Making fun – 7/27/17

Making fun

By Ellen Chen, RIT ’18

“When you start the production process, you should be ready to throw everything away and start fresh,” Walt Yarbrough, SIP’s producer, told us as we we worked towards the end of pre-production sometime in early June. Over the first few weeks of SIP, we interns worked as quickly as we could to come up with the core designs for our games and create a working prototype. My team – Emmanuel Mallea and Tung Thanh Vu from Becker College, Dean Faulkner from LYIT (in Ireland), Jenny Sun from RISD, Emily Ramirez from MIT, Lisa Jeong from Berklee, and me – went through a very tense and stressful production. Our game, Little Grimm, is a cute and spooky take on Snake. However, it went through many iterations and design changes before we settled on its current iteration. Although we kept its core concept as a Snake game, many ideas were thrown out in the process, and it wasn’t easy as one might think.

One of the early prototypes of Little Grimm

Looking back, we have deviated greatly from our original ideas. Our game originally would’ve been a Snake game with a colorful twist. The snake would’ve had a multicolored body, and the player would be able to pass over a part of their tail if its color matches the head’s. We all thought it was a great idea and everyone made exciting concepts and prototypes, but none of us could really decide on what was more appealing. We had so many game mechanics flying around that it was hard not to add new ideas into the half-finished prototype. A few of them were almost hard to let go, even though they were impossible to implement and we didn’t have much time.

It wasn’t until we began playtesting that we realize the real issue: our game wasn’t fun. The feedback we received pointed out the flaws in the gameplay and the mechanics and how boring and confusing they respectively were to the playtesters. We were so caught up with our conflicting ideas that we’d ignored the importance of making our game fun. After Monty Sharma, SIP’s manager director, told us to stop adding more content and focus on what we had now, we got together to sort out everything. Using the feedback from playtesters and other interns, we threw out mechanics and ideas that were too confusing or vague or were sitting on the backburner for a long time. We discussed every issue that was holding us back from getting work done and how to resolve them. We then immediately focused on improving and changing what we didn’t threw out from the game. We were then finally able to produce a working prototype (just in time for production!).

Gameplay of Little Grimm

Once we were greenlit for production, we axed everything without difficulty and rebuilt the game in a much clearer direction. Once again, we ran into the same issue of falling in love with new mechanics, but this time we focused more on making fun instead of making content. We made changes to our current mechanics and improved gameplay based on feedback from more playtesting. We also held team meetings more frequently, making it easier to talk about which mechanic or idea to keep or cut out. As a result, we were able to work faster and more productively than we were in pre-production. With 2 weeks left, we’ve come a long way from where we started 2 months ago.

The entire project has been a stressful and bumpy ride, but there was much to get out of it. For instance, not every idea will make it into the game, and getting too attached to them or trying to cram them in at the last minute will cause more conflicts than progress. Teamwork is very important in the game design process, and conflicts of interests can erupt and break it apart if left unchecked. Furthermore, I can’t stress enough how very helpful playtesting can be; it helps give insight on what you’re doing wrong and what needs fixing and, most importantly, if the game is fun. Last but not least, be sure to have fun with your work! It’ll definitely help you and your team go a long way with game design.

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Balancing act – 7/24/17

Balancing act

By Amanda Stockman, Becker College ’18

Perspective is a huge part of game development that many developers never speak enough of. Experienced industry veterans always harp on playtesting for the sake of learning the player behavior, studying how they play, and what decisions encourage them to spend money or continue playing. However, playtesting can give you honest feedback on how to operate in your own team and which tasks you should take. Receiving feedback is crucial in the way of ensuring which tasks get pushed to a higher priority to ensure you are on route to finishing your game.

My role on the endless runner project, Hyper Thunder Run: 198X, is a mash of 3D art and UI/UX. As our game is difficult to balance for polycount and optimization, I’ve had times where I’d have large tasks set aside just to tackle large goals such as “creating consistent fake lighting”, “rebalance spacing between when the skyscrapers respawn”, or “reduce all textures to less than 512 px” in the entire project. Unlike my time spent in academia, I finally understand the point of stepping away from a project to gain perspective.

