Production

Lavacado Studios Consulting

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Christmas 2012_croppedIn late 2012, I had the opportunity to help my good friends, Lavacado Studios, redesign their website and improve their social media presence.  I also designed a new pitch deck and proposal template to help improve their first impression with clients.  Lavacado is known for its gorgeous mobile apps, so it was critical that these deliverables be clean, elegant and visual appealing.

Feedback from prospective and current clients has been extremely positive, with one client specifically calling out the level of professionalism and polish on pre-sale deliverables as a key differentiator that helped close the sale.

 

SOL: Exodus

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SOL: Exodus Box

In the fall of 2010, immediately after shipping the Sesame Street projects, I turned my attention to the overall goal I was charged with when I was hired at Seamless: rebooting the studio into one capable of developing high quality original intellectual properties.

SOL: Exodus was a space shooter conceived and built in a 12-month period with a team of five developers.  Additionally, we opted to utilize the Unreal Engine, the industry-leading engine for high-end 3D graphics, despite having no prior experience with it.  Despite the steep learning curve, we relied on an agile development process to reach a playable prototype quickly and tight iteration cycles to constantly evaluate the state of the product during development.

Because the team was so small, we made extensive use of outsourcing.  In fact, we not only outsourced all of our concept art, but most of our base ship models, many of our environment props, and all of the sound effects, music, and professionally recorded voice acting, the latter of which was (and still is) very unique for a small independent production.

In addition to managing the project, I oversaw the PR and marketing push for the game, managed the website and social media channels, coordinated travel and booth setup at the PAX game conference to do hands-on pre-alpha demos with fans, and even authored the manual and built game installers for European collector’s edition retail SKU’s.

Post-launch, we earned our customers’ respect with very active customer support and our commitment to pushing out updates.  The game ultimately received praise from outlets such as Destructoid, The Escapist, and MMGN.  We were also mentioned on an episode of X-Play as an “X-Play Recommends” title.  It remains one of the products I am most proud of because of how much we accomplished with a small team and tight timeframe.

We Made History!

SOL was the first video game to utilize RealD 3D technology, the same 3D technology utilized in feature films! The game was demoed in stereoscopic 3D to SXSW festival attendees in 2012.

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Sesame Street: EAZ and CCC

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In 2010, I was hired to take the reins of a struggling game development studio called Seamless Entertainment.  Though the studio’s stated mission was to develop original game properties, until that point, it had managed to survive only by developing work-for-hire products in the licensed / value space.

My primary responsibility was to transform the studio into one capable of developing successful original titles. Before I could focus on that, however, I was tasked with turning around a pair of troubled projects that the studio had been struggling with. The Sesame Street projects presented a number of difficult challenges — a licensor with a beloved brand whose approvals were key to move forward; a publisher whose dates were set in stone due to an otherwise weak holiday release catalog; a design that was a moving target. On top of all of this, the projects spanned a whopping 6 SKU’s on 3 different platforms, and the assets and game systems that my team was building (Wii and PC) were the prerequisites for the platform (Nintendo DS) that had the longest submission and manufacturing lead time.  By the time I arrived, the project was behind, the client was unhappy, and the team was stressed and listless.

I worked with stakeholders to manage a re-scope of the project, optimized and dramatically improved the client visibility into the production pipeline, and managed the QA process to successful certification passes.   In the end, we were able to deliver all SKU’s to the client in time for the holiday sales season, and we accomplished this responsibly without a significant amount of unpaid overtime.

Gamesauce Conference 2010

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NoguchiIn early 2010, I was approached by the publishers of Gamesauce magazine (for whom I’d previously written) about programming a new, single-track conference for game developers “in the trenches”.  The conference was to take place at the same time as the wildly popular Casual Connect conference in Seattle, but would seek to attract developers of “core games”, rather than casual game developers.

It would also focus on topics and get into a level of detail that other game conferences such as the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) had increasingly failed to cover.  Put simply, Gamesauce was “by game developers for game developers.”

The overall programming was universally praised for its depth and substance.  Links to the talks can be found on the Gamesauce website.

Downtown

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Online Alchemy was a small startup company with a totally virtual team (team members in Los Angeles, Austin, Minneapolis, and Shanghai). I consulted with them on the incubation, design, and management of a social game project (working title “Downtown”) with an $800K budget.

