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The Global Game Jam and Beyond: Ludomotion’s Bezircle

July 18, 2014 — by Vlad Micu

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Ludomotion was recently listed in Develop Magazine’s Europe 100 Most Exciting Start-Ups of 2013. With their first release, Bezircle (iOS and Android), and other projects like ‘Dules (F2P) in the pipeline, 2014 promises to be an exciting year for this fresh company. The company’s short history, its members, and vision for designing games tell a unique story of how game jams can lead to bigger things and how Ludomotion’s research aims to advance gameplay as we know it.


Global Game Jam Beginnings

Ludomotion’s five-headed formation consists of Joris Dormans, who holds a PhD in game research and design; Stephan van der Feest, a multi-talented software developer with a love for making music and strange sound effects; Koen Bollen, an immaculate programmer who will try to beat his opponent in any game or destroy it by finding a game breaking bug; Hendrik Visser, an artist who also designs theme parks; and Javier Sancho, a game studies graduate with experience in game journalism (editor’s note: he wrote for Gamesauce back in 2011) and game localization.

It all started at a 2011 Global Game Jam site in the Netherlands, two years before the company was even founded. During this 48-hour game-making event, the majority of us had met for the first time. Yet somehow, our rag tag gang of complete strangers managed to make a game together in less than two days. We had never seen or spoken to each other, except perhaps briefly. Joris was still working on his PhD dissertation and briefly met Javier in a bar only a week before. During the Game Jam registration, we all ran into each other again and decided to start a team. Javier had brought his bright red nineties keytar and although he couldn’t play it, he quickly found someone who did. Stephan, interested in his retro-styled instrument, played a quick tune and he was quickly drafted to join our team to make music (and it turned out he could do much more). Our team still needed an artist, so we made a sign saying “looking for artist with a mad brain” and it didn’t take too long before Hendrik joined in. The four members that would later found Ludomotion were joined by Monobanda’s Simon van der Linden and game design student Jeroen Houttuin.

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Javier had brought his bright red nineties keytar and although he couldn’t play it, he quickly found someone who did.

Two days later, this party of strangers finished their first game, Bewbees: a cheeky casual physics puzzler that won the prize for best art and took third prize in the overall local competition. By the end of the weekend, we shared the stage with teams formed by members who are currently part of Vlambeer (of Ridiculous Fishing fame) and Abbey Games (with Steam debut hit: Reus).

Complete strangers before the Game Jam, We were happy with the game we made, but most of all, with the creative chemistry that bound our team together during the event.
So one year later, during the Global Game Jam in 2012, our original team consisting of Joris, Stephan, Hendrik, and Javier joined together again to see if the chemistry could be repeated at the 2012 Global Game Jam. This time, our team registered in Amsterdam, where the Jam was hosted at the local University of Applied Sciences (HvA) and where earlier that year, Stephan joined Joris as a lecturer for the game development program at that university. Our team was strengthened by two more lecturers: Koen Bollen and Remco van Swieten.

It was very clear to us that our second successful collaboration wasn’t just down to luck

Although the Game Jam team had a different formation, the chemistry in this ‘team of lecturers’ worked again, and we ended up making a solid prototype for Bezircle: a one-button party strategy game with short, intensive matches for up to four local players. This time, we took home the 2nd prize, and the game featured at several independent game events in The Netherlands and abroad.

After the 2012 Game Jam, it was very clear to us that our second successful collaboration wasn’t just down to luck: we had something going. We all decided to found Ludomotion as a vehicle to pursue creative projects and innovative games, which we would build up next to our regular jobs as lecturers and researchers.

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After the 2012 Game Jam, it was very clear to us that our second successful collaboration wasn’t just down to luck: we had something going.

Bezircle & ‘Dules

Flash forward to February 2014. As Ludomotion now has a couple of games in the pipeline and more ideas in the freezer, a new challenge has arrived: to release the game into market. Ever since Bezircle was made during the Global Game Jam, Our team invested much time to polish the game to perfection and made sure it can be played across various platforms. However, at one point, we felt it was necessary to let the game simmer for a while, so we distracted ourselves with another project.

The result was ‘Dules: a cooperative, top-down shooter featuring fully customizable modular combat vehicles and endless amounts of procedurally-generated environments and challenges that test the players strategy and capacity to improvise field repairs to their vehicles. The first playable prototype was featured at the 2013 Indigo event and allowed the company to hone their technical expertise.

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Refreshed, Ludomotion moved back to finishing Bezircle, which in the meantime was picked up by Ayopa Games for global release later this year.

Refreshed, Ludomotion moved back to finishing Bezircle, which in the meantime was picked up by Ayopa Games for global release later this year. Behind the scenes, Ludomotion also works on a card based RPG in collaboration with FourceLabs, and is looking to go back to the game that started it all: Bewbees.

Advancing Research

Releasing games is only one of Ludomotion’s strategies to success. What actually drives all these diverse projects is the company’s strong ties to and interest with cutting-edge game research. Ludomotion’s games are fun, but at the same time, we are academic experiments under the supervision of in-house gameplay engineer: Dr. Joris Dormans. Ludomotion aims to advance the way we design games and optimize the game development process, especially when the games have emergent gameplay and procedurally generated content.

Machinations

One of the tools and frameworks developed by Joris Dormans is Machinations. It enables game designers to plan out a game’s feedback loops and internal economies allowing designers to balance the game in a much earlier development stage than usual. Published in several academic articles and popularized through the book Game Mechanics that Joris Dormans co-authored with Ernest Adams, Machinations is finding its way to more and more game companies worldwide. We do our best to actively help other developers who want to have a deeper insight in their game’s mechanics and the dynamic, emergent gameplay that might result from it.

We see that procedurally generated content is increasingly being used in all kinds of games from casual to hardcore.

Related to these gameplay models, we also spend a lot of time researching new methods of developing ‘Procedural Generated Content’ at Ludomotion. We see that procedurally generated content is increasingly being used in all kinds of games from casual to hardcore. Right now, the current methods mostly apply to level design only. We are continuing to research how procedurally generated content can be applied throughout the entire game design process to create new kind of games, and already have other games studios knocking on our door to learn from our best practices.

With all these innovative development and research projects, the biggest challenge for our company is to strike the best balance between them. So far, our projects have served our research and vice versa, but now the time has come to reach a wider audience.

Bezircle was recently published on iOS and Android by Ayopa Games, but its release is only the first step of a much longer journey. Ludomotion aims to release games that entertain millions of players while advancing game research and development at the same time.

 

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Grand Cru in Helsinki

July 9, 2014 — by Vlad Micu

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Having been called the latest sensation coming out of Finland since Rovio and Supercell numerous times, expectations around Helsinki-based game company Grand Cru and their debut title Supernauts have become pretty high over the past couple of years.

But what’s it like inside of Grand Cru? Who are these people? Creative director & co-founder Harri Grandholm took the time to tell us more about the company, their team and their magnificent Mad Men-esque office in the notoriously hip and bohemian Kallio neighbourhood of downtown Helsinki.


The Boss Level

Finding the perfect office space in Helsinki is not an easy feat, especially for an promising game start-up like Grand Cru. Grandholm and his fellow founders took a pragmatic approach when hunting for the office. With a founding team existing of a big group of Finnish game industry veterans aside from the younger hungry talent filling up the ranks, many Grand Cru members already find themselves juggling family and start-up life between the suburbs of Greater Helsinki and the bustling downtown area where game companies have their offices spread over almost every street.

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Grand Cru settled for what many may consider a hidden gem right next to the Sörnäinen metro station.

Grand Cru settled for what many may consider a hidden gem right next to the Sörnäinen metro station, with a bus station right on their door step that features the famous 615 bus line that takes travelers straight from Helsinki’s train station up to the Helsinki Vantaa International Airport.

“We were lucky to find this diamond in the rough that nobody knew about,” Grandholm says. “Maybe because we were not put off by the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood.”

