September 2nd, I was invited by USC’s MEGA organization to deliver a welcome talk to kick off their year of programming. I had to abridge my talk for the sake of time, but if you’re interested in reading it, here it is in its unabridged entirety.
Hello everybody, my name is Kevin Wong and welcome to MEGA.
During my time here, my friends and I organized a company called “team ok”, and by uniting a community of game developers, we built Chambara. Chambara won the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award and was nominated for Best Student Game at the Independent Games Festival. It exhibited at festivals worldwide before releasing on PlayStation 4 this summer to positive reviews.
Let me say that you are amongst good people, filled with integrity, talent, and the courage to follow their dreams.
You may come from different majors and schools, different backgrounds, identities, skill levels, and ranges of interest in games. Whether you’ve been playing games since you were little, or have only recently entered into this baffling microcosm, you all have a home here at MEGA.
The people here will be your friends, collaborators, teachers, family. Together, you may embark on a great adventure that will intersect with the paths of many other people. There, you’ll discover truths about you, your friends, and the world.
While I was a student, I served on the MEGA board for the 2014-2015 term, and together, we organized events to unite the USC Games community with other communities across campus and Los Angeles. Attend these events and connect with like-and-differently minded people, you’ll help each other on the path to your future.
That said, if you’re looking for pointers on how to use your time here well, I have a few ideas that I’d like to pass on to you.
Engage with the community, in and out of USC. Los Angeles has such a wonderful community of games people, and no matter what’s your relationship with games, you’re bound to find someone cool that you’d want to connect with.
Los Angeles is home to A-list YouTubers, a vibrant VR scene, indie games collectives like Glitch City and LA Game Space, curated art spaces like Giant Robot, electronic music groups like Galaxy Swim Team and Zoom Lens, academics exploring the intersections of games with other forms of art, and renowned companies like Riot, Naughty Dog, and Konami that make games admired everywhere.
We host events like E3, IndieCade, and GamesBeat that attract people from across the world. This city overflows with exciting and creative people, and count yourself amongst them. You are part of this scene, so get to know people here, share and receive knowledge, and build the community. MEGA can help you do that.
That said, do respect the community. Be gentle with others and treat them how they’d like to be treated. This means doing stuff like respecting people’s pronouns and not making assumptions about them. There’s etiquette to be upheld when you’re working with others, and interrupting people, dominating conversations, and generally leaving little room for others is toxic. One way to help is by becoming a good listener, which might be one of the most constructive ways you can grow here.
Be considerate with the projects you take on. As you build visibility in the community, you might find yourself invited onto projects like AGPs and thesis projects. You have goals, an identity, stuff you’re into and a loose interpretation of what you want to do with your time here, recognize that.
Even if every project you take on helps you grow, not every project you do will help become the kind of person you want to be. So be selective with what you agree to, what roles you take, and curate experiences to move you forwards. Don’t tether yourself to relationships with people and projects that you don’t need unless you’re trying to get a taste for what’s out there and what your potential futures could look like.
This can manifest as a person who was a great artist in high school wanting to become a better coder, or someone who wants to have a large portfolio of small, personal work but not getting to do that since they end up agreeing to only big team projects. Four years isn’t a long time, and you should use that time productively. Take time to ask yourself, “Who am I, and why am I here?”, that could help you consider what projects make sense for you more smartly.
So, what I’d like to leave you with. Thank you for giving me your time and inviting me to speak here. I hope you have an amazing time, and if you’d like to talk to me more, I encourage you to contact me on Twitter, where my handle is @thatkevinwong.
Cathy Trang and Catherine Fox, who are in charge of our marketing and PR for Chambara, launched a documentary webseries of developer diaries detailing beats and stories about the story of the game’s development. We’re going to be regularly updating our Youtube channel leading up to our eventual release. Check them out, share them around, and subscribe to our channel, this is something we are particularly proud of, and I hope it shines a light on what things are like on team ok.
With that brief update, I enter my last week of undergrad! Thank you to all those who saw me on my way. Chambara will have an important announcement at USC Games Demo Day on May 11th, 2016, and if you can make it out to USC, we’d be honored if you could be present for it at this amazing celebration of a wide range of student projects.
I’m starting off my last year as an undergrad in IMGD today, and things will be good. The videogame world has changed since I started here three years ago, and I’ve already lived through some times both exciting and dark.
This year, we will be working on completing Chambara as part of the USC Advanced Games Program here at USC for a console release sometime next year. We spent the summer rebuilding the game to be easier to edit for new team members, did tons of business and legal work to incorporate a company, and prototyped and sketched a lot of creative and silly modes and features. You can find some stories from our Summer sprint on Esteban’s Storify. We face a compressed production schedule like no other because the process of console certification is both demanding and time-consuming. But with an incredible team of over twenty diverse folks from USC and other places in Los Angeles, I’m confident that we will do incredible things and create a truly Super Chambara.
We also exhibited at another indie games festival this week. This was one was called Bit Bashand was located in Chicago. We were not present at the festival in-person, but all the pictures we’ve seen from it look SO INCREDIBLY FUN. The festival was accompanied by an art exhibition, where we had a piece by our art director Catherine Fox shown and purchasable.
And this Sunday, I’ll also be speaking at PAX Prime in Seattle as part of the panel “Level Up! From Game Player to Game Maker” with a bunch of wonderful friends from the division. The point of the panel is to discuss and meditate on game schools with a bunch of wonderful high schoolers. Unfortunately, I’ll be missing an orientation session with the new Chambara team, but I’m sure we will do some good with this panel.
This article is long, you can read a formatted, image-free PDF version here.
Through a chance encounter last year, I ended up working as the lead designer for the 2015 USC Advanced Games Project Vanishing Point. Aside from maybe Chambara, this was one of the larger projects I’ve worked on. It was a first-person puzzle platformer where players can manipulate the size and mass of objects in the environment to solve puzzles through a certain kind of forced-perspective, much in the same vein as The Museum of Simulation Technology and Depth.
