August 16th, 2005 - 1:22 PM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA
Mind Control Software [creator of 2004 Independent Games Festival winner Oasis, recently published online through casual publisher PlayFirst, as well as being a developer of games including Silencer and Spellagories] had entered into a phase of “sorta-kinda” investing in its own intellectual property. I was very passionate about the idea of doing this but the positive energy was largely mitigated by the knowledge that our freedom to invest in this IP came from an ebb in the flow of paying work. This contrast put us in a position to move forward on new games but forced us to keep a certain emotional distance as we all knew that when the next contract signed these internal projects would be put on hold for a while. It had been almost a year since the last time we had freedom to work on unfunded projects so “on hold for a while” could very well mean “shelve this game forever.”
Sure enough, after a couple weeks of baby steps on five titles we found ourselves fighting off paying clients with Ping Pong paddles and wireless keyboards. Our staff became impacted as we booked up and faced the choice of turning away paying gigs or shelving our new babies. The Independent Games Festival deadline was only a few weeks away and loomed like the spirit of Harlan Ellison saying, in a strong booming voice, “Don't be a whore!”
Discussions about how to proceed generally went something like this…
“Should we turn away contracts and get these games into the IGF?”
“We can't just ‘turn away work' and besides it doesn't need to be an all or nothing choice. We could submit one or two of the games.”
“Yeah, and we already accepted one of the contracts.”
“Well, we know Animal Kingdom has to go to IGF…”
“Yeah and probably Arrrrrr! should go…”
“There is no excuse for not sending Magical Word Garden and Bubble Wars.”
“Gem River is ready to go now…”
It would go on like this until someone actually came out and said, “What if we submitted five games this year?” This would inevitably bring a smile to the face of everyone in the room, a moment of silence, and then we would fade out of the meeting with whatever special effect was handy muttering things like, “Yeah, that would be cool…”
August 24th, 2005 - 11:00 AM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA
With two weeks until the IGF deadline and enough fresh contract work to keep our staff busy from 9-5, Mind Control's management team finally committed to take five rough prototypes to “beta or better” and submit them for the 2006 IGF.
The first couple of days didn't feel like anything special. It hadn't really had a chance to sink in with the staff that we were serious. It wasn't clear that we had the bandwidth to get any games to an acceptable quality level in the time allotted. We were thinking fat and lazy -- like a team that had been in a holding pattern for several weeks -- not like the hard-eyed-killers we really were. The task ahead was so far outside of any reasonable scope that it was difficult to even talk about.
At the time our line-up looked like this:
Animal Kingdom was a turn-based strategy game intended for multi-player-across-the-Internet play. It was working as a rough single player game against a random AI, with prototype class art in 640x480 resolution, and some nervousness internally because the U.S. portal sites aren't commonly supporting online multiplayer games. For this game to be submitted it would need a face lift and a move to 800x600, a reliable network architecture, a matchmaking service, and all of the polish and balancing associated with a duel style network game.
Gem River was in better shape. It had the potential to be a polish hog and suck days and weeks of production time getting details just right. It only had one level and it wasn't clear exactly how we would create a complete game. There were a lot of reasonable paths in front of us but none of them were clearly superior.
Bubble Wars was part of an internal initiative called BYOM which was an acronym for Bring Your Own Mouse. We developed a series of prototype games intended to create the console party-game feel on a PC. These prototypes were a skunk works project developed by a couple of staff members in their spare time. This game had no metaphor, no art (was done with programmatically colored circles and lines), no balance, and no real support internally. It was generally acknowledged as an innovative formal abstract system but nobody believed we could turn it into a shippable game until Harry Mack, our audio designer, smacked it with his amazing talent.
Arrrrrr! was another game from the BYOM project but much more of a crowd pleaser. It had one of the most powerful advantages you could give any game -- it was about pirates. After losing a couple weeks of production time to Sid Meier's Pirates when it stole the hearts of half the staff and personally losing several months to Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates I knew that it was MY DESTINY to make a game about pirates.
