Here ends the Knights Tale: The Knight of Beards
It is September 3rd 2012. I am sitting in a run-down hotel room after plans to get an apartment in San Francisco fall through. The shifty realtor failed to mention that for $1800 per person per month, we only get a room the size of a walk-in closet. Maybe that is typical of the west coast. I am not sure yet.
My soon-to-be roommates sit on a small twin bed across the room, each staring into a laptop - one scrolling through photos on the Chinese version of Facebook, the other calmly meta-clicking his way through League of Legends. I am working on the postmortem for Plushy Knight and scratching my huge beard. I am thinking about the project, about what it is and what it was and what it could have been - both for better and for worse.
After we presented the game on August 3rd, students and professors and industry professionals - from studios like EA, N-Space, and Zynga - all came up to let us know how impressed they were with the outcome. It was only about a month before that our team really started hitting its stride. The students loved what we were doing, the staff was more than pleased with our progress, and even the visiting alumni seemed impressed with the quality of our work.
At that point, a professor took me aside and said to me, "There's a funny thing about success. Everyone wants to give you advice. When you're failing at something, and you really need that advice, often times it's not there."
"You're going to start getting a lot of advice," he said with a smile. "Just ignore it."
How do you make everyone see what you see?
"Before starting development, it was essential to first decide on the base motivational reasoning of our team and our product. What is the clear motivating factor that unites developers and creates belief in your product? With the Plushy Knight team, our shared belief was that games could be used to tell an emotional story."
- Derrick Barra
How do you get people believe in a vision? Enthusiasm. Emotion. Emphasis on quality. An explanation of the role they can play in development. Give them ownership. Ownership helps people feel connected. Give them a clear understanding of the project goals so they have a sense of the bigger picture. Once everyone is on board, it's just a matter of being true to that vision. I say that as if it's an easy thing.
Plushy Knight is a game a little girl who loses her father. At one point in development, there was some criticism that the ideas we were exploring in both the character and the game - especially those of protection and nurturing - were characteristics of both a mother and a father. Why then was our game just about fatherhood? Was this in some way insulting to women? At least one person seemed to think so.
In the original pitch of the game, the story's plot revolved around a child who had lost both parents. During the design process, we eventually decided that it might be too hard for an audience to sympathize with such a great loss. How many people lose multiple loved ones at the same time? A choice was made to make a change to the fiction. In the end, we had to be comfortable with the story we were telling. This was Gemma's story. Another game could have been about the loss of a mother, but this one was about the loss of a father. And we were okay with that. We knew the game we wanted to make.
Holding on to vision is like holding on to a fish - if you try grip it too tightly, it's going to slip out of your hands. This becomes especially true with regard to feedback. On one hand, as developers we need to be open to criticism. On the other hand, we need to know your game well enough to weed out bad feedback. The problem lies in the fact that most feedback is not clearly right or wrong. A lot of bad feedback sounds good if taken by itself or if viewed without context. Part of learning at FIEA was learning what was good for your game.
Early on, our team decided that if we wanted to produce something great, we had to be open to criticism. This meant criticism from faculty, from other teams, and most importantly, from each other. Often, we would include artists and programmers in design meetings to provide alternative perspectives. We sat in cross-disciplinary pods and looked at each other's work. We had a wall-of-crazy in the meeting room where anyone could post an idea for the game. It was this openness that helped drive us toward our potential. Each of us had our responsibilities, and each of us understood that one of those responsibilities was to better each other. At the end of the day, we shared a vision both for a game and its development.
A Very Plushy Epilogue
As students, we learn about design and development and workflow and pipelines and peer review. But rarely do professors lecture on the value the person sitting next to us. No can one force us toward the realization that game development is a team sport.
All the work it took to define scope, to downscope and then to rescope, and all the effort it took to mold vision, to envision and then to revision, none of it would have been possible without the dedication of the team. We had to rely on each other. We had to motivate each other. We had to know each other. All of our mistakes were forgivable because the team understood that everyone was trying their best, that everyone was learning, and that everyone was willing to work to put right those things that did go wrong.
This started with a philosophy, an attitude, and a conversation. Plushy Knight was a project and is a game that succeeded because of its structure. It was built correctly. Foundation, framework, façade - top to bottom, we understood what was most important.
On every level you have people.
Jeremiah Graves is a graduate of Yale University and a student at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. During his time at FIEA, he served as the project lead on the 20-member student game Plushy Knight.
Platform: PC, Windows Vista
Development Time: 8 months
Number of Developers at Peak: 20
Producers: Jeremiah Graves (Project Lead), Derrick Barra (Development Director), Pat Dolinak
Designers: Skotty Bechara (Lead), Charlyn Chisholm, Geoff Cox, Patrick Feller, Nathan Yelle
Artists: Kyle Martin (Lead), Vincent Angerosa, Tammy Dao, Tiffany Dao, Michael Heard, Scott Knapp, Jonathan Small
Programmers: Robert Stewart (Lead), Alex Lemke, Ryan McConnell, Kyle Peplow, Brian Rose
Voice Actors: Natalie Noble, Steven Lane
Sound Engineer: Jason Small
Composer: Paige Lehnert
Technology: Havok Vision Engine, Autodesk Scaleform
Software: Visual Studio,Maya, ZBrush, Adobe Creative Suite, Basalmiq, Audacity, Hansoft, Perforce