With PAX 2012 over, and having some free time to finally get around to this article, I am able to finally present my PAX article from this year. I will be outlining panels, interviews, and games that I was able to check out, but not nearly as in-depth as last year’s PAX article.
Starting things off, I had the wonderful opportunity to have an e-mail interview with Jesse Schell, the owner of Schell Games and teacher in Pittsburgh.
JESSE SCHELL INTERVIEW:
Optimus Reports: How did you get into software development?
I was interested in it from when I was very young. I started programming when I was about 12 years old.
- Optimus Reports: From there, how did you specifically get into designing games?
- JS Games have always fascinated me — I coded games for fun all through high school. But it wasn’t until I worked at Disney that I was doing it professionally.
- Optimus Reports: Could you tell me about any inspirational figures of yours, and how they inspired you?
- JS When I was young, I was very inspired by the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence — Alan Turing, Marvin Minsky, Danny Hillis, etc. I really liked how they just jumped in and tried to make things happen. I was similarly inspired by Elbert Hubbard (you’ll need to look him up).
- Optimus Reports: Being able to speak with several designers who are working or aiming to work on a wide variety of games and game genres; what ideas and concepts have you heard, that really stand out? Are there any in particular that you can’t wait to see turned into a game?
- JS I’m really looking forward to seeing “Little Inferno” come out, and also “Way”.
- Optimus Reports: You have your own development company, Schell Games; what projects is it currently working on right now?
- JS We are doing a lot of projects right now — some of our big ones are PlayForward: Elm City Stories, and Puzzle Clubhouse (www.puzzleclubhouse.com) where the players make the games.
- Optimus Reports: How do you prioritize between teaching and games development; is there a rough 50-50 split between the two, or does one occupy a majority of your time?
- JS The school is about 1/3 of my time, the studio about 2/3.
- Optimus Reports: What has been your most enjoyable, or memorable, development experience to date?
- JS There are so many to choose from! Right now, I have to say, I am in LOVE with working on Puzzle Clubhouse — it is exciting to have to respond to what the players want each and every day.
- Optimus Reports: What is your current view on the gaming industry?
- JS It’s a hard, strange time — things are changing, and it is hard to say what will and won’t be profitable. However – -there are more ways than ever to create new games, and that is super exciting.
- Optimus Reports: Where do you see the gaming industry 15, or even 25 years from now?
- JS That’s a long way. I think in 15 years cloud gaming will be standard, and eye tracked gaming will be in the living room, and in 25 years, AI characters who can converse with you verbally will be pretty normal.
- Optimus Reports: For the last ten years, you’ve been teaching up and coming games developers, many of whom, must now be working in studios on their own projects. Do you have any noteworthy mentions, or people that you’re keeping an eye on?
- JS We’ve had a lot of successful alums — Kyle Gabler from 2D Boy, Neal Druckmann at Naughty Dog, Aldric Saucier – inventor of Bakugan, and many others. And there are plenty more who are up and -coming, no doubt!
- Optimus Reports: In your experience, when working on games with a story; what is the difficulty that you face when integrating a good story with good gameplay to keep the player engaged?
- JS Every case is different — but one challenge is to make sure that the gameplay is really doing something meaningful to help tell the story.
- Optimus Reports: What kind of process do you use for integrating story into games?
- JS It’s a kind of annealing process of figuring things out. I like to figure out what kind of gameplay is going to be the most fun, then build a story world around that, and then figure the details of how to tell the story through the gameplay.
- Optimus Reports: Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from your past, that you now incorporate into newer games?
- JS Oh, tons and tons. For me, the biggest is that often, gameplay needs a story to crystallize around, and then you paint the story around that, to fill in gaps. It’s kind of weird, but that’s what I think works best.
Thank you very much Jesse for taking your time to answer my questions!
About Schell Games
After making the decision to leave his Creative Director position at the Walt Disney Company in order to teach at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, Jesse Schell founded Schell Games in 2002 in order to continue to stay connected to the game industry. Over the next ten years, Jesse has successfully led the growth of the company to become the largest game developer in Pennsylvania. The company now employs over 70 people and has produced some of the most popular experiences in the world.
