Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recent Comings and Goings

Recently some of our team members attended the newly formed Washington Area Unity3d Users Group (WAUUG), which seems to be attracting a great blend of professionals and hobbyists interested in a myriad of Unity3d related topics. The first meeting of the WAUUG consisted of a very insightful presentation on the impact of working with strings on frame rates by the group’s organizer, Phil Ludington. Phil was followed by another presentation on the Unreal Development Kit versus Unity3d, as well as E4 Software’s up and coming title “Swarm” that is currently duking it out with other entries in this year’s Independent Games Festival (IGF). Additionally, I was really impressed to meet people who were using Unity3d for developing various types of games (i.e. serious, entertainment, etc.) as well as really interesting scientific animations.

"Tumbleweed Express" presentation at WAUUG
I also got a chance to show off “Tumbleweed Express” and the reaction was quite positive, though not in the way you might expect. Sure, we had a neat Work-in-Progress game; however, the audience was most interested in the team dynamics and our development process. I was more than happy to discuss our “process” with the audience and I thought that I could go over these questions here. I hope this post predominantly helps shed a little light on our process and perhaps helps our current recruitment efforts as we are taking “applications” to join the Dirigiballers in our game jamming adventure.


How did you guys get started? And, is it general chaos?
No, it is not general chaos – we’re actually fairly organized. Our project started as a game jam organized by IGDA DC and was not intended for more. However, we loved working together on “Tumbleweed Express” so much that we decided to keep pushing. As a result, it occurred to us that the game jam format was the most efficient way to continue. Additionally, we have a really entertaining time during our sessions. Thought it is important to note that immediately following this first jam session we went into a design phase that meant a lot of time in coffee shops together.

How big is your team and how is it organized?
There is some wisdom behind the rule that an agile team should be five team members, plus or minus two. Though we are currently breaking this rule as a group, we are currently organized into several sub teams (i.e. programming, art & design, audio, and production). The major sub teams are about three to four members, which allows for fairly good communication and productivity. Each team has a “lead”, which is a relatively loose term around these parts. Each lead works on production issues, but team members in general are always able to get their opinions heard with regard to all aspects of the project.

That sounds like a lot of communication channels, how does that generally work?
Generally speaking we work one weekend a month using a game jam format, which means we’re all in the same room. We talk back and forth fairly openly, which makes things pretty easy. Outside of a game jam, email is our primary method for external communication and occasionally we host Skype calls or meet in coffee shops on weekends to discuss things without a pile of work in front of us. We also use an internal message board for talking about ideas and conducting jam session postmortems (i.e. a debriefing activity).

Seriously, how does a jam session work?
One weekend a month we are graciously invited to a team member’s apartment. We arrive late on Friday evening after work and/or school. The first order of business is to set up our work area and do a quick food/dinner/supply run. Following these initial activities, we discuss priorities as a team and go around to each team member for other updates. We dive into our respective work for a few hours and then find a place to lay our heads. We don’t schedule a time to wake up, but we tend to get back to work early the next morning.

Saturday’s usually are about getting the major work done and doing some play testing, while Sunday’s are about finalizing the work so that we have something playable at the end of the jam. We have been at this awhile and so we tend to end our jams in the early afternoon on Sunday. At the end of each jam we discuss when the next jam will be and what tasks each member will be working on before the next session.

Dirigiballers hard at work at a typical jam session.
With so many people working, are you on an SVN? What other tools do you use?
Yes, we’re using an SVN service called Assembla. It would literally be impossible to work without this technology, though it’s always a bit of challenge managing the system. We’ve done a lot of work in Google Documents (now Google Drive) as well as well as Dropbox, but we’re beginning to migrate all of this into the same SVN repository and we are planning on reformatting the way we do issue tracking.

Does your team have a project plan?
Yes, a very fluid one. Our plan has always been to prepare a submission to IGF and we try to find other events to act as milestones on the way towards this goal (i.e. MAGfest 2013, which we’re terribly excited about). Some of our past presentations have been with local IGDA chapters and most recently, Artscape/Gamescape 2012. We have plans for after IGF; however, we’ll have to keep those under wraps for now.

Do you have any advice for new teams?
Keep your scope small and talk often about what everyone in your team is doing. Write as much down as you can and don’t hesitate amend your original ideas. You should find your team external milestones to drive progress and always plan to have something that works at regular intervals; every month we produce a new build that generally contains significant progress. Most importantly, keep things fun. There can be lots of pressure and frustration involved with building… well, anything… and despite it all,  you have to remember to have fun and do your best with what you've got. You should always be trying to improve your skills, as well as the skills of your team, while you try to make the best product you can.

Team members setting up for Artscape/Gamescape 2012
How do you deal with polycount on art assets?
This is one question I could not really answer at the time being a programmer, but when I spoke to the art team the answer I got was basically that they use best practices with regard to polycount and try to keep things simple - doing just enough work to make the asset look good, but not overdoing it to the point where polycount is really a concern. I am hoping to get a follow up post from the art team about their process for interested readers; leave us a comment if you would be interested in that kind of information.


This past weekend the Dirigiballers met up for a our final jam session before MAGfest 2013 to put the finishing touches on our best demo build ever! Our current demo will feature a revamped GUI, improvements to various mechanics associated with the camera as well as the player’s ability to target enemies, and much more. Most importantly, this will mark our first attempt at a boss fight.

We also want to congratulate Crankshaft Games on the release of their recent title “Party of Sin”. We are really inspired and happy to witness the successful launch of the game; we wish them all the best on their future ventures supporting the game out in the wild. I had the opportunity to interview Dan Menard awhile back regarding the project, which some of you might find interesting.

Finally, we would like to remind any interested developers that our team is recruiting new members to begin in February. Developers of any skill set are welcome to review our recruitment post and, if interested, should plan to submit their materials by January 15th 2013 to: mattm401@umd.edu

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