In the run-up to the 2006 Independent Games Festival, which is held at Game Developers Conference 2006 in San Jose from March 20-24, 2006, Gamasutra is showcasing a number of the IGF finalists in different categories. As part of a series of Gamasutra Education-exclusive articles, we profile the 2006 IGF Student Showcase winners by interviewing them about their award-winning titles, which will be playable at the IGF Pavilion at GDC this March.
The first interviewee to step up was the University Of Southern California's Cloud Team, developer of acclaimed free-to-download abstract action title Cloud, and they present their thoughts on their game, the other finalists, and their hopes for the future below.
GS: What's the concept behind your IGF Student Showcase winning game, and give us an outline of the team that's behind it?
“Have you ever wanted to fly among the clouds? To see the sky only where birds soar? Welcome to a dream of what could be. Welcome to Cloud.”
Cloud is an experimental game created by the students from the USC School of Cinema-Television's Interactive Media Division. The game allows players to share the imaginative flight of a child trapped in the hospital.
Player can control the child in his/her dream to fly freely through the world, play and paint the sky with different types of clouds, and eventually use weather and nature to save the world…
Instead of focusing on addiction, stimulation, direct competition or violence, Cloud experiments with creating a richer emotional experience for the player. It focuses on resonating with the emotions associated with looking at the blue sky and the white clouds, such as relaxation, creativity, goodness, nature, and zen.
GS: Tell us a little bit about the school and school program which were behind
the game's genesis? Was this part of a course or final project? What kind of degree program did it count towards?
Cloud was selected as the recipient of the 2005 USC Game Innovation Grant. The Game Innovation Grant is intended to support the production of experimental games by giving a student team the space, time, and resources to complete a game that falls outside of the mainstream.
The grant is given by the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinema-Television and the EA Game Innovation Lab. The lab and games program build on the strong foundation of the School of Cinema-Television, stressing creativity of expression, innovation, experimentation and excellence in execution. Emphasis is placed on practicing an iterative process of design, prototyping and playtesting with the integration of player feedback at the heart of the process. This "play-centric" process allows student game designers to take risks with their ideas and to learn from their experiments.
GS: How long did development on the game take and what tools did you use to
The main development for Cloud started in January of 2005 and concluded in November of 2005. The latest build, 1.41, was released on December 18, 2005.
As with many student projects, there was a small hiatus while the students worked their summer internships in July and August. The team then spent September and October crunching to finish the game
The tools we used in the development are:
GS: What was the all-time best and all-time worst moment that you encountered
during the game's creation?
The best and worst moment occured almost simultaneously. A few weeks after the game got put on the web, we had an incredible amount of traffic and downloads from the site. It was an incredibly exciting time - we were getting so much positive feedback from players all around the world. We were able to get perspectives from players of different backgrounds and cultures, unavailable to us at school.However, the huge rush of traffic led to overages from our server, and crashed our second, which happened to also be the department's. We got a huge bill in the mail, and of course caused major headaches for many people. We never expected it to spread so quickly! I guess the lesson is never underestimate the power of the world wide web.
GS: Do you (yet) have any success stories or positive experience based on showing the student game to people in the game industry (praise, actually getting a job in the biz, etc)?
It is a huge success in our eyes because of the great response we've gotten from players. Since we released Cloud V1.0 as a free downloadable game at the beginning of Nov 2005, our website has got more than 2 million visits and about 300,000 people have downloaded the game (not counting unofficial servers and Bit Torrent downloads).
We have gotten thank you letters, kudos and suggestions from all over the world. Many of them are from people who are gamers who are looking for different types of play experiences, but some are from people who don't usually play games, but tried this one because it looked different. One of the original design goals was to reach a broader audience, and hearing these responses was extremely vaildating. We clearly have an audience in those people, and they have proven our theory that more people would play games if games offered a wider variety of content.
We definitely see the huge potential for this game and its market to be developed into a fully-featured console title. The limitations in the current game, the suggestions, and fans' wishes we collected will help us to evolve the game into what it was really supposed to be.
In terms of getting a job out of this game... we haven't heard anything yet.
GS: What are the most important things that student games should be showing off, in terms of both getting high marks in your courses and impressing potential employers?
