Where do we start? – 1/2/14

Where do we start?

By Tim Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

Video games have never been more popular than they are today. More people are playing more games than ever before. As as result, it’s no surprise that making games is also more popular than ever particularly with young people.

To that extent, although our expertise is focused at the university-level, we often receive requests from parents and teachers asking “Where do we start?”  –  how to best direct their interested elementary, middle and high school students to a starting place.

In general, we try and point them to peers or at the myriad of existing resources on the Web. There are great options for beginner’s of all ages – from Scratch and Gamestar Mechanic to Game Salad and Game Maker to more advanced programs such as Code Academy. Sites of all sorts (like Reddit) offer informative tutorials and videos that provide valuable insight. There are even summer camps. In addition, organizations such as MIT’s Education Arcade, LGN, Joan Ganz Cooney Center, STEM Challenge, MinecraftEDU, AMD, IGDA and many others provide helpful information about games and K-12 education.

Of course, making games is tons of fun and can really help encourage and engage student interest in subject areas like algebra, calculus, physics, computer science, programming, art, music, design, writing, psychology, business and so much more.

Over the course of 2014, thanks to the ESA Foundation, we plan to take MassDiGI 101, a new program we are designing to help parents, teachers and high school students learn more about game making, on the road and visit communities across all the New England states. Keep an eye on this site or on our Twitter or Facebook feeds for information on when we’ll be in your neighborhood!

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A meaningful experience – 11/6/13

A meaningful experience

By Jake Farrago, senior, Becker College

Look at a painting. Read a book. Listen to a song. Do any of these activities and by the conclusion of them, it’s highly unlikely that the incessant stream of thoughts we call the human mind will be concerned with the pricing model, longevity, or format of said subject. No, what matters to each and everyone of us in the immediate aftermath of any of the aforementioned events is whether we can deem it as having been a meaningful experience. But, what is that exactly? How can one even begin to understand that vague abstraction, especially because when in the throes of it, in the tightest embrace of that feeling, most find themselves speechless and literally unable to describe it.

This rumination is hardly a new one, nor an unexplored one. Industries that churn and steam without pause spend every moment of their existence attempting to understand the aspects of this phenomenon. After all, there is big money involved in cracking the code behind its inner workings. Big egos too. Everyone wants to be known as the charmer who can induce people into a state of temporary engrossment amid the thrashings of a busy life, the luminary who can lower the barriers of a rigid mindset and deliver unto it new meaning. But the reality of the situation is that no matter how much we may covet or transact with those who have been accepted as having this skill, their roles are inherently that of an incomplete one. Much like a magician who reaches his hand into the hat and returns with it sans rabbit, the act is nothing short of crippled without the proper pieces present. But, if it’s established that those who conceive of and create these meaningful experiences that we ingest are, indeed, one part of the equation, who or what is the mysterious other half? Me. You. Us. And, no medium in human history to date has the potential to make this truth clearer than that of video games.

There is not a single medium of art that is truly a “passive” experience. That is to say, regardless of how little response we may give the stroke of a brush or the lick of a melody, we are fundamentally still engaging with it by perceiving it. However, video games have, and continue to make, this notion more and more explicit. For, in a video game, the subject-object relationship is never more apparent. In order to take an experience from a video game, we must in turn give our experience to it. And, this is where things start to get interesting. Since video games are not birthed in a vacuum, but are instead created by beings just like ourselves, they inherit traits from both parties responsible in this interchange. Meaning, the essences of both creator and the consumer are what makes a video game. Yet, this still fails to solve the initial question posed in this roundabout frustration of an article. If video games are, thus far, the pinnacle of an artistic and entertaining experience, how then does this translate into understanding the consistency of a  meaningful one? Why, the answer to the enigma is only but a skip across the proverbial pond.

While a basic experience is simply the act of both a creator and a consumer giving presence to an object, a meaningful experience is that in which both parties each give a piece of their very soul to it. Not to sound eerie, or, even worse, grandiose about it, but that’s the formula. It’s not really that complicated. It does not require hundreds of thousands of hours of quality assurance, or a deluge of slick marketing (although it may indeed include all that). It simply needs a pure, untarnished, part of ourselves. Sometimes it only takes one half of the birthing duo to realize this end, but, overall, it’s so much more potent when it comes from both parents. For, it’s only then when you immerse yourself in a video game that you feel yourself being enriched for it. It’s only then when you go to sleep at night that you are contented by that which you had a hand in making during your spent day. Video games and meaningful experiences, sometimes synonyms other times antonyms, are signposts to the realities and joys of life. Perhaps the most obvious of
which being this: by knowing you, I better understand me.

