All good things – 8/14/20
All good things
By JD Calvelli, Brown University ‘ 21
As the teams continue to march towards today’s inevitable end of their time as members of MassDiGI SIP20, it seems like the perfect time to do a little bit of reflection. Team members had to transition to fully remote work, develop new relationships strictly online, and deal with the realities of a COVID-19 world. It can be said without a doubt that SIP20 has been an incredibly transformative experience for all the teams and their members. But, to get at how exactly the teams felt the SIP20 experience impacted them, we decided to go straight to the source and ask them directly!
What are the things you learned as a team from SIP that you plan to take back with you to your teams at school?
Team Pork Dumplings
“Appropriate scoping of the project is definitely paramount, but it’s impossible for a game to be perfectly scoped from the beginning. So we’ve found that it’s equally important to be aware of the state of the game, time frame, and expectations constantly such that appropriate and informed decisions regarding what gets cut in production can be made when necessary so that the core of the game can be as strong as possible. In our case, those cuts took the form of more enemy AIs and enemy skill usage, but, hopefully those mechanics can be reintroduced later down the line of development. Furthermore, we found that communication within the team is critical, and as a result, some of the most important procedures to determine as early as possible are the communication modalities that work best for the particular team. Hearing everyone on the team’s opinion, in whatever way is best suited for them to share it, is necessary to make the best game possible.”
“Black Forest, like all SIP teams, is subdivided into three main sections—programming, artists, and designers. Our contrasting skill sets meant that we often had different opinions and approaches to implementing our game mechanics, resulting in periodic *friendly* debates. However, as the weeks progressed, these vocal sparring matches became less frequent, and we were able to reach compromises faster. Our producer, John, attributes that to an increased trust and understanding of each other’s roles and abilities, which we feel is of utmost importance in any team. ‘I’d turn my back and Ezra would implement three different juicing techniques, and even though we weren’t yet in the juicing phase of our game, we would keep Ezra’s changes because they made our game so much greater,’ he recalls.”
“From the start, our primary focus has been to work on what we wanted to, both as a team and as individuals. After weeks of brainstorming, during which we compiled a detailed analysis of all our ideas, we discovered that each one of us was most excited about creating a game featuring a little raccoon who aimed to overthrow the human race. That excitement has been the driving force of the team since the beginning. However, unchecked excitement does not build a game. The most significant lesson we learned during our time at SIP was how to blend an abstract idea with our passion in order to build and develop a physical, playable game. The combination of appreciating scope and helping each other lead our own passions in the right direction was how our game was made. One word for that could be production, another might be communication. Whatever it is called, we’re definitely bringing it back with us to school to make some fantastic projects.”
“We were able to get a closer look at what each discipline does, allowing us to appreciate each other’s strengths and the value we all bring to a team. During SIP, we’ve also learned the importance of understanding and adapting to team dynamics. Every team is different, and you will be much more efficient if you take the time to understand each team member’s working/communication style and preferences. Another thing we plan to take from SIP is the concept of getting external feedback on our work as soon as possible. It is useful to get the opinions of others’ even well before you’ve gotten things to a polished state. It can give you a perspective you hadn’t considered before, catch issues before you dive too deep, and help determine if your game is fun or engaging at its core.”
“One thing that SIP demonstrated to us was the power of learning from your peers. Everyone on the team brings unique skills to the team and being able to teach people some of your skills to make others more capable is an amazing talent. Asking the team can get you much faster answers than trying to do independent research. Being able to teach peers and learn from them is a skill that we can take back to school and utilize on a daily basis.”
What are some things you wish you had done differently at the start of SIP? What are some of the lessons you as a team learned as you went through the process?
Team Pork Dumplings
“At the beginning of the process, our team spent quite a bit of time in the design phase of the project, which we believe had a very positive effect on our ability to smoothly transition into production. However, it would have been smart for us to dedicate some more time explicitly prior to entering production to researching available tools that could be used to make our lives easier in production, and tools to avoid using so as to not make our lives harder in production. For example, we weren’t aware that VFXGraph did not work particularly well on mobile until it was too late, and as a result we had to redo later in production visual effects done in VFXGraph that were breaking the game.”
“A challenge in the beginning was the steep learning curve of Plastic, our source control software. To minimize occurrences of merge conflicts (which we initially regarded as catastrophic but soon learned were not so bad), we would hold ‘merge parties’ at the end of each workday. These were, at first, dreaded meetings filled with frantic screen-sharing and nervous discussions of the glaring red errors plastered on our screens. However, merge parties soon became a joyous event, as they gave us an opportunity to unwind after eight hours of programming, drawing, and level designing. Though some of us took concern to our occasional lack of focus, we learned to embrace it. Our bonding gave us a greater sense of each other’s interests and personalities, allowing us to work together more cohesively during the ‘focused’ parts of the workday.”
