Turned a project from a weekend prototype into an Xbox One release in under 12 months.
The last 365 days have been, without a doubt, the most intense period of my life - in March 2017 I had been working as an architectural visualiser for a few years, trying to piece together a portfolio that might allow me to fulfil my dream of becoming a full-time games industry artist: little did I know that achieving that goal wouldn't even come close to topping the highlights of my next 12 months.
I had been working on a personal project at the time: a top-down hack and slash game with skeletons, demons, explosions and a level-up system so needlessly complex that it still gives me headaches even thinking about it. Needless to say this game never saw the light of day but I had been using it as a means to learn more about programming in c#, but it also accomplished three other very important things for for me:
1) Between my architectural stuff and screenshots of the new assets I'd made, I felt I now had a semi-decent portfolio that I could actually start sending out to potential employers in the industry.
2) I learned a number of new skills in the process and also reinforced the ones I already had - 'jack of all trades, master of none' might not cut it if you plan on climbing the ladder in a AAA studio, but if you plan on working in a small team you never know what you'll need to turn your hand to next.
And it was the latter (or lack thereof) that had barred me from entering anything like a game-jam before now - surely nobody wanted to waste their time playing anything I've made? Well, roll on April, and after sending out my shiny new portfolio I had manged to land myself a job at EM Studios as an artist (cue much rejoicing) and it just so happened the latest Ludumdare competition was about to commence the week after. Riding a wave of excitement, I cancelled all of my non-existent plans and prepared for my first game jam experience - the theme: 'It's a Small World'.
With hindsight, after seeing what the other incredibly talented devs did with the theme, my own entry was comparatively dull in interpretation - I quite literally made some small worlds. Thankfully, I had learned a lot of lessons in scope creep from my previous botched attempt at game-making, so I tried to keep things pretty minimal - the player would fly around tiny planets avoiding walls, and I had just enough time to add in a couple of mechanics like trigger walls and boosts. All in all I had made 10 levels that I felt were simple yet fun, and as the results came in from the other competitors votes it looked like they agreed: out of the thousands of entries, I finished in the top 20 for 'fun' and top 70 overall. I was over the moon.
This is how it looked at this point:
That might not seem like much, but for my first ever 'game' it felt like an incredible achievement. I was elated, and decided to continue working on it as a side project, implementing all the skills that I was learning in my new role as a games artist. A few months on and it felt like a mobile port would be my best option so I added in a bunch of new levels, tidied up the code and added the (don't judge) on-screen joystick. I was still unsure about how the game should look, so like the uncertain youngster of a game that it was, it went through a few 'looks' - but after a while I knew a neon retro-futuristic style was something I wanted to see more of.
But I had a thought - if I'm a contracted employee of a games company, would launching my own app (even if I knew it was never going to get downloaded by anybody - I really intended it as more of a learning experience) potentially infringe on my contract? I thought I'd be better off asking, so I sat down with EM Studios director Bobby Farmer and showed him my game. Half of me expected him to laugh at how shoddy the game looked, but to my surprise he really liked the game concept, and after a long conversation about on-screen joysticks, he asked that I try and make a new version that took controller input. I did exactly that and when I returned to him a few weeks later with the new version, it was clear that a console release would be a better route for oOo: Ascension. Offering to act as publisher, EM Studios was now on board and I had to pinch myself to believe what was happening.
The problem with a console game though is expectation - releasing a game for one of the next gen platforms feels VERY different to creating something for mobile (especially when it was something that you thought nobody was ever really going to see) and so I felt a lot of pressure to bring the game up to a higher visual standard very quickly, but at least now that I had found my style it was just a matter of implementing it. I quickly made very good friends with Unity's new Post-Processing behaviour, and the final look started to come together.
Still a long way away from where oOo is now, but you can start to see some of the UI, tones and general feel of the game coming together, and those survived through to the launch version. Microsoft were on board, and through their ID@Xbox program we were able to sign an Xbox One exclusivity deal that would see oOo: Ascension launch in the spring of 2018. I couldn't believe it then, and I still can't quite believe it now. From December onward I was working on it full-time and I felt I now had the opportunity to really hammer out the kinks in the gameplay, difficulty curve and the overall visual style.
A very important and often overlooked aspect of working on a project alone is that when you find yourself struggling with one part of it, you can always just jump onto something else for a while, and come back to it later with a different perspective. This is what the next 4 months were like for me; one day I was working on the lighting, the next I'd be looking at sound and then later on I might start programming in a new mechanic: yes the to-do list was gargantuan but I was excited about literally every single thing on it.
From January onward, everything has been a bit of a blur - my wife gave birth to our daughter at the end of February and I became determined not to let the making of this game take over my life - it had to get finished, but it also had to be good. With the help of Tony McBride, (Lead Programmer at EM Studios and creator of Professor Heinz Wolff's Gravity) we managed to get the game up and running on the Xbox with achievements, stats etc all set up, and after a great deal of testing oOo: Ascension is now ready and waiting to launch on Xbox on May 25th, with other platforms scheduled for the end of the year. Coming up with Box Artwork and launch trailer was the final step, and capturing the games look and feel was imperative, so here's what I came up with:
And so now I wait patiently until the 25th to see what the world makes of my efforts. I hope that this might have been helpful to some of you, and that someone, somewhere is encouraged to show the world their own personal project; who knows, somebody just might like it.
by Kenny Creanor
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