Playtesting HTR 198X

Juggling two vastly different art roles, I needed to learn how to step back and worry less about the nitty gritty on a project. When I was worried about the framerate being a “future problem”, I was neglecting my UI/UX tasks, believing that they were a lesser priority. When several summer camps of students stopped by this past Tuesday, their brutal honesty on the neglect in the UI was an eye-opening experience that helped me realize how much of a higher priority task they were. Almost immediately after the event, I walked up to the Kanban board for my team and created a series of tasks to develop several menus for the game. The screen flow was already created and defined nearly a month ago but, since then, I was swamped with 3D tasks that I only made small, minute tasks for UI. With those two art positions in juxtaposition to each other, I’ve started to learn the fine balance between the two while working in an indie setting.

With only about three more weeks of SIP, I’m happy that I finally started to balance multiple roles in a team. The situation I faced can apply to almost every individual in the Summer Innovation Program: stepping back can provide the insight needed to learn what you truly need to work on in your game.

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So close, yet so far away – 7/14/17

So close, yet so far away

By Veneta Cholakova, Mt. Holyoke College ’19

MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program may be approaching the finish line but the participants still have a long way to go before they accomplish their main goal…to release a fun, well-polished game. Meanwhile all five teams are simultaneously excited to present our games, we are nervous about the last few weeks of development.

Even though the games we have been developing during the last two months went through dozens of changes, we had to make difficult decisions, unforeseen outcomes were achieved and fabulous art was created. All five games are finally beginning to look polished and are moving closer to being shipped!

It would be a lie if we say that the process of development was easy and always pleasant. Each team had its ups and downs but at the end of the day we are all happy with what we have accomplished. Every single new feature, new art asset and decision made changed the game my team is developing drastically. Each new version of the game revealed something new for our playtesters (but I won’t say more, so that I don’t spoil it for you). We also named our game – from now on it is RAISE THE BASS! Our cartoonish character – Tyley – jumps, runs and makes the screen so vivid. Our team is super excited to introduce her to the general public and let her become the famous DJ she always wanted to be!

During this last month of development our team – Amber Skarjune from Wellesley, Ty Enos from Tufts, Paul DeSimone from RIT, Emily Ryan from Becker, Wenley Shen from RISD and me – will focus more on the polishing of the game and making sure we achieve the best possible user experience. Of course, Raise the Bass wouldn’t be the same without the amazing music that Berklee’s Lisa Jeong has contributed! Pretty soon we will have the trailer as well. Our two artists are working hard to deliver all the excitement, hard work and love we put in this game via this short video.

In addition to working in the studio, SIP participants had the opportunity to attend a Boston Unity Group meetup in Cambridge hosted by Akamai. It was a panel of various local game industry professionals which focused on breaking into the industry and advice for aspiring developers. They shared varying personal experiences applying for jobs and progressing in their careers. It was especially nice to see artists involved with games in the local area. There were also a number of familiar faces in the audience such as Ryan Canuel and Michael Carriere, as well as students from Brown University and Northeastern University. There was some time after the panel to talk with everyone at the event and connect with other professionals in the field. The panelists were very willing to give advice to the many job-hungry students attending! Overall informative as a panel and useful as a networking opportunity.

The following week we attended another Women in Games Boston event. The panel pertained to non-traditional uses of video games. Various companies discussed how they use games outside of consoles and PCs. Green Door Labs, Incantrix and a few others discussed how they create games for non-traditional uses. Everything from interactive museum exhibits to interactive theater with puzzles. Ben Chicka, a philosopher, presented his thoughts on how video games can help us better understand “the other”, a concept regarding empathy and how we should respect others regardless of who or what they are. We were excited to hear about all the wonderful thing games is doing for the Boston area, and what is to come next.

To sum up, all 28 game developers are working hard, already focusing on the small details of our games. We mix the fun of attending off-work events with the rush to finish as much work as possible, so that we deliver industry quality games in August.

