Spring Cleaning, Check

11 Mar

There’s been a lot of list-making going around lately. I have one of my own for all the things I’m personally attending to this spring break – checking things off on a dime as soon as they’re accomplished. With as much micro-managing as we might perform on our weekly tasks, it’s easy to let our long-term endeavors slip by unnoticed when we’re neck-deep in them. For the first time in months, it’s above thirty or more degrees in Cleveland, and I can’t help but take a few minutes to reflect on things before moving forward from the frying pan and into the fire of BFA thesis projects.

It’s closing in on a year since we opened The Escape Route last April. Since then, a lot has passed, hit a dead end, completed, and most of all begun from scratch. Admitedly, we haven’t done the best job of logging all of that here. There’s a lot to do before we achieve any sense of closure on our experiences attempting to pioneer game design at CIA this coming May, so I thought this might be the time to make a list of all the things we’ve taken on these past few years – where they’re at now, and why.

Taking on new-media productions with ridiculously stubborn deadlines will always comes with a negligence for house-keeping after awhile. Data gets lost, file naming conventions are left behind,  hard-drives fall under the temptation of gravity and descend from high distances – well, you get the idea. So without further ado: a list explaining those projects and to-do’s that we were just too busy to find a home for:

What’s the deal with all the talk about Source-Engine, L4D, TF2, etc.? I recently gave a lecture on the Source engine, as CIA is now officially integrating it into their Level Design course with the academic accounts Valve/Steam provides ($10 a year/account = amazing deal). The lecture called for a description about why Source is so good to begin with, and it reminded me of why we chat about it so much, both on and off the podcast (I’ll be making this presentation available here publicly in the near future). I’ll make no bones about it: Source was simply the epicenter of game design for us – it took many of our personal dilemmas, desires, and enthusiasms with the medium and gave us a set of tools to realistically explore them with.  Additionally, we found Source when the Orange Box came out – which basically gave us all the game assets we’d need for a super affordable price: this package was any college student’s dream.

I can speak on behalf of the group, as well as from experience, that it encouraged us and gave us every reason to make an about face on what goes into game development. It gives you reasonably raised windows to stand on your toes for, peer through and gain a ton of perspective on the process, both as an artist and/or programmer. Our appreciation for what it takes to make any game, inventive or not, has changed ever since. Within two hours you can go from nothing to a fully functioning capture the flag map, and it really won’t look too shabby. Between Jim and I we’ve made six TF2 maps, Cory’s made a small Portal mod, and as a team we started construction of an entire L4D campaign. That’s not too shabby either, if you ask me.

What happened with the L4D Campaign Project? It’s more or less been confirmed that serious support for custom content in L4D is nigh existent. I’ve had several other mappers in the Source community share their grief with me when trying to get the Director to obey their designs, so I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t just us. We’ve indefinitely put the project on the shelf, and for one hell of a portfolio piece it’d be worth picking back up and seeing through in the future. We had only several weeks to make the campaign really come together, and by the end of the semester we had a couple video captures that sold our goals to the class – showed we made strides, but then summer came along . We all moved around geographically, internships took off, and before you knew it another semester was upon us.

Not to mention, L4D2 hit, and for the most part the development team and us were on the same philosophies toward level design. Obviously, they beat us to the punch before we could count to ten. In addition, our Fall semester was upon us and that meant designing two games at once: one for our Game Production course, and one each for our BFA thesis projects. Inevitably, large priorities got shuffled around within a matter of days.

What is ChromaWaves? ChromaWaves is the iPhone/iPod Touch game we spent the last few months developing as our project for the Game Production course with CWRU. You can find out all you’d need to know about it at www.chromawaves.com, or by listening to our current mini-series for The Modcast. As much as we would’ve liked to make an official write-up about it, and as exciting as it is being so close to the game’s official release this Spring (a first official video-game for most of us), the podcast does the job for us and even then it feels overwhelming.

We were enrolled in the course, and really had not much choice but to move onto the game regardless of where other projects were at. From day one we wanted to make a game we could finish and publicly release, mostly in response to the results of last year’s projects, notably our unreleased XNA (XBox 360) game, Waterworks. While the game was nearly done, and featured rather ambitious multi-player components given its time-frame, not nearly enough of the programming team was willing enough to see it through a release. As soon as that semester ended, so did development. More or less, Waterworks seeing the light of day publicly unfortunately fell out of our hands.

