Wait! Its over!? So soon!?

Its very hard for me to believe that my senior year has come to a close, and with it, my senior project. Where do I even start?

I guess I can say that I think that I got so very lucky with this team, and somehow, I got exactly what I sought to get out of this whole endeavor. I’ve spent the last two years listening to horror stories from past SPROJ teams, only to experience something that I was wholly unprepared for: Things to go somewhat as planned, and for a positive outcome to happen for me. Long story short, I felt like I should’ve done more or done what I did quicker, but looking back there was no way that would’ve happened.

I was brought onto this crazy ship (voluntarily), and set to sail into the eye of a hurricane with a mad captain at the helm as the crew’s character artist. Out of all the things I thought I would do for SPROJ, and all the things I learned on coop, this was the role I had barely any experience in. Yet, when Erin and Sydney left the 20 person conglomerate, they messaged me about switching to their team for this specific role. Looking back now, we had a team filled with people with a great deal of experience, large amounts of extra curricular obligations, and some had no knowledge of what they were going to tackle. If you had told me 2 years ago that this is the team I would be joining up with, I would’ve laughed then had a silent panic attack.¬†Honestly though, even if you told me just that and not where I was going to end up, I don’t think I would ever not have gone along with it. With this all considered, I accepted and made the single goal of making characters that would be portfolio worthy.

What can I really say about my work? As someone who had never learned to organic model, my team was well aware of this fact, they even encouraged ways for me to use my hard edge modeling skills to the best of my ability. There were so many times when this stressed me to the breaking point, I would shut down for a day or two if I felt like I was behind because I didn’t know how I would move forward, what path to take. It was this process that taught me my most valuable lessons that I learned from this whole endeavor:

adaptability
how to use marvelous designer/clo3d (and that whole saga)

I don’t think anything has tested me more in all of my time of being at Drexel than this experience, a woefully ignorant modeler who knew nothing about character design and its nuances forced to meet deadlines as a single point of failure for his team, desperately trying to learn what he needed to to make sure his team survived. Now that I think of it though, I shouldn’t say learned when I talk about this, I didn’t learn adaptability, more like it was there already and just awakened. Back to what I was getting at, I was so very uncomfortable with this whole process, because I had no idea what I had to do. I was terrified that I would let my team down, and I probably did at some points, but no one ever yelled at me, or got mad at me, everyone knew that I had to move at my own pace to learn this from the ground up. Because I didn’t know how to work in the way that Drexel teaches organic modeling, I looked for ways around it. This led me to Marvelous Designer, and Professor Kathi Martin. A meeting which has changed me for the better in all ways. I make the joke to my friends and family now that “when I signed on as a game designer I didn’t think I would leave a fashion designer”.¬†I jest though, Its been such a wild and an amazing ride that I would never want another outcome other than this one. The moment that I started to use this program, everything started to click into place for me. The path to making these characters, which had me tying my stomach into knots over figuring out, suddenly became clear, and with it, the uncertainty. It wasn’t a question of “How?” it was only a question of “When?”. An answer that I falsely gave more than once. It was such a terrible feeling, having to push back my estimates when I realized I underestimated something. But, my team understood, because they knew I would give them the best thing I could possibly do. For the first time since I’ve arrived at Drexel, I can look at my work that I’ve handed someone and not only say I’m proud of it, but mean it.

Its hard to believe its over, and it may be selfish, but I wish it could continue on for a bit longer. I’m so very proud of us, and while I know this was not exactly what we had planned to do, I know we did the best with what we had, and I can’t wait to see what we do in the future. Maybe that first game idea we had in those early fall weeks? maybe something completely random and as fresh as a kayaking simulator was when it was first announced 2 years ago.

Wherever we go or do, i’ll look back and be proud I worked with this team and was able to work with such amazingly talented giants on their level.

 

Until then, its been my utmost pleasure,
-Daniel Shalala

 

When I first was considering my senior project this year, I was almost entirely at a loss. Being a transfer student, I had a rather disjointed group of student contacts, and the seniors I knew were mostly those that had graduated last year. Erin approached me and asked if I was interested on joining a VR project, and I ecstatically agreed. I knew it was a risk, and I knew I might come to regret it, but There’s Been A Murder was a chance for me to take a risk without needing to worry about financially ruining myself. I’m a student, and if I was going to trust anyone to make a VR game actually work, it was Erin and Sydney. I wish, looking back, that I could have told myself what to prioritize, and what to let go.

I was asked to be a UI designer, and I personally asked to also be puzzle designer. Admittedly, I guess I knew less about game and puzzle design than I thought. Game Design itself is often esoteric at best, with very few formalized guidelines. In the context of VR, it became painfully obvious that “best practice” goes out the window. I wanted to translate escape room gameplay into a solo, virtual reality environment, and tie that gameplay with an interesting, somewhat unique story about society and feminism, set to the backdrop of a modern murder mystery drama.

We wanted to do too much, in too little time.

Would three more months would have helped? Absolutely. I have no doubt in my mind that we would have been able to actually have three months of polish if this project lasted a year, and that our ideas as a whole would have been far more fleshed out. Would I have done better if this project was my only project? Yes. Balancing what could have easily been a part time or even full time job with swimming, EGS, and several other required courses was an absolute nightmare, and my work definitely suffered because of that. Would I have done it again? That’s where things become hazy. I think I would, and I think I learned more about myself and my limits in this project than any other. That said, I am not happy with the quality of my work. I was overwhelmed by this whole project, and if I actually realized that our capstone was only as useful to graduation as our other classes…

If I wanted to be proud of a product after nine months, I should have made a simple, mechanically interesting game that could have been made from start to finish in three months. Instead, we brainstormed this game thinking that we had nine, and still overscoped. My goal at the beginning of this project was to take risks, however. I wanted to challenge myself as a designer, and as a team member. I learned more through my personal failings than if I had performed perfectly, and I think that, from all my disappointment and hair-pulling stress, I will take those lessons to heart. I learned that I need to set reasonable limits on myself, and temper my own expectations for my work. I learned what I excel in as a worker, and what tasks I struggle with and need more time on. I had already learned, and heard countless times that communication is key in design, but now I actually know what that means, and what tools are most effective in uniting a team’s vision.

