Category Archives: Graduate School

On Iteration and Embracing Change

I think that when work on the Americana project is all said and done and we take a look back at the process, this will be remembered as one of the most important weeks for our game.

Farmville 3D

We finished our first build on Tuesday of this week and so subsequently had our first build review, where I took the screenshot above.  This review was HUGELY helpful and has only convinced me more of how important it is to do build reviews early and often.  We celebrated as a team the fact that we had essentially rebuilt our game in 2 weeks, and what we saw was already more impressive to us than what we built in Mannequin last semester.  It was nice for each of our 16 members to be able to look at the scene and see something that they contributed, and putting on the Oculus Rift and walking around in the world we’ve built is always a good time.

But we did notice something potentially alarming.  Our lead artist Christopher played through the level, and we noticed that for the majority of his time he was just walking.  He was enjoying the experience but he was just.. walking.  It was very passive.  The scarecrow was chasing him as intended, but the world was so big and open that he was just easily running past it and it didn’t seem to have much interaction at all.

For those of you following this blog you know that the mechanic of Mannequin was similar to the childhood game Red Light Green Light, or the behavior of the Weeping Angels if any readers are Dr. Who fans.  In Mannequin it worked well because there were many mannequins, and you were confined in a mall having to avoid them and keep an eye on them all at once.  In Americana, there is just one scarecrow behaving this way, and the field is so open that it was easy to just keep an eye on him and never really have to get up close and personal.  It didn’t give the same effect.

We went to lunch with a large part of the team to discuss possible solutions, and this lunch was a very productive time for us.  John said something about “letting the game speak for itself” (I’m sure I’m butchering the quote) and it really resonated.  We needed to not be hung up on what Mannequin WAS and instead focus on what Americana is BECOMING.

So lunch turned into a long discussion about solutions specific to the game and ways to engage the player more actively.  And after hours of brainstorming we think we have it figured out.  I won’t hint to it this week cause I’d rather just show the change in the blog next week, but I can honestly say that I think the change is going to make the game great.

As a producer, an iterative change like this MIGHT be scary, but I think we’ve done well in planning time for things like this to come up.  We’ve set our date to lock features on September 30th, so we’re not technically behind until that date.  If after then we’re talking about radically changing things, then I’ve done something wrong.  I’m excited that we’re using this time to truly iterate rather than just steamrolling ahead to build the thing we originally had in mind, even if that thing is no longer appropriate.

So, I truly believe that whatever Americana becomes, this week was certainly an imporant one.  I’m glad to be with such creative people that are willing to respond well when things aren’t necessarily going perfectly.  The team has seen where we’re lacking and is making steps toward correcting our course.  I’m excited to see where we go next.



Today I find myself mad at myself from a week ago!  I know in my post last week I promised more of an in depth look at the shape of our thesis game, but things have come up this week that I feel more disposed to write about.

I’ll give a quick update in where we’re at with the thesis game- the project is known to us on the team as Americana.  This is just how we’re referring to it and the name will certainly change (I should have an actual name next week!).  We’ve taken some of the better mechanics from Mannequin and revamped the setting and theme of the game drastically.  Americana takes place on a farmstead in Oklahoma during the height of the Dust Bowl.  It’s still a horror game, our player must navigate their way through this landscape while being attacked by dark forces.  While traversing the farm they must come to terms with events both ongoing and passed in their life.  I’ll stop being vague and give more details in a future blog post when I can afford the space to do it justice.

We already have the interior of the farm house and the farm itself built and are playing around with the different variables and mechanics, and I’ve got to say I think the game is already better than mannequin.  The team is running smoothly and buy-in seems to be at an all time high.


I’ve been so busy these last two weeks which I would think should be stressful, but for the time being at least I feel great about it all.  Progress on Americana is going great, I love the people I work with, and I’ve had some great sources of inspiration, which I’d like to give a shout out to.

1. I just recently picked up and subsequently beat Thomas Was Alone in one sitting.  A fantastic game, and created by such a cool guy.  In his most recent tumblr post found HERE Mike Bithell talks about some things that we should think about as developers, and just humans really.  I especially like the 5th point.  Just really solid feel-good advice in a time where the industry is kind of in an uproar.  Follow Mike on twitter @mikeBithell for some cool perspective every now and then.  Also go buy and play and love Thomas Was Alone.