“Coming into SIP, everyone had different foundations in game development. Getting everyone to the level they needed to succeed on the project was a priority at the start. Everyone had as much learning time as they needed. Although that time for learning did get everyone to the proper skill level, it meant that they came into a project already underway. I wish we had used more strategies focused on getting everyone integrated into the project. Since we didn’t do much prototyping, the game grew very quickly and people might not have had adequate time to learn the ropes before new features were added. All of the learning was some of the most useful time spent in the project, but if more awareness and communication was put towards that process, perhaps we could’ve been able to make everyone’s path in the project smoother.”
“We now recognize that nailing down a killer theme, tone, or aesthetic direction is more important early on than knowing how the lower-level mechanics function, as those can be worked out later and won’t really matter if the game isn’t interesting in the first place. The final game we ended up with started from just the idea of making something with a neon aesthetic. Another lesson we’ve learned through this process is to avoid getting too attached to our ideas. This applies to all parts of the development process as well, not just the early planning. Midway through development we took a hard look at our plan to make different chip types grant special combined effects and realized the required resources and design headache to get it to a finalized state wouldn’t be feasible for us, so we scrapped the system.”
“Scope is essentially the amount of work needing to be done in the amount of time available. If you are out of scope, then you have too much work for the amount of time available. With our idea established we started developing. Art was made and a game was taking shape. Our ideas began to wander, and we started adding new mechanics. We were working on things that should have been done later as the core of the game was incomplete. We stayed too long in this state and then, with 3 weeks left, we changed priorities to establish the core loop. In this time, we had to cut a lot of existing ideas and kill new one because they were not in scope. We finally understood scope and didn’t allow ourselves to run out of scope again. Scope is one of the most valuable lessons for the team from SIP as the ability to make this mistake in a safe environment means that a company won’t go under and we won’t lose our jobs.”
How did SIP help your team better understand game development as a career/industry?
Team Pork Dumplings
“By design, SIP provided us with a taste of what an actual studio environment is like. While Monty and Walt frequently checked in with us, ultimately our success or failure was determined by our team’s internal drive. In that sense, in SIP we were encouraged to be self starters, to seize opportunity, and to take responsibility for our own products in a way that will serve us regardless of what industry in which we end up finding ourselves. It also goes without saying that the opportunity to hear from mentors from all different corners of the games and tech industries provided us with an incredible, unique opportunity to learn by osmosis from those who really know their stuff.”
“SIP gave us all a valuable glimpse into a typical workday in the game development industry. Not only did we exit the program with a confirmed love for game development (and a stamina for a 40 hour workweek), but we also came out with a clear-eyed, bittersweet sense of realism. Though we had spent hundreds of hours over four months pouring our heart and soul into our game, we had to come to grips with the fact that not everyone would love it, and that’s okay. No matter how much (or little) money our app ends up making, we already know that we’ll always be proud of our work.”
“From having to maintain a consistent art style, to dealing with marketing and analytics, working on a game for a company, adhering to industry production methods, and releasing it on the App Store, everyone on our team was able to elevate their understanding and skills to meet a professional environment. But, the greatest benefit of SIP was being able to exist in the liminal space as a student and professional. While other game internships bring you into the professional world but keep you as a student, SIP brings you into the professional world, treats you like a professional, and still appreciates that we are all in the process of learning. We had a safety net, so to speak. Working on a game of our own in a professional context was the foundation of that balance.”
“For many of us, this was the largest project we’ve worked on. We have a greater respect for all the moving parts that go into making a game that we weren’t privy to prior. SIP has taught us how to work through hurdles without putting excessive stress on ourselves and each other. Working remotely during a pandemic has been a unique experience that’s required both discipline and awareness regarding our wellness. Our final product is a testament to the idea that things tend to work out in the end. Taking care of ourselves in the meantime, and speaking up when we’re having a hard time has only proven to be beneficial to our team in the long run.”
“SIP taught us the reality of game development being that everything is driven by money. Like everything in the real world, money is the beating heart that keeps many things going. Similarly, if a game is not making money then its development will end very quickly. This made us come to the realization that there is a balance between monetization and the original game image. Games are an entertainment service/product that people are willing to pay for. Many of us were in the consumer mindset when we started but have come out of SIP with a developer mindset.”