You're going to want to keep track of six video games coming from New York University's Game Center. One of them might be a spiritual successor to the hit PlayStation 3 game Journey and another one is on track to be a great multiplayer game that blends elements of starship game FTL with Star Control II. This past summer, all of them got the benefit of great advice from some of the best minds in video games.
The guys making the Journey-alike game are Atlas Chen and Nick Zhang. Their creation is Gemini, a game that is about controlling a star that must fly close to a second, fledgling computer-controlled star. When the two stay close together, the second star lifts the player's star out into a wider universe.
The game has a simple yet slippery control scheme, which only lets the players move left or right. You rise if you stay close to the other star's randomized flight path and fall if the pair get separated. "We wanted to touch not just the mechanical and skill considerations [of what it means to make and play games], but also spiritual and emotional ones," Zhang recently told me.
As you play Gemini, it starts off as a puzzle. You wonder what to do and then try to sustain the skyward travel of the glowing dots. When you screw up and wind up dropping like a stone past the mysterious, already-discovered vistas, you frantically try to reunite with a bundle of algorithms that has sneakily begun to feel like something meaningful. Like a friend.
"We were inspired by Journey but wanted to experiment with the idea of creating the same kind of bond with an AI," said Zhang. If their labor-of-love creation winds up charming people all over the world, it'll partly be because of a program that let them talk to Journey creator Jenova Chen (no relation to Atlas) himself. Yeah, the guy who made the game they idolized was their mentor for three months this past summer.
Two weeks ago, on a warm, late-summer evening in downtown Brooklyn, Chen and Zhang showed off their game. A room packed with hundreds of people had come out to celebrate a group of young game designers at a splashy fete held by NYU to mark the end of the school's first-ever Game Center Incubator. The evening's atmosphere was casual, with some developers wearing shorts for their coming-out party. But the achievements they were there to show were anything but laid-back. The Incubator was a three-month program designed to help the most promising work from graduating students find an audience. Chosen out of a larger pool of twelve, the creators of six game projects got a monthly stipend of $2000, oversight by the game designers who teach at NYU and free use of the Game Center's computers, office space and hardware. The stipend was meant to be a living wage—enough money to let the designers not have to worry about getting jobs right away—and it required that they show up to work on their games every day. Most importantly, the Incubator projects' creators also got to put their games in front of world-class game-makers like Jenova Chen, Alexander Bruce, Adam Saltsman and more. (Full disclosure: I agreed last spring to be on the advisory board for the program and met with the Incubator teams to give opinions and advice about their work.)
For these students, the hard work of proving out their games' core concepts was long done before the summer began. What would come next was unclear. These games were made in university classrooms, not corporate conference pods, and their creators didn't have access to public relations or marketing departments. Part of what the Incubator provided to the students was access to people specializing in various disciplines across the video game industry. If the game-makers who got into the program wanted insight from, say, members of Sony's Santa Monica development studio, a vice-president at Kickstarter or lawyers who specialize in the legalities of game publishing and rights ownership, those people were only an e-mail away. These industry professionals made up an advisory board that helped Incubator participants figure out the best way to help their games mature into forms that had a fighting chance of finding an audience.
All of the participating teams started out with different goals. Some simply needed to polish their games enough to show to publishers and funding partners to get to the next level of refinement. Others wanted to grab the attention of Sony, Microsoft or Apple, in the hopes of winding up on a digital store owned by those companies. At least one creator was aiming for the crowdfunding route, pinning the future hopes of his game on a sales pitch offered up to the Internet at large.
A few months ago, these were twentysomething young adults who'd spent the last few months trying to make their teachers happy. As Incubator participant Toni Pizza told me, "Before this, it was all about turning in an assignment, getting a professor off your back and maybe getting some hi-fives from classmates if you made something they liked. We didn't think of marketing." But she also said that once she and the rest of the Secret Crush dev team were chosen for an Incubator slot, they quickly decided to aim for getting their game Sunburn! on Apple's App Store.