It was challenging working with the game’s theme and narrative, which attempted to subvert ableist tropes regarding the depiction of mental health issues in popular media, but tripped over itself and either simply averted or reinforced them.
Many games enforce a certain kind of normativity through their harmful depiction of the mentally ill, and use “insanity” as a way to exoticize a villain and vilify them as “criminally insane”. Characters like Far Cry 3’s Vaas and Batman’s Joker reinforce that trope. Mental institutions as settings are not better off either, and often misuse the politically inflammatory implications of a legacy of mistreatment as a way to create an oppressive and hostile atmosphere without critically meditating on what that meant.
While some games might try to tackle mental illness in a more nuanced manner, like Metal Gear Solid 4‘s handling of PTSD and Papo y Yo‘s depiction of addiction, more often than not, lazy writing breeds monsters. The creative direction behind Vanishing Point very explicitly wanted to create a world that did not use problematic tropes with heroic characters that succeed with their conditions.
The game’s protagonist was a woman suffering from a condition that affected her perception of scale who voluntarily seeks treatment at an institute called Meadow Hills. A doctor there creates a magical device that grants her the supernatural power to physically manifest that condition by scaling objects.
I think a lot of the focus of what Vanishing Point did not say detracted from the focus on what it could say. So the thematic core of what the game ended up doing lacked a powerful thesis, and ended up reinscribing ableist power structures in unintended ways by pursuing the fantastic rather than dealing with stuff closer to home that affects our own lives like PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
The game’s design was part of that. If a game has a very intentional thesis, its argument must be communicated through its every aspect, otherwise you end up with a flaccid ludonarrative dissonance, and Vanishing Point lacked the laser-precise direction to unite its constituent parts into something thematic, relevant, and positive.
Nonetheless, I speak only from the perspective of a lead designer who came onto the project later, after many of the core aspects of the game were settled. I was not in charge of the creative direction of the game, and my focus was spent only on exploring a mechanic. So I should speak mostly of what my experience was on the project and talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what I learned along the way.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1. PERSONAL GROWTH FOR TEAM MEMBERS
One of the major goals for Vanishing Point was to help team members achieve personal goals and develop themselves as game makers through their participation on the project. To do this, much of recruitment focused on finding people who would benefit the most from participating in Vanishing Point. In the end, I think we were able to help a lot of the people on the team. Team members ended up with jobs they wanted, leadership on later projects, great friends and collaborators, and a clearer focus on what personally excites them about working on games.
2. DOWNSCOPING HELPED WITH FOCUS
Reducing the scope of the game by removing some player-controlled abilities and eliminating the levels that would use them allowed us to more fully explore a single mechanic. A lofty and ambitious scope would have spread the team too thin and forced us to rush levels without the critical thought and care needed to make those levels interesting, fun, and accessible. This downscoping also helped with morale, and building this game felt like less of an insurmountable and dehumanizing task that infiltrated our nightmares and more like a challenging project would push our skills as game developers and bring the best out of us.
3. AGILE LEVEL DESIGN TOOLS
We created a certain kind of “tile editor” for Vanishing Point where levels were constructed of 400×400 square tiles which could have textures and special properties applied to them. Building a map for Vanishing Point was agile and did not rely on very specific modeling and architecting, and changes in level design can be tested and saved or reverted very fast. This allowed us to create better levels with consistent rules, as well as construct secret areas with hidden rewards. The downside to this workflow is that every map ended up with this very clinical, boxy feel that made the tiled construction of the world very obvious.
4. EVOLUTION IN RESPONSE TO PLAYTESTING
Playtesting is important for all games. For puzzle games like Vanishing Point, where all puzzles are heavily authored, emergent behavior can cause situations that could mislead players into false conclusions. Frequent playtests allowed us to adjust puzzles to better dispense essential information and tools, and allow progress in those puzzles to be more clearly demarcated.
That playtesting also allowed us to confidently make deeper changes to how our mechanic worked. Early in the project, we realized that everything about how the mechanic worked simply was not working, and revised it from the ground up. This forced us to throw out everything we built prior to that, but we ended up with a tighter game that was easier for players to learn and granted designers more room to be creative.
5. MECHANIC WAS EXPLORED WELL
There is a total of 20 encounters in the entirety of Vanishing Point, and while the ability to manipulate objects’ mass and scale does not immediately invite visions of colossal spaces for play like Portal or Antichamber’s core mechanic, I think we were able to create some interesting play by continuously mixing upon that core mechanic. Objects like stasis fields, mass-dependent buttons, destructible meshes brought out the specific properties of the scaling mechanic. UI and usability changes helped make the game as understandable as possible to players playing the game in a gallery exhibition, and efforts were made to make the game accessible to disabled players.
WHAT WENT WRONG
1. VAGUE CREATIVE DIRECTION
The creative direction for the project was unclear throughout its first half, aside from a high-level social goal; questions of tone, mood, theme, and purpose were left very ambiguous. Vanishing Point meandered from being a superhero origin story, to a gritty drama, to a magical-girl adventure. There’s a well-wishing intentionality where you purposefully leave the creative direction for a project vague as to let others fill in the blanks and share creative ownership on a project, and that comes from a good place. The issue with that is, on the receiving end, it often feels like being handed a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw something that fulfills a set of vague parameters. An absence of constraints invites aimless meandering, and not vesting the power to have the final say in someone makes decisive action difficult.
2. EXPLORATORY PHASE LASTED TOO LONG
Development on Vanishing Point originated in Unity but switched to Unreal 4 to give exciting challenges to engineers and permit use of its powerful lighting engine and blueprint system. This was not the best decision for the game or its players because developers had to spend the first several months learning a new toolset and transitioning to an unfamiliar workflow. This slowed development greatly, and entire weeks were spent bumbling around the engine trying to figure out how to make the game with these tools. That delayed that early, exploratory development phase where you are figuring out how to bring out the fun in what you have, prototyping new mechanics and discovering what works lasted all the way to the end of the first semester. This exploratory phase is essential, and Vanishing Point would have failed spectacularly without it. Everything that was presented at Spring Demo Day last week was constructed in a single semester because all the work from the exploratory phase was not of a level of quality that we were comfortable exhibiting.