2. We also watched in class this week a talk that Alexander Bruce gave about his creation of the game Antichamber.   Antichamber is also amazing but I am clearly not smart enough to beat it in one sitting.  He talks about just how much work it took him to make the game the breakout success that it is.  He attributes the success to IMMENSE PREPARATION and HARD WORK on his part, but he’s also humble enough to admit that he had a lot of help and a lot of people looking out for him along the way, and a little bit of luck here and there to.  The talk was motivating enough for me to want to just work harder in everything and make myself a better dev, and for this reason I’ve decided to breathe new life into a side project of mine, which I’m sure I’ll talk about here soon.  I wish I could show the talk but it’s only available to those with GDC vault passes.  Follow Alexander at @Demruth and then go try to beat the part of Antichamber that you’ve been stuck on for so long.

So these two things this week really just helped me get back into feeling excited to be doing what I do, and made me want to better myself and be more involved in the community.  I have so much to learn from people like Mike and Alexander, and I hope someday someone will learn something from something I write.

Follow me on twitter @tarvusthegreat and I’ll do my best to post relevant and interesting content.  Thanks for reading!

A Summer Well Spent

Like many of my classmates I started the summer with the best of intentions to keep up on this blog even when classes weren’t in session.  Clearly we can all see how that went…

It was an amazing summer though!  I worked at The GAPP lab at University of Utah on two separate projects, and it kept me BUSY!  The GAPP is a partnership between EAE, the Center for Medical Innovation (CMI) and the Eccles Health Sciences Library.  There we work with many different groups both on and off campus to make games and apps with a purpose.

The first of my two projects was an unannounced prototype for a local start up, which was great to work on and I’ll be very excited to talk all about it once we get the go ahead to speak publicly about it.  But I can talk all about the other one today!

I present to you Doodle Health!  You can think of Doodle Health as Draw Something- With a Purpose!  Doodle Health prompts community members and the world at large to draw images to accompany medical terms.  For instance, if I had to communicate to you the idea of “take two pills a day” through an image, what might that look like?  The biomedical informatics people found that the existing images used in situations like these aren’t always clear, so they hired us to make a webapp to help fix the problem.  We give people a platform to draw medical images, and then guess the meaning of images drawn by their peers.  The researchers then collect the data and see which of the images was best at communicating what it was meant to be.  Later, they’ll use these images to give people who are being discharged from the hospital (and many other situations) better instructions on how to care for themselves.

The coolest part of this project is that you can help!  Go to  and start playing, anything you draw has the potential to help doctors provide their patients with better care.  And if you don’t feel like drawing, go ahead and just guess what other drawings mean.  You’ll still get points and help advance this very valuable research!

better than Draw Something? You bet!
Check it out at

It was a great summer working on this project.  We had a small team which allowed us to have a very flexible process.  But this didn’t mean we omitted using any tools to aid us.  As a lab we decided to adopt Hansoft as our project management software and I must say it was amazing.  It really helped us keep an eye on the state of the project and clearly communicate as a team.

As a producer, learning Hansoft this summer was one of the best things for me, as we’re now going to be using that on our thesis team.  It was helpful on a four person team for sure, but I couldn’t imagine handling the workload on our sixteen person thesis team without it!

Speaking of the thesis game-  I’ll definitely have more to say on it next week.  The game underwent a lot of transitions this summer.  I can’t even really call it Mannequin anymore… But the team has done amazing work this first week back to school.  The new direction we’re taking is really starting to find it’s footing and the team has been working hard at making the concept a reality.  Mark Breeden and Christopher Cherrington have done a great job this first week as our Lead Engineer and Lead Artist respectively and it’s making this 16 person team run like clockwork.  I know challenges will come up throughout development, but I think we’re equipped to handle them.

IGF submission is like 2 months away and there is so much to do and seemingly so little time, but there’s no team I’d rather be making this effort with!

Poor unconscious Luigi...


So that Donkey Kong game I mentioned last week is shaping up to be SO cool.  Our demo of the first prototype went alright, but was plagued by some bugs in the code we had taken to give us a headstart.  However, we had some great ideas for new the next iteration, and Bob and Roger really helped us give the ideas some shape.

Our game now asks the question, what if Luigi tried to rescue Pauline from Donkey Kong’s tower rather than Jumpman(Mario basically)?  Well, clearly he’d fail and pass out… he is Luigi after all.  So the new goal of our game is that Pauline has to carry Luigi to the exit, get him out the door before the building collapses.  The game mechanic is super cool.  When you’re not carrying Luigi you’ll be able to jump over barrels, move unimpeded and everything just like the original game.  But when you’ve got the useless plumber holding you down you can’t jump and you run slower.