I hope that our original idea can be made someday, by a team that’s as passionate as we were in the first few weeks of this project. I hope it can be made by a team that has that spark, and has the time to do that game justice. And I hope that I can look back on these nine months and feel some sense of pride at what I tried here, knowing that it might have contributed some small part to that game.

Post Mortem 

I learned a ton, working on this project. Firstly, about optimizing and creating assets for VR. I love working with VR, and I’ve optimized assets for games for VR before which is definitely its own task, but not too difficult. Creating post-processing and VFX for VR though often requires its own version of the effect, because of how VR cameras work. On top of this, working with the lightweight render pipeline, which also requires its own graphics constraints, made many usual art pipelines more complicated. I know more now about making VR assets for Unity’s Lightweight Render Pipeline than I did when I started, but it’s still enough of a roadblock that I think I prefer using the normal pipelines and optimizing through those.

For texturing I definitely got a workflow down. The process continued throughout the project mostly the same, and while there were bugs or fixes to models and UVs that needed to happen often, the pipeline itself rarely changed, and was very smooth from start to finish, which was wonderful. I got to build up a library of substance designer patterns and substance painter smart materials, and also learned several workflows for creating game foliage in Zbrush. That was great, but is also one side of one of my ‘could have been better’ moments. Earlier on, I spent a lot of time making things for the plant wall, models, foliage, gardening tools, texturing those, etc, when it would have been a much better plan to do larger texturing sweeps of the game early on.

I also learned more about how color palette can interact with lighting and player visibility, and quite a bit about how to select assets that should be busier, vs assets that need to be textured more plainly so that they don’t demand too much attention. Since our game is all in one room, and also in VR, it was an interesting challenge to make sure that it wasn’t too busy or cluttered, while still maintaining a gothic tone (which is mostly ornate decorations).

Overall, there were some early choices that I think would have saved a lot more time as the project went on, but I learned a lot, got to test many different pipelines for asset creation, and enjoyed working on a fourth VR project.

I can’t believe I’m writing a postmortem for my senior project already. It’s been quite the ride from start to finish, but I think we came out the other side alright. There was something refreshing about working on a game for so long, being able to dedicate time and effort to something bigger than any previous project. On the flipside though, it was utterly exhausting. It felt like trying to be a well run game studio while also having an entire other job. Part of me wishes we went smaller. But I’m so happy with what we built as a team. We made a story game! We have conversations and cool interactions and most people got to work on what they wanted to.

Would I want to do this all over again? I’m not sure. I think I’d want to focus on perfecting a few tiny projects to give my portfolio a specialized edge. I got to write a full video game script, but I’m sure it’s not in the right format for a professional showing. I also worked on a lot of the models in the game and boy do I have to thank Cris for being patient with my forgetfulness. If anything, this project has given me a solid understanding of what it’s like to work with a team for longer than 5 weeks. It was a lot of planning and changing, something I think we all did really well. We were good about recognizing scope and adjusting our goals when necessary.

In the future, if I was acting as lead on something I’d prefer that was my only job. Same with writer or modeler. I was much more a flex player on our team and helped where I could. I still feel like a generalist, which isn’t bad, but this hasn’t given me more experience in being a specialized worker.

In the end, I don’t hate the project and I don’t hate the team. I enjoyed our meetings, our memes, and our group therapy. Love you guys.

I will leave the gifs below as my final parting word.

21

This is the 36th week of Senior Project, and it’s time to start reflecting on what we’ve accomplished.

This whole shebang started when Sydney and I decided to split off from our original team to build our own and make something a little bit out there. We resurrected an old concept and starting working it into something that could be a capstone project for our time at Drexel.

We built a team of people we knew we’d want to work with.

We set ourselves as team leads.

Here, I want to take space to reflect a little on the experience of being a team lead: the places I felt I did well, and the places I could have done better.

I think both Sydney and I were very good about being accessible – one of us was on hand to answer questions almost all the time. I, personally, was reliable in making sure our weekly updates got in on time and that the mountains of paperwork and preparatory documentation we had to do got sent to the right people. I feel I did well answering my teammates’ questions while fielding concerns from professors and adapting plans to suit what they felt would be best for the project.

Where I feel I struggled was with being proactive. Often, due to most of the team having several other weekly obligations, schedules got pushed back and questions didn’t get asked of me until too late; I should have been more on top of anticipating needs and offering help earlier in the week. My schedule, too, pushed things until later than I’d have liked and so my work tended to get done late at night and in a rush too.

I also didn’t contribute to the art as much as I’d have hoped – I spent my time with my hands in the code or screaming at other deliverables. Finally, I wish I had planned more regular meetings with our sound team – ideas got miscommunicated because we weren’t in touch as frequently as we could have been, and that caused some difficulties in getting the right things in the right places.
Overall, though, I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of this team. No member had an easy go of it – we’re all involved with clubs, classes, extracurriculars, D&D groups, EGS projects, co-ops, grad schools, job searches, and about a million other things – and we were still able to finish an hour-long VR experience that people actually enjoy playing.
I’m proud of us.