3. ART PIPELINE EFFICIENCY
One of the things that we struggled with was the dearth of 3D artists and animators local to USC. Much of Vanishing Point’s 3D art had to be outsourced to volunteer freelancers or non-artists. Thus, asset production was slow and fraught with errors. A single world prop needs to be modeled, unwrapped, textured, and cleaned in order to be ready to be shown inside a game engine. There are special parameters that have to be fulfilled in order for a 3D prop to be usable in Vanishing Point, the pivot point must be exactly at the center of an object and must be built to translate exactly from Maya units to Unreal units. If any of these parameters are not met, that asset must be sent back to whoever built it. With different individuals working at each step of this process, it could take a while for art assets to be ready for integration in the game.
4. DIP IN TEAM MORALE
Losing morale sucks. Crunching under a tight deadline when you and the people around you lack it feels like a tragic death march towards an inevitable defeat. In our first semester, we ended up in this state of mind as our major Winter Demo Day deadline loomed by. Folks from the game industry were going to show up at this event, and lots of people were counting on an impressive exhibition to secure jobs. Back then, our game was simply not ready for exhibition, and morale was low and we struggled to want to work on the game. As a lead, I was responsible for perpetuating this atmosphere by feeling this way myself. Getting stuck in a rut where you and your team are consistently in this state of mind is an obvious sign that you need a break.
Furthermore, since most of our team was made out of volunteers who were not taking the AGP class for credit, we had no way to keep volunteer members accountable for completing their tasks on time to a high standard since there was no consequence for receiving a red on a task. When a deadline was missed on an important task, it ended up impacting morale by causing delays and blocks.
5. CORE MECHANIC NOT PROTOTYPED ENOUGH.
Early prototypes of the game were mechanically identical to The Museum of Simulation Technology, where the scale of an object was relative to the object’s position in relation to the player. Over the summer, the mechanic was changed to work by the position of the player in relation to the object. Last summer, I was out in Dundee working on Chambara, and was not involved in the development of this new mechanic and did not have any input in how it function. When I had it in my hands at start of fall and was asked to build levels and new mechanics out of it, I never really felt the mechanic granted me enough room to be creative with design. It was a bit of a shallow foundation to build off of for such a substantial project, but we ended up doing the best we could.
1. HOW TO SAY NO
What makes team members immediately happy and what’s right for the project are not always the same thing. Sometimes you have to say no to proposals and ideas that would come at the expense of the overall project even if folks want to do things their way. It hurts to say no to someone who, say, wants to work on a complex photorealistic shader or texture objects with selfies, but saying yes to everything arbitrarily can detract from focus and cohesion, and balloon the timeline by having people focus on tasks of lesser importance.
2. PROJECT MANAGEMENT IS GREAT
Task lists and effective project management does not only make things operate smoothly and reduce blocks, but it also serves to motivate people by making progress visibly quantifiable and boost team morale. Just because you are intimately familiar with what needs to be done with a game and the priority of each individual task does not entail that everyone else is.
3. BEING HONEST TO YOURSELF/OTHERS
Be honest and communicative about your emotional state. Its easy to get into a mindset where you hide how stressed out you are, but being open about that can save you from unneeded suffering and prevent you from behaving badly. As a team lead, your behavior sets the tone for the people working with you, and a crappy, toxic attitude spreads around and hurts people. There was a phase where we hated the very Platonic essence of the project, and that manifested in how other people behaved. Everyone has a different source of burnout, and being aware and accommodating will create more peaceful projects.
It is also important to be honest to yourself about who you are and what you can do. It is very easy to get into patterns of harmful overwork by refusing to admit to yourself that you do not have to always be the one to charge into every fight.
4. STAND UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT
Doesn’t only apply to game development, but life too. It takes courage to speak out when something wrong is being done, but that initiative is important. Everyone wants to see the game succeed, and people welcome critical feedback about their decisions.
5. HAVE SELF-WORTH
It is useful to be your own worst critic, but don’t forget to be a fan and advocate too. It is easy to get into a mindset of hypercritical self-skewering and make that fester into self-hatred and feelings of incompetency, failure, and worthlessness. I feel this way a lot. This is very harmful to creative people. There are things to be proud of, and a singular fixation on only the negative aspects of an experience breeds toxic attitudes.
There comes a point in a developer’s career where they transition from feeling proud and accomplished by the fact that they were able to make a game to feeling dejected and despondent that the games they make are not the best they feel they could be. That’s a tough transition to make, and I still feel its sting even as I near my fifth year as a game developer.
6. DON’T OVERASSIGN/SET LOW EXPECTATIONS
You’re working with real people with rich lives outside of game development, and its important to not overtask people and be intrusive. At the same time, don’t underassign work. People want to use their talents, be expressive, and feel valuable to the team, and doing simplistic, boring tasks is patronizing and wrong. The worst you can do is waste people’s time, especially when they are specifically here because they want to work on a particular project.
7. YOU’RE HERE FOR THE PLAYER
I’ve talked mostly about what goes on with internal team dynamics here, but at the end of the day, your ultimate goal is to create the optimal play experience for your audience. There are self-serving approaches where developers build features or mechanics for the sole purpose of making the game more interesting for them, building alienating features for fun, or creating busywork just to keep people occupied. This approach is right for certain kinds of games, but not for ones that aspire to be welcoming to players and hold them in high regard. I’ve heard a metaphor that preparing the experience of a game is like preparing the experience of a meal, you have to make the experience a positive one for them by ensuring every aspect of the experience serve the pleasure of their experience. Make games as if you want people to have a good time playing, this informed every single decision I made on Vanishing Point.