Just… look at this art.  I’m so excited.

Christopher did a great job and I’m super happy with how the look of the game is shaping up.  Our Engineering team is doing awesome at getting rid of the bugs and making the game feel smooth, we will have almost a full week to play around with Luigi and throwing him around which will be super fun for the players!

We have to be done with this project next Thursday though!  Our Professors moved our deadline up so we don’t have to fret about a project over Fall break, but man that Thursday is coming quick.  Since this game is being made in flash it should be easy to upload online and make available for other people to play.  So check back here next week with news on how to ACTUALLY PLAY OUR GAME!

Settling In and Adapting

Well my second week blog post is a little late.  That’s entirely my fault, but I can attribute it in part to how amazingly busy this past week has been. The work on Starving Artist has been coming along smoothly but as any developer can attest there is always more work to be done.  And rounding out the week was the 1st ever Salt Lake Comic Con!  It was an amazing and entirely exhausting 3 days.  No official attendance numbers have been put out yet but early estimates have as many as 80,000 people attending on Saturday.  So between preparing my costume for the convention, 2 days of amazing convention going, getting ready for a family garage sale and the constant march towards completing our first prototype… I fell behind on my blog.  Oops!

But there’s a lesson in all this.  Having so many different things clamoring for my time and attention is really teaching me to prioritize and make the best use of my time.  I’ve found that I’m more productive now with a thousand things going on at once than I ever would have been over the summer when I had free time in abundance.  I know that if I want to get something done I need to schedule time for it and plan for it or else it will get lost in the mix of things going on.  Planning my days has really been the best thing for my productivity.  Interestingly enough I’m finding the urgency of it all refreshing, at the end of the day I feel satisfied and accomplished.  We’ll see if I sing a different tune when the dreaded “crunch time” is upon us.

I’d like to give a quick shout out to the most amazing piece of software called Todoist that has been an incredible tool for me.   This cross-platform app is a very streamlined to do list that makes it easy to categorize and prioritize the things that you need to do.  The free version is more than sufficient for most needs, and the premium version offers a whole lot of nice features.  Seriously readers, go check out Todoist.  You won’t regret it.

As I mentioned earlier work on Starving Artist is going along nicely.  We received some great input from our Professor Roger Altizer this week that has posed us with a new unique challenge.  He suggested some things that were pretty different from the direction we were heading in, and we only have a little over a week left before this prototype needs to be ready for pitching.  So as a team, we were faced with the challenge of examining the new critiques and deciding what could or should be implemented.  It was fascinating to see how the 5 of us were able to combine our original vision with Roger’s new perspective, and I’m happy with the direction we’re headed in now.  I’ve never pitched a game before, but I think we’ll do great when it comes time to show off our first prototype!

I’ll end the post with a teaser of the new direction Starving Artist is headed in.  On the top row are the new paint balls we’re using.  I love the clean and subtle look in comparison to the harsher glare of the old models.  What do you think of the change?


Drinking from a Firehose

How did I get here?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself as the first AMAZING week of graduate school is behind me.  Like, what did I do to deserve this?  Why do I deserve to work with such great people in the #1 program of it’s type in the nation?  It’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was planning on going into social work- a noble endeavor, yes, but not one that I was super excited about- and here I am today making video games.

I can  honestly say we’re making video games even after just this first week.  The first day of class had us go through about an hour of introduction and then we were split up into teams, given parameters for a project and basically told to “get to it”.  Safe to say it was a little overwhelming that first day, but I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

My team is working on a puzzle game called Starving Artist.  The idea is really one that every member of the team contributed to and it’s really exciting to see how 5 people can come together and get more work done in 48 hours than I would have thought possible.  Between 9am Tuesday and 9am Thursday we were able to get a great idea, concept art and even solid foundations of coding ready to pitch the game idea to our peers.  The pitch went fantastic.

I don’t want to make this first post too long, so I’ll finish by saying I’m super excited to be in this place.  Also, I’d like to say how happy I am with my team for this first project, I couldn’t have asked for a better start.  Anyway, here is some concept art that Joe did for us and then some in game footage that our amazing engineers Siddarth and Peijun already put together.

concept_power_full_with-_powers randomPlusCanvas