Lastly there was a game called Magical Word Garden. Magical Word Garden was perhaps the sorriest case of all in that it was generally agreed upon that the idea would, as Andrew Leker is fond of saying, “just work.” The lack of conflict over the potential of the game led to an almost insurmountable conflict over which direction to take it. It seemed everyone on the staff saw a perfectly clear path to a great game but no two of those paths looked the same. There were no art resources available to work on Magical Word Garden but the great game that I saw wouldn't require a real artist.
With client work and only two weeks to ship five games to IGF we had chosen to shout, “Damn the torpedoes!” and swing for the fence. We did this fully aware of the risks that come with not having enough time and resources. Clients simply had to get their deliveries so all of the schedule risk would be taken by our IGF projects.
August 25th, 2005 - 4:15 PM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA
How Bubble Wars became Bubble Symphony.
As we entered into crunch mode it was our technical team that kicked into high gear first. Benn Herrera was very excited to be working on a Mind Control game that would meet the public. Since joining MCS he had been bounced from adver-game, to infrastructure, to technology, to adver-game, and when he was assigned to work full-time on Arrrrrr! he went a little crazy. He started staying in the office for days at a time. He was like a puppy playing until his head got too heavy and then collapsing in whatever corner of the office was handy to sleep. Someone had to be first into the breach.
One of the few things we had going for us with this crazy project was Mind Control's Orbital Engine and "Skeleton" project. Mind Control Software has had several titles running on Orbital go through the complete development lifecycle including external quality assurance. This means that many kinks have been worked out and that our underlying technology is very stable. Mind Control also created and maintains a project called "Skeleton" that has a standardized framework for housing our games. Basically it is a branded game with no game in it -- Mind Control splash screens lead to a main menu with buttons for play, options, instructions, etc… All of it is functional including the options for volume, full-screen, and credits. We can have a fully functional prototype running inside of Skeleton within hours.
It was critical that our games get a lot of play-testing so that we could iterate and refine them before the submission date. Our prototypes did a decent job of proving the fun in the core mechanics of our abstract systems but we needed them to “feel” like the games they would eventually become to get maximum benefit from the play-testing. This meant that one of the techniques we might have used to mitigate the schedule risks would not be available to us. Rather than following the production path that offered the most overall efficiency and chance of success our art team had to take the path that allowed for the most absolute speed.
In order to place greater focus on the quality of the games we placed additional strain on our already impacted art team. This meant that rather than allow our art director, Thomas Denmark, to focus on an individual game for a day or two until he had skinned each game, Thomas had to provide some assets to each game then come back and finish them later. The situation was complicated even further when a client requested some additional art mid-week.
Once again we faced the client vs. IGF conflict and, of course, we focused on the client. This meant that our IGF submissions, or Thomas, had to suffer. Thomas took the bullet for the team and put in several overly intense days to compensate. Overall this was a net positive for the team and the games but it was the most awkward set of competing requirements I've ever had an artist navigate.
Several steps were taken to mitigate some of these art risks. First, we offloaded a large quantity of UI design and production art to a producer, Darren Koepp, with a degree in art and amazing instincts for visual design. Next we removed almost two entire projects from the art schedule. I was already working on an art solution for Magical Word Garden that would minimize its art requirements and the lack of art bandwidth gave us the excuse to commit fully to the alternative art approach. Lastly we decided that with only some minor tweaking the game Bubble Wars could keep its prototype art and still pass muster. With these items removed from Thomas' plate he was able to balance client fulfillment work, producing a minimum set of assets for Arrrrrr!, the technical art analysis for moving Animal Kingdom from 640x480 to 800x600, and mentoring our new artist Ben Van Dyken for the rest of the week.
Most of the production and design staff was completely booked until the Friday before Labor Day weekend so for the remainder of the week prior to the deadline the efforts to get the games ready for IGF felt desperate. Much of the staff had commitments for the weekend so while we made good progress we didn't really get the kind of momentum we were hoping for. Nevertheless, we had proof of concept on the art for Arrrrrr! and had been able to perform considerable testing and tuning, a plan was in place for Animal Kingdom, Ben had cranked out a bunch of assets for Gem River and was up to speed, we had met our client commitments, I had worked out the process hiccups for the Magical Word Garden art, several team members had committed to working the weekend, and the entire company agreed to come in on the holiday to focus on our IGF submissions for all of Monday and Tuesday.