Postpartum: The Curious Tale of an Unexpected Visit

Charlie in the basement

Postpartum: The Curious Tale of an Unexpected Visit

 

 

After weeks of hard work in Richard Lemarchand’s CTIN 532 ( Interactive Design and Production I) class at the University of Southern California, I am happy to say we are (almost) ready to bring ‘The Curious Tale of an Unexpected Visit’ to the world.

 

This essay is a reflection on my own experience bringing this project to life with a fellow classmate, modeled on the popular style of “postmortem” review processes that follow the conclusion of project in most creative studios. In his class assignment brief for this final essay, Richard mentions Anna Anthropy and her suggestion to use the term “postpartum” instead of “postmortem”, reinforcing the idea that the conclusion of a process does not mean something has died, but rather that something new has been brought to life.

 

The point of this postpartum is to examine and analyze the 15-week development process of our game as well as my learning and growth process throughout the class, which marks the halfway point of my journey at USC’s IMGD MFA Program.

 


 

About CTIN 532

 

Before I dive into the postpartum itself, I’d like to take a moment to briefly talk about the class and the context in which our experience came to life.

 

Interactive Design and Production I  is a required class in the IMGD MFA Program curriculum, taught in the third of the six semesters of the course. Our instructor, as I mentioned before, is Richard Lemarchand, former Naughty Dog Lead Game Designer and now a professor in the USC Interactive Media and Games Division.

 

This class, as Richard puts it, is one in which we get to acquire some good new habits, and shed some bad ones. For an entire semester, we get to work in small teams of two or three people to create one short but compelling interactive experience in the course of one semester, with the highest level of polish.

 

The class foundation incorporates elements from Agile Development and the Cerny Method’, with great emphasis on using an iterative design cycle guided by a project experience goal, a method widely adopted at USC Games.

 

I like to think of it as a class where we learn to harmonize the practices of design and production, the objective and the subjective, the audience and the aspects of our own design, while tackling the challenges that arise while working in a collaborative environment.

 

My partner for this project was my classmate Dave, a game designer, computer scientist and animator.

 

 

Overview

 

The 15 weeks of the semester are divided into four project phases, as seen in the chart below.

 

CTIN 532: The 4 Project Phases | Infographics by Gabriela Gomes

CTIN 532: The 4 Project Phases | Infographics by Gabriela Gomes

 

In the following sections, I walk through each of these phases and reflect on our design and production processes, as well as what went well and what didn’t.

 

Phase 1: Ideation (or ‘Discovering by Doing’)

 

Brainstorming, individual prototypes, lists and lists of ideas. The Ideation phase is about discovering what our project will be, and in our case, letting our prototypes lead the way. My partner & I came into the class without any particular direction in mind, and so there was a lot of freedom to explore a variety of themes and ideas.

 

From the very beginning, Dave & I established our working and meeting hours, and we did manage to stick to those until the end of the semester, with occasional weekend working meetings, which I will talk more about later.

 

In this Ideation phase, we established one major ground rule: We were not allowed to talk about our ideas and plans for the individual prototypes. After our brainstorming sessions, we would go our own ways. In fact, we would keep it a secret until Friday, when we would finally sit down to playtest each other’s prototype, having no idea what the other had been working on during the week. This allowed us to explore themes and ideas without constraints, and to surprise each other with new ways to approach a topic or goal that had maybe been discussed during brainstorming sessions.

 

My first individual prototype, A Study of Light, was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel and a quote from architect Louis Kahn.

 

“We are born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it’s evoked by light.”

 

CTIN532 Prototype 1 | A Study of Light from Gabriela Purri R. Gomes on Vimeo.

 

In this prototype, I asked the question, “How do I convey the idea of form being revealed through light and shadow, while establishing a metaphor with the human condition?”. My goal was to let the player be surprised by the revelation of unexpected details that would hopefully establish that not everything is what it seems.