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Innovating for growth – 11/3/13

Innovating for Growth

By Tim Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

Last week, entrepreneur and philanthropist Desh Deshpande and Governor Deval Patrick had a great conversation about the culture of entrepreneurship and its potential for the state’s Gateway Cities. No city represents that potential better than Worcester, which is why the conversation, part of “Innovating for Growth: A Gateway Cities Symposium,” took place, appropriately, at WPI’s Gateway Park.

govdesh2The symposium, which was moderated by Housing and Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki, brought leaders from the private and public sectors together for a dialogue on the growth of the innovation economy in Gateway Cities.

Of special interest was a panel discussion among Becker College President Robert E. Johnson, UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell that featured thoughtful comments on the progress of innovation and entrepreneurship in their respective communities.

Over the course of the symposium one message came across loud and clear; leadership at all levels is critical.

Gateway Cities like Worcester, Lowell, Holyoke and New Bedford are fortunate to have a diversity of smart, creative and driven private and public sector leaders, institutions, foundations, entrepreneurs and companies that are committed to strengthening their communities – economically, socially and educationally – through collaboration, cooperation and partnerships.

From my own perspective, leaders in Worcester are doing a great job of aligning people, resources and ideas in ways that leverage the intellectual, creative, innovative and capital assets within the city. This is hard work – and intentional work. Fostering the conditions that allow for success is not a random adventure. It is all about planning and execution.

Over the last decade key initiatives have positioned Worcester to compete. The city’s transition from smokestacks to stem cells has been remarkable – an amazing success story in its own right. And, given the work done in recent years, it is reasonable to expect that transition to continue into areas such as software (ehealth, big data, games, apps) and robotics. In fact, we are already seeing green shoots coming up across many of those areas.

At MassDiGI, we feel not only are we serving the needs of students and entrepreneurs at Becker, in Worcester and across the state, but we’re fostering the start-up spirit so critical to competing in today’s world be it locally or globally.

And, MassDiGI is just one small example of a campus-based initiative that is having an impact. WPI’s Gateway Park is a national model for what can happen. All the work at MCPHS University has been fantastic. At UMass Medical School, many incredible things are happening. Clark, Holy Cross, WSU, QCC and Assumption are engaged and involved. On the campus edges across the city we’re seeing new businesses opening – be they spin-offs, restaurants or shops. Not to mention all the activity surrounding City Square, Union Station, DCU Center, Shrewsbury Street and the Canal District.

Yes. There is plenty of work to do. Worcester has challenges but the prevailing conditions are in its favor. The building blocks are in place. With a sustained, collaborative effort, I imagine an exciting decade to come.

*This post originally appeared on Worcester Connects.

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Northern exposure: The Boston – Montreal video game connection – 10/23/13

Northern exposure: The Boston – Montreal video game connection

By Tim Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

When most people mention Boston and Montreal together, they’re talking hockey. Yet over the centuries, the two cities — and more broadly, Massachusetts and Quebec — have consistently grown commercial, educational and cultural ties.

To highlight those connections and prompt the development of new relationships, members of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) team — including board chair and Becker College President Robert E. Johnson, MassDiGI Managing Director Monty Sharma, and I — were honored to join Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative Chief Executive Pamela Goldberg, and other members of the administration on the Montreal leg of the Massachusetts–Canada Innovation Partnership Mission. The trade mission, which we joined on October 10 and 11, focused on several key areas of innovation such as life sciences, clean energy, e-health, information technology and digital games.

Canada represents an important market for the Massachusetts digital and information technology sectors, and vice versa. According to the US Commercial Service, the information and communication technology sector in Canada includes nearly 32,000 companies that generate more than $155 billion in annual revenues. As a segment of the overall technology sector, digital games are a shared strength between Massachusetts and Canada, particularly within Quebec. With about 10,000 jobs, the province ranks third in the world for game development, trailing only California and Japan.

