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The Road to the IGF: Mind Control Software

Tim Turner recounts Oasis creator Mind Control Software's hectic final week experiences, preparing a total of 5 games to be entered into this year's Independent Games Festival.

August 16th, 2005 - 1:22 PM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA

Mind Control Software [creator of 2004 Independent Games Festival winner Oasis, recently published online through casual publisher PlayFirst, as well as being a developer of games including Silencer and Spellagories] had entered into a phase of “sorta-kinda” investing in its own intellectual property. I was very passionate about the idea of doing this but the positive energy was largely mitigated by the knowledge that our freedom to invest in this IP came from an ebb in the flow of paying work. This contrast put us in a position to move forward on new games but forced us to keep a certain emotional distance as we all knew that when the next contract signed these internal projects would be put on hold for a while. It had been almost a year since the last time we had freedom to work on unfunded projects so “on hold for a while” could very well mean “shelve this game forever.”

Sure enough, after a couple weeks of baby steps on five titles we found ourselves fighting off paying clients with Ping Pong paddles and wireless keyboards. Our staff became impacted as we booked up and faced the choice of turning away paying gigs or shelving our new babies. The Independent Games Festival deadline was only a few weeks away and loomed like the spirit of Harlan Ellison saying, in a strong booming voice, “Don't be a whore!”

Discussions about how to proceed generally went something like this…


“Should we turn away contracts and get these games into the IGF?”

“We can't just ‘turn away work' and besides it doesn't need to be an all or nothing choice. We could submit one or two of the games.”

“Yeah, and we already accepted one of the contracts.”

“Well, we know Animal Kingdom has to go to IGF…”

“Yeah and probably Arrrrrr! should go…”

“There is no excuse for not sending Magical Word Garden and Bubble Wars.”

Gem River is ready to go now…”

It would go on like this until someone actually came out and said, “What if we submitted five games this year?” This would inevitably bring a smile to the face of everyone in the room, a moment of silence, and then we would fade out of the meeting with whatever special effect was handy muttering things like, “Yeah, that would be cool…”

--

August 24th, 2005 - 11:00 AM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA

With two weeks until the IGF deadline and enough fresh contract work to keep our staff busy from 9-5, Mind Control's management team finally committed to take five rough prototypes to “beta or better” and submit them for the 2006 IGF.

The first couple of days didn't feel like anything special. It hadn't really had a chance to sink in with the staff that we were serious. It wasn't clear that we had the bandwidth to get any games to an acceptable quality level in the time allotted. We were thinking fat and lazy -- like a team that had been in a holding pattern for several weeks -- not like the hard-eyed-killers we really were. The task ahead was so far outside of any reasonable scope that it was difficult to even talk about.

At the time our line-up looked like this:


Animal Kingdom was a turn-based strategy game intended for multi-player-across-the-Internet play. It was working as a rough single player game against a random AI, with prototype class art in 640x480 resolution, and some nervousness internally because the U.S. portal sites aren't commonly supporting online multiplayer games. For this game to be submitted it would need a face lift and a move to 800x600, a reliable network architecture, a matchmaking service, and all of the polish and balancing associated with a duel style network game.

Gem River was in better shape. It had the potential to be a polish hog and suck days and weeks of production time getting details just right. It only had one level and it wasn't clear exactly how we would create a complete game. There were a lot of reasonable paths in front of us but none of them were clearly superior.

Bubble Wars was part of an internal initiative called BYOM which was an acronym for Bring Your Own Mouse. We developed a series of prototype games intended to create the console party-game feel on a PC. These prototypes were a skunk works project developed by a couple of staff members in their spare time. This game had no metaphor, no art (was done with programmatically colored circles and lines), no balance, and no real support internally. It was generally acknowledged as an innovative formal abstract system but nobody believed we could turn it into a shippable game until Harry Mack, our audio designer, smacked it with his amazing talent.

Arrrrrr! was another game from the BYOM project but much more of a crowd pleaser. It had one of the most powerful advantages you could give any game -- it was about pirates. After losing a couple weeks of production time to Sid Meier's Pirates when it stole the hearts of half the staff and personally losing several months to Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates I knew that it was MY DESTINY to make a game about pirates.