About Jesse Schell
Since starting Schell Games in 2002, Jesse has grown it into the largest and most successful game development company in Pittsburgh. Under his leadership, Schell Games has produced an amazing array of innovative, family-friendly entertainment experiences including the Disney Fairies MMO, Pixie Hollow, the award-winning Toy Story Mania TV Game, and some of the most popular interactive theme park attractions in the world.
Jesse also currently holds a faculty position as Professor at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University where he teaches classes in Game Design and serves as advisor on a multitude of innovative projects. Since 2006, Professor Schell has taught the Building Virtual Worlds class, created by ETC Co-Founder and The Last Lecture author, Randy Pausch.
Prior to starting Schell Games, Jesse was the Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, where he worked and played for seven years as designer, programmer, and manager on numerous projects for Disney theme parks and DisneyQuest.
He is perhaps most celebrated for his design of Disney’s Toontown Online, the first massively multiplayer game for kids. Toontown Online has won several awards, including the following:
- Computer Gaming World – “2003 MMORPG Game of the Year”
- Webby Awards – “2003 People’s Voice Award, Kids Category”
- Parents’ Choice Foundation – “2003 Silver Honor”
- Children’s Software Review – “2003 All Star Software Award”
- WiredKids – “2005 Safe Gaming Award”
- 2005 Webby Awards – “Webby Worthy Selection Award”
In addition to his award-winning work at The Walt Disney Company, Jesse has achieved numerous accomplishments, including the following:
- Selected as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year 2009 Finalist for Upstate NY, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia region
- Named one of the world’s Top 100 Young Innovators by MIT’s Technology Review (2004)
- Served as Director and Chairman of the International Game Developers Association (2003-2005)
- Lead designer of “2001 Thea Award” winner, Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle of the Buccaneer Gold, a virtual reality attraction within Disney’s theme park
- Cut his technical teeth as a Software Engineer for IBM and Bell Communications Research
- Earned a Master’s Degree in Information Networking from Carnegie Mellon University
- Earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
- Plied his creative skills as writer, director, performer, juggler, comedian, and circus artist for both Freihofer’s Mime Circus and the Juggler’s Guild
One of the unexpected booths that I visited over the course of the weekend was Undead Labs with their game State of Decay. It’s a new take on Zombie Survival and uses an interesting method for “death”. Your character dies, and then becomes a random NPC that is currently still alive within the world.
The game still has some ways to go, in terms of development, but the game looks very promising, and fun!
About State of Decay
The end is here. Life as you knew it has gone to hell after the mother of all zombie outbreaks. Now you and the few scattered survivors must band together to survive and rebuild in a 3rd-person action game set in a dynamic open world. You choose where to make your stand, designing and fortifying your home base, performing daring raids for food and ammunition, and rescuing other playable survivors with unique talents. The open, sandbox world develops in real-time, shaped by your actions, dynamically generating content based on your choices and the ever-increasing zombie threat.
State of Decay is our ambitious zombie-survival open world game currently under development at Undead Labs for release on Xbox 360 / Xbox LIVE Arcade and PC.
We’ve all sat around with friends, debating the best ways to survive the zombie apocalypse. Well, the time for speculation is over; State of Decay will let you put your personal survival plan to the test.
Here’s what you can expect to see in State of Decay:
- Zombie Survival
What if society came screeching to a halt? What if all our rules and laws no longer mattered? State of Decay brings these questions to life in a very real way. It’s not just about combat; it’s about doing what you must do to stay alive. Food, water, shelter, and ammo — you’ll need them all. Taking you beyond the initial panic, and beyond the first weeks of the crisis, State of Decay is the embodiment of the “What if?” zombie apocalypse scenario.
