What class never prepares you for

By Todd Enyeart

It was the beginning of the summer semester and I remember I was making a dash from the parking lot. I remember it was really hot, but I was also excited to start the Retora internship and had arrived early to prepare.

The internship was set up by alumni of the school to help fellow students get experience creating a game from start to finish, which was something that has always seemed lacking in the curriculum. The internship was not limited to just a semester but over multiple semesters until the game was in a shippable state. Alumni were there to help answer any questions and guide the students when it was needed. In a month our decided on a 2-4 player beat’em up we called Flub Fighter.  We wanted to make a game for players that enjoyed Super Smash Bros.  

The school’s alumni group did their best to find people who understood that making a game is not the same as playing one. There was a week-long interview process and in the end, 25 interns were chosen.

Dealing with people is one skill that classes can’t fully prepare you for. There’s an old adage in the producer world that “managing people is like herding cats.”  It can be especially difficult when some of the cats want to drink and play League of Legends instead of work. Anyone can Google how to pass an interview and say what you want to hear, as I found out rather quickly.

One obstacle I knew I needed to tackle first would be how team members communicated with others and myself. From the beginning, I told everyone that communication was important, standing up during the first few meetings to express this. I felt like a teacher because I could see some were paying attention while some just shook their heads with a glazed look over their eyes.  Communication is always a problem in groups of any size. Working on Alchemica, the title from the previous internship, taught me this and I did feel I was a bit more prepared.

I had set up a Facebook group just for the project to share ideas and for a place for artists to get feedback. We used a program called Assembla that had a bulletin board that made official announcements and change of meetings times known. Finally I made sure everybody exchanged emails.

A note to the reader: If you have the desire to be a production lead while in college, or at least leading a group of college students, be prepared to be frustrated. There was no excuse for the lack of communication, especially when you consider the fact that many on the project lived in the same dorm. It was around this time that as a project lead, I learned who’s really in it for the long haul.

We ran into quite a few problems. For example, about three months into the project and remember asking Garrett, our lead programmer at the time: “Where’s the testing tool that [Intern B] was supposed to do?” I got the dreaded answer. “I don’t know. We talked after the weekly team meeting so they know that they’re supposed to be work on it.” Turns out he had left to go visit family in California and didn’t bother telling anyone. I was pissed!

I learned awhile back that getting angry does not solve the problem, so I had a talk with him when he got back and he apologized. He said that it wouldn’t happen again. He wasn’t being truthful in what he told me and continued to not do work and “forget” to tell people if he couldn’t do the work. I did make that mistake in assuming that if a person is at a college that teaches game design and programming that they would want to work on developing games. I would make the same mistake around January when I was attending the designer’s meeting and I noticed that we seemed to be one designer short.

“Hmmm, say Andrew, have you seen [Designer B]? Also I don’t recall anything he’s done recently being put in the game,” I inquired. “No I haven’t seen [Designer B],” he responded. “The level that was turned in is not usable.”

This is another thing that college can not prepare you for: how to fire a friend or someone you like. It’s not easy telling a friend that you no longer want to work with them but when you are the producer of a game project, your responsibilities are not just to one individual. The wrong way is to go ballistic on them. Yell, scream, and or curse. This is a good way to burn bridges and lose the respect of your teammates. The right way would be to take a cue from bigger companies and write up warnings. As silly as it may sound, it did help. After I gave out warnings, the team member changed their attitude and got things done. Personally, I think doing this helped drive home the point that this was not a class with a grade that could be made up later. I did have to fire members of the group if they were not doing their work during FlubFighter and Alchemica.

What happens when the warnings don’t work like in [Designer B’s] case? I had to keep reminding myself when I had problems with teammates “I’ve got 23 others that are counting on me to keep FlubFighter going. Don’t let the one person bring the rest down.” Hopefully this reminder of the bigger picture will help you as it has helped me. It didn’t make it much easier but we still had to have that discussion. “Hey [Designer B],” I said. “I’m sorry it’s come to this but you can no longer be on the FlubFighter project.”

March was coming up and FlubFighter had five spaceship levels in a playable state. We had one goal at the beginning of January: to win the school’s competition that sent a team of students and alumni to the Game Developer’s Conference. Free flight, hotel and a booth at GDC Play is a pretty sweet deal! Alchemica won last year and we were looking forward to competing again. However, amongst the excitement of getting things ready I found myself asking: “Has anyone heard when the official competition date is?” Others started asking each other too but we never gave it a second thought, until it was three weeks before GDC.

Our lead designer, who was also a part of the student council, announced at our weekly meeting that “the school is no longer hosting the competition because, and I quote, ‘The GDC competition has run its course. We no longer feel it’s in the school’s best interest to send students to GDC’.” As you can probably guess, there were many choice words that week. 

Disappointment and how to handle the unexpected are things that no college course could ever 100 percent successfully prepare any producer for. Saying that there’s a positive to this situation would be a bold-faced lie and the group would know it. My main concern was justifying all the time spent crunching, getting a game ready for a completion that would never happen. It needed to be done, but disappointment that a common goal fell through can hurt moral in any group, especially when it’s a young, inexperienced team. I was worried about people leaving the project. Many on the team, myself included, were hoping to get to GDC through this opportunity. So how did we handle this news? I knew there had to be a way to redirect the drive we had for GDC into a new goal, so after talking with the group, we decided to work towards Indiecade.

Always be on the lookout for ways to have concrete goals. In terms of game development, there are a lot of festivals and completions out there that you can use. It also helps to  not limit yourself to local events or just the big ones. We had a booth at the Phoenix Comicon for example, where we all had a good time and the game got a good reception. So for Indiecade, we worked and worked up until the day before the submission date. Many of the team members all came in on the day before the submission date to work on the game. We fixed bugs, updated art, recorded gameplay and worked on other items needed for the IndieCade submission. Finally, at 3 a.m. on the eve of the submission due date, Andrew R. and myself were checking and double checking all of the levels for bugs while filling out the information and sorting out everything before hitting the submit button. It felt good to have our efforts be put into a venue for others to see.

Please note that I left out the name of the school and some people on purpose. The goal of this piece was not to bash anybody or place. At the same time, however, their decisions and actions affected the group and you yourself may find some parallels in my experiences with your own. Whether it's a scholastic endeavor or just as a hobby to become a game developer, always keep in mind that life experience will always be the best teacher. 

Todd is a producer at Retora Game Studios and has over seen their internship program. You can check out his work at www.toddenyeart.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @VoidSwimmer.