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Student Game Profile: Carnegie Mellon's Cynosure

June 22, 2006
 

Introduction

During the Experimental Gameplay project at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, I designed a game on my own titled Cynosure, which uses the concept of blinking as a game mechanic (to charge up the player's weapons power) in a game in which the player must destroy zombies advancing towards him in a graveyard.

The idea of the game was to have players view the gamescape through a supernatural eye. The fundamental game-play mechanic was the ability to blink. The concept behind the game, keeping in mind the Experimental Gameplay theme of ‘violate’, originally evolved from the behavior associated with Peeping Tom-ism. Cynosure was created on the OpenGL/C++ platform in a one week development cycle, where as game producer, I was responsible for all aspects of design, code, and artwork.

Initial prototyping helped me manifold. Not only did it help me familiarize myself with the framework, it also proved which concepts would work and which ones wouldn’t. For instance, I was debating whether to make the blinking of an eye involuntary which is contrary to what we see in humans. This would have helped me direct the player’s attention to the more detailed aspects of Cynosure. It turned out the player was left with an experience that wasn’t quite as visceral had he/she been given the chance to blink as and when intended.


Cynosure Title Screen

The secondary game-play mechanic devised in the game was the ability to “zap” zombies. The eye was fixated on a murky graveyard setting where every now and then zombies spawned from tombstones and tried to come toward the player.

At this point, keeping in mind the natural tendency of players to want to zap them, I employed 4 beams that radiate from the eye that could be used to point to a particular zombie. An additional tie-in to the theme of violation here was the irradiation and cleansing of zombies such that they would vanish into thin air when exposed enough.

Here, instead of fast left-mouse clicks required to zap zombies, I could have left the interaction to be a constant mouse press. Essentially this led to the game being one of survival where the idea was to last as long as possible in the game. Firstly, by keeping enough energy for the eye, and secondly by not letting zombies get too close to you. This was also achieved by not having a scoring system based on the number of zombies irradiated but rather on the total time one survived.


Blinking into Darkness

This brings me to what I feel is my first failure in the game. Having given the player the opportunity to blink at will, I employed a risk/reward strategy wherein whenever the eye was open a certain amount of its energy would be sapped and the player would have to cleverly shut the eye so as to recharge.

The failure wasn’t in the mechanic but in its representation. Keeping the eye shut translated to a complete blackout on the screen. I couldn’t have adhered more to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle by showing these 4 large energy meters indicating eye strength. The challenge was to seamlessly integrate the energy meters with what the inside of an eye would look like.

In terms of the sound, I should have made a much more varying soundscape instead of the continuous wolf howl. I should have had some aural feedback for every time the eye would blink. Lastly, the growl of the zombies when they are close to the eye should have been much more convincing and startling than originally found in-game.

If I had the chance to do it over, I would have spent more of my efforts in trying to blend the energy meters with the interior of the eye. This could have been achieved by having more of a gradient in-between blinks as well as giving the energy meters a more fluid shape instead of the standard box type look, in combination with changing the inner color of the eye from a straight black to tinges of brown/red.


Zombies!

Conclusion

As my first game, I think it turned out decent enough to hold the attention of an interested player for 60 seconds. I have learned a lot of lessons in good game design that I didn’t rely on earlier, given the nature of previously working on teams as opposed to being wholly responsible for the creation of a game. I hope to keep them in mind for the subsequent games I make.

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