- Sweet Action
Move through the world like a zombie-slaying badass. Dive through windows, jump on cars, and take it to the living dead with baseball bats. Hop in a truck and mow down some undead pedestrians. Break into the local police station and clear out their arsenal or walk into the local grocery store to stock up on your favorite junk food. The world is your oyster…a shiny oyster that happens to be filled with zombies.
- An Evolving World
State of Decay is an open sandbox world that develops in real-time, dynamically generating content based on your actions, the choices you make, and the ever-increasing zombie threat. Decide where you’d like to set up a fortified safe haven for you and other survivors you’ve rescued, then form raiding parties to gather resources and create supply chains. Use the materials you’ve gathered to develop your community as you see fit, but be careful — resources will deplete as you pillage areas, and zombies are attracted to noise and activity. Take up the offensive by assaulting hordes before they reach your settlement, or focus on improving your defenses against the massed zombie attacks. Every choice and every action matter in this fully simulated, evolving world.
Check out http://undeadlabs.com/about-state-of-decay/ (scroll to the bottom) for links to detailed development articles, community Q&As, and more.
Be sure to visit our thriving Facebook community page at http://www.facebook.com/UndeadLabs, follow us on Twitter @UndeadLabs, or lurk in the official forums located at http://undeadlabs.com/forums/forum.php.
Undead Labs is a Seattle, Washington-based game development studio that’s on a mission to take online gaming in bold new directions. Our singular focus is to create the definitive zombie-survival game for gamers.
Why zombies? Because living out our post-societal-collapse survivalist fantasies sounds like a blast. We’ve all watched zombie movies and thought, “What would I do?” Join us and find out!
We’re going to make a game with the sweet action, streamlined interface, polish, and cooperative play that gamers expect. Then add to this the vast virtual world, global in-game community, and fun social dynamics of the best online worlds, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer!
Undead Labs was formed in 2009 by MMO industry veteran Jeff Strain, with the goal of building a creative studio around the most talented — and zombie loving — developers in the industry.
Undead Labs Formation Announcement
November 23, 2009 — When flesh-eating, shambling undead corpses invade Seattle, Undead Labs will probably be the ones responsible. Video game industry veteran Jeff Strain today announced the formation of Undead Labs.
Undead Labs’ sole focus will be to create the definitive massively multiplayer online zombie game (MMOZ) for console gamers. Nothing screams funny quite like wading into a group of rotting zombies with lawn chair and a box of sharpened #2 pencils, and nothing says fun quite like doing it with your friends, whether online or on your couch. Undead Labs is committed to bringing to life an MMO loaded with action, humor and, of course, a whole lotta zombies, because the world doesn’t need more dragons.
Strain left NCsoft in the summer of 2008 to build a creative studio around the most talented – and zombie loving – developers in the industry, and to pioneer a new development model that will create a new breed of MMO built from the ground-up for console gamers.
“Every time I see a good zombie movie with friends, we spend days debating our strategies for surviving the zombie apocalypse,” said Strain. “The police station, or the supermarket? Garden rake, or staple gun? Bach, or the White Stripes? I’m a game developer, so I’d probably be useless for anything other than ghoul bait, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to build an MMOZ that lets us put those strategies to the test and find out for sure.”
Strain’s experience and expertise as a game developer and business leader helped spawn the game industry’s most successful and influential MMOs. In the mid-nineties while Strain was at Blizzard Entertainment, he was a programmer for StarCraft and Diablo and created the StarCraft campaign editor. In 1999 Strain formed the initial team and kicked off development on the wildly successful MMO World of Warcraft while taking on the roles of team lead and lead programmer on the project.
In April 2000 Strain founded ArenaNet with fellow Blizzard leads Mike O’Brien and Patrick Wyatt. He served as programmer and executive producer for the popular MMO franchise Guild Wars, which has sold more than six million units. Korean MMO publisher NCsoft acquired ArenaNet in 2002, and in 2008 Strain was promoted to president of product development for the company’s Western operations, where he spent a year wearing button-down shirts and dark socks before returning to his development roots with the formation of Undead Labs.