Sunburn! is a deceptively cute game about a suicide pact between stranded astronauts who realize that they're not getting rescued. Players need to round up the crew from tiny, dangerous planets in various solar systems and then yank them all into that system's sun to die fiery deaths together.
During their time in the Incubator, Secret Crush worked on making the user interface more understandable and figuring out how to pitch a game with a morbidly grim goal. In the final weeks of the Incubator, satisfied that they'd done what they set out to do, the team submitted their game to Apple. Sunburn! was accepted by the makers of the iPhone and will be out this fall.
Steven Clark's Rooftop Cop is funny but moodier and more personal than his classmates' creation. Rooftop Cop is the name Clark has given to a five-part anthology of games set in a grimy world controlled by police who've forgotten why they do what do. Clark is a musician and a visual artist who said during his last Incubator presentation that "to code is an act of politics." Clark said that he thinks that game-makers encode their values and experiences into their work and that Rooftop Cop is a game about what happens when people and the systems they live in don't talk to each other.
For all the high-minded aspirations behind the game, Rooftop Cop has quietly clever gameplay ideas. In the Datamines chapter, players control an officer grabbing personal info from computers in a building, just because he can. The goal is to get to the bottom with as much data as you can, but grabbing too much will cause the floors to break underneath you, killing the cop and ending the game. Clark says that while his peers and advisors repeatedly told him what he needed to get better at, he also didn't want to sharpen all of Rooftop Cop's elements. "Certain things [in a game like this], you want them to feel fuzzy."
Incubator games were playtested every Thursday in open-to-the-public sessions where local designers and non-industry folks got their hands on the works-in-progress and offered up feedback. For Chen and Zhang, these sessions drove home the fact that they needed to add more to Gemini. The game connected with players, but it was short. It doubled in size during the Incubator, going from 20 minutes of playtime to 45 over the three months. The pair said that Journey creator Jenova Chen's advice had been to use the opportunity to build more game as a chance to deepen the exploration of their themes. "Making it longer has been a challenge, for commercial and aesthetic reasons," Chen told me, "But we realized that players need time to contemplate the experience so it really stays with them. So that's what we're focusing on."
Some of the NYU graduates' games already have agreements that will put them in high-profile pipelines. Soft Body from Zeke Virant should be landing on the PS4 and Vita next summer, he announced two weeks ago. Virant said that his time in the Incubator got him out of his comfort zone and helped him become more confident when talking about his game. That confidence is what led him to pitch his game to Sony.
He describes Soft Body as a 'bullet heaven' where the frenzied stress of dodging and shooting are replaced by a more meditative twin-stick control challenge. At times, the game makes players move a 'soft body ' and a 'ghost body' independently of each other to paint sections of the game world and move objects around to complete various levels.
People who know the ins and outs of video games know how impressive it is to get a deal with Sony as a fledgling game designer. But when I asked Virant what his parents' reaction was to his career progression, he said they're only just starting to get it. "They've always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do," he elaborated. "But they didn't really care until they saw other people care."
If Soft Body is an example of branching off to make a certain genre less stressful, then The Splits is its opposite. Like Steven Clark and Rooftop Cop, Ilya Zarembsky has bundled a collection of smaller games under one banner. What they all have in common is a sarcastic focus on skillful movement. You die quickly and often in The Splits. None of the reflex-centric games offers tutorials. "Tutorials feel like a waste of time," Zarembsky said. According to him, the focus on mastering a gameplay experience in the exact way a designer wants is a drag. "Maybe you don't want to master it," he says of the games in The Splits. "Maybe all it takes is a quick taste to let you know whether you want to try and go deeper."
Zarembsky says that he got very tough criticism about the look and feel of The Splits from Antichamber creator Alexander Bruce. "He had some harsh things to say about how opaque it felt," said Zarembsky, whose company name of Trollcore sums up the ethos of his game. "But I still feel like the graphics are the way they are because they're functional and honest. To me, they present all the info the player needs." "Also, I'm not an artist," he chuckled. "If anything, I'm going to compete on mechanics."
