The following is a postmortem series for Terrachanics, a puzzle game developed for the U.S. Department of Energy. It is told from the perspective of its lead designer, chronicling both the challenges encountered during the project, as well as personal challenges and revelations he made during the course of development.
Part I sets the stage by describing the circumstances that brought him onto the project, and the organizing principles that guided the development process.
Part II deals with specific lessons learned during the production cycle, relating to both leadership and indie team organization.
Part III talks about our design process, namely around teaching players through intelligent theming and audio-visual feedback design.
Part IV concludes the series with a step into the psychological and philosophical underpinnings that tie the psychology of leadership and depression together, supplemented by research into the power of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and resonant leadership.
A Rare, Strange, and Challenging Project
For the past two years, I have been working on a game called Terrachanics. It is a mobile puzzle game developed for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help drive recruitment and educate the public about alternative energy technologies. In return for volunteering to work on the game, the DOE agreed to cover legal, software, and marketing fees to get the game out to the market. For an aspiring developer, stumbling across the chance to work on it was like finding Bigfoot- I jumped at the chance right away. With a massive amount of creative freedom, and the promise of a huge marketing campaign, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.
Working on Terrachanics has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of my life and career. Developed by a team of largely student volunteers working remotely and part-time, it posed many unique challenges, often beyond the scope of a traditional game studio. As the Lead Designer and Producer, it became my task to tackle these challenges and try to keep the project afloat. I did this at a time when I was suffering from severe depression, stemming from my own insecurities and a stagnant career.
I wanted to share my story. I do this not to diminish the contribution of the rest of the team, but to illustrate my journey through the project and how it fundamentally changed my outlook on life and game development. This was more than a project to me - it was a personal crusade to raise the bar on serious games, give aspiring game developers a leg up, and prove my worth to myself and the world. Many mistakes were made along the way, but each one brought me closer to profound revelations about myself and working with others. I hope fine readers like yourself will find something useful here to apply to your own work.
Since this is a long and complicated story, I will be splitting it into three parts. The first will deal with my motivations going into the project and the unusual circumstances surrounding it. The second will focus on the details of the production process, and the lessons learned along the way. The final part will dive deeper into some of the topics that arise from the lessons covered in Part 2.
UPDATE (3/6/15): I have revised this to be a four-part series. Part 1 describes the circumstances of the project. Part 2 talks about the challenges we encountered during our production cycle. Part 3 discusses our design process and the choices made along the way. Part 4 discusses the life lessons and big picture takeaways from my experience with the project.
To fully explain my motivations going into the project, I first have to step back to my last semester senior year at Champlain College back in 2011.
I was assigned to an artsy platformer project for our final Senior Team Project. Coming on after preproduction, my first impressions of the project were lukewarm. While it had a promising premise of being an introspective platformer for non-gamers, the outline of the design seemed underdeveloped, and I was concerned it would not be impressive enough to attract the attention of recruiters.
I tried to voice my concerns to my team members, but they seemed to fall on deaf ears. The rest of the team, and all of the teachers around me supported it, but for the life of me I could not see a good reason why. To me it just seemed like either passive acceptance or an over-infatuation with artsy games. While preparing to make my case again, my plans were derailed. My Grandfather was losing his battle with cancer.
For two weeks I was out of school, supporting my mother as she took care of him in his final days. When he died I developed a great sense of guilt. I was never close to my Grandfather, but I felt I should have. All I could think was “What was wrong with me?”
Returning to school, my will to fight was gone, and I simply went along with what I was told to do. Sure enough, the project was not a boon to our design team as I had predicted.
Following graduation, I briefly had a contract with a web-based game company, but it didn’t last. With student loan payments looming I had no choice but to take a job at a grocery store. The events of the previous year continued to haunt me, causing me to question my worth as a game developer and a human being. Combined with a series of other misfortunes, I felt powerless and desperate to get my life and career back on track.
That’s when I heard about the DOE’s gaming project.
Within the first month, the DOE recruited a team of about 16 people. Most team members were students that had enlisted to the project as an internship during their summer break. I was the only non-student at the time. After proving myself early on, I was appointed as the Lead Designer for our design team, and overall Producer in charge of outlining the priorities for the team as a whole.
At the outset, there were a few goals I had for this project:
From working on serious games in the past, and speaking with others whom have done the same, I knew it was a sector fraught with issues. Many times an organization with minimal understanding of games would approach a company that also knew little about games (often web developers) to create a game to promote their cause. The result, predictably, was a game that was neither fun nor effective in promoting the desired message. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large serious games are not known for their quality.
Since the DOE was looking for a recruitment game that could reach as many people as possible, I wanted us to explore an alternative to what serious games had done in the past. We decided to focus on inspiration over instruction. Most serious games leaned too heavily on trying to teach the player, bogging down the pace of gameplay without making a strong case for why the audience should care. Our approach would expose players to alternative energy and job opportunities with the DOE in the context of a fun game.