We visited with entrepreneurs, educators, students, and professionals at Concordia University’s Technology, Art, & Games (TAG) Centre; Execution Labs games accelerator;Maison Notman HouseWB Games MontrealUbisoft Montreal; and Ecole de Technologie Superiuere (ETS).

Thumbnail image for patrickxl.jpgGov. Patrick joined us on our visit to Execution Labs, home to six start-up companies, where a crowd of young indie game developers showed off their games, talked about their opportunities and challenges, and discussed ideas for greater cooperation between the innovation ecosystems in Montreal and Greater Boston.

In fact, between Montreal’s enormous studio complex and Boston’s expansive entrepreneurial scene, not to mention the many world-class academic institutions, we have a great chance to position the Northeast as a direct competitor to the West Coast’s Vancouver to Los Angeles corridor, when it comes to game development talent, resources, and ideas.

MassDiGI is now developing initiatives to support more student and faculty interactions, mentoring relationships, best practices, policy conversations, business development, conferencing, creative collaboration and community partnerships to further that goal. If we play our cards right, when you mention Boston and Montreal together next, you’ll be talking about a game on the iPad instead of on the ice.

*This blog originally appeared on Boston.com.

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Playing games with the future – 8/8/13

Playing games with the future

By Tim Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

There were no careers in video game development 20 years ago; not in the way we understand gamedev today. The idea that thousands and thousands of students would dedicate their academic careers – and their futures – to studying game-making would have been viewed as farfetched.

massdigi image.jpg

But today, according to the Entertainment Software Association, about 400 US colleges, universities, art and trade schools in all 50 states now offer courses, certificates, and degrees in those fields with more programs coming online each year. And there is a good chance many of these passionate students took part in a game jam, went to one of nearly 700 programs at more than 100 summer game camps, or even published an indie game when they were in high school.

In a multi-billion dollar, highly competitive, fast-moving yet spiky industry driven by talent, this pipeline presents tremendous opportunities and challenges, both in the region and across the nation.

Recently, MassDiGI conducted an informal survey of a sampling of public and private schools in New England and upstate New York, an area that The Princeton Review says is home to several of the top undergraduate and graduate game programs in the US, in order to get a better of understanding of our region’s role in the future of the video game industry.

Eighteen survey respondents, from community colleges to research institutions, reported a total of 3,752 students working towards an undergraduate or graduate degree with a major, minor, or concentration in game design, game programming, game production, game art, game music/audio, animation, media studies, or computer science; 2,407 of those students were reported by the twelve participating institutions in Massachusetts.

Given that the total number of direct game industry employees in our state is just over 2,000, what do local organizations and individuals need to do to ensure our ecosystem can draw, absorb, and retain a healthy share of these young, skilled students after graduation—so necessary if we want to capture their energy to grow our innovation and creative industries?

At MassDiGI, we think about that question every day. And based on our own experiences with students from many institutions, we have a few ideas, some of which are noted below. We certainly could use yours as well; please send them our way.

• Increase access, quantity, and quality of game internship programs for students. In such a rapidly moving industry, connecting students with real-world experience is critical.
• Expand mentorship initiatives for game students and young game entrepreneurs, particularly in areas that complement disciplines such as marketing and analytics.
• Advance the public understanding of what valuable skills these game students have and where those skills can be applied across a broad array of sectors beyond games, including education, training, simulation, publishing, planning, healthcare, advertising, data/scientific visualization, and user interface and experience design.
• Develop targeted policies such as incentives that help game startups and established game companies compete, grow, and expand.
• Play more games!

Clearly, our state and our region have an opportunity to put the amazing skills of these talented young people to work right here. Sit ludos incipiunt!

*This blog originally appeared on Boston.com.

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Playing grown up: The education of a game developer – 8/7/13

Playing grown up: The education of a game developer

By Brandon Cimino, junior, Becker College

Everybody knows that “college is a transitional phase.” Put kids in, give them some debt, and adults come out. That’s the standard procedure.

Kids have almost no control over their lives, and that’s stifling. Adults have a ton, and when a kid first starts out as an adult, they tend to either screw up, or be paralyzed for fear that they will. Low-intensity doses of Adulthood buffer the transition from Kid to Grown-Up.