Despite that critique from an established pro, Zarembsky's plan for The Splits is to lean into the cantankerous nature of his creation and launch a Kickstarter to fund its completion. "I'm a contrarian and it'll be a tongue-in-cheek campaign." For example, backers who donate huge sums of cash can make him change a core element in the game. How does he think he'll do? "I think I have a 30%, 40% chance of hitting my goal," he laughed.
Getting games guaranteed audiences outside of NYU and onto major platforms wasn't the only thing that Game Center faculty wanted the Incubator to accomplish. "We wanted to be able to support different understandings of what video games can be," said NYU professor Bennett Foddy, perhaps best known as the creator of the ridiculous running game QWOP. "I knew they'd polish the games but I wasn't expecting the personal maturations to happen the way they did. [The Incubator] became a platform for the students to understand who they are as creators." Some students attended in hopes of eventually getting hired at big AAA video game companies; others wanted to kick off indie game-making careers. "If everybody finds their niche—whether it's getting an art grant, a studio deal, or independent release—then I'm happy." Foddy said.
The games coming out the Incubator are all very different from each other. If they share any characteristic, said professor Eric Zimmerman, it's that "they pretty much only use what they need, in order to get their core ideas working." None of them are really hardcore," Zimmerman continued. "They play with the idea of being hardcore."
The game that's probably the furthest away from any kind of release is Asterisk, but Michael Consoli's space combat title is also the one with the biggest scale. If you've ever wanted someone else to help you manage a starship in FTL, then Asterisk should pique your interest. The multiplayer game pits two starship-commanding teams of three against each other as they try to blast an opposing ship to bits. Inside each ship, different team members will take on tasks like steering or shooting, while frantically trying to repair the damage being dealt by the enemy spacecraft. Consoli's got two ship designs in his current build—a familiar-feeling gunship and a carrier that launches player-controlled attack drones—with plans for two more. Strategies for each will differ but the crew count will always be three people. "Four people would be too co-ordinated," Consoli told me. "They'd actually get shit done. I wanted chaos."
The on-screen chaos wasn't the only drama Consoli had to deal with. Early on, he had a partner leave, making it even harder to finish his thesis project. He started Asterisk to figure out network code and how to build something that'd be playable online. "Doing a network game by yourself is a huge challenge," Consoli said. "When you're problem-solving on a game like this, you're essentially talking to yourself. You can over-engineer or work too hard in the micro sense of things, which doesn't help the overall game."
Consoli says the Incubator helped him realize that he doesn't want to work solo anymore. "It's a path of loneliness and sadness. The weight of the gameworld is all on your shoulders." And he's afraid of burning out on Asterisk before it's even released. That's why his goal during the Incubator session was to pitch a publisher to get the financial support needed to hire more hands, like getting an artist onboard. Consoli—who made vertical platformer Against the Wall before coming to NYU—dreams of making Asterisk skinnable in its final form, enabling the likes of 18th-Century naval themes as visual variants. But first he's got to follow the most important advice he got from Incubator advisor Zach Gage. He says that the creator of hit iOS game Spelltower told him to put Asterisk out there early and often. Getting feedback about how players communicate and engage with a game's systems is key to tuning a multiplayer game.
Looking back to the start of the program, Game Center director Frank Lantz said he was most surprised by the amount of industry support the school received as it sought partners for the Incubator. "We're the new kids on the block [when it comes to game design schools] and we're hustling to catch up," Lantz said. "But I was bowled over by the amount of enthusiastic, highly motivated interaction from the industry."
Lantz said it'd be nice if a game out of NYU became a cultural phenomenon on the level of, say, basketball. And he'd love it if Gemini became as huge a success as the game that inspired it. "But it's not about making a giant hit," he said. "The Incubator is about giving creators tools to find an audience and build a sustainable career." With luck, skill and the insights gained during the Incubator, these six games will be the first games to go out into the world from their creators. If those NYU graduates play their cards right, Asterisk, Gemini, Soft Body, Rooftop Cop, The Splits and Sunburn! will be followed up by many more.