The Avatars Project is a VR simulation commissioned by the Psychology Department at Southern Methodist University (SMU) that was built in Unity 3D. The simulation takes place in three locations where the participant sits across from a driver and they interact together. The driver takes on different personas for different interactions to study behaviors and to train individuals on how to navigate certain social situations.
The project has been ongoing since its inception in 2006 as a Half-Life 2 mod with a major update to Unity 5.1 in 2015. This latest update with two entirely new scenarios was completed over the course of two months as a directed focus study for production major graduates at SMU-Guildhall. I held the role of Assistant Producer along with another Assistant Producer, three artists, and a programmer.
What Went Right
For the Community
I’ve always wanted to work on something I knew was having a larger impact than what I was doing day to day. That someday, one of my projects might mean something to someone later and leave a lasting impression or teach them something. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to begin studying game design. Working on The Avatars Project gives me that sense of purpose that I craved in my work. More importantly however, the project itself has an outward facing impact that reaches in some ways more than a traditional video game experience. The simulation is built to train high schoolers and college students to navigate and learn about avoiding dangerous social situations. To think that someone may be able to keep themselves safe because of something they learned as participant to The Avatars Project means a great deal to me and gives community impact a whole new meaning.
What Went Wrong
Part of the pleasures of working on this project was being surrounded by professional developers that knew what to do, when to do it, and delivered their assets on time. Our designer was off site, however, making it difficult to communicate and collaborate with him, leaving most of the tasks to fall on the programmer to position and place the assets. This did cause a bit of extra load on the programmer, but he took it in stride, and I was able to step in and help on other tasks usually suited for a designer, like finding and editing sounds for the new scenarios. It did teach me that even on a small team, it is invaluable to make sure all the bases are loaded when it comes to evening out the tasks. Luckily our programmer was as brilliant at putting together the spaces as he was at design
What We Learned
Labor of Love
When I started the road to learning how to be a producer, I quickly realized how much I needed to learn about the role and responsibility of the job. It’s been a long road, with a great deal of adjustments and stretching my abilities. This project gave me new perspective, however. I learned how to love being a producer. Learning agile and scrum has taught me to be flexible in leading a team, especially when it comes to planning and pipelines. Two of our artists had completely different workflows, which meant that I had to learn their languages to be sure we were tracking things properly. Because that worked so smoothly, it made my job a lot easier, and I really began to feel like I was making correct decisions and my instincts were on par with what a producer ought to do. It was a great feeling, knowing I was successful in helping my team achieve its goals with the project.