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  • Student Postmortem: Carnegie Mellon's Beowulf's Barroom Brawl

    - James Portnow
  •  What Went Right

    Quick Decisions: Throughout the development of Beowulf's Barroom Brawl we were constantly aware of our schedule. Having two weeks to complete the entire project meant we couldn't be ambivalent about anything. It forced us to realize that anything we were having a hard time deciding about was either: A. Unimportant or B. Fundamentally flawed and not worth the time investment to fix.

    Oddly enough we realized this when we were trying to get dinner one night. We couldn't decide on a place to eat, after a half an hour of indecision, someone asked "why is this so hard?" Almost immediately we all responded "because it's not important." We ended up skipping dinner that night and tearing through all of questions we had left undecided.

    The Team: I have to give a nod to my teammates here: Giray Ozil (programmer), Jack Bader (modeler), and Nick Lee (textures). They were not only great to work with but also very forthright about what they could and couldn't do from the beginning, which allowed us to play to the strengths of the team while avoiding losing time trying to implement things we weren't capable of.

    Jack, our modeler, is an architecture student, which meant that we knew he could deliver us a fantastic mead hall for the brawl to be set in. Unfortunately he was less confidant about his ability to model people. Luckily for us, Nick, our texture artist, favors a dark-comic style, which meant that the human models could be a little more brutish and still look fantastic. This also made organizing the pipeline easy, as Jack delivered the mead hall first, giving Nick plenty of time to texture it (as it needed to be in a slightly more realistic style than Nick was used to), and then move on to the human models.


    Early Testing: Here's where I have to compliment Giray Ozil. By the third day he had a prototype up and ready for testing. This allowed us to tweak continuously, which was key given that we were going to have a naïve user play our game. If we hadn't had a week and a half to make minor adjustments to the player's life and the enemy's speed, the game would have lost a lot of the frenetic activity that made the game so enjoyable. Early testing was also crucial in discovering things about the technology we were dealing with. Initially we had a duck mechanism in the game that worked intermittently. This stumped us for some time until we realized that taller players were consistently able to duck, whereas shorter players only sporadically triggered the duck mechanism when they, in real life, ducked. We discovered that the trackers we were using started to lose signal once they were more than four feet from the tracker base (a device which was suspended about 8 feet in the air in the middle of the room). Thanks to early testing, we were able to move the Z-axis tracker from the player's chest to a helmet on their head and have it work for all but the shortest players.

    Kinetic Freedom: To this day I am totally convinced that giving the player the illusion of kinetic freedom was the best design decision we made. Unfortunately the hardware limited the amount of actual kinetic freedom given to the player. The player could not walk around the bar; in fact they couldn't even turn around. If they dodged more than a few feet to the left or the right we'd lose them, so we needed them to stay stationary and face the screen, only punching or moving their torso to dodge. In order to do this we made the opponent much larger than life, filling 80% of the projection screen (which is already about fifteen feet tall and looming over the player). We gave the player a first person view, allowing them only to see their arms and fists (which did a lot to explain the principle interaction of the game without us having to give a single instruction). We also placed overturned chairs and tables to the players left and right but these turned out to be almost irrelevant as no one ever tried to move that far. To this day we have never had a player ask us why they can't turn around (or even try to turn around) as they are so focused on the large menacing man in front of them.

    The music also played a large part in establishing the illusion of kinetic freedom. Originally I had written what I thought was a beautiful, somber, epic symphony piece for our world. I played the game once and spent the rest of the night writing some pounding techno instead.

    Clearly techno does not fit in a barbarian world, but it did get every player who played to do the Street Fighter bounce, which in turn got them ducking and dodging, which made them feel like they could do anything. It was amazing watching a player whom you've given no instructions discover that they could dodge and duck. Because these were things which they wanted to do but didn't expect to be able to do, when they found out they could duck and dodge, they forgot about all the things they actually couldn't do.


    The Costume: Yes... we built a costume for the player to wear. It was intended to hide the trackers so the player would be less aware of non-diegetic elements of our world. To our surprise it totally sucked the player into the world. For our naïve guest we got a fifteen year old, female, art school student. At first she was a little unsure about the whole thing. She didn't want to look stupid in front of her classmates (several of whom were at the showing of Barroom Brawl as guests to test for other worlds being shown that day). Once we put some leather gloves with chains around them and a big barbarian fur on her she really got into it. It was interesting because we had unintentionally left her with nothing to feel shy about. After a fashion change, we had already made her look silly so there was no reason for her not just to let go and have fun.


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