Grandholm continues sharing the history of their treasure. “The building was built in the sixties for a legendary insurance company, so we had to honor that history when redecorating the office. The top floor, which we have slowly taken over during the last three years, obviously was the old CEO’s domain where he entertained VIP guests in the private sauna. So we are literally on the Boss Level.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise to note that after rumors spread about the building, a few other gaming companies also recently moved into the building. “It’s quite the game dev party now, but there’s still plenty of space in case we need to expand into other floors,” he adds.

A Well-Seasoned Team to Boot

One of the beautiful things about the Finnish game industry lies in its rich history of mobile game development. Grand Cru’s founding team has also played a big part in it, having initially worked together at mobile game studio Mr. Goodliving in a place and time when mobile games were not as big as they are today. “All of us spent several years there, two of us even a decade,” Grandholm says. “We had entertained the idea of starting our own company before, but Mr.Goodliving was such a great and laid-back place that nobody was in a hurry to leave.”

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The Grand Cru Team

With RealNetworks unfortunately shutting down the whole company back in 2011, things started moving fast for Grandholm and his comrades. “There were other options at first, but I guess the founding team formed organically from the couple of senior game makers who felt like a good mix and wanted to take the risk of going for it alone,” says Grandholm.

The only non-Mr.Goodliving founder the team managed to persuade was from well-known Finnish game company Sulake, because the team knew they would need more large scale multiplayer server experience in the team. “Our founding team of six is also unusually big, but that’s what makes the Cru Grand,” he adds.

“We’ve also made enough games to know that it’s always a journey into the unknown. You set sail for India, but may arrive in America. Or be eaten by the Kraken.”

“We learned a lot from our time at Mr.Goodliving working with RealNetworks and also from other Finnish gaming companies,” he continues. “This is strongly reflected in our company culture and management style. We’ve tried to keep the good things and get rid of the bad. You have to be versatile and fluid and trust the individuals. It’s all about the team! ”

“We’ve also made enough games to know that it’s always a journey into the unknown. You set sail for India, but may arrive in America. Or be eaten by the Kraken. “

A Supernaut is Born

It wouldn’t surprise anyone if racking up a total of 11 million US dollars in investment funds came from how Grand Cru’s founders have been making games together for many years before.

“We know exactly what everybody’s preferences and strengths are,” Grandholm explains. “Supernauts was basically defined by the team, meaning that our first game had to be something everybody would love to do. The creative building element was a core feature that we all could agree on almost immediately. Obviously, we’re fans of Minecraft, but Little Big Planet was also a big influence. “We wanted to have a similar kind of accessibility and fun, and especially the community element of sharing your creations, he says. “In fact, we experimented with player-created missions at one point, but then decided to take a slightly different route.”

The original concept the team had set out for Supernauts was to create something closer to that of an MMO. But the team then scaled down their ambitions and took the wise decision to concentrate on building a fully functional single-player experience first.

Nevertheless, the team agreed that the soul of Supernauts would remain in the multiplayer and community. “Luckily, we are finally at the stage where we can implement many of those cool social elements that have been waiting in the backlog,” Grandholm adds.

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Nevertheless, the team agreed that the soul of Supernauts would remain in the multiplayer and community.

For Supernauts, Grandholm and his team wanted to have a theme that would be unique enough to stand out of the crowd, but still be part of popular culture. The goal was to not limit the player’s creativity too much.
“For example, we were also thinking about a (fun) horror/monster theme, but that would have made it difficult for players to build, say, disco floors, “ Grandholm mentions. “The ‘comic sci-fi’ concept just felt natural, and we could also slip in a topical environmental element in there without being too serious about it, so what’s not to love ?”

Grandholm had actually written a lot more story than what eventually made it into the game, “which is probably for the best, because most of it is really bad jokes,” he adds.

Measuring the Right Things

With a highly creative concept as Supernauts, tracking the right numbers and metrics becomes super important. According to Grandholm, Grand Cru’s main challenge has been maintaining the intricate balance of getting many things just right. “And even with all the experience and best practices, there is always the unknowable,” he adds. “Of course, what we want is players playing the game frequently and for a long time, but that’s hardly unique. What I think is important is to not get too caught up in metrics so that you do more reacting than acting. It can easily narrow your view.”

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Grand Cru’s main challenge has been maintaining the intricate balance of getting many things just right.

One example that Grandholm considers that sets Supernauts apart from other games is that his team actively conducted surveys on their most loyal players. What they found was that the players enjoyed the creative building the most. “This was the original plan, so we’re pretty happy about that, “ he says.

Mixing and Matching

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With Supernauts, Grand Cru set the challenge to combine two of the most unlikely matchable concepts: user-generated content and free-to-play mechanics.

With Supernauts, Grand Cru set the challenge to combine two of the most unlikely matchable concepts: user-generated content and free-to-play mechanics. “It’s definitely not an easy match,” Grandholm concurs. ”Especially sandbox gameplay is nearly the exact opposite of what you seem to need for a successful F2P game. We knew from past experience how hard it is to control these types of unpredictable mechanics, even in a premium game, in order to make a proper game out of it, but wondered if we could actually get it to work. That would be something, right? It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you, but I think we’ve got something pretty special up and running now.”

“We just want to inspire people to build cool things. Your turfs get a ‘hotness’ rating based on several things, including popularity, and we have the Supernauts Universe top lists, where you can find the hottest turfs,” Grandholm says. “We are doing our best so that the coolest creations get visibility and therefore visitors, because that is very rewarding. You can also easily capture and share videos to the internet and link directly to your turf. Once you are invested and motivated in building something really great, then spending some money instead of time is not a big step for the players that prefer that. Or, alternatively, you can concentrate more into the production part of the game.”

The Grand Cru Culture

With the Grand Cru team being 36 members and most of them tasked on Supernauts, new concepts and prototypes are already being developed to make sure that success is also guaranteed on the long run. A massive expansion isn’t part of that plan and might well never be. “We really don’t want to grow any more than is absolutely necessary, because we want to keep that small team feel and efficiency for as long as possible,“ Grandholm argues.

“Finding the right kind of personality is more important than ninja skills.”

Grandholm describes the working environment to be very transparent and have a “flat” way of working. “This means, among other things, that communication needs to work well so that every team member can make independent decisions. It also means that we have to be really careful about who we hire, or it can be a disaster. Finding the right kind of personality is more important than ninja skills.” Grand Cru also has a mandatory “have a life” policy. No extra long days or crunching is allowed, and use of vacation days is heavily encouraged.

But Grand Cru’s culture doesn’t stay limited to its own team. The Finnish game industry as a whole stems from having an openness towards newcomers and guests that is rarely seen in other countries.

“Finland is a small place, and I think the feeling that all game developers are in the same boat is strong,” Grandholm says. “It’s not a zero-sum game, so there’s no reason to draw lines and dig up trenches. Somebody’s always throwing a party and discussion is pretty open over a few beers. Every success story is a positive thing for all the companies: more visibility for the industry means potentially more investor interest and game developers from abroad moving to Finland, as we have already ran out of the local ones, hint hint.”

Grand Cru launched Supernauts a few weeks ago, and has already reached 1 million players in the first six days after its official launch on the Apple Appstore. Check out the game here

 

AudioExclusive Interviews

Peter Inouye on Scoring for Games, Scratching the Surface of Music in Games, and Making Music for Slot Machines

March 5, 2014 — by Vlad Micu

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Scoring orchestral music for games, slamming some Taiko drums under a trailer video, picking up a banjo, writing music for slot machines: it’s all in a day’s work for composer Peter Inouye. We had an opportunity to talk to him about his love for composing, working in the videogames industry, and what slot machines have to do with any of all that.

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Peter Inouye

Being a Part of it

When Peter first started studying composition, his original goal was to write for film. “My first love of music started with John Williams, and progressed through every soundtrack he has done. Eventually though, I started thinking about video games, and all of my favorite tunes from the games of my past. When I started seeing the caliber of the music start to step up from FM synth and general midi to full orchestral scores, I knew the industry was starting to focus more on audio.” As soon as the technology allowed for music to be an integral part of the player experience, evolving with the events happening on the screen, he hopped to it, knowing he “had to be a part of it.”

