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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GAME LAUNCH Colosseum Coach: The fight is on – 3/10/17

Colosseum Coach: The fight is on

By Timothy Loew, executive director, MassDiGI

Colosseum Coach, a free, fun, action strategy game where you control a team of gladiators and lead them to victory against the arena’s monstrosities is now available for download on the Apple App Store and Google Play. The mobile game was created during the 2016 MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program (SIP) by students Grace Barrett-Snyder from Smith College, PJ Keenan and Athony Popp from Becker, Catherine Litvatis from RPI, Sofia Miren Syjuco from Carnegie Mellon, Mariel Rodriguez from RISD and Joe Marchuk from Berklee College of Music.

Working over the summer, the team produced a beta/near-release version of the game – watch the trailer here. From there, we brought the game into our LiveStudio program at Becker during the fall ’16 and spring ’17 semesters. Through LiveStudio, more students across a range of disciplines had roles in polishing the game and getting it ready to launch. For a roster of all the contributors to the game, check out the credit roll. Colosseum Coach was launched at PAX East. You can download Colosseum Coach today for iOS and Android.

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May’s Journey takes grand prize in sixth annual MassDiGI Game Challenge pitch contest – 2/27/16

May’s Journey takes grand prize in sixth annual MassDiGI Game Challenge pitch contest

Chaima Jemmali, Small Squares with Monty Sharma, MassDiGI

Cambridge, MA – February 27, 2017 – May’s Journey by Small Squares won the grand prize in the sixth annual MassDiGI Game Challenge pitch contest this weekend.

In May’s Journey, an educational game that teaches programming through puzzle solving and storytelling, the hero, a girl named May, finds herself trapped in a broken game world. She wants to escape but in order to do so she must find her friend. There is only one way to get out; coding. May’s Journey aims to interest middle and high school aged old girls in computer science by teaching them the basics of programming through play.

Representing Small Squares at the contest was Chaima Jemmali, the game’s programmer and designer.

The game, which also won the Serious Category at the contest, will be released on PC later this year. Jemmali, a native of Tunisia and former Fulbright scholar, began working on the game in 2015 with her colleague Jonathan Yang as part of their interactive media and game development master’s degree program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Yang currently works in Shanghai, China.

“We are thrilled May’s Journey won the Game Challenge,” said Jemmali, now a Ph.D. student in computer science at Northeastern University.  “Everyone with a passion for making games should go. You learn so much from the judges and other competitors.”

The MassDiGI Game Challenge helps indie, startup and student game developers and entrepreneurs shape their ideas and products for launch. This year 33 teams from across the northeast competed in front of a packed room at the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center in Kendall Square.

“MassDiGI’s focus on fostering new, creative, business-savvy talent is exactly what the New England game industry needs. Game Challenge alumni have opened their own studios or found jobs at larger studios,” said contest judge Rick Cody, a past Game Challenge winner. “MassDiGIhas helped my own company, Team Future, better understand the business of game development. They’re a tremendous and evolving asset.”

Since the MassDiGI Game Challenge began six years ago, over 200 different teams from around New England and beyond have pitched games and taken home prizes valued at over $100,000. Top past winners include titles such as Intern Astronaut, PWN, Catlateral Damage, Depression Quest, Wobbles and Starlot Derby.

The annual event is a showcase for the expanding game development cluster in the region. Over the event’s two days, dozens of game industry veterans served as mentors and judges.

As the Grand Prize and Serious Game Category winners, the Small Squares team won cash and other prizes valued at about $5,000.

“This year’s contest was the closer than ever before,” said Monty Sharma, managing director of MassDiGI, “We were very impressed by all the teams.  Their creativity and skills improve every year as do their games.”

Other top winners include Lawrence, MA-based BareHand which won the People’s Choice Award for its game Cede as well as the Indie Demo/Alpha Category, Best Technical Plan and Best Business Plan.

