the potential for this game being realized. I hope in the upcoming weeks to relay the excitement and joy for the new iterations of our game. Sometimes seeing a game grow is like seeing your child reach another small, yet significant milestone. I hope to be sharing these milestones like a proud papa in future posts.

Focusing on the Three C’s

When Andrew Witts from Cohort 3 (who works as a game designer for Ubisoft on the new Rainbow Six iteration) came to speak to our cohort, he emphasized the importance of the Three C’s in game design. What he noted is that the Three C’s compel designers to focus on the heart of a game. Without them, the player will become frustrated and lose interest in the game.

To get a better idea of what they entail and why they are important, the Three C’s regard a game’s Camera, Controls, and Character. The camera entails the degree by which the player is able to see the game world. Controls emphasize the degree to which the player is able to feel agency through the game’s controls. Lastly, the character regards the identification with the game’s avatar and thus the player’s connection to the game. What the Three C’s try to emphasize is that no matter how perfect everything else is in game, such as art style or maybe a compelling narrative, gamers’ enthusiasm for the game will wane if the Three C’s aren’t functioning properly. Therefore, if the game’s Three C’s are problematic, they will impede the experience and gamers will more likely discontinue playing the game.

Considering this, the Three C’s have been an important aspect for the creation of our game. It has been priority number one since the beginning of the semester. And unfortunately, since we have changed engines three times in the past nine months, two of the Three C’s have been a challenging getting them to behave as intended. Our game concisely is a third-person shooter. It involves the player traversing a rotating and dynamically changing environment fighting to control territory to attack the opposing player. Our game thus is dependent on a robust camera and control system. If the player doesn’t feel they have agency in our world, the player will quit playing our game no matter how the game looks or the mechanics behind the design.

Our controls and camera haven’t been realized just yet. When Andrew came weeks ago, when playing our game he noted how poorly our controls and camera movement felt. Even though he believes our game has potential to be an enjoyable experience, our controls and camera movement would hold gamers back from experiencing the fun behind our ideas. After speaking with Andrew, we made the Three C’s a priority to create a fun experience for the gamer.

As I am writing this, we appear to be overcoming the challenges we have had for making a quality control and camera scheme. The challenge of the Three C’s however have caused us to fall behind in comparison to the rest of our cohort. Nevertheless, emphasizing the controls and camera will in the end make for a more enjoyable experience for the gamer. And in the long term we will have a better game because we took the time to focus on the Three C’s

Process Needs Friends: The Importance of Relating the Philosophies Behind Process

I love watching soccer. On the weekends, when I awake I usually will put a game on the tv and enjoy it. Last weekend Manchester United defeated Queens Park Rangers 4-0 to get their first win of the season. After the game, the team’s new manager Luis van Gaal spoke with the media to discuss how the team can rebound from their current poor form. When asked about how the team is adapting to his system (which is the idea behind how to play a match), he argued that a team’s success is not solely on any particular system but rather the team adapting to the philosophy behind it. In other words, if the team does not embrace the reasoning behind the system and how it can benefit the team, they will not be successful moving forward.

van Gaal’s words resonated with me. What I took from them is that creating games goes beyond merely adapting a process. Lately, our cohort has been criticized for not having a clear process for our teams. However, for me process is just a tip of the iceberg. Instead, what we need to do in addition to a process is the philosophy behind process and ideas for what works for our team in creating a great game. Process is great in focusing the team and ensuring a systematic approach. It enables the team to establish a routine and an unconscious procedure for creating ownership of a task. Nonetheless, the process is only as good as how well the team’s culture adapts to the structure as well as how the team embraces the ideas behind process.

Thus, process becomes analogous to the system van Gaal spoke of in his interview: ultimately it doesn’t matter. Instead, it is the philosophy behind the process that enables the team to see the benefit of the process and how it can benefits the team overall. I saw this concept at Avalanche. Even though we have had new employees come from other gaming companies, when trying to establish a new process in their new jobs, these people experienced a bit of push back. For me it is not because the process was flawed. Instead, it was because people did not embrace the philosophies behind the idea.

Process is just one aspect in making games. Although process is important to making games, it is needs support for it to work. We therefore need to determine how we can get people to embrace a philosophy that in turn supports the process. And that is the challenge I am presented with moving forward with our thesis game: getting the team to see the reward behind process. It goes beyond just a backlog. We need to understand how the process benefits the team overall.