Getting into game audio proved difficult, but was made possible by attending networking events such as GDC (Game Developer Conference) and other meetup groups. “It really helped to find other fledgling game studios and developers that were willing to take chances on new composers.” Peter also found game jams and hack-a-thons to prove useful, since they “force you to be very team-oriented.” Plus, he made a lot of great connections that he still keeps in touch with to this day.

Like most people, Peter has his heroes, those people that help push you in the right direction simply by inspiring you. One of those heroes is Koji Kondo, a Japanese video game composer with an amazing track record. “His original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day. It’s so memorable, and he was so adept at getting as much sound out of the hardware, despite the limitations. Even his modern orchestral work for games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword continues to inspire me.” Peter still looks to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess frequently as a reference whenever he needs to compose for what he considers the “light orchestral fantasy” genre.

Koji Kondo’s original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day.

Irish Pennywhistle, Banjo, and Taiko Drums

That doesn’t mean he limits himself to traditional orchestral music, no sir. His tastes range far and wide when it comes to musical styles. As he says himself, his influences are probably “too many to mention.” “I have always had a deep love for Irish and Scottish Celtic music. I started playing a little bit of renaissance recorder for a while, which paved the way to playing Irish pennywhistle in college. That led to a deep appreciation for early American ‘old-time’ music, and I still play clawhammer 5-string banjo whenever I can get time.” It should come as no surprise then that he very much would like to incorporate some banjo music into his soundtracks soon.

Playing in various groups, ranging from concert bands to orchestral ensembles, has contributed in defining his own music. ”Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way. Playing trumpet in concert bands all through grade school made me love brass in general, so I tend to overuse brass sometimes. Playing in an orchestra made me really see all of the different sounds a string instrument can make, and really examine what was written to get that exact sound.” If there’s one more experience he craves, it’s playing in a Taiko group, since he loves putting Taiko rhythms in his soundtracks. “Heck, I even did a flamenco-style trailer recently, and threw Taiko drums underneath. That’s just how I roll.”

Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way.

Too Distracting

Although a love for music and composing is key, there are particular things to consider when writing for games. “Your music is not the reason the player is there.” Much like writing for film, the music is there to “immerse the player, and possibly communicate some subtext that is not explained directly through the game.” While a memorable theme is very important, the music is still there to support the rest of the game. “Sometimes, I think I have this amazing piece written, with complex melodies, countermelodies, and rhythmic accompaniment, but it’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.”

It’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.

As far as the development process itself, Peter wishes he would be brought on to big games in the beginning. “It would let you be more of a part of the design process.” Asking questions like “what if every time this thing happens, this audio plays?” can help the audio director integrate it into the whole “brand” of the game. “But it depends on your relationship to the director, too.” The possible downside of being involved that early, though, is that the game concept can “keep pivoting, and your lush orchestral music no longer fits the new steampunk visual theme.” Much like in film, there’s benefit to someone coming to you with an almost complete game, “with a list of assets they need, knowing exactly what they want.” As long as the producer isn’t overly attached to the temporary tracks they used, it can be very efficient. That kind of scenario can also put you in a tough spot, though, since you have to fully embody the essence of a game in a short amount of time. “After all, you’ve only been working on it for a few weeks, while everyone else has lived and breathed that game for the last year or two.”

Scratching the Surface

Whatever the situation, it doesn’t diminish Peter’s enthusiasm when working on game music. “I’m actually very excited and optimistic for the future of music in games. We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.” File size limitations will slowly vanish, letting us have more tracks of music in games. “And processor power increases will allow us to have more tracks of audio playing simultaneously, letting us mix individual instruments on the fly.” This makes him think “this will let us have huge immersive music beds, with lots of variation, and without ever getting too repetitive.”

We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.

One of his more recent projects, Minion Master, taught him something outside of sound design. “I think the biggest lesson the devs [from Bitflip Games] and I learned is that no matter how good the game is, or how many people try the game and love it, there’s still no guarantee of success.” He points out that even with advertising budgets, releasing an indie game “into the wild” isn’t actually much different than app-store roulette: “you release a game and hope it takes off.” Peter’s biggest concern is for indie developers that spend years on a game, and never recoup their costs. “I’d hate to see the indie devs start to build games more like mobile companies–where you spend only two months on a game, kick it out, and move on to something else. It could cause us to lose the deep and complex games.”

Rewarding the Player

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Peter hard at work

At last year’s Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Peter talked about designing music and sounds for slot machines. This might sound a bit detached from videogames, but the philosophy is quite similar. “It’s really more just the idea of remembering that your music and sounds are part of the reward.” With every slot machine having a theme, it’s what makes players sit down and start dropping money in. “So your sounds should fit into that theme, and really mean something to the player when they hear them. You want the player to hear certain sounds and get excited that something big might hit.” When something big does hit, “something big should happen to confirm that for them.” He also notes that it seems to make players happy when that audio draws attention from other people too.

The reason he got into sound design for slot machines is simple: “just like the advances in audio for video games, slot machines are quickly evolving as well.” According to Peter, they’re becoming more like video games, “being able to have more and higher quality sounds, and matching them to the animations on the screen.” Whenever he tells people that he creates music and sounds for slots, they instantly think of the annoying standard sounds they used to make when the reels spin. “I’ll admit that I had the same thoughts when I got my first gig with Bally Technologies, but slots have evolved way beyond that.”

Slot machines are quickly evolving as well.

Other than writing for slot machines, Peter has also being doing something else entirely. He recently completed the game Change Happens for a proprietary Android tablet for kids called the VINCI Tab. “It’s a game for young children starring Jim Henson’s characters from Sid the Science Kid.” It’s been an interesting experience for him, challenging him to do more than he usually does. “I’m normally just the audio guy. On this game, I’ve done most of the concept, design, script, some artwork, and edited music from the show, all while managing contract programmers, artists, and animators.” Though seemingly happy about this experience, he seems more than happy to be “going back to just being the audio guy.” Check out his portfolio on his website: peterinouye.wordpress.com.

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

David Gaider on developing his writing career, personal growth and taking social responsibility for sex in games

June 24, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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Gamesauce caught up with Bioware’s David Gaider to talk about how luck got him into the games industry, his personal experiences as a writer, Dragon Age and why developers need to start taking responsibility for the social impact their games have in regard to sex.

Lucking Out

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David Gaider

Now the lead writer on Bioware’s Dragon Age series, David Gaider has created a universe rich in history and large in scope. He’s been telling his stories not only through the Dragon Age videogames, but through the franchise’s assortment of books as well. The funny thing about him doing that? He never set out to be a professional writer in the first place. “I wasn’t trying to get into the videogame industry,” he admits.“I wrote mostly for fun, and did a lot of gaming, and a friend of mine who worked at BioWare recommended me for a writing position that opened up when they started work on Baldur’s Gate 2. So they called me, and I was curious enough to go in and see what they were about. So I lucked out—nobody really gets a job that way anymore—and I’m quite thankful.”

Even though Gaider turned out to have exactly the right skillset and interests to write professionally, he had been looking at a very different direction at first. “My dream at the time was actually to be a comic book artist, so the idea I would ever write professionally wasn’t something I seriously considered. I enjoyed writing, and especially making games, mostly table top games, and I guess I always thought it would be great to try my hand at writing a novel someday. That’s the sort of thing you always wonder, as a writer, whether you have what it takes to do. I wasn’t actively pursuing it, however.”

So I lucked out—nobody really gets a job that way anymore.

Topping Up the Well

Lucking out in getting the job is one thing, but growing into a solid position as the lead writer on a series is something entirely different. David assumed the role of game writer fairly easy and “just went right to work” on Baldur’s Gate 2, drawing from his personal experiences. “Baldur’s Gate 2 had an immense amount of writing.” But Gaider was eager. “Considering I’d spent my entire life tabletop gaming , mostly game mastering, and knew Dungeons & Dragons quite well, I had a huge well from which to draw.” From there, he mostly moved from project to project, gaining more responsibility the more they relied on him. “Eventually, when I started the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for Neverwinter Nights, they let me try my hand at being a Lead Writer and actually directing the narrative part of the process. As a smaller project, that’s a good place to try someone out, and it went very well.”