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The mesa of misery – 6/29/17

The mesa of misery

By Ryan Maloney ‘ 20, Northeastern University

Game development, like many types of  projects, works in a progression of phases. You start off with nebulous concepts and ideas, you decide on one of them, you roll with it, you iterate upon it, and you get as many eyes on it as possible. Once you feel confident that you’ve picked a good idea, things start to feel much more tangible, more real, and sometimes more frightening. This is the stage we’ve recently entered at SIP17. Professionally, we’re in what’s known as the Template part of the Production phase (production being the last long trek to a completed product). Our manager Monty Sharma, however, likes to call this phase “The mesa of misery.”

Demoing our games for the MassDiGI
Advisory Board in Boston

This term may be new (and somewhat frightening) for many people, but the meaning behind it is something with which anybody who has ever worked on a long-term project should be quite familiar. In those earlier stages of development, every new idea and change seemed like a revolutionary one. Our game was in its most malleable form, and it seemed like every miniscule thing we added had an explosive impact on the game. Not all of these additions were great, but it kept the project exciting, it was a learning experience, it felt fresh and interesting. Now, however, is when everything stagnates. Fewer and fewer new ideas come in. The game, at its very core, has been well established, and anything we put on it now is essentially window dressing (useful window dressing, but still, nothing ground-breaking). This isn’t to say that the rest of the work ahead of us isn’t important; we have a good base, now this is the time to flesh it out, to make it pretty and exciting to everyone else who’s going to experience it in its final form. However, while these changes may be important, they feel less and less impactful to us, the people who have been building this from scratch, with each new iteration.

This is why this part of production is “The mesa of misery.” It’s not that the project has suddenly become bad or unworthy of effort, it’s just become much less exciting to improve. This is the beginning of the slog, the part where every iteration feels less like a giant leap forward, and more like an inching crawl. Now every small change is just that, a small change, no more massive enhancements from the smallest improvements. And while this part of the project may not be as exciting or fast-paced as the earlier development was, that doesn’t mean it’s less rewarding.

At Boston TechJam

This part of production is incredibly important, not just because it’s when final production-worthy assets and code are created, but because it teaches us to stick with our work. In the earlier development phases, everything was exciting and fresh, but now the most important work is being done when without that same excitement. Does it feel like a drag sometimes? Definitely (don’t ask me how many cups of coffee I drink daily). But does it still feel good to get something new into the game that we know will ultimately help? Absolutely. This doesn’t just teach us how production phases work and when to start the finalized work on a project, it teaches us to stick with a project even after it’s stopped being new and exciting. It’s teaching us not to abandon a project just because it’s not as fresh anymore. It’s teaching us that every part of production is important, and great things can always be forged and accomplished, even in “The mesa of misery.”

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Embracing simplicity – 6/23/17

Embracing Simplicity

By Emily A. Ramirez ’19, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Monty Sharma, our boss, picked up the iPad and gazed down at the screen through his glasses. He hit “Start,” dragged his finger across the screen, evaded the walls like a true Snake expert, and scored a thousand points before dying. There were maybe forty seconds total of gameplay, silent save for the game’s placeholder music. He politely grimaced and said, “It’s alright.” He then held up a hand to his chin and looked at us. “Guys, I want to play the best snake game of all time. You guys need to get at the root of it: what makes a good snake game?” We slunk back to our computers, wondering how we could amount to the task we’ve just been given.

Receiving feedback on our game from Connelly Partners advertising agency.

This was maybe the start of June. Three weeks later, we’ve finally moved on from our pre-production days. Now when we playtest our game, one of our testers’ first comments is usually, “this is really fluid and fun!” But it took us countless iterations to get there. At our first public playtest, we had three very different versions of Snake—a classic grid-based version, a version, and a wild 3D version. Kids hate classic Snake; adults hate controls; everyone was overwhelmed in 3D. Nobody agreed on anything except that our game didn’t have “enough” to do.

Tung Than Vu (Becker College ‘19), a fellow designer and I had endless conversations about what we could add to our game while our producer, Emmanuel Mallea (Becker College ’18), thought we needed to make our core more fun. With the tug-of-war between focusing on what we have and what we could have, Tung and I had to learn to work on both the core and our twist to snake, or ‘Plus One.’  If people were getting bored playing our game, we had to figure out a design that would keep them engaged, and a ‘Plus One’ seemed like the obvious answer. Making the core fun seemed manageable enough.