Undead Labs is home to an elite team of programmers, artists, designers, and producers. We’re not building an army; we’re building the Navy SEALs.
What can members of the team expect?
- You can expect to work with people you admire, respect, and trust, and you can expect to have it returned in kind. We are not a “rock star” studio. You won’t find anyone’s name in front of our game titles, or any single person taking credit for the design of the game.
- You can expect to work on a game you are excited about, while also living a full life. The leads at Undead Labs have a proven track record of building and nurturing development cultures that are respectful of personal lives and families.
- You can expect to work in open, collaborative environments, and that everyone else in the company will do the same. Offices, cubicles, and development culture just don’t mix.
- You can expect to work for a company that pursues excellence and sets ambitious goals. We’re not in this to create mere games; we’re in this to create cultural phenomena.
- You can expect to be asked to contribute to the design of the game and challenge the boundaries of your role, rather than working strictly to a specification that someone else gives you.
- You can expect candor, honesty, and transparency from the company. We’re in this together, and we’ll treat you as a peer.
- You can expect to be compensated fairly for your hard work. You should be passionate about what you do for a living, but you should never let anyone try to shame you into believing that you must sacrifice fair compensation for a job that you love.
- You can expect to love your job. In fact, you should demand it.
From a typical game company description: “We’re always on the lookout for talented developers…”
Well, no. We’re not. We’re a tight-knit studio with strong production and development infrastructure, and we don’t simply throw bodies at problems. When we decide to add a person to Team Zed, it’s only after careful thought about both our short-term needs and our long-term goals.
Our culture is defined by these core values:
- We’re all adults here
- We get shit done
- We love games
We’re all adults here. You were hired to do a job; we expect you to do it. You were hired because you kick ass; we expect you to kick ass. You were hired because you can commit to a rational deadline and meet it; we’ll expect you to do that too. You’re not someone who needs a middle manager tracking your mouse clicks and keyboard presses—which is good, because we don’t have any middle managers. In return, you’ll enjoy tremendous flexibility in setting your schedule and defining the way you do your job in a manner that works for you.
We get shit done. We release games. We make daily progress toward clearly defined goals. We make decisions and take action, even when it’s painful. Idealism takes a back seat to pragmatism. Remember: The one thing that the greatest games ever made have in common is that they shipped.
We love games. Every single one of us, without exception. Our shared love of games gives us a common language and a culture of effortless collaboration. No amount of experience, talent, or brilliance is more important than loving games.
Over the weekend, I had my first scheduled appointment and interview with Red Robot Labs at PAX to see and talk a bit about their latest game; Life Is Magic. The title uses a new technology that basically maps the whole United States for play throughout the game. You’re not limited to “one small map” or restricted from going anywhere. Every state is available to play in, and I believe the ultimate goal for Red Robot Labs is to have their games map the entire world as areas that can be played!
Optimus Reports Q&A
By Mike Ouye, CEO and Co-Founder, Red Robot Labs
1. Optimus Reports: Red Robot Labs was founded in 2011. What brought you together as a company, and what intentions did you have when you embarked into the games industry?
The founders all love games. We also quickly fell in love with location & mobile. We’ve seen a lot of games move from one platform to another, so we decided early on that we wanted to innovate on mobile through location. The goal of the company is to be the #1 location game maker and location platform in the world. The games you will see coming out of Red Robot are the result of the team’s passion and imagination along with heavy investment in developing deeper, polished mobile experiences.
2. Optimus Reports: What factors would you attribute your first major release’s, Life is Crime, success to? Is there going to be a sequel or a successor in the coming future?
Life is Crime was in large part a big experiment for us on many levels: gameplay, new platforms and a foray into location. Much of Life is Crime’s success was due to being one of the first location based RPG’s with heavy polish and competitive, social gameplay. Life is Crime didn’t try to redefine what a traditional RPG is- we doubled down on what we knew works. We felt we we’re taking more than enough risk with location: figuring out how to get thousands of players to find each across 4M+ venues when we launched in North America.