But even when your career takes off, there’s bound to be a hurdle or two. “I think the hardest part was probably needing to be creative day in and day out. You can only sustain that for so long before you need to top up the well, so to speak. I burned out hard after finishing Baldur’s Gate 2. It was especially difficult because, prior to that point, the writing had always come quite easily for me. Learning to cope and manage my energy levels in a way that was sustainable was probably the biggest hurdle. That and extending what I learned to others once I had my own team of writers to manage.”

So how do you cope? How does someone get past his or her writer’s block? “It was learning to just take that next step—even if it’s a slow one,” he suggests. “Don’t expect perfection out of myself right out of the gate. Go back and edit and iterate. Eventually you reach that point where the creativity starts to flow again.” But there is more to consider here. According to David, it’s essential to keep in mind that “…writing is a skill you need to work on and develop, especially when it comes to writing for games. It’s a different skillset from writing prose, and hoping that talent alone will get you through is probably a bit naïve. These days, you almost need to prove you have that skillset before you’ll be considered for the job, so you need to practice—either by modding or by analysing how game narrative works and iterating your own writing for it.”

The hardest part was probably needing to be creative day in and day out.

Writing

Aside from the personal struggles a writer may need to overcome, there is an aspect of teamplay, of balancing the interests of the studio and those of your own. “As a writer, you’re unlikely to be in a position where you direct where the game goes,” he explains. “At best, you’ll be able to influence it, you’ll be part of the discussion. So you try to take it where you think the story should go, and once the decision is made, your place is to make it the best you can. You consult with the team, make sure they understand what you’re doing with the story and what their part of it needs to be.”

Of course, Gaider has to make concessions here and there as being part of a team and with everybody having different ideas. “So long as you and the leads agree on the current path, your job is just to keep it on that path and not veer off unexpectedly,” he suggests. “Mostly that’s just down to lots of review.”

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“Though part of me wonders if, should the series ever be passed on to someone else, a part of me wouldn’t be angsting inside and constantly second-guessing whatever decisions they made. Probably.”

But how much does Gaider care about the stories he creates, about staying on those paths? There are writers who can stay invested in their universes for ages, like Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. Does he see himself keeping the Dragon Age universe alive for years to come? On one hand, he still sees a lot of Dragon Age stories that need to be told, but on the other, he isn’t quite sure he necessarily needs to be the one telling them. “Though part of me wonders if, should the series ever be passed on to someone else, a part of me wouldn’t be angsting inside and constantly second-guessing whatever decisions they made. Probably.”

But what if handing over a franchise’s world of stories to someone else is not just up to you? What if a steady income weighed as much as your creative desires? Certain writers can get stuck between the interest of the company to keep a universe alive and the will to move on for the sake of their own creativity. “I suppose at some point, whether you’re a fan or a creator, you have to decide if the project is still what interests you,” Gaider says. “I don’t think any artist lives solely to make a buck, but it seems foolish to think that the business aspect can just be ignored. What’s more important at any given time is debatable, of course, and sometimes decisions can be disheartening.” It is clear that some honesty and self-reflection is needed here for any writer. “Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to whether you still want to get up and go to work every morning,” Gaider suggests. “The moment that stops being true, you should probably move on, for everyone’s benefit.”

As a writer, you’re unlikely to be in a position where you direct where the game goes.

Dragon Age

With Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening, The Stolen Throne and The Calling, Gaider laid a strong and story-rich foundation for the game’s universe, which Asunder expands upon after the events in Dragon Age II. Compared to all that, Dragon Age II was relatively lightweight on its story. Gaider is quite clear on the reason for this, though. “Dragon Age II was a shorter game, primarily due to the shorter development time,” he explains. ”I don’t know that it was conscious so much as that was simply what we had to work with. Certainly it’s always an issue to over scope your project—you always have big ideas, but if you let those run away with you, you end up with a project that runs out of resources and that can be just as bad.”

There are other parts of the world Gaider admits he’d love to explore further. “Back when I created everything, we didn’t know where the first game would take place,” he admits. “So I seeded a number of conflicts in various places, conflicts which could take center stage for an entire game if need be. So it would be nice to visit those places and pick up on the potential that’s been sitting there ever since. Like the war between the Tevinter Imperium and the Qunari. I think that would make for a great game.”

Sex in Games

David at GDC13
“I think the conflict we’re experiencing is because videogames moving into the cultural mainstream is a relatively new thing; for a long time, videogames were solely the province of teenage boys.”
I do appreciate that I work for a company that’s willing to push the boundaries

At the Game Developers Conference San Francisco, Gaider talked about the position of developers and the responsibility they carry when it comes to sex in games. “I think the conflict we’re experiencing is because videogames moving into the cultural mainstream is a relatively new thing; for a long time, videogames were solely the province of teenage boys,” he argues. “While that’s no longer the case, the perception that this is the case still lingers for the audience, the industry as well as the public at large.”

The fact that a lot of developers don’t think about the impact their games make doesn’t sit well with him. “You can’t use the excuse you’re making ‘just games’ without any need for social responsibility, and yet also say that gaming should be taken seriously by the mainstream. You’re asking to have your cake and eat it, too.”

These statements are very interesting coming from Gaider as a Bioware employee, seeing as how their mature approach to sexuality has often been labelled as controversial. “I don’t believe that BioWare is perfect in this regard, but I do appreciate that I work for a company that’s willing to push the boundaries—not because that’s the safe thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do. As soon as we brought up the subject of sex, it became obvious that we were saying a great deal about what was acceptable and who we thought our audience actually was. As much by what we didn’t include as by what we did. Some people consider our choices controversial, that’s true, but I’ve seen just as much if not more positive feedback from the fans themselves—which is incredibly gratifying.” Gaider takes a proactive approach to it all: ”I suppose one could wait for “general acceptance” and wait for the winds to change sufficiently until everyone’s doing it, before you dive into that pool. The problem then becomes: who’s going to take that first step? Hopefully the games that do it and do it well will lead the way, and ideally they’ll benefit for having done so.”

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Gas Powered Games’ Kevin Pun on His Career, the Evolution of Concept Art and How to Break Through as an Artist

June 5, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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Gas Powered Games’ senior artist Kevin Pun and his colleagues recently experienced quite the rollercoaster ride when their studio went through a Kickstarter campaign, had to close in the middle of it and ended up being bought by free-to-play giant Wargaming. We sat down with him to look back at his career at Gas Powered Games and reflect on the ideas he and his team had for Wildman.

The Evolution of Concept Art at Gas Powered Games

All my initial designs had to be tossed because they were too detailed.

Having started as an artist in the early 90’s, Pun has seen firsthand how concept art has changed dramatically. In the days of Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege, the technology for polygon-based games was still in its early stages. “A typical unit in Total Annihilation might have 60 polygons, so designing units like that didn’t require much fidelity,” he recalls. “In fact, when I first started, all my initial designs had to be tossed because they were too detailed.”

The demand for concept art started to pick up a few years later when Pun started working on Dungeon Siege, where the polygon and texture budget was dramatically higher. The Action RPG genre was becoming increasingly popular and Pun saw the competition heating up.

“By the time Supreme Commander started, the need for quality concept art really hit home,” he says. “Not only were there 2D concepts created, but to properly visualize the concepts in all orthographic views, the team had to model out high-quality concepts for evaluation.” This also caused the the art team at Gas Powered Games to be inventive and resourceful in delivering high-quality concepts while meeting tight schedule demands for subsequent titles.