War is Hell: Creating Depth to Our Thesis Game’s Theme

After two chaotic weeks, this week we finally starting to become a well-oiled machine. Since returning from break to a new lab and a creating a completely new process, it took a bit of time to get going. This was apparent in implementing new ways to refine the process for developing our game. Nonetheless, the one accomplishment this week I am happy to note, which is the topic of this post, is the depth we’ve added to our visual theme. And following Bogost’s scholarly work on games and persuasion, the theme we have chosen provides our game a definitive rhetorical impact.

Before explaining what this underlying theme entails, I’d like to provide a bit of background. On our team, we have a few people who served and have military ties. Our two artists are both military veterans who served overseas during wartime. On top of this, I grew up as an Air Force Brat in which my father served several tours overseas during the Vietnam Conflict. My father sadly died a service related death six years ago. Nonetheless, the one thing we collectively learned through our time surrounded by the military life, is how difficult war really is for the people who serve. Being a soldier unfortunately is not the glorified warrior you see on those recruiting commercials, films, and games. Instead, war in reality represents the closest thing to hell on earth.

From our experiences, we decided to create a theme that could convey this understanding. That is why we are developing a hellish, underworld shooter game in which demons fight for supremacy. The theme on the outside appears to be a stylized version of Diablo. But digging deeper underneath its skin, the game becomes a rhetorical argument for the realities of war. For instance, the gods in the game represent the politicians that send their citizens to war. The demons the player embodies become a metaphor for the generals sent to fight and win these wars. The damned souls the demons use to attack each other as well as use to control territory represent the soldiers that fight wars. In our game, to conquer territory and ultimately defeat the enemies, the players use these damned souls. This connotes generals that use the soldiers as an expendable resource with little concern for their wellbeing. Ultimately, the game symbolizes the nature of war. It addresses the fact that people in the end become a disposable supply that will be used in any way possible to defeat the enemy to ascertain a new domain. These are the topic we’d like to address in our game as we move forward towards IGF and the completion of our game.

I am very excited to evolve our theme as we move forward.  Seeing how we can be part of a deeper conversation, albeit in an indirect way (hence the continual emphasis on the “indirect” in Indirect Games), would be something special. Maybe it will give a voice to the many people who have participated in war. And maybe remember soldiers like my father.

Seeing the Little Things in Game Design

This week on our thesis game we worked hard to clarify many ideas for our game. Whether it was with engineers, artists, and producers, the goal was to clearly address the aspects of our game. From my end, the past two class sessions I have spent clarifying design. In particular, visualizing what we wanted for our alpha build. And to be honest, this week was tough. Why? Well it’s been challenging working the current features and mechanics into the reboot of our “demon” theme. This change in theme and move towards alpha, consequently, has been a tremendous learning experience for me as a designer for the reason that I am beginning to see the little things.

Creating a game is difficult. Let’s just be honest and say that it’s hard! When things get crazy, there always seems to be ideas you don’t think about that are major pieces to the game moving forward. For instance, how platforms functions vis-à-vis the environment is critical to the user experience. As a result, we spent more than a half-hour discussing how the camera should function. The question we wanted to answer was whether the camera should be free to move about the environment for the player or should be always fixed behind the player. Since the new theme allowed us to experiment with platforming elements in our game, we needed to determine whether the game’s camera should focus on the shooting or the platforming feature. We new that by focusing on either ultimately creates a different feel for the game. Even though trying to perfect both would be a great challenge to undertake, however with the time we have left to submit to IGF, this wouldn’t be a great use of our time.

The above example demonstrates the challenge of making games and design and how we can take for granted the “little” things. I know sometimes I can focus on the macro game. In other words, I focus on what compels the player to play, what makes the game unique, and how can we make the experience one that is memorable. With that, I end up neglecting design choices that can be critical to the entire user experience. These overlooked mechanics can ultimately affect whether a gamer cares to play for a minute or thirty. 

Thus, I feel that the need for explanation this week is helping me grow as a designer to not only see that I can solidify design, but also see the characteristics of myself I need to work on. I know I need to focus on not just the general design of the game, but the entire user experience. Because of my experience working on this game, I am determined to extend my design to every aspect of the game, whether it as cycling weapons or even something as the exit menu options. In the end, I have come to have a greater appreciation for game designers because damn is it hard to make a great game!