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A peek inside one particularly ambitious student dev project Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

A peek inside one particularly ambitious student dev project
July 11, 2013 | By Alexandra Hall

July 11, 2013 | By Alexandra Hall
More: Indie, GD Mag, Design, Student/Education, GD Mag Exclusive

In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, Alexandra Hall interviews Alex Beachum and Sarah Scialli, two members of the 38-person student game Tales from the Minus Lab.

From the University of Southern California comes Tales from the Minus Lab, a first-person exploration game (and Independent Games Festival 2013 Student Showcase honorable mention) created by a surprisingly large student team. The game lets you change size, which dramatically affects your experience exploring a single, very detailed room.

Alexandra Hall: How'd you come up with the shrinking/growing concept?

Alex Beachum: I was working on a quick prototype for a class a few years ago. The assignment was to create some form of "navigable space," and I was curious how the ability to shrink would affect your perception of what appeared to be a pretty confined environment (in this case a tiny prison cell). That concept of using shrinking/growing to explore the spaces-within-spaces nested within a single room is still a huge part of the game.

My biggest initial source of inspiration was probably Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (probably due to growing up in the '90s); in Tales from the Minus Lab we tried to capture that sense of exploring a vast wilderness that's always been there underfoot, you just never looked close enough to notice it. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap was also an inspiration.

Why did you write your own engine?

AB: We were fortunate enough to be working with two very talented lead engineers (Steve Wenzke and David Young), who determined that rolling our own engine would give us complete control over the complicated physics we knew the game would need. We did indeed gain complete control over physics, and the programmers on the team got fantastic experience writing an engine in C++. [But] it was difficult to iterate rapidly due to the lengthy process of setting up environments and content in the engine.

At 38 people, your team is quite large. Were there any management challenges?

Sarah Scialli: This was definitely a huge management challenge. It required us to be more formal and hierarchical than we had initially expected. We had to divide into smaller specialized subgroups, for example, a small user interface team of a designer, artist, and programmer that set their own internal deadlines and reported back. On the whole, the large team made keeping everyone informed between specializations much harder.

Did the massive team end up being an asset?

SS: In some ways [it was] more of a hindrance than a help. Though it was great to have so many talented individuals working on the project, it incurred a lot of management overhead to keep track of the sheer number of tasks happening at once. And, because each person was focused on their own specific tasks, it was harder for each person to understand how each task fit into the bigger picture. However, it was great that team members were able to become experts in their specializations.

Is it tricky to design environments that support gameplay at multiple scales?

AB: That was the most difficult design challenge of the entire project. We wanted to create situations where players would have to shrink/grow fairly often, so we spent a lot of time early on thinking about the pros and cons of being different sizes. For example, being big means you can pick up and manipulate objects (even entire levels), move across the lab quickly, and overall you're less vulnerable to hazards in the environment. Being small allows you to explore tiny nooks and even walk on water (surface tension!), but falling off a table is roughly equivalent to falling off the top of a small mountain.

Something that's easy to forget is that, from the player's perspective, it's as if the space itself is shrinking/growing around you. An environment that feels really expansive at your smallest size (about the size of an ant--or 256 times smaller than full size) can literally fit inside a beaker perched atop a shelf in the corner. Since the entire game takes place in a single room, level design is all about stitching together these recursive spaces in a way that feels organic and takes advantage of players' abilities at various sizes. It's like the Russian doll approach to world design!

What's next? Do you plan to continue development?

SS: We love Tales from the Minus Lab and hope to one day complete it and get it out to the world. A large chunk of the team has graduated and now have jobs in the industry. Alex and I are leading another Advanced Game Project this year: Outer Wilds, Alex's MFA thesis. I'm also working on my MFA thesis, Aglaea.

AB: Yep, I'm currently wrapping up development on my master's thesis (and advanced game project) Outer Wilds. I still hope I get a chance to finish Minus Lab though!

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