Coray Seifert is a producer, designer, and writer at Large Animal Games (www.largeanimal.com), a developer of casual, downloadable games such as RocketBowl, winner of the 2005 IGF Technical Excellence Award. Coray runs the IGDA's New Jersey chapter, is a committee member for the IGDA's Writers Special Interest Group, and teaches game design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Coray has developed games as a level designer, voiceover director and writer for companies such as Creo Ludus Entertainment, Stottler Henke Associates, and the US Department of Defense and has appeared as a panelist, lecturer, or host at numerous game industry events.
"You've got to be kidding me."
The unrelenting wail of my alarm clock yanks me from dreams of master chiefs, insane aquariums, and boarding actions at far too early an hour. I roll over and try to fall back asleep, but luckily for me, my sweet and loving girlfriend Katie rips the covers from the bed, saving me from the perils of oversleeping. I realize with a shiver that May in New Jersey isn't as warm as it should be. My day has begun.
After a quick rinse, a frantic search for my keys, a six-block walk to the train station, and a ten minute ride, I find myself thrust into a brisk New York City morning as I climb the stairs of the 33rd Street PATH train station. Katie reminds me to take care of hotel reservations for the post-E3 weekend and with a brief embrace, we part ways at 29th street.
After grabbing a dozen bagels, I walk the final two blocks to the office, commiserate with our building superintendent about the Nets' crushing playoff loss last night, take a somewhat outdated elevator to the 11th floor, and enter my place of employment: Large Animal Games.
Situated just north of Chelsea, our office is an airy, converted loft; at the moment populated only myself and Josh Welber, technical director and company partner, who has probably been here since my alarm went off. The office has a great ambience: decrepit old TV's sit comfortably next to 21-inch flat screen monitors while dozens of classic, well-worn board games glare menacingly at four networked Xboxes. A tree with more character than leaves makes its home in front of a very shiny Independent Games Festival trophy, and eight huge bay windows bathe the office in the morning sunlight.
I plant myself at my desk and pop open my mail client to review the weekend's mail.
In addition to my tasks at Large Animal, I am also a coordinator for the New Jersey chapter of the International Game Developers Association. Accordingly, I receive a good amount of related correspondence every day. Today's IGDA emails include a note from the IGDA Writer's SIG, for which I am editing a quarterly report. This is of particular interest, as I have a convenient excuse to talk shop with some of my favorite writers in the industry.
In addition to that email, I receive a smattering of requests for information about tonight's panel discussion (more on that later) and a number of administrative and logistic issues for the next month's meeting.
After finishing up with a couple dozen emails, and a quick read-through of IGDA forum threads and Gamasutra news stories, the rest of the Large Animals have arrived and it's time for our daily morning meeting. The eight core team members make ourselves comfortable in the conference room for our daily scrum.
Before we get into the meat of the meeting, the assembled team members often share weekend stories regarding NYC commuting catastrophes, dates gone awry, or notable games played on Xbox Live. Today's topics of conversation include Josh's adventures in home improvement, Wade's frustration with Halo 2 griefers, Yossi's frustration with the lack of available copies for the PC version of Psychonauts, and Brad's secret life as a superhero ninja crime fighter.
Once we get down to business, Wade Tinney, the senior producer/partner, takes notes as each team member summarizes the tasks they completed yesterday, their tasks for today, and any dependencies they might have on other team members. The meeting wraps up with a brief discussion about potential candidates to fill the programming position we are hiring for, the game prototype that is due in two days, and the panel discussion taking place tonight, featuring our art director, Brad MacDonald. The day promises to be long, exciting, stressful, and engaging.
My first task of the day is to add a few new games to our website.
Large Animal does business primarily as a developer of downloadable games for the casual market. However, we also do business as a downloadable games distributor, selling other developers' games on our own site, largeanimal.com.
To make these games available for purchase on our site, I am responsible for writing copy, wrangling logos and screenshots, and entering data about the size, system requirements, and location of the games we'll be adding to the site. While these tasks may seem a bit boring, I do enjoy cranking up the Halo soundtrack (What? I can be a nerd too!) and plowing through a bit of data entry.
After roughly an hour of uploading files and writing copy, the new game pages are up and running. The next task of the day? Telling the other Large Animals how to do it.
In order to ensure that dependencies and bottlenecks can be addressed rapidly and efficiently, we always try to ensure that multiple team members can complete any given task we face. I actually got my start in the industry as a technical writer, so the task of documenting the somewhat complex database entry process takes very little time. I manage to crank out a small collection of tutorials in an hour or so.