Lessons Learned from Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and Age of Empires Online

Kevin Pun
Kevin Pun

While the concept process has evolved, Pun still believes there are still a lot of lessons that he and his team could’ve applied to Wildman. In his time at Gas Powered Games, Pun points out the key aspect of all the Chris Taylor titles he has worked on in the past. “There is one common theme and that is epic-ness,” he says. “Chris loves to design big worlds, big battles, and tackle big themes,” Pun says. “Accordingly with our visuals, we strive to match his grand visions. For good or bad, our projects tended to jump wildly from fantasy in one title to sci-fi in the next and on to a stylized historic RTS. Artistically, the periodic change-ups were great for exploring new styles, but on the other hand, we don’t have a style to build upon.”

Pun proudly sees that as one of the main strengths of his team.”We are extremely flexible, and we are insanely passionate about making the best art possible without compromising design functionality,” he says.

Pun mentions the strategic zoom feature of Supreme Commander as one example of that; “The camera could zoom seamlessly from the ground to a wide satellite view showing the whole map while the player could still see all of their units. It was a major artistic and technical challenge that got even tougher by the camera’s ability to freely rotate on the horizontal axis on demand. In contrast to most of the RTS games of that time that did not have such a feature, all of the units, props and terrain features in Supreme Commander had to look good in all angles and all in zoom levels.” He says, “In Dungeon Siege, the most noted feature was the seamlessly streaming world. The player could walk from one end of the world to the other with underground explorations sprinkled throughout all without a single load screen. Creating this feature was a major undertaking that took years of long hours and sweat to pull through. To wrap up the examples, in Age of Empires Online, we tackled a completely new style for the studio by adopting a highly stylized cartoon look.”

Pun looks back at both Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege to have good game cameras that sat above the action and were pulled back to see as much of the battlefield as possible.

“In a production design standpoint, the most important lessons are to make sure that we design each character or unit with a strong silhouette, good contrast, and a unique color scheme,” he says. “This goal is to help the player see his avatar easily against the background, and to understand what combatants are on the battlefield in a glance. This is extremely crucial for gameplay, especially with epic real-time combat seen in games like Supreme Commander. Since the camera in Wildman is similar to that of Dungeon Siege’s and the battles share much of that of RTS games, much of what we learned from those projects will directly apply.”

The Experience of Working on Wildman and the Kickstarter Campaign

“We made educated guesses on what would have impact and what could convey the spirit of the game without words.”

Starting the Kickstarter campaign was a mysterious journey for the studio and for Pun. The first step was to develop an attractive style that would work well with the budget that we were shooting for. “We made educated guesses on what would have impact and what could convey the spirit of the game without words,” he recalls. “Visually, we all want to produce eye catching art that captures potential backers’ imagination.”

Working on Age of Empires Online had given the team a lot of experience in creating highly expressive worlds populated with quirky, but memorable characters. Pun reflects that when they approached Wildman, they quickly gravitated towards a grittier, modified version of that look because the knowledge could be leveraged to speed up the development process in Wildman.

“Adopting that style also made sense in multiple levels, production wise,” Pun says, “Foremost, it addressed a big concern of how to deal with the violent conflicts in the game. With the highly stylized look, the battles would remain energetic, but slightly comical so that they would be more acceptable and responsible in the public eye. Asset production would also be easier without compromising quality, and we could avoid the intense scrutiny accompanied by photo-realistic styles.”

Once the team agreed on the look, the flood gate for creating assets for the campaign busted wide open. “Our criteria for creating art and posting were to keep communicating with Chris on what he wanted and to keep checking the pulse of the online feedback.”

Ideally, the team wanted to show as many facets of the game as possible to immerse the player into this unique and unforgiving world. Explaining this intention, Pun tells us, “The core experience of the game is adventure and combat, so that was our highest priority. For the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, we created pieces that could convey the power of the Wildman, and the relentless battles that would be fought. After that was done, we focused on introducing Wildman‘s adversaries and their environments. As the campaign continued, we set out to further flesh out the vision of the game. In a nutshell, the jest of our strategy was to post updates regularly, but remain fluid enough so that we could dynamically react to deficiencies in our campaign.”

While promoting the game at Kickstarter was top priority, the studio was also working on the game itself. The art team was a skeleton crew at that moment, causing everyone to be laser-focused on their tasks. His main responsibility made him primarily in charge of the concept art effort while the team was cranking on prototype levels. Aside from cool paintings, creating art for a game of this scope is much more difficult than most people realize. There are a lot of technical hurdles such as pipelines and tools that the art team has to face before the game comes to life. “The reality of the situation was that we were playing a catch up game and needed to pull out all the stops. The Wildman Kickstarter was a huge learning experience for us, and I am sure that it will be an interesting case study for other developers who are thinking about a campaign of their own.”

Art Transforms While You’re Drawing It

The most successful portfolios were carefully edited to bring maximum impact.

In the last 15 years, Pun has seen the role, scope and expectations from art transform completely. The industry has seen a significant shift in how games are produced and distributed; big budgets are harder to secure, and the demand for quick turnaround is higher than ever. He marks that recognizing and adapting to change is really crucial for succeeding in the industry. “To cope as an artist, I had to constantly reinvent the way I work, learn new tools or techniques, and upgrade my style to keep up with changing tastes,” Pun says. “A big part of doing that is to keep a constant eye on the evolution of the industry, soak in as much as you can, and push yourself harder through what you’ve learned.” Pun also wants to mention that one aspect of the Wildman campaign that surprised him was the importance of social media. Reaching the fans through forums, Facebook, YouTube and live-video chats were immensely powerful, and it made a significant impact to the campaign’s pledges. Now that he and the team have some experience, he wishes they had jumped on these earlier.

When asked about any advice that he would like to pass on to other developers who want to pitch their ideas and works, Pun considers quality, not quantity is of the utmost importance. Of course, in general, this is true for not only pitching games, but other marketing as well. For example, Pun sees a parallel in the countless portfolios of artists getting into the industry that he’s had to look through. “A lot of portfolios that crossed my desk were bloated with everything, including the kitchen sink,” he says. “For a modeling job, artists felt compelled to add not only modeling samples, but rough animations from school or sub par character concept designs that ultimately undermined the overall effectiveness of their interview.” Pun reflects and advises, “The most successful portfolios were carefully edited to bring maximum impact. There was a young artist who came through with six pieces on his thumb drive. Normally, that would be crazy to bring into an interview, but by the time I saw the second piece, I wanted to hire him at the spot. The art was that good.”

”That might be an extreme case but the point is to be focused and put your best foot forward,” he adds.

ContributionsDevelopment

Kajak Games’ Julius Fondem on Winning the Wooga Game Jam 2013 with Late Night Luchador

May 10, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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It was the end of January, and I was told by my fellow classmates at the Kajak Game Development Lab that Wooga was organizing their very first Wooga Game Jam at their office in Berlin, from the 15th to the 17th of March. I thought “this is really cool,” but didn’t really pay much attention to it since I thought it was a recruiting event, and I wasn’t interested in working at that particular company. At the same time, eight of my classmates formed two teams and entered the game jam. All was well until one of the teams realized that their team leader couldn’t make it to the jam because he would be in Thailand at that time. He had mistakenly thought the game jam would be in February. I was with them at the game lab as they realized this and started panicking over what should be done. I saw the opportunity, and said I could take his place, which gave the team a great sense of relief. So we sent a few emails to Wooga informing them of this slight change. I sent my application, and I was in for a chance to fly to Berlin for a game jam.

Wooga Game Jam

And So the Journey Began

We waited for two weeks and a reply from Wooga popped into our inboxes: we were chosen for the Wooga Game Jam! Awesome! We were so thrilled! The weeks rolled by and March came, so it was time to pack our bags and fly (Wooga was kind enough to pay for our flights, a huge bonus for students) over to Berlin. Our journey took us from Kajaani to Helsinki and then from Helsinki to Berlin. We arrived a day before the game jam, so we had a good night’s rest and were ready and extremely excited for the event the next day.

