Lessons From Life on a Dev Team

It all started April 9th with the Demo Disc Game Jam, put on by the Dallas Society of Play (DSOP). That was my first time getting to work with a team to create a game. Usually game jams only last one weekend, which doesn’t really work when you work in retail.

This one, though, lasted for a month. I was thrilled to actually be able to participate for once. We ended up with a pretty good group of programmers, artists, a sound designer, and a writer (me). I knew some of the people from other meetups, but a few of the faces were new. It didn’t take us long to settle on not only an idea but an art style.

And we were off. We affectionately dubbed the game Woofenstein (since we borrowed some inspiration from Wolfenstein) and it was a 3D, low poly barroom brawler.

Not going to lie, half of the things that were included in the game started off as jokes. Some of them worked surprisingly well, especially some of the dog puns.

There were so…many…dog puns. It was ruff.

Along the way, though, I learned a few lessons.

Different skills are needed at different stages.

As a writer, I didn’t have much to contribute during the game jam. We didn’t have time to integrate a story or any sort of dialogue. I felt pretty useless at times, but I tried to make up for it by being supportive whenever I could.

I was also nominated as the project lead, which was awesome. My team was even more awesome, though, and practically led themselves. I couldn’t help but feel like I was nothing more than moral support. Imposter syndrome kicked in pretty hard.

Everyone was incredibly proud of how the game turned out, though, and most of our team ended up deciding to keep going. Now that we are no longer merely creating a demo during a short time period, I find myself with more to contribute. We are adding in a story. There are more moving parts now. We are starting to talk marketing and showing off at conventions.

Even though I did not have much to contribute in the beginning, since I stuck around and did what I could I find myself in a position to contribute even more. I am glad that I chose to stay along for the ride.

Because the ride just got a lot longer, and now I have something to bring to the table.

Be prepared for things to go wrong.

Things will go wrong. Technology will refuse to cooperate. There will be lapses in communication. Things will not be finished on time. That is just a fact of life. And you need to be prepared for it.

That is why you always need someone keeping an eye on everything. We almost didn’t have the game completely finished by the end of the jam (thankfully the end event was pushed back due to bad weather). We bumped into issues where people would be working on the same file and it would not save correctly.

Heck, my laptop died in the middle of the demo and we had to switch to someone else’s because I was a genius and forgot my charger.

The key thing is to stay flexible. Have plans in place for when things go wrong. Have people outside of the project who have more experience than you do that you can go to about any issues you may have.

And above all, communicate with people. If you make a mistake, own up to it. People may be frustrated with you at first, but it is better to deal with it now than later.

Note: there were no major hiccups, just a few small issues so far. Most of this is just general life advice.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew (especially if you are still on the last bite).

Feature creep is a real thing. One of the organizers at DSOP, Storm, stayed in communication with all of the teams to help keep an eye on things and make sure feature creep did not happen.

For those of you who don’t know, feature creep is when you keep adding cool little bells and whistles onto your project instead of focusing on the core fundamentals of said project. It is a slippery slope that is very easy to slide down, but it can tank your project.

By adding on so many new things to tackle you can easily find yourself completely overwhelmed with everything you have to do, especially if you are trying to do it in a very short time period.

Also, if you are not comfortable taking over a certain aspect of the project, don’t. Do not overcommit yourself. If there is someone else more qualified to handle something, let them handle it and offer to assist them. There is no shame in admitting that someone else is better than you at something. No one is the best at everything.

Don’t be afraid to share the load. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That is what your team is for.

Things will change and that’s okay.

If I am remembering correctly, the original idea that was pitched was to play as a dog in a helicopter fighting another dog in a helicopter. So, dog fighting (the term for when two helicopters/planes engage in aerial combat) dogs. Then our lead programmer mentioned wanting to do something that felt like the older Wolfenstein. Then another game was referenced. A few other ideas were pitched as well.

The game we demoed was very simple. There were four players with identical (and very stylish) designs. You ran around beating up the other players, occasionally picking up health and weapons. We actually had a lot of fun designing the weapons.