As I'm one of the earlier folks to eat breakfast, I tend to be the initiator of the lunch process. Stopping by the other team members' desks at this point in the day is actually a favorite hobby of mine, as I often get a nice unedited peek at what they're up to before they realize I'm watching. Creepy, no?
Proceeding over to Brad's desk, I notice he is awash in a sea of character portraits sketched on loose-leaf paper. On his screen, he is midway through the process of scanning in those sketches, cleaning them up, and coloring them for approval from the publisher. I comment on my favorite character, and Brad brings up an interesting point.
"Actually, most of the characters I design for our games are loosely based on friends, family members or former pets. I love presenting the character sketches to the group when it's time to write their backstories. It's cool to see who you guys think they really are."
Josh asks, "Have I ever been a character?"
"In fact," Brad replies with a smirk, "everyone but myself made an appearance in Unipong. Betcha can't find Wade."
"Isn't he in the stands in the Budokan level?" I reply, reminding everyone that I am indeed the smartest Ape. Or, at least the one that took all of the screenshots for the Unipong page on the website.
Across the loft, Josh and I find Wade and programmers Yossi Horowitz and Howard Braham discussing the control scheme for an upcoming title.
"Shove Mode!" exclaims Yossi "I demand Shove Mode. And the user shouldn't have to pull the mouse back."
"Shove mode would work better with a trackball though," Wade says.
"Okay, so we'll make the player flip the mouse over and use it as a trackball." Yossi says.
"I've got it." Howard cries, "Motor Balls!"
I try to pose a suggestion of my own, but I am overcome by a particularly intense bout of laughter.
Sensing his Motor Balls idea is not being taken seriously, Howard redirects the conversation. "Ok, how about a gesture-based UI?"
"Or.How about tone-based with a microphone." Yossi says, "Maybe you have to sing the ball down the lane."
"Perfect for our audience!" chimes in a sarcastic Josh. "They love unplayable shit."
The group discussion is lost to laughter, and it is clearly time for lunch. A small pack of Large Animals ventures out to forage for edible goodies on 6 th Avenue.
Large Animal HQ
I return from grabbing lunch to find the rest of the group sitting around the kitchen table, as is the daily custom. Unlike larger development teams, ours can comfortably fit at one table - a fact that I feel really helps the unity of the team and fosters better team interaction. Most days we chat about our non-work lives, discuss the games we're playing at home, or get in a round of the latest board game.
The flavor of the day? Ticket to Ride, a fantastic board game in which players compete to build a coast-to-coast rail system, utilizing a limited economy of space and resources mixed with a set of secret objectives. As is the case with most board games we enjoy, discussion soon turns to how it could be made into a downloadable game for the casual market.
"The biggest problem I see is screen real estate," says Wade, "You have so many destinations and such small game pieces, it's hard to communicate any detail. I think having fewer destinations or focusing on a smaller region would be key.'
"So, you're saying we should make Ticket to Ride: New Jersey?" I ask excitedly, replicating the daily pattern of me expressing my undying love for the Garden State, and my co-workers then coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways to tease me about it.
"That could work," Wade replies, "Perhaps the goal is to create routes between all the toll booths and sewage treatment plants in the state?"
"Bah." I say. "Jersey gets no love."
As lunch winds to a close, I notice my rather shaggy appearance, and pop out for a quick haircut at a place called Sassy Fashions.
Upon my return, numerous jokes relating to my newfound sassiness ensue.
After defending my cosmetology choice, I give my email another check; a few more administrative and logistic questions for IGDA, some from the organizations admin mailing list. After a quick reply note to Jason Della Rocca, the executive director of the IGDA, I open up an email from a producer from a major television network inquiring about our next Demo Night.
Over the past year, Large Animal has sponsored combined meetings of the New York and New Jersey IGDA chapters where local developers gather to show off their latest projects. Entitled Demo Night 1 and 2, they were huge successes, drawing almost 150 developers each time. The producer seems very interested in doing a piece about Demo Night 3, taking place in September, which is encouraging news indeed.
After firing off a response to the producer and a few others, I begin work on one of my ongoing projects. For our latest 2nd party title, I am writing game copy, dialogue, and character descriptions for the thirty characters in the game.
In most casual games, story and dialogue do not contribute a great deal to the immersion and fun of the game. Outside of a very few notable examples, like Wik & the Fable of Souls, the story in most games is intentionally minimal, theoretically allowing the player to focus on enjoying the core gameplay. In our latest title, however, the characters, plots and story help to immerse the player in the fiction of the game. Hopefully, this will give our audience a stronger emotional attachment to the game. Adding to the pressure and complexity of the assignment is the fact that all of the character dialogue is dynamically selected and displayed non-linearly based on the player's performance and actions in the game.
