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Group behind forced-perspective puzzle demo meets with Double Fine, eyes the future

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Students from Carnegie Mellon University are planning to turn their intriguing experiment in forced-perspective puzzles into a full story-driven game; And the group could also be bringing its physics toolset to the public, Polygon was told.

Last week a little known graduate project from the collective — itself made up of five students you've likely never heard of — suddenly piqued the interest of thousands when the YouTube video demoing their in-development experimental project appeared online for the first time.

The demo was actually an old one — a four month old prototype from last year's Tokyo Game Show that writer and producer Allen Tingley describes as more of an "internal tool for us than an experience we intend to publish."

'It was more of an internal tool for us than an experience we intend to publish.'

At almost eight minutes in length, the tech demo — which for the moment has the working title Museum of Simulation Technology — introduces a first-person puzzle game inspired by an optical illusion known as forced perspective, a camera trick that essentially merges background objects into the foreground.

The player clicks on seemingly large objects that form the backdrop of the game then moves them into the foreground where they retain their shape but actually appear drastically smaller in size the nearer they are. Through shape manipulation, they can be used in new ways in the puzzles.

'Who knows though, we'd love to make the tools available to everyone.'

A statement from the collective released at the time describes the piece as a "proof of concept" designed to "wrangle our brains around using your perception as a weapon."

"Who knows though," Tingley tells us, "we'd love to make the tools available to everyone."

But it's still early days for the studio-to-be. A full game demo isn't in sight just yet, let alone release plans. So far they've teased that the eventually full game, whatever shape it may take, will include a narrative throughout. According to the developers, they are "storytellers first, technologists second." But despite positive feedback from the public and fellow developers alike, the group is taking it slow.

'We're storytellers first, technologists second.'

At the time the demo was produced, the prototype itself was only seven weeks into development. And likewise, the group is still currently working at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, a thinktank founded in the late 1990s by the late, great American professor Randy Pausch. The game design collective met just last year as freshmen at the Pittsburgh school.

This is their first title, which is being developed in Unity 4 and backed by the creative muscle of game designer and engineer Albert Shih, producer and technical artist Yuxi Zhang, graphics engineer Xiao Li, concept artist and art director Zhengyi Wang and writer, producer and former produce department manager designer Tingley.

Meeting the big shots

Now, even after just a week in the public eye, the collective is getting noticed. Last Friday, Tingley tells us, Pillow Castle was invited to Double Fine Productions in San Francisco where the team was greeted with a sermon on crowdfunding; a route the indie students have yet to rule out. Describing the outing, Tingley told us: "Wow, talk about a group of people dedicated to crowdfunding. Tim Schafer had some choice words for those who naysay kickstarter, and I understand why!"

But despite rubbing shoulders with Kickstarter alumni, the group remains firmly focused on the immediate future of turning their prototype into something more.

"We don't have to be in a hurry," Tingley tells us, emphasizing that the team is still working as a graduate group and has no plans to jump blindly into the cold light of indie game funding. "There are scenarios where we could see going the crowdfunding route, but we also don't want to get into a situation where we are overpromising for the sake of having a kickstarter."

'We don't want to get into a situation where we are overpromising for the sake of having a Kickstarter.'

As of last week, the team has cultivated a practical, business-minded strategy. Despite describing the group's design influences as post-modernist, Tingley adds that the whole size and scope of the game has shifted within the past 72 hours — although in what way exactly, they're not ready to say. Now, the primary focus just one week after the prototype's video upload is to keep the group's head above water.

"It sounds boring and bureaucratic," Tingley tells us, "but it really just means we don't get in over our heads."