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Capstone Post-Mortem

The Vale Visions team looks back on their time with Capstone, a twelve-month project tackled by students in Algonquin College's Game Development program, and share a review of the successes and failures they had throughout production.

What’s Capstone?
For those unfamiliar, Capstone is a project in Algonquin College’s Game Development program. It sees teams of eight to twelve students collaborate on a game over the course of three semesters. Our team, Vale Visions, began with nine members—selected of our own accord—that covered a breadth of disciplines: programming, modelling, writing, and animation all had representation in our lineup.

We managed to develop two titles over the twelve months we were given. The first of them was a rough prototype called Provectus, a first-person on-rails shooter, while the second was a game called Kotame, a stealth-action adventure where the player controls two robots in search of refuge. Provectus was developed during the first semester of Capstone, totaling four of our months, and with the downtime provided by the program in the following two semesters, our time producing Kotame could be said to encompass six and a half months in all.

As a team of students still cutting our teeth on game development and learning how to work with previously unexplored 3D technologies like Unity and 3D Studio Max, we encountered plenty of roadblocks, hurdles, and headaches along the way. Some things went right and some things went wrong—if nothing else, it was a learning experience for everyone.

What Went Right
No one in our team came into Capstone uncertain of their strengths, so we were fortunate to be able to decide our responsibilities right away. Everyone came in with the confidence to create, too, so for all intents and purposes we held a strong starting position.

Looking back, where we went right was less about the games themselves and more in how we were structured as a team: organization, leadership, and the freedom to iterate served as a productive foundation for us.

Organization & Management                             
From the outset, our writer took on a managerial role in the team. He took care of the work no one else wanted to tackle: recording meeting minutes, preparing the scrum board, and writing all manners of documentation. This approach enabled us to keep our talent focused on their respective disciplines and allow them to avoid busywork wherever possible.

A common problem we heard from other Capstone groups was the burden of maintaining documentation alongside production. Thanks to our decision to have one member in charge of management and overhead, we were able to keep our spreadsheets and other documentation updated regularly without taking time from other departments.

Artistic Leadership
For both Provectus and Kotame, our strongest area was the art department spearheaded by the design team. This success can be attributed largely to our art lead, who took an active approach to expanding his skillset and exploring different ways to enhance the games’ visuals outside of our studies. After each misstep we took during development, he would quickly rebound and explore solutions to ensure we’d get back on track.

The assiduous attitude our art lead brought to the table not only bolstered our games’ visuals, but promoted a strong working relationship among those in the art department. Members of the team knew to approach him when they needed work, and were confident he would give them the right tasks and support to accomplish them. Suffice it to say, productivity was high with our art lead at the helm.

Reflect & Reassess
When we finished our first semester of Capstone, we realized that the project wasn’t shaping up well. The prototype of Provectus was finished at the time, but we could tell that it wasn’t a concept worth pursuing further: there were too many design and technical problems for it to hold any promise.

While this opinion did face opposition at first, not to mention how our program discourages restarting Capstone projects, the team eventually agreed that changing course and attempting a new direction was in our best interest. Compare Provectus and Kotame after the same production period, and we’re inclined to believe this decision was right for us.

Division of Disciplines
Near the beginning of our Capstone project, we divided ourselves into two teams: design and technical. The former saw our writer, composer, texture artist, and art lead together, while the latter was comprised of our programmers and technical lead.

This structure helped keep us organized and aid in tracking the division of labour among our members. It served us best in the first semester of Capstone, where we had an active technical lead, but we continued to operate as two teams through to the end of development without incident.

Iterative Development
Thanks to Vale Visions’ size and scope, we were able to have someone specialize in audio and animation throughout development. This afforded us opportunities to have the aforementioned areas reviewed and revised regularly, allowing the content to be as presentable as possible by Capstone’s end. The positive feedback we received from players informed us that the focus and time committed to both disciplines paid off.

What Went Wrong?
Our peers and professors took note of us when our team was first established—we looked great on paper, after all. We had members that were considered quite strong in their respective fields, but while we were seen as having excellent odds for success, a great outcome was in no way guaranteed.

