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Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, we talk to the four-person DigiPen Institute of Technology team about their IGF 2008 Excellence in Visual Art & student finalist Synaesthete

Patrick Murphy, Blogger

January 8, 2008

14 Min Read

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, we talk to Zach Aikman, Joseph Tkach, Andrew Maneri and William Towns of DigiPen Institute of Technology about their IGF 2008 Excellence in Visual Art finalist Synaesthete. The freely downloadable student game, which is also a Student Showcase winner for the 2008 Independent Games Festival, is a music-driven, arcade-style shooter that aims to synthesize the senses through its integration of light and sound. What kind of background do you have in game development, and how has your DigiPen experience been? Zach Aikman: The first game I ever finished developing was a role-playing game about a white blood cell who traverses the human body, fighting off a deadly infection in the brain. It was a graded project for my high school biology class, and I think that was the first time I really knew for sure what career I wanted to pursue. The only tools I had available to me at the time were a copy of RPG Maker 95 and MSPaint. My DigiPen experience has been fruitful thus far, and afforded me many opportunities to improve my skills as a programmer, designer, producer and team player. By working on multiple projects from start to finish, I've gained a better understanding of the game development process and how to avoid common recurring mistakes that can kill a project once it's off the ground. Above all, I've been given the incredibly opportunity to socialize and network with other like-minded individuals, without whom Synaesthete would not have been possible. Joseph Tkach: My only background in game development is that I love games. I'd programmed a few little projects before college, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I always wanted to make games, though. When I was younger, that's all my friends and I would talk about. I think DigiPen is a great place, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to make video games. You have to work so hard it's surreal, but the opportunities are certainly worth it. So would I do anything different? I think a more relevant question is: Would I do anything the same? Andrew Maneri: I've been doing amateur/indie game development since I was really little (starting with QBasic around 6 or 7). I mostly made clones of popular games like Sonic or Mega Man, and got a feel for how those games were polished. [I did] a lot of art work too, like emulating the graphic styles and working on animations and the like. The DigiPen experience has been amazing. They teach you how to handle the workload you'll get in the industry, amazing coding techniques, and just lots of hands-on experience (For example, before making Synaesthete, we had already made two other games for the school). If you're really serious about what you want to do, you'll make some amazing contacts here, too. William Towns: We're just students, so we don't have much experience in game development. We have created games for previous annual projects, but not much outside of that. DigiPen has given us all of our experience and as such has been a great experience. What motivated you to create a game like Synaesthete? ZA: I think that for all of us it was very much a labor of love. Sure, at times it felt a lot like a school project; yet throughout it all, it was very clear among the rest of the team that we all had a personal investment in the project besides just a letter grade. Everyone brought something different to the table, and so it was pretty easy to find that motivation to do what needed to be done. It was the most fun I've had working on any game so far. JT: "Realistic" games never really moved me that much. I appreciate them as technical achievements, but the games that move me are the ones that do something different. I really like arcade-style games, and I'm addicted to flashy eye candy. So I wanted to make a game that played kind of like a music visualization app. AM: Synaesthete was Joe's baby. He pitched the idea to me on the way back from [getting] teriyaki, and I knew I wanted to be part of the dev team. Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation? ZA: The original concept was Joe's, but it's gone through various changes over the past year, just like any good design does. Most of the implementation ideas and additional design elements we brainstormed while sitting around and talking about what things worked and what things didn't work in our game. A lot of inspiration was drawn from games such as Rez, Beatmania, Diablo and Geometry Wars, both in terms of graphical style and gameplay mechanics. We're all pretty big fans of classics such as Sonic, Mega Man and Zelda, so there were definitely some homages paid to the sorts of games that we all played growing up. JT: Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines, Meteos, Space Channel 5, Every Extend Extra) is my idol. Everything he makes is gold. Every game he designs is like nothing anyone has ever seen before. I love music games, and I love his sense of style. I'm also a huge fan of the guys at Bizarre. The people who made Geometry Wars and Boom Boom Rocket really speak to me. But the project borrowed little touches from so many other games. I can point at almost any feature at all, and then talk about how someone on the team liked feature X from game Y, and how we were inspired by that. AM: I was more involved with the presentation, in those areas we drew upon a lot of retro-inspiration, those classic games everyone on the team had fond memories of. Which means that a lot of our transitions and splashes have a very Sonic-Zelda-Mega Man-ish feel to them. Coding-wise, a lot of our implementation came from our instructors and upperclassmen going on and on about good programming practices. We went component-based, which turned out to be an awesome move. I want to mention the Zaikman here too. Joe had asked for a simple figure, like a stick-man. For that kind of look I took a man, simplified him into a more Gumby-like figure and then stylized the proportions and lines to give him a kind of funky-feeling. All the other enemies in the game ended up being based on this same process, except applied to different animals or archetypes. WT: For implementation, we drew a lot of inspiration from class projects and what upperclassmen have said to us. What sort of development tools are used by the team? ZA: FL Studio was used for composing all of the audio. Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and Visual Assist X were both used for all programming tasks, along with TortoiseSVN to keep track of our source code repository. Adobe Photoshop and 3DStudio Max were used to create our art assets. We used Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 as our graphics API and Microsoft's XACT audio authoring tool to import audio assets into the game. Finally, Lua was used for scripting. Beyond that, everything we did was our own work. What do you think the most interesting element of your game is? ZA: I like to think that the most interesting element of our game is the amount of polish we put into it. I've always believed that what separates the good games from the excellent games are those little flourishes and details that make you stop and go "Wow...that's really cool." We tried to include as much of that as possible in Synaesthete, because that level of attention to detail isn't something you normally find in student games. JT: I can't really say what would be most interesting to other people, but I personally have an obsession with particle effects, and to me that's the most interesting part. But then again, I also wrote all of that, so of course I find it interesting. I guess I really like the retro feel of our game, but I wouldn't really say that's the "most interesting" part. AM: Personally, I like how the dual gameplay really shines during boss battles. It's a little more controlled during those fights and the potential of the game shows through. WT: The need for the player to multitask by focusing both on movement and on beat-matching. Roughly how many people have been working on and contributing to Synaesthete, and what has the development process been like? ZA: The core development team consisted of four guys - myself, Joseph Tkach, Andrew Maneri and William Towns. The other two people who have really done a fantastic job of helping out with the game are Katie Bridwell, who voices the sexy sounding RoboLady in the game's tutorial, and Daniel Moyer, who created the texture work in the Like A Child vision. The development process has really been a blast. I've had a great time working with the rest of my team and hope to do so again in the future on another collaborative project like Synaesthete. They're all very talented individuals, each in their own way, and we never had a dull day working on the game. JT: We had a core team of four, but there were three or four people who would listen to our ideas and give us feedback. We did a lot of focus testing within our school, so sometimes when other students at DigiPen would play it, they'd give us good feedback. The first part of the development cycle was burdened by all of our other classes, but in the last four months, it was a pretty solid sprint for just the game. We used an agile development process, and we had a couple of faculty advisors at DigiPen. We tried to have as many people look at the project as we could, and then we'd try to work off of their reactions. One time, a kid at the summer workshops said, "When you press blue and green together, it should shoot a teal laser". That was a really brilliant idea, from our perspective, so we used it. AM: There are four main developers on the team, Zach, Joe, Will, and Andy(myself). Our instructors, Chris Erhardt and Benjamin Ellinger, also contributed a lot to setting up tests and giving us really good feedback on how to refine this game. The other contributions of note would be Katie Bridwell on the tutorial and Dan Moyer providing level textures for the "Like a Child" vision. The development process was in two phases. During the school year we balanced classes and built the game engine, getting the initial gameplay prototype built. During the summer we really got hardcore into getting the content in place and constantly testing and iterating. That was the big change over the summer, just watching people play a level, see where the gameplay was failing or frustrating people, and fixing the underlying problems. The weekly testing is really what polished our gameplay into something that feels really good. WT: Four developers, and bits and pieces of help from another dozen or so. The development process has been rough, but very satisfying. The four of us became a very tight-knit group; learning of each other's good and bad habits, how to work with each other, and how to have fun. If the team had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently? ZA: Most of the things I'd consider doing differently are structural changes that would've made it easier to add certain features to the game later on in the development cycle. JT: Knowing what I know now, the code would be way better, almost everything would be different. The list is too long. It would be the same game, but all the details would change. Making a game is a pretty big growth experience. You learn a lot about a lot of things. AM: We originally started out supporting network play (this was my job), and while it worked, we realized it didn't really add anything to the game, so we cut it out so I could focus on physics and creating the characters, bosses, and their AI. That happened over the summer, and I wish I had spent the whole school-year working on those areas too. I found I really am happier and more effective when I have sort of a visual-programming dual focus. On that related note, with more time to develop the bosses and characters, I think we would have focused the levels more on those interactions, making entire levels extended boss fights; The Voxel King and Evil Zaikman battles feel really good, better than the regular level interactions in my opinion. I would have loved to expand that kind of interaction to a majority of the game. WT: Yes. We would have focused on building strong tools from the beginning. Great tools make great games. What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire? ZA: There's a lot of really sweet indie titles out there right now that I'd love to get my hands on. Fez, in particular, is one of those. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for colorful pixel art, or any game that can claim to use voxels (or similar technology), but that game looks like a lot of fun. JT: A lot of our competitors at IGF really interest me this year. Unfortunately, most of the ones that I really want to play don't have public demos. I'm eagerly looking forward to playing Aquaria, and I'm really impressed with the Darwinia guys. Indie gaming seems like the only place where you're truly free to experiment, to make the games that you need to make for yourself. Synaesthete was a game that I needed to make, because it came from the place in my head where I know what games I most want to play. I certainly hope to work in the industry once I graduate, but I think I'll always try to produce indie titles, because that's where you have the most freedom. AM: I think it's pretty awesome - I see new indie developers showing up all the time and new organizations offering support for them. It seems like indie gaming is kind of like the 'farm-system' for gaming, and when something really sticks it gets pulled into one of the bigger organizations. If that's how innovation has to happen and bevaffordable, I think it's fine. As for an indie game out that I admire right now, I'm going to have to go with the Streets of Rage remake. That thing is so polished and full-featured, I was having big flashbacks to all the good times I played that game with my brothers on our genesis. WT: I have a lot of respect for independent game developers. It's not easy creating games with little or no funding. It's also much riskier and the returns may not be as great. However, I'm confident that as long as there are creative people out there, independent games will be made. One of my favorite independent games is Cave Story by Pixel. It taught me that it isn't a large budget that makes a great game -- it's dedication and a desire to create. You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it? ZA: By giving small teams of indie developers the resources they need to focus full time on projects of their choice, we could see so many unique innovations in the game development industry that it would make heads spin. Somebody needs to capitalize on this! JT: Please quit making the same first person shooter ten times a year with slightly better graphics. There are an infinite number of possible game mechanics. AM: Those awesome student developers you find in various colleges and high schools? They need tuition money and rent. Sports teams sign people who are in school -- you should be doing the same. WT: Although I may not live past the next 30 seconds, you (the game business) should hire the other three guys on the team. I assure you, they're quality guys! Should I somehow recover from this 30-second death, you should hire me too!

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