Late last year, Disney’s UK studio Black Rock downed tools for one week, instead setting about an ambitious team-building exercise that asked the staff to build minigames in a seriously protracted development cycle. Here, Jeremy Moore offers up his development diary from each day…
It’s Monday morning and I arrive at the office feeling apprehensive.
The plan for the coming week is that the entire studio will divide into small teams and that each team will design and create a game. For one week we’re forgetting about multi-million dollar budgets, two year development periods, 100 person teams, scheduling and production cycles, QA and focus groups. The safety net formed by all these things is being removed. What will remain is simply the act of creating something that’s fun to play.
The 17 teams are announced at 9am. Groups form around the noticeboard to see who will be working with who. Teams are of five to six and have been selected so that most people will work with colleagues who they haven’t worked with closely before. All teams are supposed to contain at least one coder, artist and designer. Except my team. We seem to be missing a designer. But we do have three coders if you include our tech director who hasn’t actually done any coding for the last three years.
By lunchtime we have made home in our designated team area, and wrestled with the difficult but essential task of choosing a team name. That leaves us four days to come up with a game before presentation time on Friday afternoon. After discussing ideas we agree to base our game loosely on the Screwball Scramble toys where a ball is guided around an obstacle course. We coders get to work creating a prototype in which balls can be rolled around on a surface model. Everyone else works on assets for the prototype and fleshing out the basic game ideas. Progress is reasonably fast and we leave the office on time with that warm start of project feeling where everything still seems possible.
Last night’s warm feeling wears off pretty rapidly through the morning.
The game is evolving in a number of contradictory directions, all of which have flaws. I’m beginning to wish that we had a designer on the team who could focus on and develop the game direction. Although the working prototype is progressing well, when we look at it before lunch there doesn’t seem to be any element of fun to build game-play upon.
Desperation starts to creep into our discussions. We only have three days left. Do we scrap everything and start again from scratch? Or push on with what may be a dead end idea? I don’t feel any better when I see that the team next to us have an early but already fun prototype of their game running.
But then after lunch something clicks, and we can see possibilities emerging in our prototype. We drop some of the complexity, keep the mechanics of rolling balls on a surface and add elements from classic puzzle games like Tetris. A series of good workable ideas follow and by the end of the day, with a fleshed out game design and working prototype, we’re now in full production.
While the coders get down to writing the gameplay logic, fine tuning the physics and adding support for audio, everyone else considers the art treatment. We rapidly move through several themes from retro toy influences and a Frankenstein’s laboratory before ending up with a concept inspired by old medical diagrams found on the internet. Bizarrely our game scenario now involves “rolling neuron balls on the surface of a brain”. It’s weird, but we like it.
Meanwhile other teams’ ideas are even more left-field. At least one team has spent the first few days creating a custom controller from a wooden box, a crank handle and a bulb horn. What’s crazier is that it works and fits their gameplay perfectly.
Crunch time has arrived. Everyone is working at full speed on their tasks. We’re working without schedules and project planning but any task dependencies at this stage are a problem. The finalized HUD design and artwork aren’t ready until the afternoon which means that I need to work late to add in the code support for them. That’s OK, most of us need to work late anyway as there seems to be a 101 things still to do.
An artist on our team turns out to also be an experienced sound designer, and adds sound effects that are suitably twisted to match the rest of the game’s eccentric, (and now slightly nauseating) look and feel.
Friday morning comes as a succession of deadlines. Alpha at 11am, beta at midday, gold master at 1pm and in the shops (well, being presented to the studio) an hour later.
Final art assets are dropped in and bugs are ironed out. I find myself wrestling with a single rendering bug for over an hour and feel real relief when it’s fixed with no time to spare. Other bugs receive nasty hacks to cover them up, and frankly any memory leaks can be “patched later” (i.e. forgotten).
It wouldn’t be a final build without an artist begging to change just one more thing, but at 12:59 I ignore the artist’s pleas and hit build for the final time. We all look at the final version with a mixture of pride and confusion. ’It’s good, but what on earth is it?’ sums up the general team feeling.
That afternoon is spent with each team presenting their finished game to the rest of the studio. The atmosphere is fantastic and each presentation is met with cheers and laughter. The overall quality of the games is astonishing, and generally everyone seems to be on a high from the buzz of their own week’s work and from seeing all the other incredible, inventive game presentations.
So now that the week’s work is over and most people have spent a long night in the pub to consider it, what did I get from the week?
Well it showed that I work for a company that isn’t afraid to take a risk on organising an event that turned out to be both worthwhile and inspiring. It also showed that I work alongside some extremely talented people, but then I pretty much knew that already.
What was surprising is that working on a game for one week turned out to be so similar to working on a game for two years. We encountered in microcosm the same cycle of pre-production/ production/crunch, the same tensions over issues in game design, the same issues in working as a team and managing our work flow. And finally we all felt a similar feeling of pride and relief when the game was finally out of the door.