Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retro Yeti

The staff behind the game 404Sight talk about their company

Posted By on May 28, 2015, 7:00 PM

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For those of you unfamiliar with the University of Utah's EAE program, it has become one of the coolest programs to be involved with on campus. (Well, until the day comes you can earn a degree in Comic Book History by making sense of all those storylines.) The program merges student producers, artists and engineers together under one creative bubble to learn what its like to create an indie game as a team. One of the most recent success cases from the program is the Retro Yeti team, which developed the Steam game 404Sight, which was an immediate hit with the online gaming community. Today we'll chat with four of the staff members from the team about their time at the EAE, developing the game and the future of their company. (All pictures courtesy of Retro Yeti.)

Rachel Leiker, Antonio Revard, Tina Kalinger & Matt Jensen
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404Sight.com

Gavin: Hey gang, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Rachel:
I’m Rachel Leiker, one of the artists. We are a team of 12 people from all over the world that came together to make games at the University of Utah. There are 4 artists, 3 engineers, and 5 producers. Our team is from all over, we come from Utah, Michigan, and India. We came from all kinds of backgrounds, some of us have published games before, some had been working professionally for a while and needed a change of pace, but we all came here to make something great and do what we love.

Tina: I’m a producer on the team and I also deal with all the external stuff like community management, PR, etc. I’m the face of this Megazord. I’m 27 years old, originally from Colorado, and I enjoy puns more than I really care to admit. My undergraduate degree is in psychology, which I pursued with the intention of going into nonprofit work.

Tony: I'm Antonio (Tony) Revard, one of the designer/producers. I graduated from a game dev program at Michigan State and came to Utah to obtain an EAE degree at the University of Utah and work at THE most prestigious game design college in the nation.

Matt: I'm a former journalist, lifelong gamer, producer, and pirate.

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Gavin: What got each of you interested in gaming and what were your favorite titles growing up?

Tina:
Grandma is to blame for this particular hobby and career path. She sent my brothers and I an SNES when I was seven, and I’ve been playing ever since. So, F-Zero, Super Mario Bros, Paperboy, Final Fantasy, Doom, Planescape: Torment, Goat Simulator, TF2—yeah, I should really just link you to my Steam profile so you could see where I’ve sunk the most hours.

Tony: My dad got me into gaming, we used to play RBI Baseball, Tecmo Bowl, and Dr. Mario growing up. I never really looked back since then. Growing up a played a ton of games, but I loved Quake 3, Half-Life, Doom, Pokemon, Super Baseball 2020, the list goes on really.

Matt: Been playing games since before I can remember. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Battletoads were some of my favorites as a small kid.

Rachel: Games have always been a big part of our lives, and our tastes in games are as diverse as the team itself. Most of us can agree that our favorite games include those classic games like Mario and Zelda as well as the Final Fantasy games, but we grew up playing things like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Still, there’s also quite a bit of affection for games like Age of Empires 2, Unreal Tournament, Quake 3, etc.

Gavin: At what point did you decide you wanted to start taking a hand in creating games?

Tina:
When I realized (quite by accident) that it was a valid career option. Since I’d been playing them my whole life, I’d never really connected that people made games for a living, until I started paying attention to games journalism and discovered that the university I was working at offered a degree program. It all clicked together!

Matt: Final year of undergrad.

Tony: I used to play around with Legos, and I loved trying to think about how people would create and disassemble creations, games were a natural leap from Legos. I became invested in trying to see how they would do something specific, I knew I wanted that role, to create something others loved was really (to me) a pipe dream, but here I am with a degree and a game on Steam, it still feels surreal.

Rachel: Playing those games a lot was more than just entertainment to us, we started tearing the games apart to see how they worked and what made them tick. We broke existing rules and created new ones to make the game our own. When more and more tools became available to us, we were able to start making them from scratch.

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Gavin: All of you have gone through the University of Utah's EAE program. How has their program work out for all of you?

Tina:
The entire team graduated from the master’s program on May 7, so we’ve all been through the last two years together. We’ve all had our experiences and hold our own opinions, but I think we can all agree that it’s been an incredibly rewarding endeavor. It provides an incredible combination of classroom learning and practical application of those lessons in project-based work, with equal attention paid to soft skills like networking, presenting, etc. It was nothing like I thought grad school would be.