8. DISTANCE CREATES PERSPECTIVE
Taking a break from a project or working on it less gives perspective and lets you come back with the focus to make better decisions. A bit of time where you don’t touch the project at all does wonders.
9. I STILL LOVE MAKINGGAMES
Game design is a delightfully stressful emotional rollercoaster. It is hard, often grueling with highest highs and lowest lows, and I love every moment of the process. I’m truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work on this and every other game I’ve been a part of, and I’m immensely proud of and impressed by the colossal talent of folks I’ve worked with.
And that’s all I have to say for tonight. There is more that I could say, but the next game awaits.
Production Length: 11 months Staff: 27 Overall, at greatest 23, at least 17 Software Used: Unreal 4, Autodesk Maya, MotionBuilder, Fraps, Microsoft Visual Studio, Blender, Audacity, Budget: 600+ USD
First of all, I’m still writing new stuff intermittently. A lot has happened in the last few months, especially in regards to Chambara and the BAFTA, and I have a lot of things that I’d like to reflect on in my life here.
This year, I served on a student organization at USC called MEGA, which exists to serve and grow the games community at USC and surrounding areas by hosting a variety of events like game jams, guest speakers, and game nights, as well as facilitating communication between students and administration with townhalls and open forums. Over the course of the year, we held events ranging from the largest Global Game Jam in the United States to a yoga/interpretive dance session set to visuals from Proteus. MEGA exists less as a professional group for developers, but more of as a social community for folks to have fun and enjoy each others company while making bonds that will be meaningful.
MEGA is run a bit like a cabal with no solid roles. If something needs to be done, then someone can do it. Some weeks, I’d be planning whole events, other weeks I’d be retrieving food for guests, and many weeks I’d be handling communications and advertising.
One thing that Brendan LoBuglio started that ended up being a lot of fun for board members to do was create animated digital fliers in Unity that would be posted around all the screens in the games building. These would typically be goofy, tacky, and adorably ostentatious, establishing an identity and brand for the club while significantly boosting awareness of our events. We still did print fliers, but these were unique.
I ended up making a lot of these over the course of the year. They were great fun to make and allowed me a space to be weird with many of Unity’s graphics features. Here are the ones that I made.
This was the first digital flier I made for a weekly series of events where people could bring in their games for play testing. I made it entirely using assets downloaded from the Unity Asset Store.
This was from an anti-Gamergate game jam we held calling for diversity, positivity, inclusivity, and hope. Its one of the simpler ones I made using a Valentine’s Day texture applied to a spinning inverted torus.
I made this for a competitive game night we held when Super Smash Bros. 4 came out on Wii U. The first animated flier using stolen assets ripped from commercial games, the cast of Super Smash Bros. is rolled up into a Katamari and flies into the sun. Very fun to make.
Made this for an end-of-semester exhibition of highlight games from the Intermediate and Immersive Games classes at USC. I emailed each of the folks selected to showcase asking for assets from their games and set them through a turbulent ride through a tunnel of Great Artist images before landing on a sunny shore, which is how Intermediate typically feels like for a lot of people.
In the new year, I started using sound in the fliers. I was super excited for the Global Game Jam and set a spinning Earth on the back of a space whale (an element in my games that started at last year’s Global Game Jam) as shooting stars screech by and the Rainbow Road theme song plays. The result was something super giddy, reflecting how much this event means to me.
The Community Game Jam was for a game jam styled like an Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse is a surrealist art practice where participants would draw on a piece of paper, fold it partially, and pass it on to the next person, who would continue the chain by adding onto the drawing. The result was a collage of collective subconsciousness. We adopted this structure for this game jam by asking participants to take 30 minute turns at computers making a game in Unity before passing their workstation on. We playtested this format by making that week’s digital flier with four authors over the course of two hours. This mashup of space whales, burning trees, ticker tape, and Sailor Moon music was the result. Exceptionally terrifying when played at night when you’re alone in the halls of the games building. Many of the games from that game jam ended up with this style.
These two digital fliers are the culmination of all our work on MEGA and the ultimate expression of our aesthetic as a group. The first one I made in a few hours using assets stolen from Metal Gear Rising: Revengance and every single goofy edit I could possibly make. I deleted eyebrows, used Great Artist for textures, warped colors, and slowed down music from the Sonic Adventure 2 tribute album. As my term ends this week, this would likely be the last flyer that I would get to make on the board, so this was less themed around the week’s events and more around the identity that the club developed over the course of the last year.
The next one in the video was made by Sean Wejebe, and uses 3D models of current boardmembers in a giant roulette deciding. Whoever gets chosen by the spinner is shot out of cannons to the tune of “Escape from the City”.
This postmortem was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever written. I’m good at clinical, analytical writing, but stuff like this is tough to put out and might not be well edited or clearly communicated. Nonetheless, this postmortem deals with my latest game, The Pilgrim, a short-form game codeveloped with Catherine Fox for Richard Lemarchand and Peter Brinson’s Intermediate Games class, a cross-country collaboration between USC Games and the Berklee College of Music.
The Pilgrim was originally intended to be a personal game about religion and my feelings towards it. Through mechanics and story, I wanted to deal with the courage required to have faith in uncertainty, the changes we must make to the direction of our lives to uphold ideals, and the sacrifices that we must take to back those convictions.
In making this game, I wanted to come to terms with my own confusion, frustration, and hesitance over my agnosticism, as well as emphatically communicate through play those exact feelings. I believed that the medium and design that I chose was apropos for such subject matter because videogames, as Anna Anthropy states in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, are uniquely capable of confusing and frustrating players.
Primary inspirations for our metaphorical mechanics were Thomas Was Aloneand Dys4ia, as well as Metroid: Zero Mission and Zelda, the latter communicate the monomythic hero’s journey narrative in their gameplay, and the former metaphorically utilize game feel to depict social systems.