Although opinions on what we submitted remain mixed, there’s a reasonable consensus that Provectus and Kotame didn’t reach the quality many of us believed we could deliver. This was to be expected, though, since our development cycles for both titles were plagued with problems: group dynamics, motivation and communication all had their parts to play in our shortcomings.

Technical Leads Abound
We went through three different technical leads in our three semesters of Capstone. During our first semester working on Provectus, one member of the team held the title. External commitments led to him being unable to continue filling the role in the following semester, however, so the team was pressed to assign the role to another member.

Admittedly, we executed poor judgment with this decision, as our selection was frequently absent and not committed to the project. It left our programmers in disarray and reestablishing leadership for the technical team proved difficult. Our solution was to hand it off to our art lead, but his time was already strained. Although he put in a commendable effort, he reasonably couldn’t give the additional role the time it demanded.

A Matter of Motivation
College Game Development has a different dynamic than hobbyist efforts or commercial production. We weren’t working for hourly wages or doing the deed for free: each of us had put money down for an education. There’s a feeling of entitlement when your own funds are being put into your work, and that can serve to bog down motivation when things aren’t meeting your expectations. We were left with a difficult question: how do you motivate people who feel entitled to their experience and just stop caring? …We never found an answer.

Negativity ran rampant during development as well. We tried our best to discourage it being openly discussed, as it proved to impact a few of our member’s morale, but the dreary discussions persisted right the end. Moreover, external influences pushed negativity further and played a part in motivational decay. A couple of our members were dealing with depression, while others had to juggle jobs alongside their studies—stressors were abound and we struggled to support them effectively.

Design Disaster
It was clear early on that our team was made up of people with varying tastes and values. Where we went wrong was allowing these perspectives to stand firm and interfere with development. Some of us wanted to play it safe and stick to a proven formula, while others wanted to try novel concepts; some campaigned for simple mechanics, while others promoted complexity. How differently we looked at game design should have been a red flag when we formed, but we paid it no mind.

Without firm design decisions made during the preproduction phases, we allowed the visions for our games to be lost and replaced with a mesh of disintegrated ideas. In a sense, everyone got a piece of what they may have wanted, but that ensured no one would be satisfied with the end result—what would best serve the games seemed to be an afterthought.

Demerits & Deserters
As a long-term school project, we weren’t able to simply fire someone from Vale Visions if they were underperforming. Any one of us would be given six chances—six demerit opportunities—before we’d be removed from the group and set on a solo project. We exercised the demerit system on occasion when work wasn’t getting finished and no reasonable explanation was provided, but we were far too lenient overall.

As we approached the finish line and were readying ourselves to submit the last build of Kotame, we decided to abolish the demerit system and trust in the team to deliver on their tasks. This decision backfired. Without fear of penalties, there was a steep decline in productivity from which we never quite recovered.

Communication
Throughout Capstone, we struggled most with communication. As the project pressed on, feelings of discontent grew and were nurtured by silence. Many of us had strong opinions on what was going wrong with our group dynamics, but confronting them proved difficult enough to be left unspoken.

Tensions were often high, with outbursts and unprofessional conduct becoming commonplace in our work environment, but it was all brought to a head midway through our final semester. With the promise of professor intervention on the horizon, we sat down for a team talk to resolve our interpersonal issues the best that we could. While painful and uncomfortable for everyone, the extensive discussion allowed us to clear the air and press on towards the finish line as a team.

Onto the Future
With our team now disbanded and graduating from the Game Development program, we can look back and refer to our Capstone experience when pursuing our future ventures. We made plenty of mistakes throughout the production of both Provectus and Kotame—we underestimated the challenges of group dynamics and struggled with motivation along the way—but we managed to organize ourselves well, gain a handle on the responsibilities of leadership, and learn to collaborate within a small cross-disciplinary team.

Thanks to our time with Capstone, we can confidently say we’re entering the industry with our failures and successes in mind, and practical experience under our belts. What more could we ask for?

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