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

    - Matt Korba
  •  The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is a game set in a silent film world filled with mischief, time travel, and delicious pie. By harnessing Winterbottom's time altering abilities, players can cooperate, compete against, and disrupt their past, present, and future selves.

    Winterbottom was started as my graduate thesis project for the University of Southern California's interactive media program. The concepts were developed throughout various courses at USC during the three years of the program. Looking back through my coursework, many of my past projects explored themes of replay, alternate timelines, and looping.

    As a first-year student in Steve Anderson's Survey of Interactive Media class, I was shown the short experimental film Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński. The film consists of one stable shot that layers looping characters on top of each other until the scene is full of complex choreography. The film resonated with me, and I started to think of a game system based on looping to generate content that would build in complexity.

    At the same time, I had a pipe dream of a game that would capture the essence and the charm of an early silent film. I studied film production as an undergraduate and always wanted to put as much of my previous leanings into games.

    At some point around thesis proposal time these two ideas merged, and Winterbottom was born.

    The game's style is macabre, much like the drawings of Edward Gorey, full of unfamiliar proportions and quirky obstacles. Although the game is 2D, 3D models were used, allowing for a very stylized aesthetic. Many early films influenced the look and feel of Winterbottom, from early silent shorts like Trip to the Moon and Metropolis to the silent comedies of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd -- Safety Last, Modern Times, The Freshman, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. Needless to say, during research the team got to watch a lot of awesome movies.

    The music, composed by David Stanton of USC's Thornton School of Music, builds from rag-time piano to a polychromatic landscape. Blending a gothic sensibility with the early jazz idioms characteristic of silent films, the music is both dark and lovable in the world of ever-present paradoxes.

    In 2008, Winterbottom was selected as an IGF Student Showcase winner. It was a great achievement, but getting to that point was not a smooth run. The game iterated through many phases (including a build in XNA and Flash), survived interdepartmental struggles, and housed a rather large cross-disciplinary student team. Through all the ups and downs the producer Paul Bellezza and I fought to do what was right for the project at all times.

     What Went Right
    1.  Student Team dynamic. When collaborating with students who are only working out of passion (and without pay), it becomes crucial to keep them motivated in the right ways. Pizza only goes so far. At a design school where everyone has his or her own projects to work on, it can be a challenge to get a team together outside of a class. Team Winterbottom consisted of graduates and undergraduates of the interactive media program, a composer from the Thornton School of Music, engineers from the Viterbi School, one Marshall School of Business student, and a high school student applying to USC.

    We knew from experience that if the team wasn't fired up about the project, we were not going to be able to pull off what we needed to do. When a team believes in, and is passionate about a project, their enthusiasm manifests in the quality of the game. We've found this passion to be a more important stimulus than financial compensation or class credit.

    One of the ways we motivated the team was by making everyone feel like they were in on the design and giving everyone ownership of certain aspects of the design. By letting everyone into the project as early as possible (and I do mean everyone: artists, engineers, web producer, team janitor) we were able to establish a high level of motivation. Along those same lines, I understood as a lead designer that people joined the project because they loved the idea, not to work for me. I feel that some classes in creative schools are set up to run this way, mirroring the professional game industry.

    We kept the team dynamic strong by orchestrating team-bonding exercises when we could. Little things -- watching old movies, going for pie, and sneaking everyone into E3 -- made a big difference. We even worked on a completely unrelated game, The Wrath of Transparentor, as a bonding experience. Transparentor was a quick five-day project that was done very early in the team's creation. We learned an incredible amount from this separate project about everyone's strengths and weaknesses, and it helped to keep us fresh.

    Although we brought in everybody early, there was still a lot of work to do prior to setting up the team. To attract students to work with us, we needed to sell the vision of the game through a prototype. The basic mechanics were all prototyped in Flash.

    I took it upon myself to learn to code in order to prove the game design through prototypes. Student designers can sometimes come off as over-reaching, and I wanted to prove to the team that the game could be made, that they could rally behind something that was real. Jamie Antonisse, one of the level designers, said of the concept, "Winterbottom was a solid design with small holes in it [that] I knew I could help fill."


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