Why I Wanted to Make it
In my nebulous understanding of it, religious faith requires adherents to make a lifelong sacrifice: the alteration of one’s life purpose to fulfill the ideals and tenets of a particular religion. It requires one to cease pursuing one overarching goal and start pursuing another.
My beliefs in my purpose on Earth are strong. My understanding of it has become my credo, it is the thought that I wake up every single day with, the dream that I work towards with every waking hour. “I want to be the greatest game designer”. My hesitance towards religious belief isn’t grounded in doubt of the existence of God or any higher power; my hesitance is grounded in the fear that I would have to alter that conviction. The idea of letting go of that purpose and living out any other one terrifies me.
Granted, that deluded dream has been problematic on a number of levels. The desire to be the very best has made me paranoid of failure and humiliation. I eagerly take on leadership positions and obsess over whether or not my team trusts and respects me. I’ve held passive-aggressive rivalries with some of my best friends at IMGD. These delusions have been responsible for a number of problems that The Pilgrim faced during its production, and as a student, I’d be better off without them.
And yet, a meme that you’ve ingrained into yourself every day for years is a hard one to unhand. To accept any other purpose as your own, religious in nature or not, is a tough sacrifice to make. Living for God and creed rather than aggressively giving games to the world, that’s a huge change in my life’s direction.
The sacrifices we make to fulfill our perceived purpose is the main theme of The Pilgrim. Hopping around the first level, feeling empowered may be fun to do, but that’s not what players must do to fulfill the overarching goal of the game, at least under the lusory attitude. In order to fulfill the Pilgrim’s purpose of descending to the bottom of the Temple and ousting the Shadow Beast below, players must choose to accept the sacrifices, their associated penalties, and the intentional frustration that comes from clunky and restrictive locomotion. Taking comfort in fulfilling their purpose in the gameworld, and leaving with different interpretations based on their life experiences.
The Pilgrim was valiant, but didn’t nail this goal precisely.
What went wrong
We ran into a number of production issues during development, the first came from the fact that both Catherine and I were juggling work on The Pilgrim with numerous other projects, including theses,pitches, and other demanding classes. Both of us were only able to dedicate a fraction of our time to the project and were not able to test or prototype as early or often as we would have liked. Up to the final hours of the project, we were making substantial changes to the game that we weren’t able to playtest.
Another issue that we faced was communication problems. This was largely my fault, as I would often work on my own and make changes without communicating them to Catherine. I often have a hard time listening when I’m working “in the zone”, and sometimes unintentionally forget or ignore suggestions made by my team members.
These communication problems caused us to waste time in a number of ways. I spent two weeks working on a single visual effect that was ultimately cut. We weren’t able to playtest and get feedback as often as we would have liked. The game was intended to subvert and disrupt usability heuristics with intentionally frustrating and disruptive design, but we weren’t exactly sure how to quantify and observe that quality in our playtests.
Furthermore, my attitude towards the game would change frequently. Making something personal and introspective requires you to be in a certain mood, its difficult to create good work when you’re not in that introspective lethargy. Working on a four-month project, I was oftentimes outside of that mental state and had difficulty keeping motivated and maintaining the right vision for the project. Oftentimes, I would look at the game’s design and intentionality and hate it, feeling that it was the embarrassing byproduct of a transient phase of my life.
The game’s final encounter was one of the hardest things to design. At the end, the Pilgrim arrives in a dark corridor and must defeat the Shadow Beast. We were decidedly against creating an explicit combat encounter, as violence could detract from the game’s tone, but the limited range of player abilities restricted our options. We should have tested different iterations of the encounter, but lacked the time to experiment with stuff like AI, enemy projectiles, and complex level design. I’m still not satisfied with how the encounter turned out.
I often feel that I’ve been selfish in making a personal game as a collaborative project. The themes of The Pilgrim were relevant to me as it was a game that I really wanted to make. Catherine holds vastly differing views from me, so I feel that I pulled her onto a project that wasn’t relevant to her life and used her help unfairly.
What went right
We responded well to feedback. While the game’s controls were designed to degrade into something clunky and frustrating, playtests would often indicate that they didn’t serve the game well overall. As a result, we iterated through three 2D shooting systems and rewrote major parts of the character’s controller. While I wanted to use game feel metaphorically to convey the story a-la Thomas Was Alone and Dys4ia, players still needed narrative contextualization to explain why they were becoming increasingly weak. We iterated between several dialogue systems before ultimately settling on traditional cutscenes and making our protagonist silent. The stairwell in the first room was one of the most difficult things to create, as it had to be traversable by the player at two different stages without taking up too much space in the environment.
The game’s audiovisual style also worked very well, lending the gameworld a distinct feel. One of the design goals for the game was to create something atmospheric and immersive, much like the action-adventure games of my youth. Adaptive sound design by Austin DeVries nailed that presentation, and Catherine’s moody, textured art and level design allowed us to succeed in our worldbuilding goals. Incidental assets populated each room, showcasing an explicit dramatic arc for the characters that lived in the Temple.
The interplay of light and dark is one of the most important aspects of The Pilgrim’s background, serving an important gameplay purpose in some of the encounters: being exposed to darkness drain’s the player’s health, thus, players must stay near light crystals to survive. The use of textured planes and cubes allowed us to exploit Unity3D’s realtime lighting system, allowing us to create a dreamy, surreal atmosphere that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve using self-illuminated sprites.
We both grew as game designers. Both of us took on tasks that we had never done before and learned much about different aspects of game-making. Catherine took up level design, character animation, UI design, and scripting. I took up programming and ended up doing more programming and scripting tasks than I knew I was capable of. While we faced issues in project management and didn’t polish the game as much as we could have, both of us are far wiser and better game makers because of it, and move on with a great deal more skill and confidence as we graduate from game-jam style projects towards more structured methodologies of production and distribution.
I don’t know if I delivered on the game’s vision and I’m not sure if making the game has resolved what I wanted to deal with in my own life. Yet, through all the problems we faced during development and the stress of juggling the Pilgrim with other demands in my life, I must say that the project was an overall positive experience that I grew from.
