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  • Student Postmortem: Carnegie Mellon's Northrop Grumman Recruitment Game

    - James Portnow

  •  What Went Wrong

    The Client

    While working with Mark was great, working for a big corporate client was not. Things move very slowly at Northrop Grumman, they think in much longer time spans than we do, which made interacting with them difficult.

    To answer many of our questions we had to go through multiple divisions and it would often take weeks to get a reply. By the time we ended up receiving the machine they would actually be running the game on it was very late in the project so our ability to develop specifically for it was hamstrung by a lack of time.

    Also, game decisions had to take a back seat to corporate decisions. Showing off the products was primary. We ended up going with a three quarters perspective rather than a cockpit view to better display the planes Northrop Grumman had worked on, even though a cockpit view might have been more intuitive for the players.

    The Venue

    We weren't creating a video game, we weren't creating location-based entertainment, we were tasked with creating a mobile location based video game experience.

    It's certainly hard enough to say, but what were the challenges in creating such an experience? Let's break it down word by word.

    Mobile... this experience had to be able to be set up by one person and carted around the country with ease. Moreover it had to be designed to be setup by someone who was, as they put it, "technical". It also had to be a "hands off" experience that would just run by itself so the recruiter could talk to the people coming to the booth.

    We solved some of the mobility problems by using a single shuttle PC, faking networking by outing the game to two monitors (making it essentially a split screen game with the split coming in between the two monitors) and using 5.1 sound to emulate two separate stereo outputs which we then routed to two pairs of headphones. Even after all this effort the setup was cumbersome and more unwieldy then we'd like.

    Location Based... The object of the game was to attract people in a crowed job fair. This meant we had to make it flashy without taking up too much space; that it had to call to students without any audible sound. Additionally it had to do all this with expensive technology that couldn't get stolen or broken. We tried to pick out the hardiest equipment we could find, we also recommended to Northrop Grumman that they paint all the hardware Northrop Grumman colors to make sure it is easily identifiable. Unfortunately, without making sacrifices in other areas, this was about the limit of what could be done.

    Video game... This was a video game specifically aimed at college grads in a technical field. We decided early in the process that this meant it had to look as good as the average PS2 game. Here I have to give the programming team credit. I feel as though they knocked this one out of the park...without a dedicated artist.

    Usability (Lack of 5-Minute Experience)

    Even though we had all spent the previous three months working on short experiences, making an experience that was five minutes long and almost instruction free was an enormous challenge.

    We cut feature after feature and programmed or designed a number of extraneous elements that didn't end up making the final product. The real difficulty here lies in the fact that, as a team, you end up getting to know your game intimately and thus are tempted to make it more interesting rather than easier.

    We learned over the course of this project to bombard the player with feedback. Audio, text, visual, even color cues were used to convey what was happening to player in every way possible.

    One of the problems we faced early on was that players couldn't tell when they were hitting their targets. We added a large amount of feedback to convey when the player was hitting their target and then play tested again. When we surveyed they players we found that they all knew when they hit their targets but, to our surprise, none of them could tell us how they knew. None of them had consciously assimilated any of the feedback we had given and yet they ‘just knew'. At this point I'm convinced, it's hard to give too much feedback.


    Having no artist on the team was a terrible blow. While we planned for this by choosing a game concept that was light on art assets there really was no workaround.

    We contracted out for our art. While this worked alright for many of the major art assets, anything that might need to be tweaked or iterated on was became impossibly arduous process, which completely crippled our UI design.

    Since usability was our focus and we were going with a test and iterate style of design we needed to be able to make minor changes to a lot of the 2d art on an almost weekly basis. This was impossible outsourcing the art and, as the studio we were working with wouldn't give us the .psd or .tiff files they were working with we couldn't even do it ourselves so there were many times when work on the project bottlenecked around the art.

    In the end we ended up ripping apart the files they gave us and making our own editable files for much of the 2d art. This not only wasted a lot of man hours (as it was redundant and having a group of non-artists work on graphic design is always going to be slow) but it also slightly lowered the quality of the visual presentation of those sections of the game.

    Having a single artist embedded on the team would have helped us greatly. If I could change one thing about this project I would have added an artist to the team.

    Split Focus

    One of the dangers of doing a project with students is that the project can never be the sole focus of people working on it. We all had classes to attend and homework to do, we all had to look for internships or jobs, and, while I'm confident in saying that everyone on the project averaged at least sixty hours a week working on the project itself, we couldn't devote all of our energy to the project.

    Times Ahead

    The relationship between industry and education will only grow in the games field. Educational facilities provide a remarkably cheap way for corporations to develop interactive media. Corporations provide an excellent source of funding for games schools. Symbiotic interaction is unavoidable.

    This interaction though will require understanding and compromise from both sides. Game students won't have the same freedom to experiment and play with the media working for a corporation that they would working on their own projects. Corporations won't have the ridged control they would working internally or with another corporation.

    Regardless, one thing is certain, the marriage of education, industry and games is here to stay.

    Website and Trailer:
    Developer: Round Table Games (a CMU group)
    Publisher: Northrop Grumman
    Number of Designers: 6
    Length of Production: 3 months
    Release Date:
    May 17th, 2006
    Platform: Computer (Dual Monitor Recruiting Fair Experience)
    Development software used: Panda3d, Maya, Photoshop, Adobe Audition, Reason
    Development hardware used: 6 Dell Precision 380 Workstations

    Project Size: 70MB



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