Brandon Cimino

Brandon Cimino

College is full of these buffers, mostly on a personal level: when you eat, what you eat, when you sleep, when you wake up, what you do awake, what you think you should do, whether or not you actually get off your butt and do any of those things you should. What to learn, and what to do with that knowledge.

There’s plenty that college alone can’t, or has difficulty, buffering. Internships, like the MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program (SIP), are the next step up.

There are lots of different reasons to pursue a program such as SIP, and nobody has just one. Some of us have never had our own earned income. Some have never lived away from home for the summer. Some have never even made a video game, and are testing the waters of the game development. For me, I wanted two main things: the first was skill with game development, which is simple enough. The second is trickier – I wanted to see what it felt like to be a grown-up.

I had a key transition when my team, working on BrainFrame, went to meet with our partners, NeuroScouting, in Cambridge. It felt like a field trip for most of the trip there, just one with an oddly small group. I still felt like a student. Then we arrived at the building NeuroScouting worked from. We made our way up the floors and stood outside of the elevators awkwardly until Wesley Clapp, co-founder of NeuroScouting and our main partner, let us in to the work area.

The rooms were huge, open spaces with rows of long tables set up. It would have looked like a cafeteria were there not computers and noses to the grindstone at every seat. I couldn’t help but see everyone in the room and think, “these people are attractive.” Not because they were all pretty, but that I wanted to be near them, and talk to them, and be like them. In my imagination, whenever I glanced at someone’s computer screen I was getting to see something top-secret and super-smart. I have no idea what any of them were working on, but the productivity of the room, the determination in the eyes of everyone there, and the sparks flying from their brains as they each worked on the Next Big Thing, was infectious.

Still, though, I felt like I was on a field trip. I was still on the outside looking in. Then Wes took us to our meeting room, a gorgeous glass box at the corner of the floor. That was when things felt real. I wasn’t going to watch a business meeting, I was going to be in a business meeting. I looked around at my team, curious if they felt this was as important a moment as I did. They were all very calm, and I was glad for it. Wes took a spot at the head of the table, and MassDiGI’s Monty Sharma sat next to him. In what was in my romanticized mind a coming-of-age moment, I sat on Wes’ other side.

The meeting was fantastic. Everyone on our team spoke, and we made a ton of progress. BrainFrame is a tricky project: it’s a gamified self-help tool for the iPad intended to exercise the executive functions, similar to Brain Age and Lumosity. The catch is that NeuroScouting was insistent that every game include user-uploaded photos, that way they could practice skills such as facial recognition, something other tools have difficulty tackling. As neat as that sounded, I was terrified that we simply weren’t going to make that concept work for us. I had no idea if we could make a product that fit their strict requirements that still fulfilled both the needs of the game and the needs of the science.

It’s taken a lot of iteration and compromise, but I think I can now say that the BrainFrame team has managed to produce something that meets those goals. We are ready to deliver this game to NeuroScouting so that they can analyze it’s scientific merit, and ready to show it to others as a game we can be proud of. And while I cannot speak for anyone else, I at least am a huge step closer to being an adult.

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The art of pitching – 8/6/13

The art of pitching

Blog by Rachel Roberie, second year, Northeastern University

As the MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program moves into the homestretch, the Wobbles team has been busily shifting from content creation to polish adjustments and quality assurance. In preparation for the open house on August 8th, we have been fixing up our pitches and clearing out bugs so we can better display our game to prospective buyers.

Delivering a pitch is not as easy as memorizing some words, especially for people who are intimidated by talking to strangers or large groups. Just like anything else, pitching is a developed skill, and over the summer we have been given many chances to practice. On July 15th, half of us hosted a TechSandBox demo night while the other half went to Boston Indies and demoed Wobbles there. On July 16th many of us went to our second Boston Postmortem of the summer. Every time a mentor visits, we do a round of demos for them. Each time we pitch the game a different team member contributes, so everybody gets more comfortable. When we speak to non-gamers and people outside of the target demographic, we play the game for them so they can see the polished parts, describing the mechanics in layman’s terms and emphasizing the most widely appealing aspects, like the graphics and the core fun. More experienced players or target audiences are simply handed the game wordlessly and observed. We take note of how easy the UI is to interact with, whether or not they know where to go, and if they get frustrated by any particular features.

