Founded in 2009 by Brianna Wu and Amanda Warner, Giant Spacekat is an (unintentionally) mostly-female development team set on creating interactive, narrative-driven experiences using the Unreal engine. Amanda reflects on her start with Brianna that led to the development of Revolution 60, both their first title and the first of a trilogy of games to come.
3-D Expert Needed
It all started with a Craig’s List ad. I was fresh out of my recent 3D Animation course with a Boston University affiliate and looking for work. We had a career resource center who would pass along opportunities to the more senior students and graduates. My career adviser notified me of someone looking for a Maya expert to help with a comic book using 3D characters.
“You know more than they do,” he said as he pushed the note across the table. I sent my newly-minted demo reel and a cover letter off to the contact, and waited. Soon after, I got a reply: “When can you meet?”
Sitting at the Panera in Brookline, I nervously fiddled with my coffee. Did I get the right place? What if they ask me something I don’t know? I was sinking deep into imposter syndrome when Frank and Brianna Wu walked through the door, threw their leather computer bags onto the tables, and each pulled out their Mac Book Pros. Getting down to business, Frank started to explain his project, the project described in the advert. Then Brianna started to talk about her game idea and the character she’d just received back from the modeler. My interest piqued.
“You don’t have a problem with sexy characters, do you?” She asked, eying me. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to see if it made me uncomfortable, or if she was looking for a reflection of her own worries.
This is how I met Holiday – a character I would come to know very well, pour my soul into animating, cobble her dialogue together, watch her walk and jump, and emote over and over and over. But at this particular moment, she was still an empty shell, no hair, no eyes, and well, naked.
That’s where our collaboration began. Almost immediately, we got to work coming up with edits to pass back to the modeler and the honing of Holiday.
So I’ve Made a Decision
Brianna dreams big. “Go big or go home” – it’s a driving force for Giant Spacekat. Over a few months after our first meeting, we’d collaborated twice a week at various coffee shops and fleshed out the story. We created the other characters using the original Holiday model, as building entirely new full 3D models with body, facial, and hair rigs was cost-prohibitive for our little studio. Along the way, we hired (and fired) some additional contractors and our little universe started to take a shape.
Then Infinity Blade came out, vanguard of a mobile Unreal Engine. It was a powerful tool, and suddenly AAA graphics were accessible for a iOS platform. A whole new world of opportunity opened for us. Now we were dreaming of much grander things than the original top-down RTS game, things like lip syncing and fully-animated faces and bodies, not just sprites. We could have deep immersive environments, and more complex gameplay.
“We can do so much more!” exclaimed Brianna as my eyes bugged out of my head. I knew nothing about how to go about it, neither of us did. But while it might have stopped me, something like that isn’t even a blip on the radar for her. “We’re doing this, and it’s going to be amazing!”
By the end of March 2012, we were finally in a place to come at this adventure full-force. Brianna had finished up her classes, I was coming back from maternity leave, and Maria Enderton, our part-time technical artist stepped up as a full-time programmer. We started creating our first MVP, and working out our new pipeline. Revolution 60 is different than most games out there. It’s not cyclical. There aren’t run cycles or procedurally-generated acting. This required special nodes, working with FBX’s and importing hours of dialogue.
Being non-cyclical in the animations meant I was responsible for everything on screen. Nothing outside of combat was engine generated, so it meant every camera cut, every character animation, and the ambient creatures had to be made. It meant building every screen like you would an animated movie, working in moments for player input, and specific animations for every possible dialogue choice and every pass of fail, with idles in between. When all was said and done, I’d animated what amounts to 2 and a half feature length films.
While I spent the majority of my time animating, helping with the script, and splicing lines together, the other members of the team were busy making a place for those animations to go. Maria was like the Batphone: handling the coding and whatever technical artist help we needed. Frank designed most of the sets, props, and all of the spaceships. The rest fell to Brianna, and I mean a lot. Not just textures, sound mixing, music choices, sign off on scenes, UI, and script, but also all of the business development aspects: marketing, hiring a PR firm, finding funding, and building industry connections. As production went on, her days of just being able to create were fewer and fewer, but no one could do the business side better than her. We developed a in-the-trenches-together bond and quickly started referring to ourselves as team BAMF.
I Wish I Could Just Show You My Screen Right Now
Since we were all working from home on our personal workstations, Skype and Dropbox became integral tools for collaboration. Having Skype instant message open all day has its benefits. It allows you to swap screen captures, videos, and get feedback instantaneously. It allowed for our company culture of collaboration to flourish. But it was far from a perfect solution.
Sometimes, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. There were times when technical discussions went on for what felt like forever. Discussions that, in an office situation, would have taken a fraction of the time if only you could just have someone walk over and look at your screen. After a few of these time sucks, we instituted a rule of “Will this be longer than five minutes? Yes? Pick up the phone.”
The second biggest drawback of Skype was the distraction element, the bleeps of chat that called to you like Pavlov’s dog, unable to ignore it. Because of this, we instituted our second rule: take it to direct message if it didn’t involve the whole team, and open it back up to general chat if a tie breaker opinion is needed. At one point, we even tried quiet hours to aid in concentration, but that never lasted. It was just too isolating for everyone. So we instead spoke up if we needed quiet concentration time and said “I’ll be back at 2, if you need me, just holler.”
Still, if you’re not in a position to be in an office or an incubator situation, there is something to be said for the constant connectivity. As far as collaboration tools, it helped more than it hurt.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest
Our first PAX in 2013 was an amazing experience. As the largest gaming convention on the east coast, it made a great place for us to debut. We felt like we’d arrived, that we belonged. That we were where we were supposed to be. It also gave us the opportunity to put our game in players hands and see how they interacted with it. We had three days straight of face-to-face feedback, with most of it being positive.
They loved our combat system, designed by fellow indie Jenna Hoffstein. But people were also saying it was slow, and that you did a lot of watching. We had set out to make a cinematic experience, but we were missing that connection with the player.
After the show was over, we tore our game down and rebuilt it. It lead to us creating the rule that no more than between 15-30 seconds would go by without you interacting with the screen somehow. We came to place a very high value on playtesting, Brianna especially. Her main mission was to make sure that we were respectful of our player’s time, that we were constructing a game that was balanced and accessible to players of different speeds, and that we didn’t exclude anyone.
A few months before ship, in an effort to balance our action events and our combat, we brought Carolyn VanEseltine on board. A former Harmonix alumn turned indie herself, she gathered a testing pool, with the direction that it should as closely represent our market as possible: 50 percent self-described core gamers, 50 percent casual, 50 percent male, and 50 percent female. Through those sessions, the game started to mature and tighten, and became a game we were all proud to have been a part of.
It’s Out in the Wild
It’s now been two months since the release of Revolution 60. Sales are doing well, and the game has been met with critical acclaim. One thing we, or rather I, experienced (something I don’t think is particularly unique before release) is the terror of your work going out into the market for public consumption. I’ve heard many people speak of their books, art work, or games with a mixed state of reverence and fear. You feel that once it’s out in the world, it’s no longer yours. Your baby is out there to be what it will, to grow, change, and evolve in the public eye. That is where we are. Watching it grow and change, and be consumed.
Even if Revolution 60 never sees AAA levels of success, it doesn’t matter. That would be fan-bloody-tastic, don’t get me wrong. But without a doubt, the best part of it all has been the thrill from reading the personal emails from parents with pictures of their daughters playing obsessively. From notes that say “Thank you for making this.” From knowing that it didn’t just go into the ether to disappear. We treasure that. Brianna said it best: “I was able to make the game I’ve always wanted to make. How many get to say the same?”