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Road To IGF Mobile: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT's  Backflow
Road To IGF Mobile: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT's Backflow
December 19, 2007 | By Mathew Kumar

December 19, 2007 | By Mathew Kumar
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[Innovative mobile games? The inaugural IGF Mobile is showing that independent games for handheld platforms can still stand out, and we talk to Neal Grigsby about Backflow, a cellphone-based blend of casual puzzle, city-building, and moral message created as part of a Singapore-MIT student game lab.]

Beginning Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, we talk to Grigsby about Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's IGF Mobile 2008 Innovation in Mobile Design and IGF Mobile Best Game finalist Backflow, a casual-style puzzle game, a city building sim, and a multiplayer strategy game where players control the waste disposal system for a city.

Games On Deck: What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Neal Grigsby: The team that worked on Backflow came from quite diverse backgrounds. The game was made over summer 2007 as part of the inaugural slate of games developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.

For the summer program, the lab flew in 31 students from Singapore's tertiary educational institutions and put them together with several MIT undergrad and graduate students to form 6 development teams. Aside from one of our programmers, who had a few student projects under his belt, the Backflow team was mostly inexperienced in making games, but very passionate about them. All of us were students or recent graduates.

We had two programmers, two artists, a project manager who had mostly worked on film and video projects, and a testing lead from MIT's brain and cognitive sciences department. As the design lead, I had studied games as a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, and I led the winning team in a week long game pitch competition held annually at the institute called the Storytelling and Games in the Digital Age workshop, but I had never worked on a true development project.

We did have some experienced faculty to advise us, most notably Eric Klopfer and Marleigh Norton, but the team was responsible for the final design and all of the development work.

GOD: What motivated you to make your game?

NG: We knew that the GAMBIT project leaders had high expectations for us, despite our inexperience, and that alone was incredibly motivating. The games in the project were held to a professional standard of polish, even though we had only 8 weeks of development time.

To know that the people you are working with are serious and passionate, and that they are each dedicated to producing something innovative and fun, meant that we couldn't let each other down. We had to work hard. That kind of atmosphere is so valuable, especially in the academic space where often the standard of quality is lower.

GOD: Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

NG: We had a research goal that our game was designed to address: we were asked to design a "participatory simulation," meaning a multiplayer game in which players are embedded inside a simulation.

This is a bit difficult to explain: not a simulated game world so much as a framework for player interaction such that the simulation emerges from player behavior. For our game this translated into the resource market. We tweaked the game to force players, as much as possible, to trade resources with each other.

But perhaps our major source of inspiration was just Eric Klopfer's suggestion that we think about an issue that was important to us and try to design a game that would address it somehow. It's the imperative of the serious games movement.

One of the artists on the team, Fabian Teo, had the original idea for a game about waste management and recycling, where player success is linked to other players in some way because, of course, the environment is an area where an individual's behavior effects others profoundly.

GOD: What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?

NG: The usual suspects, I suppose. The artists used Photoshop to create the art assets. The programmers used the Java SDK for the handset work, plus MySQL for the database. We had a few Sony Ericcson k800i handsets to test on. And for design work nothing beats a whiteboard and a deck of index cards.

We kept everything organized with Base Camp. I don't know if it can be considered a "development tool," but a centrally important aspect of the development was our management process.

All of the GAMBIT teams used Scrum for project management. We could not have developed the game to its current level of polish without the iterative design framework of Scrum. It forced us to have a playable version with improved functionality every two weeks.

GOD: What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?

NG: This might be a cop-out but the hybridity of the game is its most interesting quality to me. I like that you have this very simple, casual-style game at the core of it, but that plugs in to a city simulation and also the multiplayer market simulation. It can be picked up and played for a few minutes, but also rewards a bit more long-term engagement and strategy, which is a good fit for the mobile platform.

Also, I like that the game has poo in it.

[This interview originally appeared on Gamasutra sister mobile game site Games On Deck. The first-ever Independent Games Festival Mobile, organized by Gamasutra parent the CMP Game Group, has recently announced its finalists, with winners awarded at Game Developers Conference in February 2008.]


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