Player 5 Has Joined the Game

As I mentioned before, I would be taking the role of team leader, but on top of this I would also be working as the designer. My classmates Petri Liuska and Olli-Matti Saarenpää were the programmers and Elsa Saastamoinen was one of the graphic artists. That’s right, one of them. A funny opportunity arose before the event: Minna Eloranta, my friend from Tampere University of Applied Sciences, contacted me and let me know that she too would be taking part in the game jam. I immediately thought of the team and how she would fit into it. I knew that she was a crazy, wacky and passionate person like the rest of us so I made a judgement call: She would fit in. I told her rather bluntly that she would join our team, and she didn’t resist. This turned out to be a very good decision later on. The game jam was about to start and we were extremely eager.

Team photo of us as monsters!

Arrival

A Wooga notebook, pen and t-shirt that we got!

We arrived at Wooga’s office, and I was very anxious to get to work and find out what the theme of the game jam was. I could feel the team was thinking the same as we discussed how we would start working and wondered on what the theme would be. The office was absolutely awesome: A small kitchen with coffee, tea, fresh fruit, cereal and a tad bit of beer for those Friday evenings. The office was also very spacious and a pleasure to the senses with bright colors. A lot of time and effort had clearly been put into the office as a working environment. Oh, there was also an arcade machine! At some point, we made our way to the auditorium, where the CEO and co-founder Jens Begemann welcomed us. After that, a few talks on prototyping and recruitment at Wooga came the thing we were all waiting for: the theme.

 

Physics Based Ancient Anti-Gravity Ants

As the title of this chapter suggests, the theme of the game jam was physics. In addition to this, there were three optional themes: ancient, ants and anti-gravity. To be honest, I was quite disappointed with the theme; it felt quite dull and uninspiring. I would’ve preferred a theme similar to the last two Global Game Jams, based on a picture or sound. These, I feel, give more room for interpretation, give the jammers more creative freedom and produce more interesting games.

As the theme had been announced, it was time for all the jammers to form teams. While we had our team already set up, the other 20 or so jammers started teaming up. We practically ran out of the auditorium to secure the best possible spot for us to work in. We chose a little area in the office known as the Fish Bowl. This was where the magic would happen during the weekend.

Round 1: Fight!

I was super excited and bursting with energy, and so was the rest of the team. We were ready to create something fantastic! But before we went brainstorming, I suggested we create a timetable for ourselves so that we would pace ourselves well and the team agreed. One of the most important points of the timetable was that we would sleep seven hours each night. This proved to be an extremely smart decision and was key to our success later on.

Fish Bowl
The team brain storming in the Fish Bowl

We had already predetermined our platform to be Windows Phone 7, since me and my classmates had the most experience with it and we could work fast with it. This was new to Minna, but she quickly got the hang of it. Next, we moved on to brainstorming. We stared off by thinking of a theme for our game: helplessness. Our initial concept for the game was a big room with different types of gravitational fields and you would have to guide the protagonist through these different areas. We played with this idea for a while but moved on because it just wasn’t an interesting concept for us. We moved on to our next concept, which was a game where you had to guide a character that was walking automatically by creating gravity points to push or pull him/her. The idea was that you would be guiding this robot to the end of the level whilst avoiding dangers. We saw potential in this and decided to take it further.

The First Prototype

The game started off with an isometric perspective but we quickly changed it to a 2D perspective and, instead of the character walking, he or she would be falling instead. We decided to keep the creation of gravity points as the way to manipulate the protagonist’s movement. We playtested the prototype ourselves and made changes to it accordingly, then at midnight, we went around to the other teams and mentors and asked them to give it a try. We did some final tweaks and then started heading to bed. By the way, sleeping at the office was more comfortable than you’d think! They had these really nice green sofas, which were great for a good night’s rest. Then, as I was drifting to sleep, I had this feeling that something was wrong, that something just wasn’t right. The next morning we woke up to discover something horrible.

Oh No…

But we didn’t let ourselves get stuck here, we started making changes to see how we could make it enjoyable.

Our game sucked. It absolutely sucked. I woke up with this feeling, came back to the Fish Bowl to start work with the team and everyone felt the same. There was nothing enjoyable about our game: the controls were sluggish and uncomfortable, dodging hazards was hard and gave no sense of achievement and we didn’t really have an interesting theme. We were all quite down; I had the sinking feeling that we weren’t going to be able to do this. That our game would just suck. But we didn’t let ourselves get stuck here, we started making changes to see how we could make it enjoyable.

We changed the game so that you went up instead of falling down and changed the controls somewhat. The controls got better, but they were still bad. Then lunch came around and we took a small break from work. We were eating and talking about the game and then it happened, like lightning, out of the blue.

Viva La Revolucion!

Luchadors
Our protagonist luchador with the other luchador

Minna suggested Vikings for our theme, which got me really excited. I came up with an idea where the Viking would first go up whilst avoiding hazards and then come back down destroying a small village with his battleaxe. We talked about this for a while and then Petri said that which would define our game: “What if it was wrestling?” I immediately jumped on this and suggested we go with a Luchador theme. The team was onboard in a heartbeat. We finished lunch and rushed back to the Fish Bowl with revitalized enthusiasm and spirits. It was like a lightning bolt of pure inspiration had just hit us and we were now back on track. The luchador would first go up and then come down and bodyslam the other luchador with great force. Yes. No doubt about it.
We then also started to discuss the controls once again and I suggested that we make it so that when you tap the screen it causes an explosion, which propels the protagonist upwards and you have to keep doing it to not lose momentum. This was a fantastic change to our game! The controls suited the game, although we noticed after testing that the momentum thing did not; so we ditched it. It was at this time I contacted our music/sound guys again. I had asked them the previous day if they could do something and they said yes, but now I could give them something solid to work with. Now the train was heading full steam ahead.

Ore Wa Jakku Bauwwa

The team toiled away; making the new vision a reality, and boy, did it become greater as each hour passed. Although we were working hard, we were also having a tremendous amount of fun. Our mentor said that all the other teams were really serious and quiet in their work areas but we were just constantly communicating and having a blast! It seemed weird that the others were so serious.

We were making great progress and were constantly playtesting the game with ourselves and with the other teams. This great progress could also be seen in our moods; we were ecstatic and I had never had that much fun at a game jam. It was simply amazing.

By the end of the day, the game was in a great state, we even thought we’d have time to polish it the next day! Can you believe it, polishing a game jam game? With this triumphant feeling, we went to bed.

Polish That!

On Sunday when we continued working, we had about four hours before the deadline at noon. We saw that there was no need to add anything to the game, so we spent this time polishing what we had and preparing for the presentation of our game. We also didn’t have a name for our game yet, so we started brainstorming. We wanted the name to capture the luchador essence of our game and so after some time, we came to a conclusion: it would have to be Late Night Luchador. The last hours flew by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to present our game.

Late Night Luchador
Minna working on the main menu while Petri seems to be in pain

The Stage is Yours

We followed the rest of the jammers to the auditorium where we would present our game. The order of the team presentations was random, and wouldn’t you know it, we were last. I was sitting on the edge, excited to present our stuff, and it kept building up as our turn drew closer. Finally, it was our turn and we rushed to the stage to show our stuff. I talked about our game and the struggles that we had with it, and after that, we showed off our game. I could see the audience’s interest rise immediately as our menu screen popped up and our brilliant theme song started playing. The luchador went up and the audience was on edge as he was plummeting down to body slam the other luchador, and once he crashed into the other luchador, the audience erupted in laughter and applause. This was an absolutely awesome feeling, to see people really enjoy our game from just watching it being played.

While we were presenting our game, we had given the judges our game to play on some extra Windows Phones, which we had borrowed from our school for the trip. The judges then proceeded to announce the top three games. I was extremely excited and nervous whilst waiting to hear our team name. After the third and second place had been announced, I thought we would be the winners, or that our game had diverted too much from the theme and the judges just didn’t like it.

Victory!

“The winners: Late Night Luchador by Team Fuerte!”

We won!

The team with our fantastic trophies in the Fish Bowl!

Incredible! We came through. We made it through the game jam and produced a good solid game. For our victory, we got these small statues of characters from Wooga’s games. It was a really good feeling to make something so good in such a short time. We were extremely proud of ourselves, still are, for our achievement that weekend.

