Hardened by Fire: the Trials of Producing a Student Capstone Game
Full Steam Fury (working title) is a third-person, over-the-shoulder, fast-paced robot combat against many enemies game. It plays something like Dynasty Warriors and looks like a steampunk-inspired, militarized dystopia. However, Full Steam Fury wasn't always the game I just described. In fact, it used to be quite a bit different.
I came onto the project as the game's Producer right after the team's Proof of Concept Gameplay milestone. The "POCG" was their second major milestone, following Proof of Concept Technology, which was their first. I was told going into the project that there were major issues with the project, but that the team was very talented, and if they were better organized, could make a spectacular student game. I will list the more potent issues I was made aware of going into the project:
- The team had a lack of vision. This permeated into several categories including the game's theme (steampunk), core mechanics, narrative, player goal setting, and more. No one could agree on what the story was, how it translated to building out a believable world, both in terms of art direction and world building, and how that translated to mechanics that made sense for the game. For me, the game had turned into a melting pot of ideas that while each one in their own right was interesting, in the soup they all felt bad and mismatched. When I came onto the project, the game was a third-person platforming and combat game involving ranged weapons, and "knock up" and "knock back" melee moves. Allegedly, the game's story was about a crotchety old man who, fed up with the bureaucracy not doing anything about people on his front lawn, climbed into his mech suit and started to wage war on the city. It may also help to note that when playing the game, you didn't feel any humorous elements coming across.
- The team leads couldn't agree on anything. The Game Designer wanted to create the game a certain way, his way. The Lead Level Designer complained that the Game Designer wouldn't stop interfering with relatively inconsequential level design decisions. The Lead Level Designer would then just argue on and on until a week or so later, nothing had been accomplished in the level.
- The other leads were not performing very strong leading either. The Lead Programmer spent time working on a melee combo system that ended up being cut. The Lead Artist had a few problems. For one, he could not keep his artists on track because they were apathetic from all of the arguments happening on the other side of the room. Also, they were creating assets that were overly expensive. Many artists had to spend time doing rework to increase game performance. (In a milestone as early as Vertical Slice, the game having performance issues is fairly bad news).
- Because of the constant bickering between Leads, the rest of the team was quite apathetic as one can imagine. When I arrived, no one was interested, motivated, or passionate about making the game anymore. Even worse, some people did not know what it was they were supposed to be working on.
I arrived in at the beginning of the Vertical Slice sprint. The team had two weeks to reach Vertical Slice Interim Milestone (an internal quality check), and another two weeks to reach Vertical Slice proper. For the first week, I talked with each team member, asked what they thought the major issues were, asked if they were motivated, etc. Almost everyone told me that they didn't think their game could be on the same fun or quality level as previous capstone games at the Guildhall. Many team members openly admitted they no longer cared to work on the game because of the incessant turmoil between the Lead Level Designer and the Game Designer. At this point, I knew that I needed to get down to the root problem of the team communication issues. The infighting was almost certainly causing the design issues as well. I knew that if I didn't figure it out quick, the team might drive themselves into the ground.
Solving the Secondary Problems First, the Game's Vision and Motivation
In my opinion, whether it was right or wrong, I thought it would be good to tackle the problem of the game lacking a clear vision that was understood by all team members. I knew that the dysfunction happening between some of the Leads was, in fact, a larger and more menacing problem. Maybe due to my inexperience, I thought that I could work on the team dynamics over time by having the problem makers share small successes each day. However, that problem is for later.
To solve the game vision problem, I decided to pull a desperate but necessary card from my belt: the reboot. I would not normally do this. I don't think that for most projects this would at all be a smart or good idea, especially so far into the project. However, at the rate that the team was going, the Capstone game would have been a failure had it continued. However, as an added bonus to the reboot, if I could get everyone to unite behind the banner of a new and improved game vision, it would also inherently solve the problem of motivation for most, if not all, team members.
On Tuesday of my second week, we had the Reboot Meeting. I had prepped everyone the day before to bring fresh ideas for a game restructuring, but didn't say much more. I controlled the meeting very tightly to keep it on track. At the beginning, I stated that there were rules:
- Anyone who wasn't interested in the game design could just keep working through the meeting.
- People not involved in the discussions could throw ideas into the mix and then get back to working if they wanted.
- Anyone could leave at any time to take a break.
