The ArtSpark Chronicles - Part Two: The Game

With the ArtSpark Festival on its way, interdisciplinary teams are being formed for the competition. In part two of this three-part series, author Greg Wilson shares the inspiration and development steps of Team Impromptu.

The ArtSpark Festival is a game design/theatre production competition taking place in Austin, Texas. For more information, please see The ArtSpark Chronicles, Part I.

Previously in the ArtSpark Chronicles

Our team, a group of strangers brought together at the last minute under the name Team Impromptu, had just received an envelope containing our “spark.” The spark was meant to serve as creative inspiration for our team’s project; therefore, it would help define the boundaries of our creative efforts for the next three months.

Part II: The Game

When we opened the envelope, we were surprised to find three separate file folders. Each one contained several pages of information around a specific theme; each folder was, in essence, a different “spark.” Rather than being a single item—as in the “practice challenge” we undertook during our Orientation meeting—each spark consisted of a collection of different things. One folder contained items related to music, such as guitar tablatures and song lyrics. A second folder contained a printout of an online matchmaker service profile, as well as a news article about a man who dated a woman he met over the Internet—only to discover later that it was his own long-lost mother!

As unexpected and interesting as these sparks were, our team didn’t immediately recognize the potential to create a marketable, story-driven game concept from either of them. It was not until we opened the third folder—labeled “To Infinity and Beyond”—that we felt our own creative sparks ignite. The folder contained a satellite image of Mars, several cartoons themed around Martians, and a URL that led to an online academic paper detailing a plan to colonize Mars. Though we did not rule out the other sparks completely, this one captured our imagination and easily set the stage for a number of marketable, story-driven concepts.

Team Impromptu members hard at work.

Now we just had to come up with a specific concept on which to concentrate our efforts. We thought up several different ideas, any of which would have probably resulted in a pretty neat game; they ranged from a multiplayer vehicle-based “race for colonization” to a single-player survival horror experience set in an isolated Martian research station. The idea we ultimately chose started with a simple premise: What if Earth really had been invaded by Martians in 1900, much as it had in H. G. Wells’ classic novel War of the Worlds? And how would that event have shaped human history? The resulting concept is set in an alternate 1920; instead of fighting each other, humans have banded together to protect each other against another Martian onslaught. When the Martians fail to return, the global military organization known as the United Earth Alliance—in an effort to preserve its own purpose, as well as to maintain continued peace between nations—decides to launch an assault against the Martians on their home planet. The game, titled Empires of Mars, would be a first-person action adventure with the player assuming the role of an eager grunt soldier named Nat Henderson.

The artists on our team immediately set to work capturing the unique visual style suggested by the premise. This would be critical to conveying the idea of an alternate history, and could potentially provide a valuable marketing hook by offering gamers a world unlike any they’ve seen before. The notion was to combine “steampunk” elements with the visual style of Golden Age sci-fi, mix thoroughly, and see what we ended up with.

We then had to decide what would be shown in our playable demo. Though we didn’t have much time to create one, we knew a playable demo was one of the deliverables expected by the ArtSpark judges at the end of the competition (along with a design document and marketing strategy). After fleshing out the storyline in more detail, we realized that the main character was far from the static archetypal hero usually seen in games. In fact, he—and consequently, the player—experiences a powerful dramatic arc over the course of the story. Since this is hard to convey in a short demo, we tried to figure out a way to incorporate “story moments” that offered a glimpse of the larger game world. We also wanted to include at least one contextual gameplay moment that, even though the demo would be nothing more than an early prototype, was cool enough to make a player say “wow.”

Vehicle model by Toren Lehrmann.

One proposed solution for offering “story moments” within the demo involved using voice-overs. Since the ArtSpark Festival also consists of several teams working to stage their own theatrical productions, we had several people with acting experience eager to volunteer their services. This is a perfect example of the synergy between creative disciplines that ArtSpark aims to encourage.

In addition to developing their own project, each ArtSpark team is also tasked with marketing their work for public presentation. For theatre teams, this means advertising their plays and selling tickets to performances. Fortunately for the game teams, we were not asked to sell tickets; instead, our game concepts will be unveiled at the Fielding Lecht Gallery in downtown Austin on Wednesday, June 7th starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free, and each game team will have several stations set up for guests to experience their playable prototypes. In addition, each team will give a 15-minute presentation on their game concept, followed by a 10-minute Q & A session with attendees.

To advertise this event, our team created two websites: one at, and one at The first is a fairly straightforward promo site for the game, while the second is a themed site designed to immerse the viewer in the alternate world of the game. It is meant to resemble a military recruitment site for those who wish to join the fight against the Martians. In addition, we created themed “draft card” invitations to send to several video game industry luminaries in the Austin area, as well as postcards featuring propaganda slogans and artwork.

The optimistic milestone schedule.

With just under three weeks left in the festival, our team still has a huge amount of work to finish. In just two months, we’ve already faced numerous unplanned setbacks, including technological issues and human resource issues. And the added pressure of creating marketing materials, as well as a public presentation, has stretched our resources to the limit. At this point, I think every one of us is wondering the same thing: when presentation night comes, will we be able to deliver?

[Find out in the next installment of The ArtSpark Chronicles.]



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