What I Learned Designing My Thesis Game

What I Learned Designing My Thesis Game

I made 12 small games (analog and digital) during my MFA program at the NYU Game Center. However, I dedicated most of my time to my task. By the time I graduated, I had worked as a writer/narrative designer on prototypes, vertical slices, documentation – you name it. And after many tweaks, my thesis even won a highly competitive grant to help further education. Short deadlines and secondary tasks led to periods of high stress, albeit in a controlled academic environment, but the lessons of collaboration and creativity were invaluable.

It’s a normal school night and I’m on a video call with my friend Jude. I see them casually scrolling through graffiti-adjacent concept art and short clips of a passion project called Ponch: Cyberspace Investigator. They give me an overview of the game’s mechanics, inspiration, and vibe, which includes phrases like “platformer,” “Ace Attorney-inspired dialogue quests,” “detective work,” and “hack the internet.”

When I ask about the story, their eyes light up. Jude tells me about a virtual, dichromatic metropolis full of criminal hacktivists, government-owned surveillance systems and class-based feuds. A slum world that oozes Persona’s unique style. But above all else, de Ponch says: Cyberspace Investigator is a celebration of resistance. A game that follows an eccentric crew of BIPOC lesbians confronting their dystopian society.

Suddenly, Jude clarifies that this is just an idea they’ve been working on in small bursts for the past few years. “It’s not concrete,” their modest silence seems to suggest. Still, I want in.

At the beginning of the assignment class, we post extensive character maps, wireframes for scene compositions/UI layouts and various mood boards on Miro, a digital board for external collaboration. While Jude tinkers with the menu dialogue system, I draft an opening scene based on their first vision – Ponch, a dirt-poor private eye operating an illegal practice out of the basement of an abandoned funeral home, is hired to find a missing person.

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As the first rounds of milestones approached, Jude works closely with a cinematographer, adding dynamic camera angles to character conversations. So, after finishing my script, we implement text and spend all night before debugging. It takes several long weeks to create a three to five minute proof of concept highlighting the aforementioned Ace Attorney inspired dialogue tasks.

As Ponch, the player investigates a client about the events that led to the disappearance of their lover. After clicking on inconsistencies in the client’s testimony, the discussion continues. Faculty feedback seems worrisome as a critical question remains to be answered: “Beyond questioning, what is the central loop?”

We need help. So Jude and I recruit Katie, a talented programmer who expresses interest in working on our game systems. Almost instantly, the workload is reduced, giving the team room to playtest and do more iterations. We spend hours discussing a primary hacking mechanic that parallels our gritty detective narrative. And after much deliberation, we settle on giving players the ability to hack psyches, infiltrate minds (or “Mindspaces”) for information/secrets, and consequently make investigative breakthroughs.

Mindspaces became minigames that relied on visual storytelling to characterize other people. But how could we make the player feel smart? We return to dialogue tasks and do revisions inspired by ancient cartoonish detectives armed with nothing but pens and pads. Instead of just clicking through dialogue in search of contradictions, we’re building an inventory system for collection quotes that players present to NPCs during important occasions. By giving players more agency in how they react to other characters, confrontations become more dynamic and enjoyable.

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Solidifying these mechanics while polishing UI, FX, and general juiciness (the embellishments that make the game satisfying) takes nearly six months. And for our latest milestone, we’re proudly submitting a 20-minute playable demo. Ponch: Cyberspace Investigator gave me the opportunity to create a queer story while learning to embrace constructive criticism and constant revision within the confines of a small team. More importantly, designing my puzzle game taught me to be trusting, curious, and playful.

This article originally appeared in issue 350 of Game Informer.

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