I don’t think I’ll be doing an intensely personal game for the immediate future, as the projects screaming to be made in my journal are not artgames. The questions I went into the project with have yet to be resolved conclusively despite what progress I’ve made as a person.
Since we make art to make sense of reality and our place in the world, then I think I will return to The Pilgrim in the future. New life experiences will distill my perspective, giving me more to draw upon in crafting this microcosm of my reality. Tempered design skills will allow me to communicate with greater ludic nuance and grace. And life’s finite nature, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots any hesitance towards game creation. I’ve grown from The Pilgrim, and journey forward onto new projects, people, and classes.
As I conclude this project, I would like to thank Peter Brinson, Richard Lemarchand, and Riley Piestch, who gave us the structure, support, and wisdom we needed to realize this project. Catherine Fox for her extraordinary patience and skill as we both went on this crazy journey. Austin DeVries for recording and mixing the game’s atmospheric soundscape and communicating with us remotely, and finally Steven Li for coordinating playtests and giving us the feedback we needed to make the right design decisions.
Some of you might know that I’m running a team for the 2014 Dare to be Digital competition, a nine-week international game design competition in Scotland. My team, Overly Kinetic, is comprised ofthe fantastic Esteban Fajardo, Catherine Fox, Alec Faulkner, and Tommy Hoffman, and our game is Chambara, a multiplayer first-person stealth-action game with too many adjectives in it. Check out the video pitch below to learn about it, because frankly, its actually really hard to describe it with words.
So in a nutshell
First-person stealth deathmatch game for PC
Dichomatic aesthetic: hide in plain sight
Pitching for the 2014 Dare to be Digital Competition
But Chambara can’t exist without your help! While Dare to be Digital will provide the tools, room, and board to allow us to produce the game for the Protoplay festival in August and compete for the coveted Ones to Watch BAFTA, competitors are still responsible for getting themselves to Scotland, which is a thing that we will need to turn to you to accomplish. We’re running an Indiegogo campaign to fund this journey, which you can access here. If we don’t get into the competition, the raised money will be donated to the Child’s Play Charity.
Here are the rewards that you can get for pledging:
$10 – Credit in the finished game
$30 – Credit, full digital game & personal thank-you card
$50 – Credit, Chambara Poster, full digital game, & personal thank-you card
$100 – Credit, Chambara T-shirt, full digital game, & personalized thank-you card
$300 – Credit, Chambara T-shirt, Chambara poster, full digital game & personalized thank-you card
It’s been forever since I last updated this blog. I’ve had plans to do some in-depth articles, specifically an in-depth analysis of the Metal Gear Solid series and a personal essay about my story and how I ended up doing games, but life has the tendency of getting in the way of unrewarded stuff that I really want to do. Topics worthy of discussion spring up and evaporate like springtime flowers, and stuff like Flappy Bird, Twitch Plays Pokemon, GDC 2014, and this weekend’sGAME_JAM controversy. But alas, I’ve found myself working pretty much every waking hour for the past two months on a number of projects.
I’m giving talks and leading discussions now. Working with MEGA, the game developer’s club at USC, I’m running a monthly series of salons where people can come in and discuss contemporary games from thematic, design, narrative, and aesthetic standpoints, the format of which I’m basing off the similar Playthink art/game salon. I’ve run three thus far, respectively covering The Stanley Parable, Twitch Plays Pokemon, and Papers, Please, and each of them greatly exceeded expected attendance, making for very lively, often packed discussions. I’m planning on running for MEGA’s staff elections at the end of this week, so come out to SCI on Friday and let’s plan fun stuff for the next year.
I’m running playtests for a Master’s thesis project at USC, working in a dedicated observation lab, I record feedback and player behavior in hopes of improving Logan Ver Hoef’s thesis: The Observatory. I’ve run playtests before for intermediate projects, but this one is particularly interesting because it deals with game feel and environmental narrative, two things I’m very interested in learning about and deploying in my own games.
I’m handling website content for The Maestros, a competitive online RTS-deathmatch game being run this year as an Advanced Games project. The game is currently in public alpha, and you can easily download a build of the game, create an account, and begin playing immediately. The game’s core narrative is a bit uncomfortable for me, exploring themes about violence, imperialism, and its ideological ramifications through its mechanics, and maintaining websites and reaching out to the press isn’t what I’m interested in doing with my career, but I’m glad that it has been immensely successful, right now, its one of the most polished games to have ever come out of USC.
The Pilgrim comes from an original design document I wrote late last December. It was a very personal game dealing with religious belief and the life-compromises that observing those beliefs predicate, something that I’ve considered in my own life for years. This narrative would be delivered through an inverted-Metroidvania narrative, with the player surrendering powers and abilities to fulfill her purpose and complete the journey through an abandoned mine underneath a Temple. Teaming up with my good friend Catherine Fox, I decided to make the game my project for Peter Brinson and Richard Lemarchand’s Intermediate Game Design class.
I learned more from this ongoing project than from any project I’ve done before, except for perhaps Dark Deception, a RPG system and campaign I ideated back in high school. Working on the project as part of a two-person team, while coordinating external testing and audio, I dealt with more scripting than I’ve ever had before. We also dealt a lot with scoping, and The Pilgrim shrunk from a short Metroidvania-styled adventure to a short-form platformer/adventure game more resembling the mountain scene from Journey, with the avatar becoming increasingly feeble and hard to control as she progressed towards her goal.
I hit a few major hitches while working on the game. I became very sick one week in early March, causing me to lose an entire week from our production cycle, forcing me to crunch later on. I also spent two weeks prototyping myriad versions of a single feature that was ultimately cut due to performance issues. Communication with the rest of the team has also been a challenge, and making sure that everyone was on the same page and understood our vision and codebase has been something I’m not personally satisfied with, having blocked off progress from other team members by not communicating well. A rough project, but one that I’m glad to have undertaken.