When we decided to keep going with the game, things changed. We have been talking about updating and stylizing the art. We obviously renamed it, because if we published it under Woofenstein things would not end well for us.

We have started talking adding more levels, including some that were mentioned at the beginning of the demo development. I think we have even settled on a basic story for the game. There is still a lot of work to be done and I have no doubt there will be a lot of changes between now and then.

That just comes with growth.

Whatever happens, though, I will always be thankful for this experience. I have learned more about programming, development, and working on a dev team than I ever could have outside of this. I am very excited to see where this road leads.

If you want to follow along our journey, check out our Tumblr or follow us on Twitter (there isn’t a whole lot on there now but there will be in the future, I promise).

 

Dragon Age Appreciation

Since I started replaying Dragon Age Inquisition, I have been on a full-blown Dragon Age kick.

Mass Effect may have sparked my interest in game writing, but Dragon Age is what cemented it. I have always had a thing for fantasy worlds. I mean, I practically grew up on the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. I love worlds that have magic in them.

When I started playing Dragon Age: Origins, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew it was a medieval fantasy world, there was something to do with Grey Wardens and darkspawn, and the world had magic. I knew nothing about the story or the tone. My roommate at the time knew slightly more than I did, even though she never played it before.

When it came time for both of us to start a new game, it was an easy choice. I had my PS3, she had her PC. With very little foreknowledge and nothing else to do, we dove right in.

By the time the intro was done I was absolutely hooked. It hit this sort of sweet spot both story and gameplay-wise that I didn’t even know I had. The more I learned about the game (from playing and from researching), the more I loved it.

The craftsmanship

Fun fact that I learned around the time I was playing DA2. The team that made Dragon Age spent 3 years crafting the backstory and the lore of the world before spending another 3 years developing the actual game.

And you can tell.

From the very beginning, you are immersed in this vast, open world that is embroiled in conflict, both social and physical. The decisions you make quickly begin to affect your story as you are recruited into the Grey Wardens. The level of detail when it comes to worldbuilding is astounding.

Throughout the three games, you keep learning more and more about the world, the people, and politics. You get to see life in Thedas from different viewpoints, and the NPCs surrounding you treat you differently based on your background and your race.

The complexity

As I said before, this world is intricate. From the start, there is a lot going on, the world is in chaos, and it is up to you to fix it.

Basically, when BioWare created this series, they were looking to create something dark and full of difficult decisions. They did a FANTASTIC job of this. I can’t count how many times I sat, staring at the TV for a full fifteen minutes, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

Dragon Age 2 was especially good at this. It was a much smaller scale than the other two games. You weren’t trying to save the world, just save your family. The conflict still feels very large and real (and complicated) and you are smack in the middle of all of it. That’s not even counting the number of times I made inhuman shrieking noises when faced with some of those choices. It kills me every time and I love it.

Dragon Age Inquisition ups the ante even more, with you fixing the known world. You have to be very careful with your choices, else Thedas end up more screwed up than it started. And it started with a massive explosion descending the world into chaos.

Don’t even get me started on the Trespasser DLC.

The community

So, the Dragon Age fan community is ABSOLUTELY amazing. Any time I meet another fan, we become instant friends. I know people who could spend hours and hours discussing every aspect of the lore. We also have countless content creators both on YouTube and Archive of Our Own as well as cosplayers, graphic designers, streamers, and more.

Needless to say, the community that formed around this game is vast. Almost as vast as the open worlds of Dragon Age Inquisition. And it is only going to continue to grow as we introduce our friends to the game. Heck, this game has even inspired several women to become game developers.

These fans are dedicated too. The entire community exploded after BioWare released a minute-long teaser trailer for Dragon Age 4. It may not be coming out until 2021, but we are more than willing to wait.

Because we are Wardens, we are Champions, and we led the Inquisition.

We are ready for whatever comes next.

Analyzing the Story of Uncharted 3

About a month ago I finished replaying the Uncharted series for the 3rd time (1st time streaming). They are still by far some of my favorite games. I had an absolute blast sharing them with people.

