With the start of a new year and the return of many students back to school, it’s been a busy start to 2019, and January marks the last month of submission for the Global Student Challenge on Unity Connect. We’ve seen a fountain of inspiring content these last few weeks - from the amazing quality of student projects in the Unity Awards to the shared stories of our creators through #mydevstory on Twitter, including creative developers who made their first games using batch files or Powerpoint or took their initial concept and brought it to life.
We sat down with the people behind One Hand Clapping from the University of Southern California and TerraChi from University of Technology Sydney’s Animal Logic Academy to add a little insight into what it takes to make great projects and the journey they took along the way.
TerraChi: Our first hurdle was deciding on the scope of the project, how large should we go, knowing we only had limited time to deliver. Time is always going to be your biggest challenge - to overcome this you need a strategic timeline in place with consistent milestones using an agile development workflow. Setting small weekly goals with weekly sprints enabled us to work focused and efficiently and gave us clarity, as we quickly navigated through ideas we thought were possible. It was often the case, where we thought, “Hey, that would be a cool idea”, we would then quickly prototype it, and find out “oh, that wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be.” And sometimes, by prototyping it, we would find out better ways of conveying a creative idea.
For example, originally, we had way bigger and more complex Tai Chi moves, thinking they would be easy to do. However, through a fast rapid prototype it became apparent that these moves were way too complex for the average user. Even the artists and developers making the experience struggled with it. So our advice here - you may think you have a great idea, but until you try it and play it out, you just won’t know.
Our whitebox prototype was key to testing the experience. It should be good enough to user test, so you can obtain relevant feedback to enhance the experience. A great whitebox should be able to convey the core principles and mechanics of the experience. We had this as an early milestone, and we were able to focus on the polish of the experience much earlier than we initially thought we would because of its success.
Before you even have a whitebox, you can get up and roleplay your experience. Act it out, pretend that one person is the user, and the other is the experience. Act it out and talk it through. You will be surprised how many unknowns spawn from this and what amazing answers you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.
One Hand Clapping: For us, the most satisfying moment in the process was our first showcase at USC. We had a line of people standing behind a literal red velvet rope that we'd found somewhere, waiting for half an hour to play the game and gave us compliments. We were awarded the "Bazillion Dollar Idea" award. It made us explode with happiness and validated our work, being told that the thing we'd worked so hard on was good.
More deeply than that, it affirmed that One Hand Clapping was capable of affecting people in a more profound way than "Hey, that's neat!" That's something I think we all felt during development, but to hear it from others for the first time was profound. Watching people play the game and perform or respond emotionally exactly how you want them to was also rewarding. Interestingly, it was equally rewarding when players played through the game in ways you never anticipated! Games only exist when people play them, so seeing players interact with One Hand Clapping and respond positively to the experience was fulfilling.
We also had some great moments whenever a team member showed off something they made, which matched or exceeded your expectations of what you envisioned. It's a comforting feeling knowing others care as much about the game as you do and that you are on the same page.
TerraChi: The success of the whitebox was where everything came together. Again, it was crucial as it confirmed to us that we had a solid experience and that people would enjoy playing it. In addition, completing the experience and showing it to people outside the academy walls was great!
We have been fortunate enough to have our experience be nominated and win awards, as well as be showcased at local events such as The Sydney Film Festival’s VR Hub and NSW 360 Vision, as well as be a University Library exhibit. It’s a joy to see the public enjoy something we have put so much thought and hard work into. Seeing users growing a tree, summoning fireballs, and exploring a world that you have created is what it’s all about- especially when they come out and say it’s the “Coolest thing I have tried in VR!” It was also an inspiring moment to see the team of students band together and work as a team to deliver something this ambitious.
One Hand Clapping: The most difficult point of the project came to a head about halfway through the development process. We had developed a bunch of puzzle mechanics more or less independent from each other and were trying to put them together in a cohesive layout. Additionally, a lot of the game at that point depended on a pitch meter, a UI indicator which divided your singing range into 4 discrete chunks and visually represented your pitch.
With the help of playtester feedback, we realized two things; First we were missing one of the greatest things about using audio as input, which was its continuous, analog nature, and second, the game was also really difficult at that point. We came to the tough decision of scrapping the pitch meter, and with it, a large portion of the puzzle mechanics we had developed, as well as the art and narrative that supported it. Although it felt like we had wasted time on work that was now being tossed aside, we learned a lot about the fundamental appeal of our game and allowed us to construct a more cohesive, accessible, and fun experience. This decision required us to let go of four months of hard work and learn from our mistakes to shift our game mechanics and overall structure to make the strongest demo. Once we knew what we wanted to make, it was reinvigorating, and everyone worked twice as hard to make it a reality.
TerraChi: Stick to your game plan! Don’t get distracted on the small details. Make sure that your core mechanics work and are fun! Trust the process you and your team have put in place. There are always reasons and excuses to get distracted, having a good game plan to come back to keeps you focused. Have a checklist with weekly and daily tasks you want to get through. If the list is to big, break it down into smaller lists. Using Trello for this is great! It helps provide transparency and oversight for the whole team.
Build and test early and often! You want to keep an eye on that framerate, and make sure when you are adding more detailed assets, more interactions, more anything, that you do a test build and try it out. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at the end, why your framerate has dropped, or something is glitchy. Early and often builds will get you ahead here.
Don’t be afraid to make the difficult decisions. Unfortunately, with a deadline looming, sometimes you must cut ideas from your original plan. This can be difficult but is often better for the project. Having a board of stretch goal and wish list items is great for this. I usually get our students to break it into three categories. “Must Haves” – these are key to the core experience, without these the experience loses its uniqueness and true value. “Nice to have” – these are extra’s, but with them bring that added level of polish to the experience and visuals. However, without them, the project still works and is unique. “Wish List” – these are all the lovely extra’s. like dotting your “I’s” and crossing your “t’s”. If you can get wish list items into your experience, you are doing well! However, always prioritize “Must Haves” and “Nice to have’s” over this
One Hand Clapping: My advice for the last month of development is to not get lazy. I'm definitely guilty of thinking things were good enough when they weren't, and without seeing teammates continue to push, I would've called a wrap much earlier. I'm not saying you have to stay up all night every night, but the game you're working on should be something you're proud of. You've already worked incredibly hard on it, so don't get lazy now.
In the last month of development, I would make sure that you have someone constantly running through the entire game and writing down all of the small bugs or inconsistencies so that you can start crossing those off of the list. But also keep in mind that you can polish a game into eternity and lose track of the larger issues. Don't get caught up making all of the colliders perfect or all of the sound levels balanced until you've made finished making the actual game. The small things matter less than the experience as a whole, and the small things often take more time to fix despite being easier to fix.
As you prepare for the last month of the challenge, take the advice of students who have been in your shoes! Make sure to properly scope, prototype, and playtest to make these next few weeks productive! Join the Challenge on Connect and build something!