I ran into my CTIN-488 TA, Jesse Vigil, late last week, who was impressed with my team’s final project and suggested that we submit it to Indiecade. I don’t think any of the digital games in my portfolio is festival-quality, but FROM WITHIN was an interesting and exciting project that I really enjoyed working on. It’s a party game for nine players meant to be played in eerily-lit basements around snack-laden tables. The mechanics are rather simplistic and exist to create intense dramatic tension and catharsis, contextualizing the rich social play of scaring and deceiving other players. I’m excited to get my team back together to revise the game for submission come this May. If anything I’ve done is festival-quality, its definitely that game.
Secret Scotland Project
This is a project that I’m excite to work on. I’m working with a small team of some of my best, most talented friends to pitch a game for Dare to be Digital, an international game design competition in Scotland. If we get accepted, it would be the single greatest game design challenge that I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most exciting. We’re super-eager to work on this game, and the prospects of traveling to the UK to compete on the world stage for a BAFTA is thrilling.
This is a reflection about my first year at game school. Its long and reflective, deal with it.
I try not to have second thoughts about entering this industry. We’re riding the wave of Ludus Florentis, the massive sea change, maybe even movement, that James Portnow predicted three years ago, a term that I’ll refer to a lot in this article.
While as a player of games, I welcome the earthquake of creativity that is shaking up the industry right now, I remain concerned about what that could mean for my career. Right now, more people than ever are entering the game industry, and the old guards of yesterday can not possibly employ all that talent that’s flooding out of game schools. Independent developers like the ones I admire seldom look to hire or expand, and the few ones that do rarely seek applicants in design. As the bar to entry lowers, the bar to be competitive inches higher.
To be competitive in this world means to make necessary sacrifices, everyone is going to give up a little bit of themselves. I personally, ended my political outspokenness and stopped distance running, two facets of myself that I thought important to who I was. In retrospect, the former won’t be missed and the latter was mooted anyway by life in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, anyone entering game school can expect to work harder than they ever have in their life. They must expect movement, and must be ready to relocate to get the necessary experience that would fulfill their goals. And challenge, those entering this industry must be ready to confront the stark reality of crunch time, demographic homogenity, limited compensation, family separation, the crossover of social and professional life, and a brief career likely lasting less than a decade.
But that’s barely an issue.
Maybe I’m being overly idealistic or something like it. To be part of this snapshot of time means that I’m part of a greater whole, and only with the combined creativity of game developers everywhere will we unlock a grand future. Being part of the microcosm of USC Games means that I am intrinsically part of this movement, and that the person I form myself to be in this moment in time will determine the direction of this movement and what the medium will become in the future.
What happened over the course of my first year at game school has sent me on a journey of my own (sorry), while I’m far from that designer that I want to be, I’ve already met strange new people from walks of life radically different from my own, I’ve traveled to the conventions and met the visionaries of the medium that I only dreamed of years ago, I’ve joined and worked on projects continually pushing the boundaries of what games could be and what they can do for the world.
And Things Got Strange.
By stepping into unknown territory, I opened myself to the risk of failure. But the finite nature of our existence, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots success or failure in any professional domain. What really matters are our relationships to the people who are closest to us with whom we share our brief journey through this wilderness. ~ Jeff Watson
I worked on the next iteration of my 2012 game of the year, Reality Ends Here. A message went out that Jeff Watson was opening up an experimental class to design future iterations of the ARG, having received a grant to expand the game that had changed many a freshman’s life, connecting them to the friends they would paint the future with. I joined the team as a narrative designer, and was in charge of designing an overarching environmental narrative to create the atmosphere of subversive, self-motivated creativity that the future of entertainment demands from its practitioners.
Most of the details about what exactly we did to next year’s iteration of Reality Ends Here has to be kept under wraps, because, hey, spoilers, but I will say that working on it reminded me of the necessary constraints that time, manpower, and budget placed on these projects. When we began designing the narrative, we had this grand vision of an epic participatory story involving immersive theater, hundreds of audio-logs, story-rich spaces, fictional characters, and a simulated conflict. We ended up cutting out most of that content to only that which would maintain our laser focus on creating the desirable atmosphere of discovery and excitement that we want to provide to our players. Film school is a rabbit hole taking those who choose to explore it to strange lands of magic and adventure, we want to reinforce that aesthetic with this narrative.
I have great hope for Reality Ends Here. We made a huge number of fundamental changes to the game and expect to see the payoff in the quality of students that partake in this school. And given my knowledge of some of the plans we have for the game, Reality Ends Here may end up making some great difference in the world as a whole. Keep an eye out for us.
And Even Stranger.
Around the afternoon of March 28th, I received a phone call from my friend Esteban.
“Hey Kevin, wanna come up to GDC with us?”
“Uh, sure, I guess…”
“Great, meet us at New/North in an hour.”
So began an impromptu road trip.
We took the Highway 1 to San Francisco, the grand road running along the California coast. To our right lay rocky, grass-covered cliffsides hundreds of feet tall, to the right, the setting sun shimmered off the gold-tinted ocean, painting the sky an incredible orange-pink. A few hours later, we were in the grassy farmlands of the Central Valley, I reclined in my seat to look out the window, and saw stars brighter than anything I’ve ever seen.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, city lights and fog would drown out any sight of the night sky. To see hundreds of glittering specks in the sky and ponder the vastness of the universe was a strangely cathartic experience that I could never have in the city.
I knew that GDC took place in San Francisco annually for several years by now, and as much as I wanted to go, even if only to meet people on the other side of development, restrictions caused by age and school would always prevent me from doing so, and frustratedly, I would watch the online coverage of the events and talks that were occurring only a few miles away. When I finally arrived to the crowded convention floor, I took a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the conference: hundreds of booths from every conceivable gaming company in the world, renowned visionaries like Ian Bogost, Robin Hunicke, and Keita Takahashi scuttled around the Moscone Center, and facial hair.
