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  • Student Postmortem: USC's The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

    [03.27.08]
    - Matt Korba

  •  What Went Wrong
    1. Not trusting our gut. In addition to being my thesis project, Winterbottom spent a semester as an Advanced Game class project that for the first time ever joined the schools of engineering and cinema. Before the fall semester began, we had a meeting with the lecturer who was spearheading things on the engineering side to approve our project plan. When he discovered we were planning to make the game in Flash, he strongly advised against it, stating flatly that Flash was a poor engine for a game.

    He suggested that we build the game from scratch using Ogre 3D, as many of the student engineers were familiar with that program and because programming a 2D game would not provide a "valuable" learning experience for the engineering students. Against our better wishes, we complied.

    As the class began, we realized that we wouldn't be able to get most -- if not any -- of the functionality of Winterbottom working in Ogre by the end of the semester. A separate engineering team was added to build an Ogre-specific level editor that would suit level-building in both Winterbottom and another student game project. This became a disorganized mess. We wasted a month on this path. The level editor itself wouldn't be ready by the end of the semester, and 3D was a terrible idea for Winterbottom. We decided to press on with the Flash build outside of the class.

    2. Recruiting through a class. Before production, we knew we needed to recruit a team, but weren't sure how to do it. Jenova Chen (a former USC student who now owns thatgamecompany) advised me to hold open meetings for anyone who was interested in the project. Whoever still showed up after the third week of meetings would be the team. We followed this advice and were able to form our core team.

    Unfortunately, we thought we needed more engineers.

    We shouldn't have expected that enrolling in a class would magically grant us the right people for the project. To satisfy the requirements of the class and be granted engineers we had to develop the game in XNA. This was our compromise with the course instructor after many arguments about whether Winterbottom should be in 3D.

    Due to the perseverance of our student engineers (who learned a new language), we ended up with an awesome demo of a stripped down version of Winterbottom running on the Xbox 360 at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, our high school wiz kid Asher Vollmer was tinkering away, coding the Flash build. Even though the XNA build was technically superior, the Flash build suited the game better because we could implement the core gameplay faster and easier. It turned out to be very fortuitous that we pressed on with the Flash build because it got us into the IGF and is now what the game resides in. But managing two development cycles simultaneously taxed the teams enormously and nearly broke all of us.

    3. Doing double duty. For the majority of the project, I did all the art. Being a lead designer and main artists for a project of this size was obviously a bad idea. At first I thought, "Oh but it's easy for me to generate art," and, "I want that certain look," and, "It will take too long to micromanage -- I'll just do it myself."

    While this worked well at the start of the project, it was immediately apparent during the crunch before GDC that it was a terrible idea. I should have used an art team. This led to many stressful days and sleepless nights of pure production. Luckily, Vincent Perea stepped up to the plate to help. Bringing him on earlier in the project would have been a great idea.

    4. Managing vs. developing. At one point, our team grew to 25 people, a bad predicament for a student project. We were then creating large spec docs for features we weren't sure we needed to accommodate the amount of people now assigned to the project. After a week of managing this large team, it became clear that the core leaders were spending more time managing than developing. We soon downsized back to our seven core people so we could focus on working on the gameplay instead of ancillary tools and non-crucial assets.

    5. Cross-disciplinary courses. A 3D Winterbottom game would have indeed been more of a technical challenge than a 2D Flash-based one. However, a slew of technical problems would have arisen that have nothing to due with the core gameplay. These problems were a non-issue in 2D and Flash; thus, we were able to focus all engineering on what was best for the project.

    Game courses in engineering schools tend to be focused on solving technical challenges, whereas design programs focus on the innovation of gameplay. To produce the best possible student game, these two forces need to collaborate.

    For interdepartmental game classes to work, I feel the focus should always be on what is best for the project. Collaborative game development should be approached as more than a system of technical features. In the case of Winterbottom, learning to work on a team was more important to the student engineers than getting the recording features to work. Although learning to solve technical challenges is extremely important for students, in a class where the object is to make a good game, the focus should be on just that.

    Fortunately, the class was an amazing learning experience for both the students and the faculty, and since, it has been dramatically restructured to better serve both departments' needs.

    Matt Korba is a MFA student in the Interactive Media Department at USC. In partnership with Paul Bellezza, he has formed The Odd Gentleman game company to create future game projects after graduating in May.

    Team Winterbottom: Matt Korba, Paul Bellezza, Asher Vollmer, David Stanton, Jamie Antonisse, Ian Dallas, Phillip Gregorchuk, Dan Howard, Katie Johnson, Matt Barney, Tim Jones and Vincent Perea.

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