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Club provides platform where students can create video games together

The Collaborative Game Development Club at UCLA groups students together based on common interests as they work toward creating a video game by the end of the school year. (Farida Saleh/Daily Bruin)

By Evan Charfauros

June 9, 2018 12:10 a.m.

Behind every “press any button to start” is a team that started with nothing and ended with a video game.

Students work together to design, write and program their own video games in the Collaborative Game Development Club at UCLA. Every year, the club divides current members into groups based on common interests, after which each team of aspiring developers takes on the challenge to complete a playable game before the school year ends.

Fourth-year linguistics student and CGD co-President Matt Fabius said when the club was founded in 2014, it aimed to assign specific roles, such as programmer or artist, to members so they could develop one large project as a club. The organization has since adapted to members’ varied interests, splitting up into smaller groups in which people can choose their own roles and sometimes take on multiple jobs at a time.

“There are a lot of people who have multiple skill sets,” Fabius said. “There are some programmers who also have a really strong interest in creative writing, so they want to be a writer and a programmer. So we don’t make hard boundaries between those jobs.”

Returning club members who have previously engaged in the game-making process take on a teaching role to help new members each year. Early in fall quarter, Fabius taught members how to use Unity, a popular game development program, and club members also outlined other game-making resources and techniques. He and the other veteran club members act as resources for club participants who encounter any problems during development.

Each Wednesday, after the introductory meetings fall quarter, game-makers met with their groups at club meetings to plan and assign game-making responsibilities or work on the games themselves.

Fabius said club officers instruct groups to form basic timeline goals to help them complete their games on time. But because of the often unpredictable time commitment that game development demands, most teams fall behind. Students this year did manage to make significant progress on their games, though, and had tutorials and partial games to show for their work at their end-of-year showcase club meeting during spring quarter week nine.

Perfecting the script

Coding is a horror story for many students, but it doesn’t need to be the focus for a game developer.

A group of first-year CGD members developed a narrative-driven horror mystery game for their project this year. Exploring and solving puzzles in an eerie hospital, players witness the main character’s memories through a series of flashbacks unlocked over the course of the game. As more information is revealed about the character’s morally questionable past as a police officer, it becomes more apparent that the hospital setting of the game could really be a form of purgatory, housing the cop’s ghost.

After attempting to implement the game in Unity during fall quarter, the team subsequently chose to use a simpler engine for producing role-playing games called RPG Maker, which requires less computer science expertise to operate.

“To be completely honest, none of us are (computer science) majors or people who are very familiar with programming,” said first-year English student Jessica Cheng.

Cheng and her teammates devoted their time to writing a fulfilling storyline for their game rather than implementing complex mechanics that would require a lot of code. Cheng, who joined CGD winter quarter, entered as the team had started to script the flashbacks that make up the majority of the game’s story content. She said the story developed over time as the teammates discussed ideas at club meetings.

“We sort of had this idea that (the player would) be chased around by a monster, and then we asked why, right?” Cheng said. “What do we do to make that interesting?”

Angela Gu, a first-year undeclared life sciences student involved with the horror game since fall quarter, said the majority of her team’s meetings early on involved back-and-forth conversations about plot. For example, she recalled one meeting during which the team knew it wanted a flashback to involve a booby-trapped warehouse, but didn’t know the details yet. Gu said she listed every trap she could think of, from poison gas to wet cement.

Likewise, other team members would voice their own suggestions or thoughts for advancing the plot. Based on how well the details fit with the pre-established storyline or the puzzle-solving nature of the game, the group would decide which specifics to add to the story.

Although creating a plot as a team allowed for diverse ideas and greater headway in a short time, Gu said it wasn’t without its challenges. With several different perspectives on the story, it was easy for someone to suggest a plot detail that contradicted or complicated previous details, leading to illogical story segments.

“I’ve learned how difficult it is to write a story that actually makes sense and doesn’t have plot holes,” Gu said. “We give writers of TV shows and stuff a lot of crap for that, but it is really difficult when you’re writing with a lot of people.”

The team emphasized scripting the flashback sequences with the intent that players would enjoy the game for its story and not necessarily for the gameplay. Cheng said the story about a corrupt official dealing with his own guilt addresses hardship and redemption, and Gu said the storyline includes themes of the morality of selfishness and self-sacrifice. Events that occur in the game’s eerie hospital setting relate to the numerous flashback sequences to reveal the full cohesive story to the player over time.