This idea was inspired by things like Captain Planet - make an escapist fantasy that entices players while contextualizing the subject matter in a fun, exciting way. Baked into this concept was the idea of supporting multiple levels of interest. Players interested in the subject matter would have easy access to resources to learn more, while players that ignored that content could still enjoy the game. Pleasing those low-engagement players would allow the game to spread further, increasing the our ability to reach and entice new job applicants.
In most of my previous team projects, I was the only designer. At the time when I was at Champlain, they did not have a separate Producer role, so the Lead Designer was always the Producer by default. As such, I was used to handling the organizational and creative side of things. I developed a habit of taking charge whenever something needed to be figured out or done, directly or indirectly managing every discipline on the team. While it helped with productivity, I felt my other team members did not share my sense of ownership and enthusiasm for the project. I wanted to curb this tendency in myself and instead focus on cultivating creative buy-in for all of my team members.
I was inspired by videos I saw by Blizzard describing their company culture. For them, everyone at the company was a designer in one way or another. They encouraged everyone to pitch in ideas and personal touches so everyone felt like they had made their mark on the game. I thought this was a great idea and one that I think would help make everyone feel more invested and interested in the creative development of our game.
I made it a point to give everyone a chance to comment and share their input on every design decision, and to keep the door wide open to suggestions from anyone on the team. I expected everyone on the team to pitch in or express their interest in adding their two cents to the creative process.
When the DOE was looking for candidates for the project, they did not have high requirements for entry. So long as an applicant had some experience working on games, they were accepted in. This is antithetical to what most game studios do, where often they want people with a proven track record of excellence before you could even get an interview.
From my perspective, I had encountered plenty of people with talent and drive, yet had not had the fortune of landing a great gig on a project or job. Lacking this opportunity, they had to take day jobs and juggle other commitments while trying to bolster their portfolio. Lacking financial security, a strong team, and stuck in a difficult life, it was a struggle for them to get their careers back on track. I know because I considered myself one such person.
To combat this, I took a different approach. Rather than pushing back against an “open door” policy to bringing people on board, I decided to embrace it. I wanted people to have a chance to prove themselves on the job, and give aspiring developers a chance at a leg up in their careers. I was patient when team members made mistakes and took every effort to give everyone a chance to improve, even to the point of being reluctant to let anyone go.
These organizing principles set the tone for how I ran the project. While well-meaning, they did not pan out as I expected.
The project was unusual on a number of fronts, which right out of the gate posed challenges to our productivity and maintaining team engagement.
Our team was composed of largely of interns from across the United States. Given the size of the team, it was impractical for us to have a whole-team meeting once a week. We ended up breaking the team into three sub-teams - art, design, and programming - and had each have a separate meeting during the week. Within each team would be a liaison - a team member that would attended meetings of two other teams to serve as a point of contact between those two teams.
This gave the team more flexibility in terms of working around their various schedules, but posed its own set of issues which became apparent later in production.
No one in the development team worked full time on the project. Many team members had classes and side jobs competing for their attention. This not only meant that different team members had varying amount of time to devote to the project, but that it also meant a more protracted development cycle.
As volunteers working on a free game, team member engagement was a premium resource. Keeping people motivated and energized was a major focus, and fed into my own desire to create a strong team culture.
Because the initial budget on the game was essentially zero, we were also able to take our time to ensure the game was up to the quality standards set by other games on the market. Since most of us could only work part time, and we didn't want team members to burn out or leave, we took our time to make sure we did things right.
The primary goal of the game was to attract people to explore their career opportunities. Secondarily, it was also a way to educate the public about alternative energy technologies. The game would also be released for free - no monetization, no gating mechanisms, no addiction gimmicks. This allowed us to purely focus on what would make the game the most fun and effective at reaching as large a playerbase as possible.
While working with a major federal agency held great promise, it had its share of complications. Obtaining software licenses took much longer, as conventional EULA’s are under state jurisdiction, not federal. The DOE’s legal team spent 9 months negotiating with Unity to draft a new EULA to allow us to distribute the game.
We also encountered a number of instances where red tape got in our way. A restrictive content management system made it difficult to get a decent website up. Regulations on social media usage forced us to take down our Facebook and Twitter pages. And as of this moment we have still be waiting nearly a year to clear the hurdle of obtaining a Apple Developer license.
It is also worth noting you are likely only hearing about this game’s existence from this very blog post, since as of this writing the DOE’s official marketing push for the game has not yet begun. Our official “soft launch” on Android was back in March.
UPDATE (3/6/15): As of this writing, our official website is down, youtube videos disabled, and the game has been un-published pending some final legal procedures required by the DOE. In the meantime, a PC version of the full game is available to play on my website.
Now that I've painted a picture of some of the challenges we were up against, Part 2 will focus on the specifics of how the project came together and the lessons learned along the way. Stay tuned for that within the next couple of days!