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  • Student Postmortem: FIEA's Master Plan

    - Dan Bracewell
  •  Video game boot camp -- that's what some of the students at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) in Orlando call the University of Central Florida’s graduate game development program. While some game education programs have students create games in teams of two or three, or 10 or 12 if the program is large, we just completed a seven-month game with 34 people. That’s the size of some professional game companies.

    This large-scale project was a first for FIEA, but it fits with the boot camp experience the students expect from the program. Previous "cohorts," as we call them, or groups of student artists, producers, and programmers that enter FIEA together, worked in teams of 12 or 15 to create a game over the course of two semesters. That's the way we, Cohort 3, started out, too.

    Originally, our cohort was divided into two groups. One group worked on a game called Hilbalien (rhymes with "pygmalion"), an adventure game about the illegitimate offspring of an alien and hillbilly. The other game, Master Plan, puts the player in the role of a mad scientist intent on taking over the world by building a doomsday machine using Lego-like technology. Each team had 17 people.
    Throwing together a group of students with no game development experience and expecting them to create a professional quality game in seven months is kind of like turning an ant farm upside down and watching the scattering insects try to rebuild. One would expect a fair share of in-fighting, poor planning, and indecision. However, on the Master Plan team, where I had the fortune of being project lead, we seemed to have some uncanny luck (or we had assembled the best group of game development students in the universe, depending on who you asked). We somehow figured out how to keep 17 students working together rather quickly.

    Admittedly, we had a lot of things going for us. We all had a clear understanding of the game's mechanic. We were well organized. We had good leaders, both formally and informally. We had amazing programmers and an artistic style that our four artists could really sink their teeth into. Probably most importantly, we had amazing morale. In retrospect, I think this morale had a lot to do with our ability to stun the faculty with our accomplishments.

    You probably ought to know that it's not easy to impress the FIEA faculty. It will also give you an idea of this particular project's ambitious scope. Master Plan's game design required us to build our game pretty much from the ground up. For example, we had to create our own pipelines and our own world builder. Previous cohorts had all used the existing Torque Game Engine, but we built our engine pretty much from scratch using the Ogre rendering engine. The faculty expected us to have major challenges with this game technically, not to mention all the problems that large student teams have. Also, the main teacher we were supposed to impress, Rick Hall, is a game developer with more than 15 years experience and takes sadistic pleasure in being ruthless to naïve student game developers. Each week, he assumed the role of a real world executive checking on the company's investment. Each week, we shut him up.

    Ironically, the other team, the Hilbalien team, had a hard go almost the entire semester. They finally pulled together toward the end and were poised to start a good production phase when the next semester started.

    How Our Team Size Mushroomed
    About three days before the next semester (what we call the production semester), I got a phone call from Hall. I was in the middle of packing for a nice quiet weekend at my in-laws' house. I could hear his malicious chuckle in the receiver.

    "You ready for a curve ball?" he said.

    Actually, I wanted to hang up and pretend I lost the call, but a good producer doesn't show fear. "Sure," I said.

    "We're cancelling the Hilbalien game and putting everyone on Master Plan."

    It turns out there had been some strong discussion among faculty since the end of the last semester about combining the teams. Hall and at least one other teacher had mentioned it a few times before, and our team had even joked about it from time to time, but we never thought it would happen. There was no doubt this decision could be difficult for the Hilbalien team.

    Hall, who has a knack for putting things in perspective, explained that what set FIEA apart from other game schools was the real-world experience it gave students. He explained that in the industry, games are cancelled all the time for various reasons. The Hilbalien team would now know how that feels. On the other hand, a team that does go into production will typically double in size, and now we would know how that feels and what kinds of things happen as a result.

    I was scared to death. "My god," I thought, "34 students! How will we manage them all?" When the first day of the semester arrived and the news became official, everyone knew that we had to get on the same page, and quickly.


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