Lastly there was a game called Magical Word Garden. Magical Word Garden was perhaps the sorriest case of all in that it was generally agreed upon that the idea would, as Andrew Leker is fond of saying, “just work.” The lack of conflict over the potential of the game led to an almost insurmountable conflict over which direction to take it. It seemed everyone on the staff saw a perfectly clear path to a great game but no two of those paths looked the same. There were no art resources available to work on Magical Word Garden but the great game that I saw wouldn't require a real artist.

With client work and only two weeks to ship five games to IGF we had chosen to shout, “Damn the torpedoes!” and swing for the fence. We did this fully aware of the risks that come with not having enough time and resources. Clients simply had to get their deliveries so all of the schedule risk would be taken by our IGF projects.

August 25th, 2005 - 4:15 PM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA




How Bubble Wars became Bubble Symphony.

As we entered into crunch mode it was our technical team that kicked into high gear first. Benn Herrera was very excited to be working on a Mind Control game that would meet the public. Since joining MCS he had been bounced from adver-game, to infrastructure, to technology, to adver-game, and when he was assigned to work full-time on Arrrrrr! he went a little crazy. He started staying in the office for days at a time. He was like a puppy playing until his head got too heavy and then collapsing in whatever corner of the office was handy to sleep. Someone had to be first into the breach.

One of the few things we had going for us with this crazy project was Mind Control's Orbital Engine and "Skeleton" project. Mind Control Software has had several titles running on Orbital go through the complete development lifecycle including external quality assurance. This means that many kinks have been worked out and that our underlying technology is very stable. Mind Control also created and maintains a project called "Skeleton" that has a standardized framework for housing our games. Basically it is a branded game with no game in it -- Mind Control splash screens lead to a main menu with buttons for play, options, instructions, etc… All of it is functional including the options for volume, full-screen, and credits. We can have a fully functional prototype running inside of Skeleton within hours.

It was critical that our games get a lot of play-testing so that we could iterate and refine them before the submission date. Our prototypes did a decent job of proving the fun in the core mechanics of our abstract systems but we needed them to “feel” like the games they would eventually become to get maximum benefit from the play-testing. This meant that one of the techniques we might have used to mitigate the schedule risks would not be available to us. Rather than following the production path that offered the most overall efficiency and chance of success our art team had to take the path that allowed for the most absolute speed.

In order to place greater focus on the quality of the games we placed additional strain on our already impacted art team. This meant that rather than allow our art director, Thomas Denmark, to focus on an individual game for a day or two until he had skinned each game, Thomas had to provide some assets to each game then come back and finish them later. The situation was complicated even further when a client requested some additional art mid-week.

Once again we faced the client vs. IGF conflict and, of course, we focused on the client. This meant that our IGF submissions, or Thomas, had to suffer. Thomas took the bullet for the team and put in several overly intense days to compensate. Overall this was a net positive for the team and the games but it was the most awkward set of competing requirements I've ever had an artist navigate.

Several steps were taken to mitigate some of these art risks. First, we offloaded a large quantity of UI design and production art to a producer, Darren Koepp, with a degree in art and amazing instincts for visual design. Next we removed almost two entire projects from the art schedule. I was already working on an art solution for Magical Word Garden that would minimize its art requirements and the lack of art bandwidth gave us the excuse to commit fully to the alternative art approach. Lastly we decided that with only some minor tweaking the game Bubble Wars could keep its prototype art and still pass muster. With these items removed from Thomas' plate he was able to balance client fulfillment work, producing a minimum set of assets for Arrrrrr!, the technical art analysis for moving Animal Kingdom from 640x480 to 800x600, and mentoring our new artist Ben Van Dyken for the rest of the week.

Most of the production and design staff was completely booked until the Friday before Labor Day weekend so for the remainder of the week prior to the deadline the efforts to get the games ready for IGF felt desperate. Much of the staff had commitments for the weekend so while we made good progress we didn't really get the kind of momentum we were hoping for. Nevertheless, we had proof of concept on the art for Arrrrrr! and had been able to perform considerable testing and tuning, a plan was in place for Animal Kingdom, Ben had cranked out a bunch of assets for Gem River and was up to speed, we had met our client commitments, I had worked out the process hiccups for the Magical Word Garden art, several team members had committed to working the weekend, and the entire company agreed to come in on the holiday to focus on our IGF submissions for all of Monday and Tuesday.