Pitching Wobbles

Pitching Wobbles

For instance, we learned that when we had our in-game unpause button in the corner, even though it was pulsing, most people attempted to begin playing and were confused when the tray did not respond. To fix this we made the game begin as soon as the player tries to drag down a platform. When we learned that people were not able to read all of the tutorial text before Wobbles started falling, we made our guides more concise. These alterations are small but crucial to a smooth play experience, and a totally smooth and hassle-free play experience is necessary to make a casual mobile game successful.

As the only team working without a partner, Wobbles in particular is focusing on social networking and website reviews so that we can have a strong start with a strong product immediately at release. We already have several websites lined up for review copies.

Laura Gagnon, lead artist, and I have also been hard at work on the visual polish of the game, and it’s finally beginning to look as nice as the other games on the app store right now. Something as simple as blurring the background so the perspective – foreground and background – is more strongly established made the game look much more professional. We have been adding a few particle effects to indicate what is to be interacted with vs what is just for decoration; the stars that you collect in each level to unlock new ones are now glittery! It’s the small, neat visual rewards that give games that extra boost of fun and appeal – Tiny Wings’ art, for example, has a clean and candy-colored vector style that, in combination with its soundtrack, lends it a very calming and sweet atmosphere.

I’m really psyched to get this game out into the market, since it’s the first one I have been a part of making. The mechanic is unique and the characters remind me of the little guys in Pocket God – quirky and really fun to mess with.

A version of this blog first appeared at http://rroberie.wordpress.com/.

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Building skills: Meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles – 7/31/13

Building skills: Meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles

By Connie Hildreth, fourth year, Hampshire College

The goal of SIP, MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program, is to make a game, from start to finish, over the course of a summer. From the beginning this made me nervous. I’ve been conditioned to make projects small and downsizable into even smaller parts, and everything about the program sounded worryingly large in scale. Sitting comfortably at the other end of the summer, I’ve seen that things turned out fine, but there were a couple extra challenges SIP had that I hadn’t even thought to worry about until they had passed.

Connie Hildreth

Connie Hildreth

SIP operates by partnering local professionals that have ideas for games with undergraduate and graduate students studying game development. In the first week, they pitched us their ideas for games, and we divided up into teams among the projects. The game I’m working on goes by the code name “Robot Orphan Workforce,” which our team is working on under the mentorship of Ziba Scott from Popcannibal. It’s a construction simulator where orphaned robots build houses and famous monuments out of blocks. When we were shown Ziba’s prototype and given his pitch, though, that wasn’t initially clear to us.

Some other SIP projects had a single, clear path to becoming a finished game, but our game was more wide open. The prototype we saw had little shapes building larger buildings out of blocks, with the rest of the features and characterization left for us to decide. Because of this, all of us came to the table deeply excited about very different games that could not all be made, and picking a direction was a huge challenge.

What we could plausibly do with our game depended a lot on how much we expected to be able to get done with our group over the summer. The trick was we didn’t know each other. We’re all students, and intimately aware of what happens to group projects with even just one or two unmotivated, unskilled or uncooperative members. We didn’t know each other’s strengths or whether we’d be able to count on our whole team, so it was hard to say how much work we could manage.

The sneakiest problem, though, was that we had no idea what a summer was. As students, our whole lives have been punctuated by summer breaks, so you might expect that we’d know how long a summer was. Really, though, we had no clear picture of how much five people working full time could do over a summer cycle. Projects have, for us, always been done in semesters or shorter bursts of crunch time, competing with other academic, extracurricular and social commitments. We had no frame of reference for planning out a dedicated summer project difficult.

Still, we had to make decisions, and the first decision our team really made is symbolic of how we’ve dealt with these issues. We decided to make the builders robots that we designed modularly, with randomly assigned hands, feet, hats and clothes. It let us build as many art assets as we wanted to decorate them, while keeping it a non-tragedy when something we had made for them had to be cut.

Our game has gone through a lot of cuts gameplay-wise as well. We wanted players to be able to design their own buildings, but had to face the reality that we couldn’t make that a good experience and have the rest of our game still be fun in the time we had. Physics were going to play a major role at first. Orphans were going to be sorted into teams, which would be used to upgrade their stats, some were going to roll around on wheels, while others floated on rocket boosters. These things won’t make it into the game, and some were very hard to give up on, but by cutting them, we’ve made room for things like shooting rockets of oil to keep the orphans from getting rusty and hugging your orphans with rainbows.