One of the questions that kept coming up is “which Uncharted game is your favorite?”

The answer to that one is easy. The 2nd one, Among Thieves. The way the story is framed in the beginning grabs your attention and the rivalry between Drake and Flynn was very well done, with Chloe as their go-between. The villain was dynamic and intimidating. It was great.

A Thief’s End (Uncharted 4) is a close second, being the absolute PERFECT way to end the story. The story of two brothers working together to finish their mother’s greatest work, intertwined with a tale of obsession and the destruction it can create.

Then there is the first one, Drake’s Fortune, that started it all. It did a fantastic job of introducing us to the main cast of characters. The treasure was one whose name everyone is familiar with, the villains had interesting personalities, and the twist was very cleverly crafted. Without its success, the others might not have existed.

The third game, Drake’s Deception, is the least favored of the games. The story was not as strong and some of the animations felt a little weird (but that happens sometimes). It was not a bad game, it just was not as good as the rest of the series.

I have been thinking about it for some time now and after my last playthrough, I have a few ideas on how to bolster the story in a way that would improve the overall experience.

The name is Drake, Nathan Drake.

This game definitely has a James Bond vibe to it. I mean, it starts in a very British bar brawl and some super sneaky tricky spy stuff. The villains, Marlowe and Talbott, are supposedly members of a secret spy organization that has been in existence since the time of Sir Francis Drake.

There wasn’t much talk about the organization itself, though. I would love to have focused more on that aspect. What is their purpose? How did they know about Sir Francis Drake’s mission to find the Lost City of Ubar? How did they know there would be something there worth finding? Why do they want it?

It sometimes felt like they were leaning too hard into the James Bond vibe while neglecting some of what makes Uncharted unique. Nate is not a secret agent. He is an explorer, an archaeologist, a historian, and, most importantly, a thief. He makes mistakes. He makes bad puns. He is goofy. I feel like we didn’t get to see as much of that, but that could just be me.

There was also not as much focus on the history and lore surrounding the lost city and treasure itself. The game focused more on the competition with Marlowe and less on what they were hunting for. That could have played a part in why people did not get as invested in the story as they did with the other games. 

Who is Marlowe?

Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe. Where do we even begin?

She is very enigmatic, very British, and very lacking in a background. We catch a glimpse of her relationship with Sully in the flashbacks to how Sully met Drake. There is no explanation as to why she needed Sully to help her get the ring, why she wanted it, or even how she and Sully know each other. Throughout the entire game, Sully doesn’t tell us anything about her that we didn’t already know, even though it was pretty clear he knew her well given their embrace during the flashback. We also learn that she knows about Nate and how Sully took him in. Yet we are given very little information on her.

We also have Talbott, who is her second in command and obviously very attached to her, given his anger at her death (spoilers). That is all we know about him and their connection.

I want to know more about their position in the organization as well as their connection. I want to know why they have been sent on what is basically a wild goose chase. What are they hoping to accomplish?

If the ring fits

We know that Drake and Elena were together. They both have rings. They are obviously not together anymore.

I have two questions about this. Were they married or engaged? Some people may say it was married because he had a ring, but sometimes the guy gets an engagement ring as well.

Second, what did Drake do?! Things are definitely tense between Drake and Elena. He screwed things up somehow. We don’t know how long it has been since they broke up. I just want to know what happened!

All in all, it was not a bad game. The puzzles were fun and challenging. The scene with the plane was a lot of fun to play through. The Lost City of Ubar was absolutely gorgeous. And the ending was satisfying as we see Drake and Elena reunited once more. I just wanted more of the story and the culture and the mythos surrounding the lost city and the treasure.

I really did enjoy this game and I absolutely love the series. Analyzing the stories is a great though exercise and a good way to study story structure.

N7 and the Impact of Mass Effect

Happy (belated) N7 Day everyone!

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a bit of a BioWare fan. Especially Mass Effect. It was the first game series I ever played on my PS3. Can you blame me?

The love started long before that, though. My sophomore year roommate introduced me to the series. In fact, our bonding time included me knitting dishcloths (for Christmas presents) while watching her play Mass Effect. We made it almost all the way through all three games.