The freedom of a student project is that you don't have to worry about employers or a potential market. That's what makes the growth in game studies programs in academia so exciting! More experimentation, more risk-taking. That's not to say it isn't important to understand the industry, and to be pragmatic upon graduation. But while in school, students should take every opportunity to experiment. This will lead to more innovation and higher quality in game design, on every level.
GS: Have you tried any of the other Student Showcase finalists? If so, which ones did you especially appreciate, and why?
We were really impressed with:
Rumble Box from DigiPen. It has very original and fun mechanics, was well executed and had lots of detailed designs. Our composer, Vincent Diamante played this game obsessively at Slamdance and got the top three high-scores, winning a trophy from those guys on the final night.
We also liked Ocular Ink, which has a very fluid & innovative gameplay with an interesting graphic style.
And Narbacular Drop, which is a very surprising experience with a unique gameplay mechanic.
GS: Name one thing that people probably don't know about your game.
Our game project is aiming for complete game innovation, not only new mechanics, but also new genres and new experiences.
Compared with films, the emotional experiences that video games encompass lack variety. Although there are thousands of games and a number of defined genres, you can pretty much cover 95% of the mainstream games with adjectives like “addicting, stimulating, and competitive”. But is “addiction” all what we want? Does every game have to contain “competition”?
Mature mediums like film have proven that they can offer a wide range of emotions and content that appeal to a broader audience. We think that games can appeal to a much broader range of emotions and attract very different types of players, too. In making Cloud, we asked the design questions: What if we create a game that communicates a feeling of youthfulness, freedom, and the wonder of imagination? Can we make a game that taps into the archetypal feeling that we all have at some time when we look up the clouds and wish we could fly up high and play? We envisioned a game without the traditional goal-oriented, conflict-driven, and asset-heavy design. A simple game, that makes you feel good. Little by little, Cloud was shaped from these ideas.
Also, in order to create a broader appeal, the game couldn't simply be made for current gamers. Cloud is designed to be a game about positive emotions. It is made to be relaxing, refreshing, and playful. In order to eliminate all the psychic entropy, there is no time pressure in the game, failure is barely impossible. There are no elements that trap players inside the game, they can pick up and leave at anytime with no trouble.
And yet, the game is not “easy” in the sense that there is always something new to do or try. Finishing the tasks in each level is never the only way to play. Some people enjoy the game by simply flying around and watching the world, others like to construct complex cloud formations; still others like to generate interesting weather patterns. In Cloud players never gain any points or special abilities for doing these things – the rewards are intrinsic. Players are rewarded by the pleasure of admiring their own creations and the wonder of the natural phenomena simulated in the game.
Most games are deemed innovative based on new graphics or physics technology, extraordinary visual style, or new gameplay features added to existing mechanics.
During the development of Cloud, we set a design goal of creating an experience of freedom, pure goodness, youthfulness and creativity as our baseline. We then designed our features around this goal, rather than beginning from an existing mechanic.
For instance, in order to evoke the childhood memory of looking up at the bright white playful clouds, we created our clouds using a soft, fluffy particle simulation. Also, to encourage creativity and playfulness, we redesigned gameplay features to allow player to draw and erase clouds as easy as chalk. We applied this guideline to pretty much everything we could think of to make the entire experience a whole piece, including gameplay, writing, visuals, audio, and even box art and menus.
We also used a number of different prototypes of each game element and tested to make sure the effect was one that went along with our main design goal. So, for example, we knew we wanted the player to be able to zoom far out to see what they had written in the sky. But, we also wanted to be able to fly close up with the child, to feel the emotion of flight. In our early playable prototypes, we experimented with automatic controls that zoomed out as you collected more clouds, but soon realized we wanted more control. So, we created a camera prototype that tested the idea of zooming in and out at will. As it turned out, this concept, especially when combined with the “free flight” feature solved both the practical interface issue and the emotional issue of flying close-up with the child.
Our prototyping and iterative process was very intensive right from the beginning of the project, up until the very end. Even when we had worked out the details of most of the gameplay, we did user testing in our usability lab to tweak the “tutorial prompts” that teach the player how to use the game controls in the main four levels. We made a number of subtle, but important changes so that even non-gamers could pick up the game fairly easily.
GS: Have you any other messages for your fellow Student Showcase winners?
Congratulations! We are honored to be among such innovation and creativity. We look forward to playing with you, and have fun at GDC!