September 1st, 2005 - 12:45 PM
My living room, San Rafael , CA

The weekend brought scattered work in the form of Herculean efforts on the part of programmers Marc LeBlanc, Benn Herrera, and Jason Nuccio while I sat at the coffee table at home with my son and colored with crayons. I would come into the office late at night after my son was in bed to add moral support and help out. We made steady progress with the addition of several mini games in Arrrrrr!.

September 5th, 2005 - 10:00 AM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA

On Monday the rest of the staff returned. It's weird after an intense weekend of crunch time to see the office full of people again. It always feels like you haven't seen them for a long time. Knowing that Tuesday was going to be “the day” most people left early (“early” Heh! 8 to 10 PM) so that they would be strong for the big push on submission day.

Thanks to Matthew Douglass, our programming equivalent of a shortstop, we finally had matchmaking working for Animal Kingdom and work continued on its resolution change. Michael Ruppert, another producer, optimized the game-play crayon art for Magical Word Garden. However, at the end of Monday morale was not high. There was good reason to question our ability to get all of the games across the finish line in time. The Animal Kingdom work was taking longer than anticipated and none of the games had menus, credits, or instructions yet. Harry Mack, our audio designer, heard someone playing Magical Word Garden and decided it sounded like a coffee maker. The game would need all new audio.

September 6th, 2005 - 1:30 PM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA

10 hours, 29 minutes to deadline...

The first few hours of Tuesday felt a lot like Monday as some of the production staff dealt with obligations to clients. As we entered into the last 12 hours before the IGF submission deadline all hell started to break loose and the excellence of our team really started to show. Suddenly, in the background we heard:


You're the best!
Around!
Nothing's gonna ever keep you down
You're the Best!
Around!
Nothing's gonna ever keep you down
You're the Best!
Around!
Nothing's gonna ever keep you dow-ow-ow-ho-how-ho-own

Which was pretty funny at first but then people started telling me to shut up.

6 hours, 26 minutes to deadline...

We ordered dinner from a local Indian restaurant. This is a Mind Control standard for when people are working late. I was in the middle of something so I skipped the buffet planning on eating later. Ed Baraf and Benn Herrera's wives come into the office to help test.

Harry Mack was forced to do most of his work on headphones but was finally able to hear the sound coming from speakers in real game-play situations for all of the games. With only hours left he realized that most of the audio levels were off and began the process of normalizing and tweaking.

Jeff Kolb cried, “What we need now is a montage!” and voices from all over the office answered, “MONTAGE!”

5 hours, 4 minutes to deadline...

The entire team was in the groove, well-fed, and aggressive. The atmosphere in the office was charged and reminded me of movies that show the floor of the stock exchange. It was so loud I could hardly see with ten computers blaring five different games and 16 staffers shouting questions, answers, requests, and the montage song across the office.

Even Rocky had a montage…

MONTAGE!


Tensions mount as the deadline approaches.


4 hours, 42 minutes to deadline...

I went to Thomas, who was undoubtedly the most impacted person in the company, to inquire about a particular asset, a parrot, for Arrrrrr!. Some sarcasm dripped on his shirt as he said, “Yeah, I'll put that on the list.” But then his good nature got the better of him and within eight seconds he had cranked out a wonderful parrot. Art was being finalized and integrated so fast that new units of measurement would be required to accurately describe it.

3 hours, 38 minutes to deadline...

The majority of the remaining Animal Kingdom art was delivered to the project's lead engineer Jason. Our primary file server locked but no one panicked. We operate with professional best practices and tools. No data was lost and we were back online within minutes. A new EULA was written for the IGF and integrated into all of the games.

The emergent polish of the games Gem River, Animal Kingdom, and Magical Word Garden shamed me into taking another look at Bubble Symphony. Several of the icons and play pieces were generic with a programmatic number or letter used to distinguish them. Tynan Wales, an artist and designer, stepped in to produce new assets.

I decided that I should eat but didn't want to take the time to make a complete plate so I just grabbed a half-full container of chicken tiki marsala and spooned some rice on top. I ate my way through the thick mixture while finalizing some of the Magical Word Garden art. As I reached the bottom of the container I realized that all the chicken had been picked out and my dinner had been rice and cream sauce.

2 hours, 52 minutes to deadline...