Tony: The connections at Utah and the bonds I build together as classmates and alumni helped me gain an internship and full-time employment at EA. The faculty here saw my hard work and helped me gain the opportunity to get into an interview, their belief, my fellow friends and classmates’ belief in me, and my will to want to do something I love for the rest of my life helped a ton. The EAE program was a worthy investment.

Rachel: The EAE program at the U has been great. I like to say it’s the most fun I’ve had not sleeping. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also extremely rewarding. The best part is probably the people you meet and the friends you make. The program does a really good job of giving us the opportunity to iterate and explore ideas without penalty. Which is really useful for finding what we are good at and what we want to do when we graduate and get into the real world.

Gavin: When did each of you first meet each other and eventually become friends?

Rachel:
We met the first time during orientation for the EAE program, some of us knew each other from before the grad program, but for the most part that was when we first met. Our first semester we do a thing called rapid prototyping where we rotate through game themes with different teams every four weeks. It’s a great way to get to know everyone in the cohort and quickly make game prototypes. During that time, we all had a chance to work together and develop some cool stuff. So when it came time to choose teams for the full thesis game development we had a good idea of who we wanted to work with. Most important was that we liked each other and we knew we could make something great with everyone involved without wanting to murder each other over the course of the next three semesters.

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Gavin: How did the idea to form a gaming company come about, and where did you get the name Retro Yeti from?

Tina:
We created this game as our thesis project, and one of the requirements for the program is publishing the game. Creating a company, usually an LLC, is a great way to lay the groundwork for future opportunities if they arise. Plus, we have international students on our team and we wanted to make sure they were covered and taken care of. As for the team name, that’s less exciting. Matt covers it pretty well, but I should note that originally we were “The WW2 Croquet All-Stars,” generated by that same name generator, until we buckled down and began our search for a real name. We had so many ideas thrown around, it was ridiculous.

Matt: We needed a team name, so Tony and I were clicking through a random game company name generator. I took Retro from one randomized name and Yeti from another randomized name, slapped 'em together, pitched it to Tony, he didn't hate it, pitched it to the team, they didn't hate it, and blammo, Retro Yeti Games was formed.

Gavin: What was it like setting everything up and gathering the three teams of people together?

Tina:
The three teams of people? If you mean the artists, engineers, and producers together—well. The truth is, we’re like that from day one. The program really strives to run a studio simulation, and that means learning how to work with the different disciplines from the start. We had to figure out who would own what aspect of the game, though, and that was a lot of trial and errors. We had to select a lead producer, creative lead, and lead engineer so that we’d have bus drivers for each of the departments. They were really just a fancy of way of saying they were responsible for keeping the big picture in mind. We all sat together in the same area of the lab, we set up a team Slack (a really, really awesome team communication platform), and it went from there.

Rachel: Getting off the ground took some time, we needed to establish leadership structure on the team as well as decide on the tools we were going to be using to actually create the game. We had to determine how we were going to communicate with each other, and some other process-oriented things for keeping the game on the schedule and everyone informed. All this came together pretty quickly actually, so we were hitting the ground running after establishing the team.

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Gavin: What were the initial planning stages like for creating a new game, and how did you decide on 404Sight?

Tina:
Oh, geeze, you don’t really have enough article space to cover all this, so I’ll give you the short version. The first few weeks were pretty intense. For the class structure, the team had to come up with 100 game ideas, get feedback and filter those down to 10, and of those ten choose 2 that would move into prototype phase. We had a fairly comprehensive idea of one of those game, lovingly referred to as “The Button Game” that people were pretty excited about, and then we landed on a completely different idea that was about resource management that we called Robot Game. We actually dropped it after about 3 weeks of development because we just couldn’t get the game to work. While half the team worked on the button game, the other half struggled with Robot game and we just got to the point where it had to go or we couldn’t proceed. So we threw together another game we called Room 207, which was all about using  ghosts to show you where the safe places were in a haunted hotel. This helped us develop our core mechanic which was using an ability to reveal safe and unsafe places in the game.