Conclusion

It really amazes me that we pulled of what we did in such a short time. I’m astounded how well the team worked together considering that this line up had never been tried out before and that Minna hadn’t met anyone else from the team before except me. I was especially surprised how well Minna and Elsa worked together and how congruent and unified their art style was. Petri and Olli-Matti worked tremendously well together as well. I also think that one of our greatest achievements was not letting our ideas get bogged down by the theme. By breaking away from that mold, we reached new heights.

I also think that one of our greatest achievements was not letting our ideas get bogged down by the theme.

I have also never had such fun during a game jam before. It was quite an emotional experience for me and there were very many laughs and smiles during the game jam. All of this positive energy is clearly visible in Late Night Luchador. Speaking of the game, I’m so proud that the game ended up being so great. Everything worked out so well: the gameplay, the art, the music and the controls. The game is whole, and it could easily be expanded upon which I’m extremely glad about. I wish I could relive the game jam and I want to thank the amazing team for an even more amazing time. It just goes to show that with a great team and the right attitude, one can achieve great things even within a short time span.

Julius and his team released the game hot from the game jam and you can get it here for free!

Exclusive Interviews

Game Development’s in the Family: Meet the Duringers

January 22, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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As some lucky parents have it, the passion they hold for their own careers can end up rubbing off on their offspring. Maryann Duringer Klingman, a seasoned producer at Disney Interactive’s Playdom and a professional who has spent two decades in the videogame business, saw it happen with her daughter Theresa. Partially due to her mother’s career, but mostly out of her own insatiable appetite and interest for everything digital, Theresa Duringer followed in her mother’s footsteps becoming a versatile game professional. I sat down with Maryann and Theresa to talk about their shared passion for the game biz, where it all started, and what both generations were able to learn from each other.

One career rebooted, another one sprouted

Back in 1993, after almost 10 years of being an at-home mom with one of her two daughters in elementary school, Maryann Duringer Klingman rediscovered her appetite for a career again.

“I rejoined the workforce working full-time again as an administrative assistant at Electronic Arts’ educational software department in November of ’93 and quickly went up through the ranks as a producer,” Maryann recalls. “I was fortunate enough to work with the some of the best children’s brands and licencors, including Sesame Workshop, Marc Brown Studios, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers and DC Comics. I produced educational games with such characters as Bert and Ernie, Spongebob Squarepants and Reader Rabbit.”

Theresa Duringer, the younger of two sisters and only ten years old at that time, grew up with quite the appetite for technology and a penchant for creative, technical tinkering. “As a kid I was pretty shy,” Theresa admits. “We always had a computer, and I would tinker on it for hours, dabbling with scripting, making websites, and meeting other kids on IRC a million miles away.”

Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them

Theresa would even start modding games and submit her own art to different projects. “It just clicked for me. I got this incredible energy from seeing the art I was making come alive on the screen. Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them. I still remember printing out our own adventure-game playing cards on an accordion of dot-matrix card stock my dad brought home from work.” Her passion for drawing since a young age could be seen everywhere, from the margins of her notes from school to books and mirrors at home. “Growing up in Silicon Valley, having a programmer father and video game producer mother, and being surrounded by creative tech types gave me a familiarity with the industry that let me dive in and thrive in game development.”

Through the ranks at EA, just like mom

Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994
Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994

Three years later, after graduating from Berkeley, Theresa went right back to testing games and landed a testing job at EA. After several months of working as a tester for EA’s The Godfather, she was appointed to being the main contact for her QA team to share their findings directly with the production team. “One thing that is also cool about working at EA is that they really recognize talent from the testing group and give testers opportunities to prove themselves with bigger projects to work themselves out of testing into production,” she says. “It’s from testing The Godfather that I was able to work my way up from tester, to community manager and end up in production at Maxis.”

According to Theresa, the most important thing a tester can do while working your way up from testing to development, besides working very hard, is to hang out with the developers as much as possible. This is known to be a tricky challenge, as testers and the ‘testing pits’ they work in are often segregated from the development teams. Theresa had her own way of making sure that kind of contact was possible.

“I started out on a dedicated testing floor, and didn’t have any development contacts at EA. I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis.”

I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis

Theresa’s one-on-one with the lead paid off and got her a foot in the door to a team she would later join at at Maxis. “I participated in Art Lunch, Board Game Night, rallied folks to go on Bike Lunch Fridays, and hung out in general with as many developers as I could who had common interests with me, even taking up a few new hobbies like Victorian ballroom dancing and even rock climbing.”

The more you interact with the developers, the firmer an idea you can form about which specific jobs would compliment your talents, and what kind of team you would mesh with,” Theresa suggests. “You’ll also have advocates when you go for that new opening. Try not to stagnate in testing too long.”

One way Theresa learned to break through the glass sealing of being a tester was to invest in herself outside of your working hours. “In my case, I learned to be proficient with JavaScript, CSS, Flash, and Photoshop, which were vital skills when I joined the Pollinated Ninjas [the online team for Spore]. At the end of the day, I really wouldn’t recommend my path from test to dev. A testing job is easy to land, and you’ll get your foot in the door, but you’ll spend valuable time in a sector you may not be passionate about. If I could do it again, I would find hackathons, game dev jams, and contests in my area to connect with other like-minded folks and build my talents collaborating on projects, then directly apply to a development position. The testing route was a roundabout way to get where I am.

While at Maxis, Theresa would first be put in charge of being a community manager for Spore, before she later became assistant producer on Dark Spore. “I once again got to see her bring that creativity to life in the little programs that she would write for her work,” Maryanne says. “She took on some responsibilities at Maxis that, as parent, you’re just really proud of.”

My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it

Having a mother who had grown through the ranks of the same company two decades before not only gave Theresa a source of inspiration and support, but also a place for comfort and advice. “I’ve learned to not take the first offer and really push ahead while still being professional. My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it,” Theresa says.

I’m very proud of her,” Maryann adds. “I believe Theresa was very quickly identified at EA as someone who could take all feedback and information, assimilate it, write a complete sentence and then share that with the entire team.”

As an assistant producer at Maxis, Theresa was able to explore the full range of strengths and weaknesses. “When I was working on Spore as a tester, I didn’t have a ton of influence on the game or decisions,” she says. “But once I moved into community management, I was able to craft that user experience from outside the game. It was a challenge because I’ve never done it before. “Another challenge for Theresa was to rely on someone else than herself. “I would find a community member who was really excited to put their energy in moderating the forums and then engage them, asking them to think about ways of ranking Spore creations made by community members. Eventually I would provide the community member with production tools and rely on that individual completely to moderate the forums. That was not intuitive to me because I’m a doer, but you can’t always do everything yourself.”

Learning together

The Duringers at the Playfirst offices

While Theresa is currently exploring the exciting challenge of being an indie game developer, her mother recently got back to her production roots. Previously working at Playfirst as their developer relations manager, Maryann saw an opportunity to find another challenge at Playdom.

“My previous position at Playfirst was more of a business position where I was out basically meeting and greeting with the development community,” She explains. “I was responsible for sourcing production talent to work with my organization. Over the years of working with external development studios, I learned about contracts, negotiations and the business side of gaming; all useful skills when working with external partners. Although I enjoyed business development a production opportunity presented itself at Playdom. I would get to work with talented individuals, many of whom I have worked with in the past and whose careers I have watched grow over the years. It is a pleasure to see individuals whom I initially met as testers or producers now comfortable and successful as senior producers and studio managers.

People often get surprised when they get to hear that Theresa’s mother is also a game producer. Most find it the most amazing thing ever, and it’s hard to disagree. “She is someone I can rely on, she’s one hundred percent honest with me and gives me the advice that might not always be exactly what I want to hear,” Theresa says.

I try to live my life as an example,” Maryann says. “What Theresa gleaned from her childhood and chose to pursue as an adult has more to do with how she comes to her life. I provided an environment where she could feel comfortable being herself and I exposed her to my work life. It was up to her to choose her path. Having said that, I did provide a home where creativity was appreciated and intelligence respected. And we played games! If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her.“

If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her

“Its exciting to see your child grow into their adult life and then move into a career and be successful at it,” Maryann adds. “Seeing my daughter moving through ranks from testing to community manager and producer and to see her teaching herself programming and being an artist, makes me very proud as a parent.”