 

Although I enjoyed the exploration of this theme, I had no particular attachment to the idea, and decided to move on for the following prototype.

 

At this point, Dave and I did not have a clear direction for our project yet. The ideas coming out of our brainstorming sessions were still very broad, and we were ok with that.

 

For the second prototype,The Visit, I had a thematic idea that I decided would guide me through the design process. This idea was about rituals in our day-by-day lives. I chose to explore the ritual of organizing your house before you receive any visitors. This is something familiar to all of us, and because of that, we don’t spend much time thinking about it. But if we do, what do we learn or feel about it? I established an aesthetic goal for my players, how I wanted them to eventually experience this thematic. From these, I defined my mechanics, which I hoped would be successful in creating absurd dynamics that invoke laughter and surprise. As the player, you must throw all of Émilie’s ‘scandalous’ objects out of the window before her brother arrives.

 

CTIN532 Prototype 2 | The Visit from Gabriela Purri R. Gomes on Vimeo.

 

What happened then that week was quite magical.

 

With completely different starting points and approaches, Dave & I ended up making prototypes that not only had the same mechanic (drag and drop), but also explored the same thematic: throwing things (or objects) away. In my case, out of the window, and in his case, into the trash.

 

Our prototypes dealt both with the hesitation behind this action, encouraging players to decide what to throw away based on their own personal history. These were also about finding interesting experiences in the mundane.

 

Interpreting this coincidence as a sign from the universe, we decided at last to join forces and take this idea one step further. For our last individual prototypes, we chose to each answer one question that playtesters have asked about our previous versions, while sticking to Richard’s prompt of creating a ‘Bad Version’ of the project.

 

In The Visit, players often asked themselves who they were in the context of the game. And so I decided to explore the identity of the player in it very literal sense. While discussing the playtest outcomes, Dave & I came up with a list of possible answers to the question, and the most ridiculous and interesting one was establishing that the player was a steampunk robot maid. In the ‘Bad Version’, I ask myself … What would that literally be like?

 

The Visit 2.0

The Visit 2.0: The player now sees the world through the eyes of a robot maid whose comments on the objects are in binary code.

 

These last prototypes, although quite absurd, really helped us extract the essence of what we were making in our Project Goal Statement.

 

As we approached the end of the Ideation phase, we worked together to create a Project Goal Statement, which would guide us through the rest of the semester and project phases. We made several revisions throughout the first weeks of pre-production, following feedback from the class community and our instructor, and this is what we have ended up with.

 

 

Ideation Phase Recap

 

Key Learning Points

 

/ One of the most memorable sentences Richard shared with us this semester; ‘’We are not designing until we make a decision”. This was, in fact, the hardest part of this Ideation process. During our brainstorming sessions, I felt confidence in the direction we were going, but it was not until we actually wrote these experience goals down that I realized how important it was to extract the very essence of a project from the very beginning. As we did so, I suddenly had more confidence to move forward, and a commitment that was, at the same time, both an exciting challenge as well as a guiding light for the rest of the semester.

 

/ Before making a prototype, always ask yourself: What question am I answering? Am I trying to solve any problems?

 

/ Playtest, playtest, playtest. You might think your prototype is ‘not there yet’, or too incomplete, or maybe too abstract. You’ll be surprised how it can have its own life when a player starts to interact with it. Show it to everyone, even those you think might not like or understand it at all. Magical things can happen. Or not. And that’s ok.

 

Things that went well

 

/ Dave & I came into this class with an open mind. I felt we were both open to let our prototypes lead our way. I wanted to learn and make something I would be proud of, and I was ready to go unexpected ways. By keeping expectations and personal preferences aside, I believe we were able to make something unique while maintaining a healthy and respectful working environment. The ‘why not’ factor played a big role in our team’s dynamic.