Rachel: We presented to a large panel of industry professionals and faculty where they gave us feedback on both games and we could choose which one would go into full development from there. We unanimously chose Room 207 and proceeded to full development. We changed the theme of the game to be a superhero kind of thing called Super Fail, but even then it still wasn’t right. At the end of the semester, we met as a team and did a couple creative exercises to help us with the theme of the game. We landed on two ideas: Net Neutrality, and the right to be forgotten (example: Have bad press or old personal content removed from Google). Over the summer, we developed mechanics and initial design documentation based on these ideas and came up with some radically different iterations of the game. At this time, we were also learning a brand new engine —Unreal 4, and some of us were working full-time doing internships for AAA studios. We developed a few different prototypes and had a working prototype of what the game had evolved into at that point.

Tina: At the beginning of fall semester 2014, we received some pretty brutal feedback about the game from an alumni of the program. Everyone was pretty bummed about the whole thing, so we decided to start from scratch. We kept the core ideas of the game—running and feedback—but then came up with a list of things we thought were interesting and that we wanted to explore in the game. So we made a list and hit the ground running on the new version, which is actually pretty close to the game that we published.

Gavin: What's the process been like for you in creating your portion of the game?

Tina: 
Ah, well. I mentioned this a little bit earlier - we all kind of had a sense of ownership over specific portions, but we really worked on interdependent things and couldn’t say who exactly made what happen on their own. We worked together on basically everything, with all of that iteration and collaboration. Even with the community building and social media stuff, I may have been in charge of that but the entire team provided assets to share or ideas for content, so—I mean, it was all of us. It was great.

Rachel: It’s been hard, this is one of the hardest things to do, but also insanely rewarding. It’s a small team and a big project, so people were responsible for a lot of tasks. But that also meant that we relied a lot on each other for help with different things. That was one of the greatest things about our process, was we were completely agile which meant that I could pick and choose what I worked on, but I could also help others with what they were doing and others could help me. It was a truly collaborative project.

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Gavin: As a newly formed team, how has it been interacting with each other in a creative environment to produce a brand new project from scratch?

Rachel: 
As with any creative endeavor, there’s a lot of jockeying for one’s ideas to be heard, so we had a bit of a rough time getting organized enough to where we could iterate on design ideas. There were a lot of communication mistakes early on, but then we decided as a team to set some rules about how design features and mechanics were to be articulated and built, and that helped immensely and allowed us to move very quickly through the rest of the design of the game. We enforced a truly agile development process, meaning everyone on the team had an idea of what needed to be done and would choose their own tasks to work on with each other, always communicating to the rest of the team what they were intending to do. If someone had an idea for a feature, they would mention it to at least two other people on the team so a proper discussion could happen. All in all, after we opened up the communication it was really easy and great to work on the game with each other.

Gavin: My understanding is that 404Sight was founded on the support of net neutrality. Can you explain how that came to be?

Tina: 
The game’s mechanics were determined pretty early on in the development process, we knew we wanted a game that played with visual feedback, we knew it would be a running game, and we knew that we wanted an ability that would reveal the things around you. So when it came time to theme the game, we looked mostly to things we cared about as a team, not just something that would look pretty. We landed on a couple ideas, all of which had to do with digital spaces, and Net Neutrality ended up being something the entire team cared very deeply about, and it happened to complement our mechanics beautifully. As student devs, we rely a lot on the internet and social networks to ask for advice, learn new things, and get feedback, so the potential loss of that access if the ISPs win over Net Neutrality would be devastating to us and the games industry as a whole. So we decided to make a not-so-subtle statement about it with this game.

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Gavin: The game itself looks beautiful for its design and controls well. How much work did you put into this game to make it work as well as it has?

Rachel: 
The design of the game is an ongoing process. We were making tweaks to the game up until a couple days before we launched. We went through so many iterations of how the different mechanics worked, we changed the numbers on everything weekly pretty much. We did lots and lots of playtesting as well to get the right feedback from the players—what they liked, what they hated, points in the game where people were getting lost or died a lot, problems with teaching the mechanics to players, and especially the visual feedback we were using. Early on we had a very different look for the fast and slow lanes that ended up obscuring other parts of the game, so we went back and redid that whole system. Regarding the art style, it changed a lot during the process of the game. Since the game was based around visual feedback, we wanted it to be very clear when the ability was activated or not, so we started out with a very stark environment that we could then lay the colors and textures on top of for maximum contrast. One of the things we learned early on was that colorblind players had trouble playing our game with just the color options activated, so we added an additional symbology and texture to the colors so they could more easily play. This expanded out into more visual effects and even more visual cues as to how to play the game. We were adding things up until the last-minute to get maximum visual value out of every aspect of the game.