The Modcast. It sort of just happened – for years now Jim and I have been listening to podcasts each week on the games industry, and after awhile I really wanted to do one of my own. Naturally we had a cast of voices built in, and we’d often huddle around and talk through our design quandaries in the studio anyways. Being a recording musician on the side, better resources for recording came into my possession, and before I knew it we had the ability to record these conversations for a podcast of our own. Matthew then whipped out his snappy UI/Graphic design skills and fashioned our lovely construction logo on the left, making reference to Source’s world building tool, Hammer, featured in all of our episodes’ artwork.

It’s taken some time to find out what works. The audio-fidelity in episodes one and two was sub-par at best. The format is rather experimental – rarely consistent, cutting the fat through narration and segments completely re-ordered to deemphasize tangents or weekly news, and highlight a consistent theme that (hopefully) resonates throughout game-design any day of the year. Anyone interested in the medium can find something they probably care about just as much as we do, especially if you’re a student learning the ropes too, by comparing our experiences and discoveries with their own.

For us, it’s a reason to get us together in person outside of the studio-environment and chat about things long after they’ve passed – giving us time to consider and reconsider what we might talk about next – and hopefully start to build more of a shared dialog on game design. With the podcast, our discussions aren’t trying to be the audio equivalent of Twitter feeds and breaking headlines  – there are shows that do this far better and slicker than we ever could, and there are plenty of them. Having limited time in even smaller pockets forced any creative license I may have had with a show I could produce during this time in my life, and I’m glad with how things are turning out. Being able to gush a bit on ChromaWaves as we near the end of its development cycle was a huge relief, and the show provided a neat outlet for that to occur – hopefully it serves as something useful for other student developers to reflect on too. Sitting on a project like that for a quarter of the year and keeping our lips sealed the whole time was not only difficult, it was impossible with how busy it kept us.

We’ve also been really fortunate to have some impressive guest-voices and get what recognition we have from smaller studios and voices in the industry/media of games. Now, with ChromaWaves nearing its release, things are at a strategically interesting juncture. Once we’ve graduated, it will be difficult to call the podcast by the description its been branded with already, “Students of Game Design”. Most of the cast has shown an interest in keeping the show going beyond our efforts at CIA, and giving a voice to the process we’ll take going into professional careers – a wheel that’s already been turning throughout this semester for many of us. Besides, let’s face it: student or not, you’re always learning. Hopefully our good friend Alex Morsch will be available to return to the regular cast as we retool late Spring, while the ChromaWaves mini-series continues through the release of the game. After that though, we’ll be taking a much needed break to actually finish our thesis work and get degrees.

What projects are going on now? The other games and productions we’ve each taken on separately alongside making an iPhone game last fall have all broken the Winter levy and spilled into the Spring semester. Sure, it might seem odd to not make a peep about projects that have been so near and dear to us for half a year now, but when you’re not busy talking about it, chances are you’re busy making it. Cory, Jim, and myself have all taken on game design projects of our own, individually, for our BFA thesis work. Matthew chose to work closer with the realm of more fixed digital media, mainly 3D modeling, and chances are you’ll hear about these projects in a future Modcast after school is over and we actually have data/audience feedback to discuss from our BFA Oral Defense Reviews. Yes – we’re just as nervous as that probably reads on the internet. If you’re really curious though as to what some of us are up to, you can follow us on what are essentially visual journals at CorkShare, a new social media website out of Cleveland (which I happened to design the logo for – another project that’s kept me away from this place). You can check out Matthew’s board here, and mine here respectively (you don’t need an account to view boards, but I’m sure the founders of CorkShare wouldn’t mind the support!).

If you’re a reader of The Escape Route, you’ll probably notice that we’ve done away with over half of our categories from when we started. All the ones that pertained to our roles on the L4D Metroparks campaign were never used too often, and really just pointed towards the same thing: thinking out design ideas. So, I decided to consolidate those all to the Mapping Out Ideas category: any post or write-up that deals with simply thinking out loud regarding a design issue/idea, you’ll comfortably find there. On the other end of the spectrum were posts that held more factual information, tips, etc. and can all be found in the still-alive Tutorials page. We’ve all learned a lot more since the posts contained within were written,  so you’ll probably see some more robust guides find a home there this summer whenever we find the occasion.

In general, we’re cleaning house and rebooting things here. I’ve got a couple other plans in store to make this a communal space for two purposes. 1.  Ourselves as young artists, looking forward to our professional careers – broadcasting our collective and creative ongoings as I planned to last fall. 2. A voice for even younger artists still unfamiliar with this process to take a piece of advice or two away from, and feel a little comforted about a college education in game design – which is mostly still emerging in today’s world.

In an uncommonly speedy return for the show, the next Modcast will be available tomorrow. Long over-due post, check.

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