It wasn’t until I first played the games for myself that I was hooked. And man did I get hooked.

The music. The storytelling. The characters. The world. It drew me in. Enthralled me.

It was then that I decided that I wanted to write for BioWare. Playing through Dragon Age sealed the deal (more on that later).

I think one of the things I loved the most about it was the power of choice. I got to control the character. I got to control their personality, their morals, how they interacted with the world around them. I was Commander Shepard, and the crew of the Normandy was my family.

I wasn’t just going through the motions of playing a game, I was deeply invested. Even though I had already seen most of it, playing through it myself added more depth and meaning to the experience.

It was my first time ever being able to design my character and choose their backstory. The death of Jenkins hit me hard, as did Nihlus. I wanted to save them, but I couldn’t.

I felt a sense of validation when Garrus offered to help me take down Saren. Then Wrex offered to join after I took down Fist.

I was so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get to Tali in time, and so relieved when I realized she was going to be okay.

I will never forget the sense of pride and accomplishment when I was made the first human Spectre.

The rest of the journey was a whirlwind of discovery and bonding with my crewmembers (especially Kaidan). Helping Garrus and Wrex right a few wrongs from their past further secured my feelings of friendship towards them. My heart stopped beating for a few seconds during the standoff on Virmire before I was able to get Wrex to stand down.

I will forever regret not being able to save both crewmembers on Virmire.

The second game was even better, with a wider diversity of characters and worlds to explore. Working for the Illusive Man felt a little weird, but the rest of the crew became family. There was a thrill that went through me when they revealed the Normandy SR2 (still does every time). It was tough, though, having to deal with the loss of two years. So much had changed.

The crew I gathered for the suicide mission soon became a second family, populated partly by old friends from the first game. The world became so much bigger.  

When we went through the Omega 4 relay, I could not take my eyes off of the screen. I hoped and prayed that I had not missed any of the upgrades needed to protect my crew, and I breathed a sigh of relief when everyone came out unharmed.

That entire mission was intense and satisfying. Though nothing was as satisfying as telling off the Illusive Man.

The third game was filled with heartbreak. I hated leaving Earth and cannot listen to that song without getting emotional. The whole process of building up the army and uniting the entire universe was tough, but oh so rewarding.

Having to play through Tuchanka and then going immediately to save the Citadel nearly left me in tears. How am I supposed to process the death of Thane when I am still getting over Mordin, who literally just died?

Then there is Thessia. I had no idea what was coming. I never made it this far watching my roommate. The pain in Shepard’s voice….

Don’t get me started on the Citadel DLC.

Long story short, this series was rich with ups and downs and events that I will never forget. That is thanks to the story and how it was told.

The story didn’t control me. I controlled the story. At least to an extent.

This was really powerful. It forced me to think hard about the situation, about what I would do. The game forced me to live with the consequences of my actions.

I honestly think this game made me a better person. It has made me more open-minded, more accepting of those who are different than me. It has also helped me form fast friendships with some really cool people.

The story of the game itself is kind of fascinating as well. BioWare had already published a few successful games, Jade Empire and Neverwinter Nights. They were basking in the spotlight after the success of Star Wars: The Old Republic (a great game). So they decided to take the leap and make something new. An IP that was 100% their own.

That is how Mass Effect was born. Since then a massive fan community has grown around it. It has helped people through depression, through loss, through very stressful times in college *cough cough*.

I also know for a fact that I am not the only woman inspired to become a game dev by these games. I was talking with a former TellTale game dev who is currently working on a new game with Mike Laidlaw, The Waylanders RPG, and she mentioned that she too was inspired by these games. Most of her friends were too.

This leap of faith has had an impact beyond anything the devs at BioWare could ever have expected. Today, people all over the world are celebrating this franchise and what it means to them. People whose lives have been changed for the better. People who have gathered into communities, who have come together to make a difference.

Mass Effect first released in 2007. Now it has a total of 4 games and a huge, devoted fan community.

It’s been one hell of a ride.

The best.