Gavin: The game launched back in mid-April, how did the decision come about to make it free to play on Steam?

Tina:
Since the theme of the game is about free access to information and ideas, we decided at the very beginning that the game will be free to uphold that belief. It was something the team unanimously agreed on. It also, in the course of our Steam greenlight campaign, really provided a low-risk yes vote situation for potential players. They weren’t being asked to invest anything except a thumbs up, and that definitely didn’t hurt our popularity both during the campaign and after our initial launch.

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Gavin: Currently, the response online has been extremely positive, what have you heard so far from players and fellow developers?

Rachel:
We have been so excited about all of the feedback we’ve been receiving! It’s great to see how people are playing the game, where they are running into problems, favorite moments, and just the amazing reactions to the game people have. Our Steam reviews have been the best though, we’ve had everything from “Great game” to “Looked down and saw my feet. 10/10.” From fellow devs, we’ve heard great things as well, especially about how well the game flows and the art style.

Tina: Hell, every review is a priceless piece of literature sometimes. In all seriousness, though, it is really cool to see that 100,000 people have downloaded our game and, for the most part, enjoyed it. It’s one thing to develop the game in the semi-vacuum of school, but it’s another beast entirely when more people than you’ve ever known in your life have played it. We can’t really fathom the numbers anymore. As for the feedback itself, it’s been a not-unexpected mixed bag of praise and suggestions. I think the top three things we hear are: 1) More optimization, 2) More content, 3) More options. PC gamers especially have come to expect a level of customization in their controls, graphic settings, etc, which we didn’t initially anticipate but are happy to patch in, to the best of our ability anyway. It’s really, really gratifying to see that most people are unhappy because the game is short, as opposed to bad.

Gavin: Are you adding anything more to the game as time goes on, or is this a one-and-done kind of project?

Tina:
We’ve been doing some bug fixing and adding minor features that people have been mentioning on the forums. We have an outline of a new game mode we’ve been toying around with, but the team is still kind of recuperating from grad school to work on it right now. In all honesty, it’s very unlikely that anything major will be added to the game. We really wish we could allow for community content because there’s been a lot of noise for that, but we just can’t get that working. Que sera sera, 404Sight fans.

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Gavin: Now that the game is out, what is the next step for Retro Yeti as far as being a company and producing another game?

Rachel:
As a company we are focusing on maintaining the game as it is and maybe adding some stuff in the future. We’re also submitting it to game festivals and competitions, and we are also interesting in using it as an activist piece to further the cause of a free and open internet. We honestly haven’t even thought of putting together a next game, we’ve been too focused on finishing up this one, graduating, and furthering our careers.

Gavin: Utah itself is becoming an indie-gamer's paradise these days. How is it for all of you to be living here and creating at a time when this part of the market is growing so quickly?

Rachel:
Utah’s been a great place for developing games. We not only have the top game dev program in the country at the U of U, but the community here is so supportive and great. We have unprecedented access to other developers from the indie and AAA scene, and it’s been wonderful to get to talk to them and get their feedback on the game. It’s also such a close network of people here it’s easy to get help with resumes and portfolios as well.

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Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of 2015?

Tony:
NBA Live 16. Note: Tony is currently employed with EA and working as a designer on this title.

Tina: Realistically, LinkedIn updates and portfolio overhauls. We received that grant from Epic that we’ll be using to (hopefully) bring the game to as many people as possible through festivals, conventions, and so forth. For now, team Retro Yeti catches up on a collective two-year sleep deficit. We’re stumbling out into the sun of our social lives, blinking in surprise and embracing our families and loved ones again. We have a rest period ahead of us, but we’re probably not done yet.

Rachel: Great things of course! A few of us on the team have jobs already with EA Tiburon, Apple Inc., Rockwell Collins, and other companies. So we’ll be part of big projects there and maybe even some smaller ones here in Utah, we’ll see what the next six months bring!

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