They say the people you meet in college will become your closest, lifelong friends. The five members of Team Pixel Pi, a group of game design students who developed the award-winning first-person adventure game Pulse while studying at the Vancouver Film School, hope to stay together and turn their group project into a full game through Kickstarter.
And like the vision-impaired star of their game, they're figuring it out as they go along — with some help.
Team Pixel Pi made Pulse in three months last spring as the final project for the Vancouver Film School's game design program. The team consisted of five core members — Maxwell Hannaman, programmer; Richard Harrison, level designer; Leanne Roed, scripter and effects artist; Michael Cooper, environmental artist; and Lala Fuchs, project manager and artist — who were assisted by two sound design students, Alessio Mellina and Jamie Robb.
Pulse's protagonist, Eva, lost her sight in childhood. That disability costs her the opportunity to undergo a rite of passage in her tribe. The ritual would ordinarily be rightfully hers as the first-born child, but her family sends her younger brother, Tahu, instead. When Tahu doesn't return, a worried Eva sets out into the forest to try to bring her brother back.
Since Eva is blind, her world is revealed to her primarily through sound: a breeze causes leaves to rustle and appear overhead; a flock of birds makes itself known through its flapping wings and cawing; a gong crashes, its reverberations briefly illuminating the immediate area. Touch comes into play as well — Eva's footsteps light up the ground, and elements like a lamp's flame show up when you approach them.
From the start, Team Pixel Pi knew it wanted to do something with audio.
"One night, over sushi, we were talking about a bunch of sound-related ideas," said Hannaman, Pulse's programmer, in a recent phone interview with Polygon. Fuchs brought up the animated short "Out of Sight," a 2010 piece from three students at the National Taiwan University of Arts that became popular on YouTube. The short tells the story of a blind girl who is robbed on the street and follows her dog's barks as she fumbles her way through an unfamiliar world, using her other senses to figure out her surroundings.
Pulse, said Hannaman, "kind of comes from that concept of not knowing what you're seeing until you hear more of it." The idea also served a design purpose that gave rise to the game's visuals, explained Harrison, the level designer. With a blind character, most of the game world would exist in darkness, and the parts that did appear wouldn't have to be intricately detailed — an important distinction for the project's stringent time constraints.
"The trees and the rocks aren't fully formed," said Harrison. "We were trying to relate back certain aspects of, 'If you were blind, how would you feel?'" The developers kept coming back to "feeling lost in the forest."
Team Pixel Pi came up with another piece of the sound-to-visuals design at the same time: Mokos, little cream puffs of cuteness that Eva finds dozing in the forest. The brainchild of artist Fuchs, the Mokos can be tossed into the darkness, with anything they bump into being revealed to Eva; they can also be used to solve puzzles. Only later did the developers realize that the mechanic functioned like echolocation.
"If you were blind, how would you feel?"
Navigation was the team's primary design challenge: "It's so easy when the entire world is black for the player to get turned around," said Harrison, and the developers wanted to guide players through the forest "but not make [the path] super obvious." So although Eva is blind, color became an important tool for orientation.
"The aspects of the world that were comfortable ... she would see them in different colors that would draw the player's attention," said Harrison. Cloth, for example, is very familiar to Eva, so it always appears as bright red. (The screen also glows red when Eva is frightened, a terrific inversion of the initially comforting color.) And ambient sound, like drops of water or flocks of birds, is "always leading you in the direction we want you to go." The simple, geometric shapes of the environment also help the player understand where they are.
The challenges of designing navigation in Pulse made focus testing crucial, and difficult. Team Pixel Pi brought in fellow game design classmates, as well as people who didn't regularly play games at all, and were "watching them get frustrated and lost," said Hannaman. The students' feedback, in particular, wasn't always useful.
"The biggest thing that was hard to filter out," Hannaman explained, was that the design students were "trying to gamify the whole thing."
He continued, "They wanted to see where the game was, and we were very much trying to make this an experience" as opposed to a game. But both Hannaman and Harrison were quick to note that they appreciated the constructive criticism, and that their class was a particularly tight-knit group.
Hannaman began, "Our class specifically was really..."
"Different," finished Harrison, as the two broke into laughter. He explained that their class of 23 was getting comments from other design students asking why their class was so close. Harrison offered this idea of the class's team-first attitude: "If the average [game quality] of the class is better, everyone will look better."
Vancouver Sweet Vancouver
After graduating last June, the five members of Team Pixel Pi went their separate ways, but they stayed in the Vancouver area. Hannaman is now working on Company of Heroes 2 at Relic Entertainment, while Harrison is at Fathom Interactive. Fuchs and Roed went to DeNA, while Cooper was freelancing and is now looking for work.
Vancouver was formerly a game development hub for major companies like Rockstar Games and Activision. But in recent years, big studios have left town and headed eastward to Canadian provinces like Ontario and Quebec for their larger game development tax breaks.
But Hannaman and Harrison feel at home in Vancouver, and believe there's a place for them in the industry there.
"We are absolutely aware that the industry is changing," said Harrison. "It's actually thriving — it's just changing."
Indie development is the town's new focus. "People are expecting that 'big industry' means big games," said Harrison, but Hannaman told us, "There's a ton of small studios here" — companies of less than 30 people — "that are not doing bad."
"Here in Vancouver we have a strong network of industry people," said Hannaman. Harrison added, "We hope that we can stay in Vancouver."
"the industry is thriving — it's just changing"
Going Pro with Pulse
Team Pixel Pi may have split up after graduation, but since then, Pulse has received a couple of significant honors: It won a 2012 Unity Award for Best Student Project, and is now a finalist in the Student Showcase for the 15th annual Independent Games Festival Awards.
"We're very serious about moving forward with the project," said Hannaman. The team will travel down to San Francisco for the IGF Awards, where they hope to win the Student Showcase, and the Game Developers Conference, where they will be promoting Pulse. If someone approaches them about funding the game's development, said Hannaman, "We'll talk about it."
For now, Team Pixel Pi is seeking to crowdfund the game. The developers launched a Kickstarter drive for Pulse last week, asking for $75,000 so they can build out the student project into a full game. Referring to Pulse in its current state as a "prototype," Hannaman said Team Pixel Pi's plan for the full game is for it to be "not just an extension" of the existing project.
"We want to take the best things from that experience," Hannaman explained, and "put [them] into a complete experience ... a more polished, focused kind of experience." In essence, the full game will be "very much like a re-imagining and re-creation of [Pulse]."
The Kickstarter funds would pay for the cost of licensing tools — Pulse was developed in the Unity engine on an educational license, not a professional one — and for Team Pixel Pi to develop the full game on a part-time basis over the course of two years. Hannaman and Harrison said they did "a lot of research," looking at numerous Kickstarter projects to figure out how to best craft their pitch; they've also received advice on that front from a few local industry professionals.
Like Eva, they're somewhat in the dark and learning about the world for themselves.
Team Pixel Pi's Pulse is a 2013 finalist of the Independent Games Festival Student Showcase. The Independent Games Festival will take place during the 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco from March 25 through 29.
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