Basically, we need to help thirty characters prepare for anything. A daunting task to say the least, but a challenge I am very excited to be working on.
As I sit down to begin work on the dialogue scripts, I go over the recent changes and touch base with Jennifer Estaris, the other writer for the project. We look over some of the character descriptions that we developed in a late day meeting yesterday, agree on a course of action, and get down to business. With a glance at the last work we did on the scripts, I pick up a thread and begin writing.
After what feels like five minutes, I look at my clock to reveal an hour of time past. Taking a quick break, I notice an email from one of our distributors asking for a build of the recently released RocketBowl Plus with a different logo.
Firing up Visual Studio.NET, I track down the new logo, tweak a few parameters, and start compiling a new build of the game. Once it finishes, I FTP it to the client's site and notify their producer of the change.
Back to work on dialogue.
Raison Varner, a composer at Creo Ludus Entertainment and one of our external contractors, calls with a quick question about sound effects for one of a series of web games we are developing for a major entertainment sector client.
"Ok, for the zombie deaths, do we want a more juicy sound or a more metallic sound?" He asks, "I have two that sound pretty gross, but I want people to just lose control when they hear this."
"Can we do both?" I ask. "Maybe you could just combine those two sound effects, with the metallic part louder at the beginning and the juicy part trailing off?"
"Hmm. I suppose that could work," he says with a chuckle. "I can just add a bit of reverb and make the ping of the lead pipe really clear before the juiciness ensues."
Sometimes I can't believe I get paid to do this.
I conclude my conversation with Raison, and the dialogue writing ensues.
Yossi sneezes so hard that his headphones go flying across the room. Others stare in amazement.
I stop laughing long enough to get back to work.
Inside Large Animal
After a solid, satisfying afternoon of dialogue writing, I help Wade clean up the office. It's quite interesting how many hats producers wear at a small studio. I think today I've covered everything from copywriter to port programmer to janitor, and we're not even in crunch mode!
Most of the team wraps up their assignments for the evening a few minutes early, as tonight we have a panel discussion to attend: featuring our own Brad MacDonald. The topic: " Hi-Res vs Low-Res Graphics." A broad topic to be sure, and one that I have a feeling will breed quite a bit of interesting discussion amongst the participants.
We plunge into the rain outside the office, sans umbrellas. Apparently, it's monsoon season in NYC. On the walk over to Parson's Tishman Auditorium (where they film Behind the Actors Studio), we meet up with a few other local developers attending the event and chat about the recent happenings in the local game dev industry.
Despite the fact that there aren't too many studios in the New York/New Jersey game development industry (at least compared to Silicon Valley, Montreal or Austin), almost every event in the city is well attended, and in general, there is a very collaborative nature to the local game dev scene. Many developers are willing to show off their works in progress at IGDA meetings, and information and advice flows freely between even the most direct competitors. This collaborative environment and events like tonight's panel are helping to dispel the notion that you have to leave the east coast if you want to make games.
The panel closes to vigorous applause. The discussion ranged widely, and a few of the questions from the audience were a bit off topic. Nevertheless, the panel was comprised of an exceptional group of developers, and the topics discussed spark instant conversation with the developers milling about afterwards. I find myself immediately embroiled in a debate over the logistic reality of Will Wright's Spore and how procedural graphics may render discussions like this one obsolete in the future.
My tired brain and I retreat from this conversation to the relative safety of the corner bar, where a number of developers have already gathered. Chatter about games, music, education, and a wide variety of other nerdly topics quickly begins anew. Casual games on Xbox Live Arcade, clichéd game stories, and the ridiculous number of match-3 games on the market are all topics that come and go, along with quite a few beers.
As the evening winds to a close, the assembled developers slowly make their way out of the bar and begin the trek home. I walk with a small herd of Large Animals and other attendees to the 14th Street PATH station, where we bid our friends adieu, make plans for tomorrow's Xbox Live games, and hop on a train back to Hoboken, NJ.
Fellow game developer and Hobokenite Nick Smolney and I continue our conversation about procedural content, and before we know it, a quick ride has placed us back in Hoboken. With the monsoon moving off to ravage another village, we enjoy a nice walk through town, splitting off to our respective apartments at 5th Street. I climb the stairs to my studio apartment, which I am sure now contains a girlfriend who has fallen asleep on the couch watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns and two cats who I am equally sure are quite insulted about not being fed. Though exhausted, I find myself quite satisfied with today's activities, and I look forward to the adventures and misadventures that tomorrow will bring.