 

/Before the semester started, we had established I would be the Lead Programmer and Dave would be the Lead Artist. I personally pushed this idea, as I initially saw it as the ultimate opportunity for me to officially consolidate my programming skills acquired over the past semesters. We agreed we would be mentors to each other and trust our roles. By the end of the Ideation phase, I realized this class was probably not the right place to refine new skills, but rather focus on collaborating with what you do best, for the greater good of the team and the project. Being the Lead Programmer suddenly felt like a selfish move, and potentially a risk of failure for our project. Giving up on this idea I had been so sure about for months was hard, but it was the best decision I ever made this semester.

 

Things that didn’t go so well or that could have gone better

 

/ I wish we had explored more brainstorming methods and ideation techniques during our initial meetings, as I feel we didn’t have many productive brainstorming sessions as a team.

 

Phase 2: Pre-Production (or ‘Figuring out what we’re doing by doing’ or ‘Fail early, fail fast, fail often”)

 

Pre-Production was the project phase I struggled the most with. This is the time where we get to make a short piece of our game, a publishable first playable that lets us evaluate how our project is coming together with its core mechanics implemented to a high degree of polish, and a ‘beautiful corner’ that is a fragment of what our game will feel like.

 

Our first deliverable was a Project Design Macro, a reference document that ensures we continue traveling towards the right direction while designing our game. It’s the big picture, a set of commitments that are an overview of our project’s design.

 

CTIN532: Project Macro

CTIN532: Project Design Macro (early draft)

 

The second deliverable was the Burn Down Chart, a document used to track the amount of work left on a project versus the remaining time left.

 

CTIN532: A section of our Burn Down Chart (template provided by Richard Lemarchand)

 

Finally, the most important deliverable for Pre-Production is the Vertical Slice, which I described above as a polished demo of our core gameplay.

 

Throughout Pre-Production, Richard encouraged us to practice “concentric development”, which basically means building a project in a modular way, focusing on fundamentals first before moving into secondary aspects of our design.

 

After three weeks of hard work, we built a vertical slice that had a demo environment reflecting the same level of polish we were aiming for the finished game, as well as our main character’s core abilities and mechanics.

 

CTIN532: Vertical Slice | Meet Charlie, our clumsy robot.

CTIN532: Vertical Silce | Pick Up mechanic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-Production Phase Recap

 

Key Learning Points

 

/ Concentric development is the bit of rapid prototyping I had been missing. I haven’t mastered it just yet, but it’s an idea that has sparkled a change in the way I create interactive media.

 

Things that went well

 

/ We were very successful, I believe, in polishing our player-character and the basics of its movement, as well as its look and feel. We focused our attention in its minimal details and ‘juiciness’, which paid off as we saw how much it impacted the audience’s perception of our work.

 

/ As this was a crucial moment to build the foundations of our game, Dave and I decided to work together in the same room as much as possible. This included informal working sessions during some weekends, where we were able to iterate faster on each of our tasks by gathering instant feedback from each other. These also helped us bond outside the typical working environment.

 

Things that didn’t go so well or that could have gone better

 

/ Being both the Narrative Designer and Lead Artist, I had a hard time focusing on both aspects for our Vertical Slice. While focusing on building a ‘beautiful corner’, I was not designing efficiently, and the environment built at this stage was not carried over to production. Because of our tight deadline, I aimed for a modular approach to my level design and narrative, but ended up getting lost in the process and wasting precious production hours. In the future, I will aim to establish a structured pipeline and workflow from the very beginning.

 

Phase 3: Full Production (or ‘everything comes together!’)

 

In Full Production, we have four weeks to reach Alpha (feature complete) and 2 weeks to reach Beta (content complete). With two Formal Playtest sessions, we also had the chance to gather feedback and data from a larger and more diverse audience.

 

Metrics Chart | Each circle is when a player clicked on NOTHING. We made some design changes in the environment based on this data.

 

The Curious Tale of an Unexpected Visit – Pre-Alpha Sneak Peek from Gabriela Purri R. Gomes on Vimeo.