3. Optimus Reports: Tell me about R2, your gaming platform. How would you explain the advantages and unique selling points, what it has to offer to gamers?
When we first started out with the goal of building a location game, we immediately found out how hard it really is to combine fun and immersive gameplay that takes advantage of the players location along with tech and data. With R2, we’ve sought out to provide a platform that would ease the pain for other developers. R2 has also shifted to provide publishing support as well as location services as we started to get more into publishing. Long term, we view our platform as a strategic way to deliver highly entertaining and location-rich game content and push discovery of that content to our audience.
4. Optimus Reports: On the topic of R2: You’ve recently announced plans to extend the service and bring in a range of third-party developers – What sort of games do you envisage using the system?
Red Robot both makes games and publishes games on the R2 platform. We’ve always viewed publishing as a way to work with great studios and individuals that we’ve worked with before, as well as people we haven’t who are interested in developing with an emphasis on location. We just released our first third party game, Global Outbreak on Android. It’s a high quality zombie shooter which uses your location to enhance gameplay. The biggest things we’re looking for in third party developers are great studios with the ability to produce high-polish games. We also look at third parties as a great way to hit genres and audiences we might not as a 1st party studio – for example 50cubes is making a location based shopping game.
5. Optimus Reports: Many of your fans will have noticed the announcement of your latest title Life is Magic; how will this compare with Life of Crime?
The founders always talk about Life is Magic as the game that we started this company to make. We’re hoping that the level of polish and depth also will establish it as a best in class game. We’ve put a lot of new technology into this game: 3D vector maps rendered on the device, whereas Life is Crime used custom 2D tile maps. Another key difference, Life is Crime was all about where you were at with very localized gameplay. Life is Magic is not only about where you are, but also where you can go. We’re really trying to give players a way to discovery new places and regionalized content. For example, in Life is Magic you can teleport to Japan and buy Japanese magic. Life is Magic’s goal was to build the highest quality location game with the most immersive experience. We think we are very close to hitting that goal with this game.
6. Optimus Reports: When would you expect Life of Magic to be released?
Life Is Magic is launching this Fall on iOS and Android. Stay tuned for updates at http://www.lifeismagic.com.
7. Optimus Reports: Could you share with me, where do you think the company is going in the coming years? Any exciting hints you can drop?
This next year and into the future we’ll continue to be very focused on making great games and product for the mobile audience. That audience’s expectations grow every day along with the computing power of devices. We’re heavily investing into 3D experiences and technology in 2013. We’re also very focused on gaming community and audience. Red Robot has some very intriguing products under development, one of which I am very excited about, that isn’t even a game.
8. Optimus Reports: Do you have any plans, or ideas, on future platforms for R2 or your games, for instance a possible console port?
We’re laser focused on mobile right now – phones and tablets for iOS and Android. For the future, I can say that we’ll be wherever the audience is.
Play the Planet: Red Robot develops highly polished, location-based games for mobile.
Founded in January of 2011, Red Robot was started by social and console gaming veterans who sought out a new way to innovate in mobile games. Red Robot seeks to transform the way players share, discover and converse with one another on the worlds first location-based gamer network R2. Our creative goal is allow gamers everywhere to play the planet.
- Founded in January 2011
- Offices in Mountain View, CA (HQ) and London, UK
- 45 employees
- Capital Raised $15.5M
- Investors Include:
- Rick Thompson, Co-Founder of Playdom
- Chamath Palyhapitiya, Founder Social+Capital Partnership
- Mitch Lasky, General Partner Benchmark Captial
- Rob Coneybeer, Managing Director Shasta Ventures
I was able to visit the Reverb Communications booth and while I didn’t play all the games that I’ve listed below, I did view a demo of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller from the developer, and I was able to play Primal Carnage from the Human side and the Dinosaur side. Primal Carnage is really fun and worth a try. I would, personally, want a single player game that uses the design ideas used, and have fun in seperate campaigns for the Dinosaur and Human.