“I want other women to negotiate more and not settle so easily,” Theresa says. “My mom is awesome at this, and I always love to hear her stories about mediation and negotiation. I push myself to follow her lead. Also, I think there can be a bit of a locker room vibe at game companies, often times just because there are so many guys. For me this was intimidating, but I’ve learned that my differences can actually help me set myself apart and be noticed. I’m so pleased to hear more and more women talking about their game development projects lately, so hopefully this will change soon. I also think women get nudged into marketing and management positions. If this is your passion, wonderful, but if you want to be engineering and get your hands dirty in game dev, hold your ground. Come up with a clear goal for how you want to contribute to games and go for it.”

Going Indie

Indie

Indie Winners of Flash GAMM 2012 Game Contest Invited to Casual Connect Europe Conference

January 8, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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During the fifth edition of the Flash GAMM conference in Kiev, Ukraine fifteen indie game developers were selected by the Casual Games Association (CGA) to receive an Innovation Scholarship, including a free airplane tickets and full conference passes to the Casual Connect Europe conference and the opportunity to show their games in Hamburg. The winning games included Red Ball 4, Dino Trek and Zombotron 2.

Besides receiving the Innovation Scholarship, Zombotron 2 was awarded the title “Audience choice award”.
Besides receiving the Innovation Scholarship, Zombotron 2 was awarded for the “Audience choice award”.

95 game titles entered the Flash GAMM Game Contest this year. Casual Connect (CGA) selected 15 indie developers that received Innovation Scholarships for their trip to Casual Connect Europe and Flash GAMM Hamburg. The indie games that were picked to receive the scholarship are: – Goal DefenseSnail BobJelly CannonPheus and MorAcorn StoryTransformerDino TrekDream SymphonyRed Ball 4The Prince EdwardLazermanIntrusion 2On The Flat Of A DreamHordes and LordsZombotron 2 Besides a free accommodation and a conference pass to Casual Connect Europe, the teams are given the opportunity to showcase their games at the Innovation Showcase, an “art-gallery” style exhibition in which twelve games are displayed that are considered innovative. The winners will also have an opportunity to present a short post-mortem presentation about their titles. Flash GAMM is a conference for flash, social and mobile games, which has been around since 2009. Casual Connect Europe will be held from 12-14 February in Hamburg and involves over 1.600 professionals.

Exclusive Interviews

Joju Games’ Juan Gril on building Snowfort, catering to gamers with families and working from a virtual office

January 2, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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With only enough budget to put three people on the development team (one artist, one developer and one producer), the flash game Snowfort came to life. Juan Gril, Joju Games’ Studio Manager, describes Snowfort as an ‘arcade comedy’. It’s a squadron-based RTS game based on a snowball fight, one that has been nominated for the ‘most creative’ game at the Flash Gaming Summit.

Building Snowfort

The Snowfort map editor
The Snowfort map editor

Snowfort was quite a challenge for the small development team. Even though it’s a flash game, tons of features were built in to the game. The Joju Games team of one developer, one artist and one producer had to create a single player campaign and allow for leaderboard play. The latter also had to include complete customization for your squadron. “And if you’re playing the game I [can] go to your profile, see your team and raid them. Your team, who [are] going to be managed by the AI, is going to defend,” Juan Gril explains. You can play asynchronously with your friends, and the developers are also working on the multiplayer right now.

“We’re basically taking concepts from social games and putting them in a normal game.”

The process of developing Snowfort has been an interesting one, Gril shares. “In general the problem that we have in the flash game industry is that it’s a five minute game. You have tons of games being released each day so the audience gets accustomed to play this game and never come back to it. We’re trying to change that with Snowfort”. He describes Snowfort as more like a social game than a regular flash game. It lives in a game portal and it uses a free-to-play system with a shop. “We’re basically taking concepts from social games and putting them in a normal game.”

Game play for gamers with families

“There’s nothing wrong with competitive games”, Gril says. “I like creating collaborative games, but gaming has always been competitive. You look at the oldest game we’ve got and it’s a competitive game”. But not everybody likes this kind of competition. For example the competition you can find in multiplayer games. You can still find plenty of people who buy a game just for the single player campaign and don’t even touch the multiplayer. “A lot of people don’t play multiplayer games because they go into a multiplayer shooter and they get shot in the face”, Gril offers as an explanation. “They get t-bagged or they get insulted; there are no nice places to play together”.

“The key is to create games that are accessible to everybody.”

The solution? “The key is to create games that are accessible to everybody.” Joju Games wants to focus on two groups in particular, groups who are often forgotten by big game productions and pose a perfect target group for Flash games:
Gamer #1: Those who were hardcore gamers when they were young, then got married, had kids and jobs, and don’t have time to play for three hours straight. Juan Gril sees this first type of gamer as a perfect focus. “If we can come up with game mechanics like Snowfort where we can play synchronously AND asynchronously, that makes a huge difference for people like us. If we can play with OUR friends in our own times, then we can still be gaming”. Out of experience, Gril knows that this type of gamer often has a high income which could be spending on games; if only the time barrier could be circumvented.
Gamer #2: The hardcore gamer who is taking his lunch break. Who’s not in front of his Xbox, PS3 or high-end pc and just wants to play for 15 minutes.

The Joju Games team

The Joju Games team now consists of 30 people, which is big in flash game terms. The games they create take a lot of commitment. As Gril explains, they are always thinking of an environment into which they can throw different mechanics. So the success of the game comes by maintaining it, by thinking of new features and mechanics to add to an existing environment. For Gril, this is why it’s important to have a steady team. “When you have monthly releases you have a lot of processes that you have to do in order to add a new feature. Like, make sure data is migrated successfully, and that a new feature isn’t affecting anything in the old environment. You team is constantly busy with maintenance”.
So crunch time is something that isn’t unknown to the team, Gril is aware of that. Although his team is passionate about what they do, the sacrifices that are made in their personal lifes are not unknown. Gril himself has dealt with them as well. Fortunately, Joju Games offers a way for the devs to still stay close to their families.

“And all our guys have worked in the industry before, in a regular game industry job, and they just wanted to have a different life”.

“We are [mostly all] over 30, and a lot of us have families and kids, and we know that game devs crunch all the time. We’re passionate about what we do and we have to stay late and get things done. And at the same time it’s very difficult to raise a family as a game developer. So we wanted to have a virtual office environment so that we could be closer to our families. What I always say is, ‘look, we may have to crunch a few days, but at least we’ll always have dinner with our families’. And all our guys have worked in the industry before, in a regular game industry job, and they just wanted to have a different life”.

The virtual office has given Gril himself a different average working day that the normal game studio manager. He works from home in the small office he has there. On a typical day, he looks at e-mails, has a conference call with his producers and takes a look at their current project. “We have four games at a time,” Gril says. “I sync up with each [of the producers] on how the game is going. Based on those conversations I can go and think of ideas [or solutions for problems]. I can record video’s while I’m talking, which I’ll then upload and send a URL to whoever I want to see it”. The rest of his day pretty much consists of the tasks familiar to every studio manager: talking to clients, publishers, team members, and thinking of new ideas. But Gril can keep his family life close.

Fortunately, his work doesn’t just take him to virtual office spaces. During his visit to Casual Connect Europe 2011, he had the opportunity to be reminded of why he enjoys working with games so much. “Something that gives me a lot of satisfaction every Casual Connect is the Games for Gamers Track, all these small games are very creative games. And they can come from the indie scene, the Game Jam, from flash games, etcetera. But the greatest thing is the fact that most of these games are not copycats, not an evolution of a FPS or an evolution of existing genres. They’re trying to come up with new genres, think of new ideas. Look at Joe Danger or Kingdoms of Camelot. It all shows that we can do a lot more.”

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