The focus of the game was to build and manage a restaurant, including your menu, employees, and eventually, multiple locations.

I managed the day-to-day operations of the team, ensured delivery of milestones to our publishing partner (in China), and kept the team productive and efficient.

This was an interesting project due to the communications management and virtual, distributed nature of the team. We were also partnered with a Chinese publishing company, Giant Interactive, which was a great learning experience.

Project CO

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In 2008, after NCsoft had begun its corporate reorganization, I approached 2K Games with the idea of incubating a local studio here in town to develop an MMO prototype.   They agreed, and we began work in the fall on the project.

I recruited the team, managed the establishment of the studio and set the overall direction of the project, managing relationships with the IP holder and 2K Games corporate.

In only eight months of development, our 9-person team built a fully playable client and server prototype that provided hours of gameplay.  We also put together a comprehensive design Wiki as well as a printed style guide of concept art.  In keeping with our agile production philosophy, we also  modeled several assets to demonstrate that the final visual style could be achieved.

Unfortunately, due to rapidly evolving market conditions, the project was not pursued beyond prototype, but this particular team remains close to my heart because of the incredible level of collaboration and productivity we achieved.  The former members of this team have gone on to leadership roles in best-of-class projects at KingsIsle, ZeniMax Online, and BioWare, among others.

Blighted Empire

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In 2007, I accepted a job as producer at NCsoft to lead a team building a web-based free to play MMO.  Though such products are commonplace today,  six years ago, it was a decidedly riskier, more cutting edge approach!

I was responsible for team management, including recruiting and mentoring, physical space planning and workflow engineering, projecting, planning, and maintaining the project budget, risk assessment and management, project scheduling, documentation, and liaising with senior management on the goals, progress, and issues of the project.

Under my leadership, team headcount increased from five individuals (during my arrival in April, 2007) to twenty by the first quarter of 2008, following a corporate mandate to aggressively target other products in the space.   During this time, a massive array of game systems were designed, significant progress was made to tools, our proprietary client technology was augmented and optimized, and several demo environments and characters were built.

We utilized the Java-based jMonkeyEngine as the basis for our client platform, allowing instant play on any browser with no client download required (at the time, a huge barrier to entry for most MMO’s), and had branched and adapted the server technology of Guild Wars, one of the most successful MMO’s at the time,  to serve as our backend platform.   We also produced a substantial quantity of technical design documentation, a massive  reference document detailing the lore of the world, its races, history, and characters, and a prodigious quantity of fantastic concept art.

By Q2’08, however, due to a realignment of development strategy, the Austin studio laid off most of its development teams to focus on development at the new “NC West” studio in Seattle, the product was canceled.

Sid Meier’s Railroads!

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EngineerRailroads! was my final project at Firaxis and one that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more as the years have passed. In late 2005 when I was assigned to the project, it was nothing more than a simple-yet-enthralling demo Sid had created that merged the basic strategy / economy game of Railroad Tycoon with the fun and aesthetic of playing with model trains.   Our challenge was to take that demo and create a polished retail product in about a year.

As in previous projects such as Pirates!, I took on more design responsibilities on this title, putting together the basics of our scenario system, compiling the list of trains, buildings, robber barons and scenario locales to be included, and borrowing some familiar gameplay mechanics from some of our other products (the stock and patent systems were shamelessly lifted from the “Mars” prototype that eventually became Civ IV).  I also  implemented some smaller features into the game including the “train table mode” and the in-game newspapers that are displayed when key events take place.

Initially intended to be a small-scale product that helped stagger our production cycles following the simultaneous completion of Civ IV and Pirates!, interest and expectation soon began to balloon as 2K fielded a lot of press inquiries about the game, and major press events followed.  I first demoed the game at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco as a part of Sid Meier’s induction into the “Walk of Game”, then traveled to Los Angeles to present the game at E3, where it was nominated for a “Best of E3” award, and later in 2006 had the chance to demo in Leipzig, Germany at the world’s largest games show.  German gamers are passionate about their trains!

