I wrote this article for the Today newspaper, but unfortunately for various reasons, we didn’t send it to them. However I thought I would still publish it here.
June 2008. The MIT dome stood majestically in front of me. A cool breeze touches my skin. The Charles River flows silently behind me. I am in Boston. I was not there to put on my tourist hat. There and then started eight weeks of intense game production. Yet, needless to say that the batch of 45 Singaporean students who were sent to the US had a blast too this summer.
I flew to Boston under the MIT-Singapore Gambit Lab initiative. Gambit is a five-year project undertaken in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored by the Media Development Authority. It aims to develop digital game research by building associations between Singapore institutions of higher learning and relevant departments in MIT.
From June to August 2008, seven teams comprising of a mixture of Singaporean and MIT students worked to develop game prototypes around different research goals at the Gambit Lab in Boston. I was the scrum master (akin to a producer) of Team PanopXis and we developed Gumbeat, a casual, single-player game where you take the role of a teenage girl in a city where bubble gum is outlawed. Your main task is to blow bubbles and recruit followers to your cause so as to topple the government. The road to developing GumBeat was not a totally smooth one, as for all the other six teams developing their own games. Challenges were faced and it took dedicated teams and difficult decisions to produce good games in the end.
Challenge 1: From the research goal to a concrete game design
It often happened when the research goal and the game design would pull in two opposite directions. Good game design is about incorporating features that would make the game fun, but those would sometimes clash with the research goal. For GumBeat, our research goal was to weave ideas of political revolution into the heart of the gameplay. The message we had to pass in the game was that you are an average citizen trying to overthrow the unjust government. The objective of our initial prototype was to blow bubbles and pop them on a central statue of the city’s dictator to cover it entirely with gum so that it will float away. This satisfied the research goal on a high level but on the lower level it clashed directly with it, because by sticking gum on the statue, the character will no longer be an average citizen but will turn into an outlaw defacing public property herself.
Challenge 2: Working in multi-disciplinary teams
Not only did each team have MIT and Singaporean students working together, but the age range varied from 18 to 27 years old, and each team member was specialized in a different area. Under the pressure of producing a good game in eight weeks, no wonder that disputes sometimes arose. In my team, at the beginning we tried hard to enable everyone to participate in the design process to generate ideas and to brainstorm. But later in the development process, this method proved to slow progress down tremendously and we decided it would be better to have an overarching designer making decisions. Across all the teams, many other conflicts surfaced: clash between artists and programmers, clash between artists and designer.
The Importance of Testing
Testing started as soon as we had our very first prototype out. Even in its rough form, with only boxes and stickmen, we placed the game in front of people, gathered their feedback and went back to the discussion table to modify things that were not understood by our audience. This process was going to be repeated continuously over the eight weeks as we strived to create a game which would be crystal clear and as user-friendly as possible. It was imperative that the design and art be flexible enough to accommodate any changes necessary. Not so surprisingly, at the end of the summer, my team had ten different versions of the in-game life/happiness bar. (See the next post for a timeline of the happiness meters)
Nevertheless, all the challenges that we faced as student developers, far away from home, taught us things that we would never have learnt in the classroom. We realized how valuable the advice and suggestions of more experienced people were, we learnt how essential clear, efficient and patient communication is for progress to be significant, we understood that the player is king. And I personally now know that every member of a team must feel valued for teamwork to succeed.
Gambit provided us with a unique experience. Not only did we learn the intricacies of game development but we also had the opportunity to discover the historic city of Cambridge and the Boston area, and to walk down the ‘infinite’ corridor of the prestigious MIT. All in all, Gambit is a big step towards nurturing students who will potentially help Singapore expand its games industry later on.
You can download and try out the games created by the Gambit Summer interns 2008 at: http://gambit.mit.edu/loadgame/prototypes.php
– Sharon Lynn Chu