In video-game development, the violent, scary storms typically come in the middle of the process. That’s when tensions are frayed, progress is stalling and team members are ready to take shelter against uncertainty and fear.
For the team of just-graduated University of Texas students behind the new game “The Calm Before,” the storm was the final product and it was unleashed at a May 1 launch party on campus.
The game, which has a sleek, stylized visual aesthetic, is about bad weather that will destroy an island if the player doesn’t solve puzzles and defeat beasts to hold it back. The Windows PC game is a free, publicly available download and a major achievement for the 20 students — programmers, 3-D environmental artists, animators, producers and other skilled game makers — but it’s a bigger achievement for their school.
Last fall, the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, named for co-founders Wofford Denius and Paul Sams, began its first year as part of UT’s Moody College of Communication. The school scored a coup by landing longtime Austin game developer Warren Spector (“Deus Ex,” “Epic Mickey”) as its director. With Spector on board, the program has had little trouble attracting big names from the video game industry to its advisory council and as guest speakers. 20 students were selected to be part of the Academy, which offers tuition waivers and a $10,000 stipend for the one-year program.
“Getting in was intensely competitive,” Spector says now, “we were looking for the best of the best and I think we found them.”
Neil Jones, who specializes in 3-D environments, was one of them. He met Spector in San Francisco at the Game Developers Conference while working for a medical apps company in Michigan. He wanted to work in gaming and saw the Academy as his chance.
“Since high school, really, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said. Also, “There’s not a lot of black game developers. I figure I can try to be an example. Games still need to work on more diversity,” Jones said.
The team of 20 students worked for months to nail down a concept for the game last year. Students took turns being in charge of the team, fulfilling one big part of the Academy’s mission. Unlike other game-development schools, UT’s focuses on leadership and management rather than specific elements such as programming and graphics.
Also taught: how to make tough, necessary decisions. Graciela Ruiz, an animator and digital puppeteer (or “Rigger” in industry-speak), said changing course on the game’s concept was difficult, but paid off. “We spent several months on our original pitch and then we changed it to a completely different direction,” she said. “I think it freed us up to be way more creative. We came out with a product the team really rallied behind, but it took a long time.”
The dean of the Moody College, Roderick P. Hart, is not an avid game player (he does remember “Pong” and beer drinking back in the day, he said), but he recognizes the importance of game-development leadership and appreciates all the artists and designers who’ve come together at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. “I’m exhilarated by it,” he said. “It really is a renaissance. It’s science and art and design and storytelling.”
Spector’s last gig was as head of Disney’s gaming operations in Austin for the development of the video games “Epic Mickey” “Epic Mickey 2.” Dealing with Disney executives can be tough, but he admits that teaching has been an exhausting assignment in what he calls the “1.0 beta” version of the Academy. He’s gotten quite attached to the students and, as the game was launching this month, was preparing to say his goodbyes to the soon-to-be graduates.
Spector says the students got over their hero worship quickly and took on a project he wouldn’t have risked as a game designer himself. “They made a first-person jumping game. They accepted a challenge I never would have accepted,” he said.
He bit his tongue and offered wisdom while staying out of the way. “One of the points of the DGSA is to learn from failure and catch mistakes in the moment,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell these kids so badly how to design their game I’m surprised I don’t have an ulcer.”
At the May 1 launch, faculty and friends of the students crowded in to play “The Calm Before” on sets of gaming PCs. Chips and sandwiches and sodas were on offer as the game was projected on a huge screen.
Tyler Coleman, who coded and worked on visual effects for the game, seemed relieved that the game was done and ready for the world. Some bugs might be squashed in a quick update, but for the most part, the work was over. “Now everyone goes out and gets jobs and moves on,” he said.
But first, there’s the thrill of putting a new game out into the world, a feeling Spector knows well from 31 years of game designing. “When you ship a game, it’s an incredible accomplishment,” Spector said. “It’s one of the most exciting feelings in the world.”