John Conaghan, lecturer at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, playtests our game at a MassDiGI Advisory Board Meeting.

Well, it turns out making “simple” into something fun is one of the hardest challenges of all. It’s not that something simple is too little to be fun—it’s just that if we can’t nail that one vital thing, a fun snake game, players have no choice but to notice we’ve failed as designers. If we get our core right, adding more details to our game is infinitely easier, since our players are already having fun. A simple game means a more accessible game. A simple game is a great game, and as a person training to break down the world’s most complicated problems, I had to learn what simple even meant.

Meanwhile, Tung and I conceptualized several Plus One designs, none of them truly “simple.” There were morality systems, randomly generated areas, changing colors, and puzzle systems. Embracing simplicity wasn’t immediate for me, especially as a lover of complex systems. Days after I designed a “simple” morality system (inspired by Undertale and The Witcher no less!), I finally realized why my mentors preached simplicity. Our designs were way out of scale and didn’t revolve around our core. Our Plus One shouldn’t just be about adding something interesting; it should also be about augmenting the heart of our game. If we couldn’t keep players entertained with the base gameplay, what’s the point of all those add-ons? If our design layers weren’t complementing our base, why did we bother with our base in the first place? If we can manage to keep it simple and build everything around our core loop, we will be adding petals around our rosebud. There is beauty in simplicity, and I am ready to embrace it.

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Puzzling problems – 6/16/17

Puzzling problems

By Joey Pagano ’19, Pratt Institute

Imagine working your way through a 100 piece puzzle only to realize that after 99 pieces, that one godforsaken last piece is nowhere to be found. Now normally, you can still easily see the picture for what it is and you more or less completed the puzzle 99% of the way. Awesome. A+.

Now imagine working on that same puzzle except the box doesn’t show you what it’s supposed to look like and then if you don’t finish with all 100 pieces then the whole thing explodes into a fiery vortex of misery. This is why SIP17 is a blast.

Making that transition from educational work to production work is a difficult change to make. But in doing so, a very different, more empowering way of creating work is thrust upon you. Gone are the days of getting graded on how well your assignment met demands, and here are the days of expertise. Working on SIP teams erases the work structure of working for a professor that returns your work with a percentage based on how much they think your work meets the requirements of their syllabus. Instead, it’s up to you as an individual to be the expert your team needs.

Our team getting feedback at Dailybreak CP.

Learning to adapt to being the “expert” on something was certainly one of the most difficult things to do on our teams, because now there is no correct solution to a problem like in a class setting. Being thrust into the real world workforce means that when there is a problem, that does not guarantee a solution. And finding that solution, if it exists, relies entirely on your ability to capitalize on your skills and learn some new ones along the way.

On our team, a problem arose in how we moved animations into the game for our character. Developing a 3D game and being a 3D artist for it, I was tasked with modeling and then animating a character to control in our game. When animations were not working as we intended, I couldn’t be all “oh well whatever, guess I’ll just take a hit on this and get a B instead of an A.” In school, that’s a very real way to approach this problem, if you so choose. On a project, this problem meant life or death for our game. I then took the rest of the day looking into new ways to interpret animating, finding newer ways to build my character using concepts I didn’t even know about yet. In doing so, we were able to get the animations to function in our game!

The point of this is that creating art for a production means you are expected to solve problems when no one else has a solution. And in doing so, you learn a lot about things you wouldn’t have otherwise been taught. By being the expert on something instead of the student, you learn in a whole new way. Being able to work on a team with other experts and being able to focus on one discipline really helps you to continue to learn your own craft. It ends up culminating in all around amazing experience! And you get paid too, I guess that’s cool.

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Early days, early development – 6/2/17

Early days, early development

By Amber Skarjune, Wellesley College ’19 and Veneta Cholakova, Mt. Holyoke College ’19

Coming straight from the end of finals at our respective schools, the students selected as interns in MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program (SIP) found themselves settling into the facilities at Becker College. Step by step we started getting ready for three months of dedicated entrepreneurship and game production.