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Looking back, we did some pretty amazing things with the game in a very short amount of time.  At the time of development, it was without question the best-looking title the studio had ever produced, and I think we nailed player experience in the core feedback loop: to this day I feel that there is a zen-like joy to being able to drag train tracks across terrain and watch the world terraform to meet your desires.   We had an amazing team, including some of the best engineers and artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

 

The game has gone on to become a bit of a cult hit — there are still active communities building mods and maps for the game despite a lack of real built-in mod support (we never had the resources to tackle it on this project), and the game was even ported to the Mac recently, proving that “watching the trains go by” does indeed have universal  appeal.

 

Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

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What most people don’t know about Civilization IV is that it began life as a real-time resource gathering and stock market arbitrage game set in space, with piracy, espionage, random events and land auctions (!!).  True story!   Back in 2002, Civ III lead designer Soren Johnson began working on what was the company’s first 3D game, and it was, quite literally, out of this world.  The prototype, codenamed “Mars”, went on to become a huge office lunchtime obsession and was one of the most fun games I’ve ever worked on or played.

But none of our publishers could figure out how to sell it, and to put it frankly, we were not ready yet from a 3D pipeline perspective to deliver the game.  And as Take Two had acquired the studio, there was a strong push to get a new Civilization product started, and since the other half of the studio was at work on Pirates!, we were the team to do it.

I was the producer for the first year of Civ IV’s life, which centered on the early game — the early focus on modding and using open XML to store data was something I believed very strongly in, and we frontloaded a lot of architecture there that would not pay dividends until much later (when Warlords, Beyond the Sword and Colonization were able to capitalize on that).

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I also wrote the original technical design for the PTBS (later dubbed “Pitboss”) server architecture, recognizing a market need for a flexible “play-by-email”-style system that allowed players to jump in and drop out at will.

By late in 2003, Civ IV was well on its way with a fully playable , moddable multiplayer core, an established concept art style and art production pipeline.  When we were approved by Microsoft to do an Xbox SKU of Pirates!, I had the opportunity to take on that project, which was a dream opportunity for me, so I left Civ in the capable hands of a fellow producer.  I think it turned out pretty well 🙂

 

Sid Meier’s Pirates!

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intro_pistol_new_pcPirates!
is near and dear to my heart.  I spent countless hours playing Sid’s original classic on my C64 and later, Amiga, and having the opportunity to work on the revisited game was truly a dream come true.

When Pirates! began, it was a PC only project, and at the time, I was working with Soren Johnson on the project that would eventually become Civ IV.  I had always wanted to work on a console title, and Pirates! was easily one of my favorite games ever, so when I learned that an Xbox version was signed, I jumped at the chance to work on it.

Pirates! for the Xbox was the studio’s first console game, and we had a lot of learning to do about how to properly map inputs to a controller, how to organize data to fit on smaller resolution displays, and even how the motivations of console players differed from PC players (PC players were often content with sandbox play, whereas many console players preferred to be given tasks that could be checked off to guide them through a game).   And, because we were targeting the original Xbox, we received constant pressure from Microsoft to ensure that the game was more than just a “simple port” of the PC game.  As a result, we made several substantial changes to the game and added an entirely new multiplayer arcade-style VS ship battle mode. 

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I designed several of the new features in the Xbox version, from the QTE-style “Even the Odds” minigame, which allows you to execute incredible swashbuckling maneuvers to take on enemy ships despite being wildly outnumbered, to the bonus content system, which awards coins for in-game achievements and allows players to unlock hundreds of pieces of production and concept art,  to the ability to superimpose the navigational map over the ocean while sailing.  I even contributed production code to a number of said features.  I would often rock my newborn son in his carseat with my foot while coding late at night during those days.

Pirates! was warmly received on the PC, but its release on the Xbox was delayed by almost a year due to the acquisition of the studio by Take Two.  The game was literally weeks away from being completed for Atari at this time.  As a result, the entire QA and localization process had to be restarted, and by the time the game launched, the original launch platform (Xbox) was in its twilight.   It received Endgamegood reviews but as as a late-cycle release, it simply didn’t receive much attention.

However, the game has since been ported to the Macintosh, Sony PSP, Nintendo Wii, and iOS platforms — proof that the game has definitely stood the test of time.