And yet, something was different. An ecstatic energy pervaded the hundreds of developers at the conference, as if they were anticipating something huge to happen.
Evolution was in the air, everywhere you’d go, there were symptoms of the nascent renaissance. You’d see it in Chris Hecker’s wordless GDC rant, you’d see it at the crowdedness of this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, you’d see it in the pervasive frustration over gender exclusivity at the major talks. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the GDC Awards, of the 14 available categories, only two were won by AAA games, and at the IGF, a poverty-simulator named Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier won Grand Prize. Being around for the Friday of the conference, I was surprised to see that the keynote speakers at the Game Career Workshop weren’t business executives for major publishers giving advice on how to get hired, but independent developers like Robert Boyd or Anna Anthropy.
The indie presence at GDC has been around for years, and while Ludus Florentis has been brewing in the waters a while now, I can’t help but think that something massive happened this year at GDC. We’ve moved down that metaphorical junction point, all that’s left to do now is to continue. All I have to say is that I’m grateful to be part of this moment.
After GDC, I returned to USC and joined a final game called Proving Grounds as a community manager. Given my experience dealing with blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages for projects in the past, I decided that I would make my most useful contributions doing community management for the project. Proving Grounds was an isometric action game focusing on emergent uses of the environment to resolve combat situations. Vines, explosive barrels, unstable floors, breakable walls, hanging lanterns and wires could all be used in combination with each other to damage enemies, and the relative weakness of the player’s avatar would force creative use of the environment, making survival a battle of wits rather than numbers, channeling almost a Shadow of the Colossus-esque aesthetic. My job, make sure that the world recognizes the game as a unique and creative project.
Proving Grounds was part of the Final Games sequence, which could be summed up as a microcosmic simulation of the game industry as a whole. Advanced Games students would assemble teams to prototype a game, build an audience, and pitch it to a panel of professors and industry professionals. Of the 17 or so games that were pitched, only seven were selected. Only by passing the extremely competitive pitch sequence would a project get greenlighted to be developed, the goal: exhibition at major festivals, creating the very best student games in the world. Two games from last year’s sequence got major attention, Core Overload and Scrapyard were picked up by Intel and exhibited at their booth at GDC 2013. The Unfinished Swan and fl0wboth owe their genesis to similar processes at USC.
All was going smoothly, I brought some great people onto the team, and each of the teams on the project worked incredibly efficiently. I connected with the community manager of thatgamecompany for advice on how to effectively create a public aesthetic around the game and effectively convey our vision to the world. Pitch day arrived, and the team’s producer and director put out a stellar presentation selling our vision for the game effectively. Things seemed to be going well, and while each of the 17 games that were pitched were unique and innovative in their own right, I was pretty optimistic in our chances of being selected.
But we weren’t chosen. The team disbanded and the project was shut down, the constituent members of the Proving Grounds team split up and joined the seven accepted projects, the process of which to join had grown substantially more competitive, requiring interviews and resumes of prospective contributors. Disappointment pervaded as I saw a number of very interesting projects like The Kingdom Cold vanish with their rejection from Final Games.
I ended up with a project codenamed Maestros, an experimental real-time strategy game directed by a number of undergraduates, the first of its kind at USC Games. I again, was brought on as a community manager, fitting for this kind of project, as Maestros sought to create a competitive scene inspired by e-sports, and effective community management would be critical to the game’s success.
Oddly enough, I spent most of this semester sick. A nasty case of pnumonia that affected me over the course of four months, which I’m still currently shaking off. I think it might be in part stress-induced, but that doesn’t matter. Antibiotics yo.
But I owe a lot to my friends for getting me through this. When I stubbornly held onto the notion that I’d be fine and my sickness would pass, they persuaded me to see a doctor. When I was too sick to leave the dorm for a week, they brought me soup and medicine. On the many weekends where I was too weak to do anything outside, they kept me company and hanged out with me. I think we blew through the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender in a number of marathonic sittings (probably one of the best animated shows I’ve ever seen). But for that, my awesome friends, I thank you all.
When I was strong enough to get out of the dorm for a weekend, I ended up at the 5D worldbuilding conference with my good friends Catherine and Esteban, a SCA-sponsored event utilizing collaborative imagination to project the future given different sociopolitical, economic, and environmental circumstances. Our job at this conference was to create a fictional world in a day, a 2020 Los Angeles informed by the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the replacement of snaking highways with miles of elevated rails, and a substantial rise in ocean levels. On our team was Jenova Chen.
Yes, that Jenova Chen. Through all the interviews I read with him, I finally got to see his leadership style in person, forceful and direct and more than willing to redirect the entire conversation towards a different, more interesting direction. Working with the wonderful Richard Lemarchand and a number of upperclassmen from IMD, we built a wildly detailed and imaginative vision of a realistic future. Certainly one of the more unusual and interesting weekends of the year.
Aside from that, I’ve found myself doing an incredible number of things with some awesome friends. I’ve competed at the 2013 Global Game Jam, watched The Who in concert at LA Live, met Nolan Bushnell -the father of digital gaming, as well as Louis Zamperini -a personal hero of mine, attended a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with the cast and director, danced to experimental interactive digital installation artwork, got an article published on Gamasutra, set out plans for an innovative new gaming channel, and unsuccessfully attempted to crash a virtual world’s economy.
Maybe this is the best time in history to enter gaming. A confluence of bold new ideas, and a consumer base hungry for something different welcomes an incredible disruption to preconceived notions of what the game industry represents. The big ships of today are beginning to reach over to academia, game jam, and the indie communities, indicating that having the most open, accessible platform will determine the outcome of the next console cycle, which will mean only incredible good for our medium. Being part of an incredible community at USC Games, I live amongst the friends, mentors, and infections energy that will enact that change we wish to see in the world.
Richard Lemarchand referred to our present moment as a “ludic renaissance” at a division meeting. Self-centered concerns about this career aside, I can’t wait to see the outcome of this chapter in history.