More importantly than that, maybe, is that by cutting those features, we made our game completable. We now have an almost-finished game to match the almost-finished summer. We know what our game is now, and we know what each of us does well. We know now that our team was dedicated and skilled enough to pull off quite a lot. And now we know how long a summer is, though I wish it was a little longer so I could spend more time with my team and our game.

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Eyes wide open: Learning by doing – 7/19/13

Eyes wide open: Learning by doing

Blog by Rachel Roberie, second year, Northeastern University

I’ve been told time and time again that majoring in game design is worthless next to hands-on experience for getting into the industry. Before this summer, I felt unable to do anything hands-on without taking more classes; yet MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program (SIP) presented an opportunity for real work just after my freshman year, and the chance to create a game with the intention of selling it. Nothing has been more eye-opening for me.

Like many people who dream of making games, I started by playing them for years without any understanding of how they were actually made. SIP brought us to the process by turning 21 college students into a miniature game development company. We work in a habitat not unlike that of most indie companies: a brightly-lit, white-walled computer lab with uncomfortable swivel chairs, a scanner, and a printer. Each computer has the full Adobe Creative Suite and Autodesk Suite as well as Unity, GameMaker Pro, and various programming environments. Each team has its own row of computers and its own slice of whiteboard.

Rachel Roberie

Rachel Roberie

Video games are the most multi of all multimedia, and as a result require extensive collaboration. Unlike movies, there is no one director – even for a very small production, there must be an art director, a lead programmer, a manager, and a designer that holds it all together, and every person has to be on the same page. In our five-member teams some people take on multiple roles. While most people call themselves either “artist” or “programmer,” everybody makes gameplay decisions, provides input on the art, and gives quality assurance (QA) feedback for their own team as well as the other three.

Since we are using a modified Agile production method, we post updated burndown charts on the board every morning and review our completed tasks in a scrum meeting every evening. We push new builds at least once a week and send them out to everybody for testing. The advantage of Unity is that it transfers easily between iOS and computer builds, and three of the teams, including mine, optimize for both platforms.

I haven’t gotten the chance to flex my writing muscles every much, since games with more elaborate stories and casts of characters are much beyond the scope of a six week development period (the last six are for post-development, so no new content can be added). I do feel my writing is better than my 2D art, and I enjoy writing more; yet being able to do both proficiently only means I can offer more to a workplace.

It took about a week not only to get settled in but to realize that this is an amazing job and to cement the fact that I’d like to do similar things for the rest of my life. I am getting paid to make art every day – something that I normally pay others to do in a classroom – and my work is going to be viewed and enjoyed by (theoretically) hundreds of people across the country.

My group is referred to affectionately as Team Wobbles, and we are sometimes also called the Nimbii, for Play Nimbus, the independent game dev group (also found on Facebook) that our fearless leader Nick Mudry formed in 2012. He’s our manager/scrum master and is in charge of social media. We also have Adam Roy, our star programmer, Mike Flood, our level designer, and Laura Gagnon, our lead artist and UI designer, all of whom were part of the team when Wobbles won MassDiGI’s Game Challenge in March 2013. I joined up in May 2013 for SIP, doing 2D art. I’ve worked on tilesets, environments and backgrounds, decorative assets, and some concept art.

The game is a puzzle platformer. You play a god-like figure responsible for a race of creatures called Wobbles that have little bodies, big noses, and enormous dreams. You guide them safely across stages and into the future using strategically placed gadgets, and their tech advances as time goes on: Cavemen start with fire that makes them jump, then in the Roman era, they discover an item that helps them land more safely, and on and on.

More information will be revealed in coming weeks. The first official release of Wobbles is in the beginning of August, when the program ends, though we can stick around even after SIP and make more content if the game takes off!

A version of this blog first appeared at http://rroberie.wordpress.com/.

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Agile: From zero to launch in 80 days – 7/16/13

Agile: From zero to launch in 80 days

Blog by Walt Yarbrough, producer, MassDiGI

The MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program has several overarching goals which influence our choice of Production methods.

Our primary goal is to produce fun, profitable, technically solid games.