 

Key Learning Points

 

/ Active TODO lists for both team members in one Google Doc is the way to go. We tried Trello and Asana, but for such a small and fast-paced project, a more dynamic environment turned out to be most efficient.

 

/ Scope is everything.

 

Things that went well

 

/ I managed to stick to healthy working hours throughout most of this project phase, only pushing extra hours as we approached Beta. Each day of my week was extremely structured this semester and this was a game changer.

 

Things that didn’t go so well or that could have gone better

 

/ I wish we had gathered more relevant data during our Formal Playtests. We briefly discussed our ideas, but in the rush of the moment, the questions we asked were not always pertinent to our project or to its current form. I believe we could have avoided some design problems by addressing the data with more care.

 

/ In our second Formal Playtests, one major part of our system was fundamentally broken. Not technically but in terms of design. We were still refining it and didn’t see how flawed it was until we say how frustrated our players were. The data gathered that day almost mislead us into a deeper hole, and although we managed to fix our system, I believe that we have made unecessary changes based on that playtest, and did not have the chance to approach the problem from its roots.

 

Phase 4: Post-Production (or ‘to Gold Master and beyond!’)

 

The crazy perfectionist in me agrees that this is one exciting project phase. Post-production is about polishing our project to the highest level of excellence possible. But not just that. We have to make sure our game is functional, complete and balanced, without making any major changes and breaking things.

 

I believe we achieved this milestone with a strong piece, but yet still with a couple of elements that require further refinement. Nevertheless, I am very proud of what we achieved in so little time.

 

The Curious Tale of an Unexpected Visit – Promo Video from Gabriela Purri R. Gomes on Vimeo.

 

The truth is, I feel we have maybe just started another iterative cycle. As I see more players interact with our work, I identify areas that maybe haven’t got as much attention during the semester, and have great potential for improvement.

 

About collaboration & communication

 

Overall, Dave & I worked really well as a team. Our roles were clearly defined from the beginning, and I believe we had the ideal ‘left brain right brain balance’. We both seemed to trust each other’s strength and respect our differences. By constantly seeking feedback and advice from each other, I think we established a safe space to express our opinions, and acknowledge the value of what we each bring to the table. This does not mean we were always in agreement. In fact, often times we weren’t. How did we make it through? Well, we both knew how to listen to each other’s arguments, and have a healthy conversation about it. Whenever we were unable to agree on a certain aspect, we would often say that magic sentence, ‘let’s playtest it”.

 

What now?

 

The experience of the class has truly helped me mature as a designer and collaborator. I feel more prepared to give and receive feedback, and more confident as a project manager. I realize, more than ever, the importance of working with someone who is smarter than you in some kind of way that complements your own skills. Until this Fall, I had been trying to excel in different fields, worrying about the skills I couldn’t grasp as well as others. But the key to creating amazing and successful work is to surround yourself with people you can trust, and who can help you grow as a designer and as a person everyday. And this is one of the key learnings I would like to bring to my thesis project. I feel like I know what to look for in my future collaborators, and I hope I am able to have a similar enriching learning experience as I did this semester.

 

There are obviously many other things that I solemnly swear I will not forget to apply to my thesis semesters. Besides all the great project management methods and production habits, I would like to carry over all the communication skills and techniques I have been introduced to this semester, not just from class but also from Creativity Inc. Things like braintrust meetings, feedback techniques like the Sandwiching Method, or the ‘I like, I wish, what if…’ help build a greater sense of community and trust in a team, something I have not always found in previous teams I have worked with.

 

During this Winter break and the upcoming Spring semester, I would like to start drafting a sort of ‘team manifesto’ based on this CTIN-532 experience, which I will hopefully be able to build upon with future collaborators.

 

I have yet much to learn when it comes to dealing with certain types of situations in a collaborative environment, but I do feel I now strive to tackle greater challenges with much more confidence than before.

 

Big thanks to our mentor Richard Lemarchand for all the guidance and support.

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