For the first week of SIP17 we spent time getting oriented. MassDiGI managing director Monty Sharma introduced us to the  program. Along with help from executive director Tim Loew and producer Walt Yarbrough, he covered each aspect of the program and made sure all of us knew our responsibilities. During orientation we all got to know each other throughout various group tasks. We got accustomed to the surroundings and even had some “off-site” team building exercises, such as board game evenings and group meals.

Veneta Cholakova (L) and Amber Skarjune

At the beginning of the second week we game jammed to build a simple AR application. This was simultaneously an interesting and challenging task that facilitated the transition to the actual start of the work. Then on that Tuesday,  the 28 of us were split into five teams (ed. note – more on the 5 teams coming soon) to begin their development process. Each team had a combination of artists, designers and programmers, along with one lovely music producer, Lisa Jeong from Berklee College of Music.

Once the five teams were formed, we started discussing, conceptualizing and designing a fun core mechanic to build off of. To make sure the starting point was engaging and entertaining each team presented their game idea to the producers. The feedback we received was crucial to our further progress.

After exploring the core mechanics chosen, each team began building a demo version of their game. All teams were working hard towards their common goal – to present their core game ideas to each other, SIP mentors and visitors. Meanwhile, each team’s artists began working on conceptualizing ideas to suit the specific mechanic the team had begun to build.

Forrest Dowling

We also had our first industry mentor come by the studio, Forrest Dowling from The Molasses Flood of The Flame in the Flood fame – and a former designer on Bioshock Infinite. The questions asked during his talk helped the teams to better understand early stage game development. After the talk Dowling tested each team’s demo game and provided his feedback. He emphasized the importance of the presence of a clear idea where a game is going. His suggestions on how the games should progress were particularly useful for us to shape our short and long term goals.

While each team is progressing at a different pace, our end goals all converged when demoing of what we’ve built so far. And, while we’ve all got a long way to go before we have a finished product, we are really excited to see what we’ve created so far and how we’ll progress into the future!

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GAME LAUNCH: Surf’s up for Cat Tsunami – 4/27/17

Surf’s up for Cat Tsunami

By Timothy Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

Cat Tsunami, a free and fun endless surfer where you play as Kai the Cat surfing on waves of other cats, is now available for download on the Apple App Store and Google Play. The mobile game was originally created during the 2014 MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program (SIP) by then students Ryan Canuel from Becker College, Paige Coblentz from RISD, Renzo Heredia from Berklee College of Music, Aislynn Kilgore from Hampshire College, Matt Metzger from UMass Lowell and Lili Sun from MIT.

Working over that summer, the team produced a prototype of the game – watch the much-beloved trailer here. From there, we brought the game into our LiveStudio semester-based program at Becker from fall 2014 through spring 2017. Through LiveStudio, many more students across a range of disciplines had key roles in rebuilding the game, polishing it and getting it ready to launch. For a roster of all the contributors to the game, check out the credit roll. You can download Cat Tsunami today for iOS and Android.

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SIP17 team selected – 4/14/17

SIP17 team selected

By Tim Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

Applications to our annual Summer Innovation Program (SIP) have grown year over year in terms of quality, quantity, geographic reach and diversity. This year we received applications from 242 undergraduate and graduate students representing 50 colleges and universities from around the world – making it our most competitive year yet.

Choosing only 25 as interns (we added one spot this year) was very challenging. After much discussion, the committee selected a talented group – including a Fulbright Scholar. This summer’s SIP17 team will be made up of interns from 14 institutions including Becker College, Berklee College of Music, Letterkenny Institute of Technology (Ireland), MIT, Mt. Holyoke College, Northeastern University, Pratt Institute, RPI, RISD, RIT, Swarthmore College, Tufts University, Wellesley College and WPI.

SIP17 begins on May 16 and concludes on August 13.  Over those 12+ weeks, with guidance from professional staff and industry mentors, SIP17 teams will be responsible for all the work necessary to successfully launch their games. There is no internship program like it on the planet.

As in previous years, SIP17 students will receive housing courtesy of Becker College as well as a modest stipend. Most importantly they will all receive the greatest game development experience of their lives. Yes, it may be a lot of work – but it’s also a lot of fun. We can’t wait to get started.

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