Secondly, we want the SIP students to learn applicable real-world skills in a production environment.

Finally, we want the students to experience a complete product life cycle, from conception through release, to maintenance and updating.

With an 11 week program, our first production decision to reach these goals is easy. Ideally, roughly 50% of production time is devoted to bug fixing, tuning, and, increasingly, reaction to analytics. Given the initial week of orientation and team forming, plus the short Fourth of July week, the first six weeks are slated for production, and the remaining five weeks for ‘Beta’.

With the goal of teaching applicable skills, the choice of a Production method is also easy. Nearly all of our students had zero exposure to any production method, so we decided to use Agile (Scrum). Much like the decisions to use Perforce, Unity and shared documentation on Google Drive, we are not only choosing the industry standards for projects of this size, but also the best available technology and methods.

However, with four small teams co-located in two rooms full of production machines, the need for documentation and meetings to promote intra-team communication and coordination is minimal. Additionally, our projects do not have an Agile Project Owner available. And our Scrum Masters also must spend the majority of their time being individual contributors.

Not only would we need to teach each contributor Agile, we would also need to train Scrum Masters and Project Owners if we were to implement Agile “by the book”. Going by the book would also add to the documentation and meeting load on the teams. My post mortem of the 2012 Summer Innovation Program was that our teams got overwhelmed trying to fill all of the Agile roles and requisite documentation and meetings, an overhead burden that limited the benefits of Agile. This burden often fell completely on the Scrum Masters of the 2012 teams.

Walt Yarbrough

Walt Yarbrough

So, I chose to modify our Agile in the following ways:

We eliminated the Project Owner – replacing this role with weekly team goals on the whiteboard. Constant communication from management in the same room and daily builds are the tools used to keep the Projects on track.

We eliminated the Project Backlog and Sprint Backlog – replacing them with a standard set of preproduction documents for each team, including an Elevator Pitch, Sell Sheet, Design Document and Art Style guide.

We eliminated the Sprint Planning Meetings, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective – these proved to be too much of a burden on an inexperienced Scrum Master who is also charged with individual tasks.

With only six ‘production’ weeks, we set our Sprint length at five days – Monday to Friday. That gave us many chances to course correct each project, if needed, something that would have been extremely limited with two week or three week sprint durations. It also gave our students more practice and experience at estimating their own tasks, as for many of them this is their first games job – the first time they have been paid to work 40 hours a week, and the first time results are expected and measured.

While the elimination of the meetings helped reduce the burden on our inexperienced Scrum Masters, I didn’t stop there. We charged every contributor with delivering 32 hours of planned work to their team Scrum Master no later than noon on each Monday. I then took it upon myself to critique and request revisions on these task descriptions, to ensure that they were crisply defined. While the tasks would not be ‘by the book’ User Stories estimated in Planning Poker sessions, my review would ensure that they would match the spirit of Agile and be tasks that could be measured, delivered and agreed as ‘done’ by the team. In other words, I’ve taught everyone how to describe a user story correctly in their burndown without teaching them user stories.

We consciously did not specify how each team was to agree upon their 32 hours of work for each member – my experience and the post mortem of the 2012 SIP program was that small teams on small projects like this organically know their next steps to meet their overarching goals. A specific method to discuss and debate would just be an unnecessary burden.

Our Scrum Masters print one initial burn down Monday at noon – tracked in a Google doc spreadsheet, then hold standup meetings every day at the end of the day and print and post an update. The MassDiGI managers or other stakeholders can review the physical copies with a walk around the room or check the online repository for status and feedback.

With everything we eliminated from Agile – how can I even call this Agile? Remember, one of the key points was to look at this from the student’s perspective. As individual contributors, they are estimating their own tasks, standing up daily to report progress and seeing their progress tracked prominently in their workspace. All of these are key components of Agile from an individual contributor standpoint. The fact that this modified Agile allows MassDiGI management to track remotely and on-site with ease is just a bonus.

To date, the production changes we made for the 2013 program have worked out well – the students, at this stage, are writing clearly defined tasks, and productivity on all five teams is high. I can confidently state that the overhead burden required for Scrum has been more than offset by the benefits. The management has a clear communication tool to track progress, and the students have gotten great exposure to the industry standard.


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