It became clear that Animal Kingdom, Magical Word Garden, and Bubble Wars needed new names before they were submitted. Discussions had already been had on this subject so we achieved consensus very rapidly. Andrew had won several awards for game design and the staff did not offer him a choice when Animal Kingdom was branded Andrew Leker's Stomping Grounds. There had long been concern that the crayon art used in Magical Word Garden could be interpreted as temporary art rather than a style choice. Marc felt that using the word crayon in the title would make the game look gimmicky rather than telegraph intention so we settled on Timmy's Magic Word Garden. Everyone agreed that Bubble Wars needed a new name and Bubble Symphony was the only reasonable suggestion to hit the table so it won by default.

Less than two hours to go and our newly restored file server was publishing iterative builds of five games like a Skee Ball machine spitting out tickets. Menu art was integrated into all of the builds. Ed Baraf and Darren produced credits and instruction screens for Andrew Leker's Stomping Grounds, Gem River, and Arrrrrr! while I clung to the delusion that I would have time to do these screens for Timmy's Magical Word Garden and Bubble Symphony. The push to get all of the submission text for each game heated up. Most of the easy stuff had been done but serious text was still needed for Timmy's Magic Word Garden and Arrrrrr!.

1 hour, 59 minutes to deadline...

The name change causes build problems for Animal Kingdom. Marc LeBlanc is asked to handle the bulk of the documentation for the Arrrrrr! submission but is under constant attack from people who need last minute asset integration, build troubleshooting, and bugs squashed.

28 minutes to deadline...

Harry Mack is asked to proof read all of the submission documents. I completed a draft of the credit screen art for Timmy's Magic Word Garden but was struggling with spacing and size issues.

14 minutes to deadline...


A finalized screenshot of Arrrrrrr!.

Harry raced through the office to ensure that the latest audio levels were integrated into all of the games. The final art integration for Andrew Leker's Stomping Grounds is completed and the final build is made. Darren steps in to fix the Timmy's Magic Word Garden credits. Jeff Kolb, our production assistant, and Ed Baraf, another producer, convinced me that I was out of time and stepped in to help create instructions screens for Timmy's Magic Word Garden and Bubble Symphony.

9 minutes to deadline...

Andrew started the submission process for Andrew Leker's Stomping Grounds at 11:50 PM with nine minutes to spare. Estimated upload time was over an hour for the 19 megabyte game.

7 minutes to deadline...

Andrew attempted to start the upload of Gem River only to discover that he could only upload one game at a time per client. While he filled out the web form so that he could simply hit the submit button when the first upload completed I started the process on my workstation 8 feet away. Andrew whipped me the company credit card like a shuriken while several staff members stared with sick fascination at the estimated upload time on his computer.

3 minutes to deadline...

I ran from my workstation into the programmer pod and practically shoved Marc out of his seat so I could start the upload process for Arrrrrr!. In my nearly panicked state of mind I thought that I would save time by booting Marc since I had already filled the form out once and could therefore go faster. As I sat down I realized that Marc's 3m EM500GPS Ergonomic Mouse required skills I didn't possess and I moved so he could do the data entry. Marc asked for the credit card just in time for Andrew to arrive and say, “Move, I can do it really fast!” and for the second time Marc was bounced from his chair.

As Andrew typed I asked him how the Andrew Leker's Stomping Grounds upload was going. “Oh, that is done - Gem River is uploading now”, he said as if he was surprised I didn't know. I dove back to my desk to discover that the spike in upload times hit my machine too and Timmy's Magic Word Garden had also completed. While Andrew finished the process for Arrrrrr! on Marc's hijacked computer, I got Bubble Symphony uploading at my desk.

0 minutes to deadline...

“And… TIME!” shouted a voice from the somewhere in the office.

“Are we in?”

“We… are… in!”

On queue, just like in a movie, we all began to high-five and cheer. I have it on good authority that we managed to do this without looking like total dorks.

September 7th, 2005 - 12:15 AM
Mind Control Software Headquarters, San Rafael , CA

Surrounded by a hazy glow we popped the cork out of a champagne bottle and drank a toast before finally, after days of hard work, we had an opportunity to dim the lights and simply enjoy our games. I found it amazing that this group of extraordinary game developers would, after all of this, linger in the office for a chance to sit and play their new games together.



______________________________________________________



 

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