“Winning not only our category but the People’s Choice Award is amazing,” said Edwin Jack, BareHand’s founder. “We’ve come to the Game Challenge before and each time we get better and this year we hit it right with Cede.”

Cede is a 3D Action-RPG combining the best experiences of Diablo and Harvest Moon with a unique new mechanic called “combat farming”.

Cede screenshot

Salad Hunt, an arcade-shooter in a casual mobile setting, earned Best Art, Best Audio and was the runner-up in Indie Demo/Alpha Category. In the game, you play as a chef that is surprised to find that the salad ingredients have come alive as cute but mischievous characters that are ruining the kitchen.

The other top Indie winner was Kill the Old Gods by Weeping Witch Studios which won the Beta/Near Release Category.

A team of Becker College and Emerson College students won the College Beta/Near Release Category with OBIO, a game in which you guide your bots through cyberspace, solve puzzles, eliminate viruses and save the internet. OBIO will be released for iOS, Android, PC and Mac in April.

Bounce.wav, an arcade-style mobile game set to synthwave beats made by a team of WPI graduate students, won the College Demo/Alpha Category.

Winning the High School Category was Green Ninja, a team of two students from Millbury (MA) Memorial Jr./Sr. High School.

Other Category Runner-Up honors went to:

  • Serious: MadUnd3ad Studios from Northeastern with Monsters and Memories.
  • Indie Beta/Near Release: Witching Hour with Connexi.
  • College Demo/Alpha:  Sound Lemmings Studio from Northeastern and Tufts University with Node and Dog Squad from Smith College and Hampshire College with Pickup Pup.
  • College Beta/Near Release: Blue Drop Games from Northeastern with Before Common Era (B.C.E.) and Jaderain Studios from Becker with Don’t Shoot Us.

Sound Lemmings Studio also earned Best Design and Balls, another game by WPI graduate students, earned Best Paper Prototype.

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2017 MassDiGI Game Challenge – Results – 2/25/17

Quick post, more to follow soon.

GC17 – Winners!

  • GRAND PRIZE WINNER – May’s Journey
  • High school – Green Ninja – Winner
  • College/Univ Alpha – Bounce.wav – Winner, Node – Runner-Up, Pickup Pup – 2nd Runner-Up
  • College/Univ Beta – OBIO – Winner, B.C.E. – Runner-Up, Don’t Shoot Us – 2nd Runner-Up
  • Indie Alpha – Cede – Winner, Salad Hunt – Runner-Up
  • Indie Beta – Kill the Old Gods – Winner, Connexi – Runner-Up
  • Serious – May’s Journey – Winner, Monsters and Memories – Runner-Up
  • Best Art – Salad Hunt
  • Best Audio – Salad Hunt
  • Best Design – Node
  • Best Tech – Cede
  • Best Business Model – Cede
  • <Bonus award> Best Paper Prototype – Balls

GC17 – Finalists!

Game Team Category
May’s Journey WPI/NU Small Squares Serious
Monsters and Memories NU MadUnd3ad Studios Serious
LangQuest Desert Fathers Serious
Kill the Old Gods Weeping Witch Studios Indie Beta
Connexi Witching Hour Indie Beta
Cede BareHand Indie Alpha
Salad Hunt Salad Hunters Indie Alpha
Trianglism Cat the Coolest Indie Alpha
Green Ninja Millbury HS Banzai Games High School
OBIO Becker, Emerson Team TATR College/Univ Beta
Before Common Era (B.C.E.) NU Blue Drop Games College/Univ Beta
Don’t Shoot Us Becker Jaderain Studios College/Univ Beta
Node NU, Tufts Sound Lemmings Studios College/Univ Alpha
Bounce.wav WPI Team Bounce.wav College/Univ Alpha
Pickup Pup Smith, Hampshire Dog Squad College/Univ Alpha
Rune Run Becker Cosmic Salt College/Univ Alpha

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