- Alien Spidy (Kalypso Media Digital Ltd.; XBLA, PSN, PC and Mac): Alien Spidy engages players to step into the web of an intelligent alien spider whose space ship has crash landed on Earth. In order to escape, Spidy must rescue his female companion, Virgi, and collect the lost parts of his craft. Alien Spidy’s unique web-swinging mechanics and beautifully illustrated environments make the game accessible to gamers of all ages, but it’s the game’s increasingly tough levels that are likely to engage hardcore players.
- Dollar Dash (Kalypso Media Digital Ltd.; XBLA, PSN, PC): Find it, rob it, and keep it. Players grab the cash in this fast and frenetic top-down multiplayer versus game. Dollar Dash will have fans shouting for joy, as they make a dash with the cash. Players must attack, defend or outrun their competitors in any of the three game modes (Dollar Dash, Save the Safe or Hit’n’Run) using unique and comedic tactics.
- Double Dragon: Neon (Majesco Entertainment; XBLA, PSN): Fight as twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee on an exciting adventure to save their shared love interest, Marian, from the evil Skullmageddon across 16 brawling levels filled with elaborate missions, malicious enemies and over-the-top battles. Double Dragon: Neon is the reinvigorated update to the 80’s beat’em up smash hit that is reminiscent to the original.
- Pid (Might & Delight; XBLA, PSN, PC): Pid is a platform game that will turn everything about 2D gameplay upside down. Players take the role of a young boy that gets stranded on an old remote planet. He must fight off a variety of malicious robots bent on stopping him while befriending unlikely allies to shed light on a huge conspiracy that keeps the planet mesmerized and prevents him from ever reaching home.
- Primal Carnage (PC): Primal Carnage is an asymmetrical, online multiplayer game of humans versus dinosaurs. Prepare to hunt AND be hunted as Primal Carnage sets players in a man versus pre-historic beast class-based team deathmatch – savvy survivalists collide with foes of brute force, allowing players to choose a side. PAX attendees can play on one of 12 kiosks linked in a 6v6 multiplayer match.
- Insurgency 2 (PC): Insurgency 2 is a strategic, fast-paced and strikingly realistic first-person shooter that puts the player in modern conflict zones. Featuring highly scalable HD graphics with new and improved levels and gameplay, Insurgency 2 will boast a wide variety of powerful weaponry, and deliver players a unique blend of tactical action they can’t get elsewhere. Insurgency 2 PAX Prime demo stations will be linked in a 3v3 Deathmatch.
- Rocketbirds: Hard Boiled Chicken (PC): Set in Albatropolis, a land full of birds taken over by a totalitarian penguin regime, players take the role of Hardboiled Chicken, the original Coq of War, who must assassinate the evil penguin leader Putzki. His mission will unlock the secrets to his mysterious, hard boiled past and uncover the real enemies of Albatropolis. Take on Putzki, in either single-player or co-op mode, and watch as Hardboiled Chicken’s astonishing past is unveiled through a series of unlockable cut scenes and videos.
- Beatbuddy (PC): A musical action-adventure where players take control of the eponymous Beatbuddy and navigate him through a unique musical world where each level is a song. Music, rhythm and interaction with the elements of a particular tune take center stage as you explore, overcome obstacles and solve puzzles.
- Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller (PC): A thought-provoking mystery following Erica Reed, a Boston-based FBI agent haunted by the unsolved case of a serial killer who took her brother’s life. Taking a turn for the strange, Erica investigates scenes with the ability of post-cognition, which allows her to sense an object’s past with a mere touch. What unravels is a much greater, much more complex and enigmatic mystery, as it becomes clear that someone knows her secret.
During PAX, there was a panel by Telltale Games regarding their game series, The Walking Dead. I attended this panel and recorded the entire discussion!
The last panel that I decided to record on Friday, while at P.A.X. was the “Getting into games without being “in” the industry”. A bunch of people from around the world, and different companies got together to discuss how they got into games, and in a sense, into the industry. It was a really informing panel!