A Musical Platforming Symphony
Awfully Messy Production Story
Myself and several other top students who were friends of mine were worried about being stuck with a terrible team or having to work on a game we had no interest in, so we decided to team up and create our own brief (there's usually a few each year). Our team consisted of 3 programmers (myself included) and 2 artists. The game we pitched was The Far North, a moody game about survival in a frozen wilderness and the long, perilous journey north to get home. You play as a woman trying to get home after being shipwrecked and must follow the river north, fending off wolves and exploring the frozen wilderness as you go.
Every year there's a very technically demanding Sony brief involving their PhyreEngine technology, meant for some of the better programmers of the year to prove what they can do. We were confident we could make something impressive using the PhyreEngine and wanted to target PlayStation 4, so our brief was combined with the Sony brief which was about making PhyreEngine tutorials.
So we had formed a 'super-team' and were working on our own stupidly ambitious game, using Sony's PhyreEngine to show what we were capable of. We weren't just going to make a prototype, we were going to make a game. What could possibly go wrong?
Art: Majorly Problematic Suddenly
Just before breaking up for the Christmas holidays one of the artists found out that they had managed to get into a development program in Denmark called Eucroma and would be leaving at the start of semester 2. Bugger. With such an art-heavy game this was a big problem, especially since we specifically only had 2 artists because they were some of the best of their year and we didn't need any others. Well, OK. I guess we'll just have to be clever and cut what we don't need. The Far Nerf, as it were. After worrying about it all Christmas and thinking about how best to downsize, semester 2 didn't start in the best of spirits. Then in the first week back, somebody who was supposed to go to Eucroma had to pull out and our other (now only) artist had the very last-minute opportunity to go instead. They took it. Fuck.
To be clear, I bear no grudge against either of them. They each had a potentially life-changing opportunity and seized it. I can't blame them. They've since returned from Denmark and we're all still friends. But at the time, they didn't exactly leave us in a good spot.
So now our 'super-team' of 8 was down to just 4 programmers and 1 sound designer. It was completely impossible to continue The Far North, but we still had a game to make - coursework submission was just 4 months away. Rather than sit around moping and blaming the artists, I suggested to the team that we scrap The Far North and make a completely different game that played to the strengths of the remaining team. After a long day of discussion both among ourselves and with staff, we decided to make a musical platformer similar to 140 but with a Geometry Wars-esque art style since that could be done programmatically. The seed of what would become AMPS was born. Thankfully there wasn't much game-specific code so we didn't lose a lot of technical progress, though all of the sound effects were now useless (they at least still counted toward the sound designer's coursework portfolio).
Arrestingly Memorable Presentation Surprise
Acquiring Management + Production Skills
I learnt a lot about making games over the course of this project but it was in the team lead / producer role that I realised the most important; games are made by people. People are complicated and crazy and wonderful and funny and frustrating and when they aren't there working they're off living awesome, messy, human lives. And sometimes that life is great, sometimes it's terrible and sometimes it means they have to stop work altogether to go deal with it. Never mind being colleagues, these people are my friends and I care about them and have a responsibility to make sure they're OK. Over the eight months working on AMPS across semester 2 and the summer we had break-ups, health issues, memorials, family troubles, money troubles and the death of a loved one. Sometimes it felt like the game didn't want to be made, but we did it anyway. I'm extremely grateful to everyone on the team for all their hard work and for making the long hours bearable. I hope I did alright.
Art Made Programmer Style
Advancing Means Pitching Successfully
Frustratingly this year the format of Dare was unexpectedly changed dramatically and, in my opinion, came off significantly worse for wear. The three main changes were:
- Team size increased from 5 to 8
- The game can have already been in production for less than a year
- Teams work at their own university, only arriving in Dundee for the final showcase
Allowing games that have been in production for less than a year immediately kills any hope of pitching an idea - why the hell would the judges pick a concept when they can pick a working prototype? It skews the competition unfairly towards universities such as mine which have group project work as part of the curriculum. It also makes the results much harder to gauge, because it isn't a fair comparison to look at a game that's been in production for a year and compare that with a game that's been in production for 4 months. While I can see how having teams work at their own universities allows more international teams to take part, it saddens me that the joy of working alongside the other teams is gone - it feels like the focus has shifted from enjoying game development to selling a product.
These problems impacted us far more than they will future teams. We had no way of knowing that this was going to be the format from now on and didn't even find out until March, at which point it was waaay too late to do anything about it. The changes in team make-up forced us to make AMPS; the changes in Dare forced us to pitch AMPS as our Dare game even though we all wanted to work on something more original. With that said, we pitched the game:
Pitches were judged by 3 industry professionals who decided which teams would go on to the next stage (interviews). The feedback we got was generally positive, but it was incredibly frustrating to read this:
...Had I never played the game 140, I would look at this project and see a great deal of creativity, originality, and promise. But since I'm familiar with 140 (and other entries in its genre), 140 is all I can see when looking at AMPS....
We got through to the interview stage and had a couple of weeks to prepare. Since we were now fully committed to continuing AMPS, we needed to come up with something to make us unique. Something I noticed with music games is that it's always "here is the music and here is a mechanical representation of the music". We did that - it's fun. But what if we took it further and said "here is the music and here is a mechanical representation of the music, and here is how you can change that music"? That's how the panel collection mechanic was invented.
For family reasons I wasn't able to attend the group interview and so can't really say how it went. It seems there was confusion as to how the game would play with the new mechanic, which was largely my fault. In my head I could clearly see how the panel system would work, but I hadn't explained it well enough to the rest of the team and wasn't able to be there to explain it myself.
We didn't get in.
All of us had already spent so many hours working on this game that we decided to apply for the Indie Showcase and continue development. While it was no longer possible we could win a Bafta, that had never really been the point. The point was to create an impressive portfolio piece and to experience demoing a game to the public; both things we could achieve at the Indie Showcase. This time, we got in. Dare Protoplay was still the deadline, and we still had plenty of work to do.
Adding More Particle Systems
Affectionate Masses: Protoplay Success
I'd never demoed a game to the public before Dare. It's so incredibly rewarding to watch people wander in and pick up this thing you've poured months of your life into and thoroughly enjoy themselves. It made it all worth it; the many late nights, the hardships endured, the difficult decisions, the technical problems, the stress and frustration - everything. Games have a way of absorbing their players in a way no other medium can. Making games is hard, but making them alongside great people makes it fun and seeing it all pay off is worth every second. I look forward to doing this for the rest of my life, and I can't wait for the next demo opportunity to arrive.