Friday, September 16, 2011

3 Years Later: Year Two

This is part two of my little series about what I've done in the past 3 years of my life to take myself from a kid that had never made a 3D game in his life to someone who lives and breathes game programming on several projects (commercial and otherwise). Here's a link to the first post in the series.

Getting Paid to make a Game

During the academic semesters for my first two years of college, I got paid by a scholarship to work for the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab (an incentive to have first and second year students involved in research labs on campus). However, part of the way through the summer leading up to my second year of college, I got pulled on to a project as a second programmer, and being paid outside of the academic year by the Lab's actual budget was exciting for me. However, the project went anything but smoothly (and had been a mess well before I was brought on).

I've noticed that sometimes game devs talk about getting jaded or disillusioned after getting into game development professionally. If there was ever a project that did it for me it was this one, a serious game about power plant management. It was continually misdirected by a client that didn't understand game design or development. The project got extended into the Fall semester as the development continued to be a mess. Eventually this culminated into the client asking us to add back as many of the features the Lab had attempted to add to make the game more fun, finally realizing that the direction they had been steering it was keeping it from being fun for the target audience.

For as unfortunate as that was, I think something really important came from this, the knowledge that programming, not game design, was what I loved no matter how badly a project was going. Level design in particular came hard for me, realizing that it really just couldn't hold my interest like a programming challenge. I think most people can find a lot of glamour in more than one discipline of game development, and for me I thought that maybe game design was as an enjoyable as coding. Clearly I was wrong, and it proved to me that even a bad project can have a lot of value, giving me a better sense of direction of what I wanted to do moving forward.

Greener Pastures

While the power management game was wrapping up, two much more promising projects were just starting up. One was a competition hosted by Ford Credit between Michigan State University and University of Michigan's game development clubs (Ford is headquartered in Michigan, thus the localness of the competition). The goal was to make an serious/adver game to teach potential Ford customers about car financing. The target audience was people in their early 20's, so having college students make a Flash game seemed like a great way for Ford Credit to go about it and was probably a fun PR stunt at the same time.

While the content of the game might not sound amazing, Ford Credit was very hands off about the development, which was a breath of fresh air compared to the project I was coming off of. The real kicker though was the prize: all expenses covered for GDC with all-access passes. I threw myself into that project like there was no tomorrow, and it ended up being the first project I seriously crunched on as the team streaked towards our relatively aggressive deadline (I believe we had 3 or 4 months of development, and many of us had never done a Flash game before). It wasn't uncommon for me to be up at 2 am rolling in features and artwork that probably should have been cut for scope reasons, and even then I was fixing bugs right up to the deadline. And when I say "right up to," I mean that I did the submission build of the game on a laptop in the back of a van as we drove to present the game to the judges in Dearborn. You can check out the game here.

The result was that we won, and getting to go to sessions at GDC 2010 blew my mind. While I know many devs that have been in the industry go to GDC as much for the socializing as the sessions, as a student I'd say that the talks are infinitely valuable. Especially compared to the Career Pavilion, which I'd wager is what the majority of students attend GDC for. It was also then that I realized that the allure of rendering and engine code was ever so tantalizing, with John Hable's talk about HDR lighting in Uncharted 2 convincing me to drown myself in graphics programming in my spare time. This was a big jump for someone that thought they might still want to be a game designer less than a year earlier.

Lesson here? Student competitions are important, teaching more about deadlines and quality game development than any class could, because to be honest, student projects often are only a fraction of a someone's grade. The project for Ford Credit had that extra mile of polish that can only come from really wanting to make the best game possible. Getting in that extra stretch of polish and bug fixes before a class deadline lacks incentive because it probably won't budge someone's grade unless it's worth at least half the student's grade. I'll be revisiting that theory of mine in my next article.

Enter: Olympus

I mentioned that their were two projects in the wake of the power plant management game. The second one was a motion controlled action adventure about Greek Mythology. The purpose of the game was to be used to study the effectiveness of aggressive motion controls in an entertainment game (as opposed to a game like Wii Fit, where exercise is the consumer's intent).

I started as what I would probably refer to as a "junior programmer" handling basic gameplay tasks while I was still heavily involved in the Ford project and my first class about game design and development. However, I would inherit the role of leading up the player and motion control code when the original programmer graduated, continuing into the summer. I'll pick up on that story in my next post about lessons from my third year of learning game dev.