- Anyone could leave the conversation at any time to start working.
I then asked a series of questions and timeboxed the discussions that the questions raised.
- 15 min. - What is the game right now? Not what is it designed to be, but playing it, what is it? (I projected the game up on a projector and played through it while they talked).
- What are the core mechanics?
- How do enemy encounters work?
- One of the artists flowcharted on the board as the team discussed
- 15 min. - What about the game currently isn't fun? Be specific and describe encounters and mechanics explicitly. (We played through the game some more and highlighted specific examples.)
- Agree on and write on the board 4 things that are not fun about the game
- 15. min - Remember back to when you were excited and passionate about this game. What was it that made you passionate?
- At this point, I allowed the team to talk about iterating on the current game design. What could they do to make the game design better, more coherent, etc?
- Even during the brainstorming, I told the team to document what features would need to be added and what features would need to be cut to make the game work for each proposed scenario.
That was the general structure of the meeting. Each discussion took about 20 minutes instead of 15 and we took a break in the middle. Towards the last question, I began to loosen the meeting structure to allow for more freeform and creative discussions. In that three hour period on Tuesday morning, we came up with the new vision for the game: making use of a loadout system (swapping out 9 weapons on the fly) to fight enemy robots in an open world. I made sure that the new game design was in scope and we were off.
Vertical Slice Milestone Feedback - Level Designers Need to Pull Together
At Vertical Slice, the team had come a long way. After the Reboot Meeting, almost everyone had picked up their shovels and had started to work because of their renewed interests in the game. The game vision was still on track with slight iterations here and there (part of normal game development).
The communication between the Lead Level Designer and the Game Designer had improved only marginally, and the other level designers kept working on designs that ended up changing. My inexperience as a Producer had led me to believe that I had been helping the communication, but in reality, I had let it go past the point of civility. Up until this point, I had tried:
- Talking to the Game Designer alone
- Talking to the Lead Level Designer alone
- Planning a meeting between the two, where they would agree on and document each other's responsibilities, decision-making powers, and approval pipelines
- Meeting with both the Game Designer and Lead Level Designer and facilitating Number 3 above
- Observing the above fail when they began to argue again
- Administering peer evaluations (from other team members) to the Game Designer and Lead Level Designer and providing some of my own advice on how they might improve their communication with each other
- Observing nothing getting done in the level in time for the Vertical Slice milestone due to too much talk and not enough action
Two faculty grade our milestones. A brief summary of their notes for the Level Design department follows:
- There are no monster closets; enemies spawn in front of the player
- Enemies feel underwhelming even though 30 can be on the screen at one time
- Are you going to set up matinee for the objectives?
- In the outside environments, the player character feels huge, and in the interior environment, he/she feels tiny as a mouse
- What are the mission objectives?
- How do I know where to go?
- Is there any story behind this game?
In my opinion, the reason that these questions had not been answered was because of the persisting communication problems between the two Leads. At this point, I decided to ask for help. The faculty were of course helping a little the whole time, meeting with the two Leads without me present, etc.
During the course of the following week, I conducted two meetings. I conducted a meeting with all of the Level Designers and the faculty in the same room where issues were brought to light in front of everyone. This helped clear the foul air in the level design department so that they could sigh and start fresh. I also conducted another meeting where the Game Designer and Lead Level Designer agreed precisely over which areas of the game they had decision-making power and which areas of the game they did not. In my opinion, the second meeting (agreeing on responsibilities and areas of decision-making power) has netted the best results for team dynamics out of all of the actions taken above.
Mid-Alpha Thoughts - Conclusion (for now)
We are halfway to completing the Alpha sprint and hitting the Alpha milestone. If you have watched the contrasting videos of the game above, I think you will agree that the game has come a long way, in all of the right directions. The problems stated above have all but evaporated. Even the communication between the two Leads has solidly improved. This is mostly due to the team members themselves doing a great job of keeping high morale, celebrating each other's victories, and working tirelessly to improve their methods of communication.
I am happy to say that Full Steam Fury is fun and we haven't even hit Alpha yet. Oh, and for reference, all of the above occurred over the course of five weeks, which is very little time in the scheme of things.
If you want to play the latest build of the game, or play the other two current Guildhall Capstone games, you can visit:
Goodbye for now,
Ben Roye, Producer for Full Steam Fury