“When you start off the game, as a player you sort of have this blank-slate character, and you think that he’s a hero because the first thing he does in the tutorial is to save another character,” Gu said. “But you find out that it’s not actually as it seems.”

Though the flashback segments were originally intended to have the same pixelated, bird’s-eye view as the rest of the game, the team later chose to portray them in a visual novel style due to time constraints. This simpler format superimposes character portraits over static backgrounds while the player reads through dialogue.

After completing the story, Gu moved on to create game art using Adobe Photoshop CC to convert generic images from Google into pictures of the creepy hospital or other settings to be used in places such as the title screen or visual novel segments. After applying filters, changing colors and splicing images together, original artwork emerged. However, Gu said she would have to redo much of the art if the team moved on to publish its game, due to copyright issues.

Other planned game content, such as monster chases, may also have to be removed from the final product as the team members are unclear on how much more time they can commit to developing the game in the future. Regardless of the outcome, Cheng enjoyed the team’s story-making process.

“There were always people to support you or listen to your ideas, and that kind of means a lot to me,” Cheng said. “I personally prefer making a product knowing that other people have also put effort into it.”

Playing with your food

“Super Smash Bros.” meets a middle school cafeteria in “Fatal Food Fight.”

Fourth-year mathematics of computation student Kiana Mosser led a CGD team working on a multiplayer platform fighting game in which players attack each other not with fists, but with weaponized food.

“My original idea was I wanted to make something sort of arcade-style and reuse existing mechanics in a new way,” she said. “We like the sort of free-for-all, friendship-ruining games, so we decided to do something like that.”

Mosser said food items include rapid-fire berry projectiles and watermelons that can be launched like mortars. Like any respectable food fight, the game includes pies to throw in opponents’ faces. Different types of food have varying properties including range, damage dealt and throwing speed. Food items spawn randomly on the stage, allowing a limited number of attacks each.

Mosser said she and her teammates thought back to what they enjoyed during their childhoods for inspiration when conceptualizing the game, settling on the exhilarating idea of a cafeteria food fight.

“It’s like the fantasy a kid has that you’re in a giant war zone and you can just … pick things up and throw them at people,” Mosser said.

Using Unity, the team constructed a playtesting stage with multiple suspended platforms for players to jump on or between. Mosser said many platform games are implemented with a technique called “tiling,” in which levels are grids of premade squares. However, the group instead coded using a feature of Unity called “prefabs,” which is a function that allow developers to easily edit similar objects in the game at once. Mosser said the choice makes it easier to code dynamic stages.

“It’s easier for us to make stage destruction (using prefabs),” she said. “We can have a platform on its own, and then it can either degrade over time or take damage over time.”

Though the current stage doesn’t have a themed setting yet, Mosser said the team plans to implement multiple settings in which players can choose to fight. She said one stage would simulate players facing off in a cafeteria, while another might take the battle to a playground.

A typical CGD meeting for the group would have members briefly discuss their plans for what each person would work on for the day, followed by a few hours of coding before the club meeting ended and the team members touched bases on their progress. Mosser said team members would occasionally collaborate during meetings to perfect aspects of the game like animation or frame rates.

So far, Mosser’s group is in the process of playtesting and balancing its fighting mechanics. Questions such as the best stage layout or the amount of ammunition for a given food item are answered through trial and error. She said they’re testing for the best way to modify the randomness of the food spawn locations to encourage players to move around the stage.

Mosser said the game has a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor, because it replicates the feeling of frantic fun that kids seek out. She said that, though a kid might imagine the fun of a food fight, there’s another layer of imagination that makes the food fight itself fun, and “Fatal Food Fight” aims to capture both.

“Maybe tables will become forts, or you’ll crawl under stuff and that’ll be like a little bunker, or you’ll stack boxes and whatnot and hide behind them,” Mosser said. “So there’s that aspect of imagination to it.”

Striking gold

Returning developers have a rock-solid foundation.

Third-year linguistics and computer science student Ryan Samia designed the concept for a mining-themed card and board game hybrid this summer in which two teams of miners traverse a seven-by-seven grid containing randomly assembled rocks. The miner pawns can travel the board to either attack enemy miners or “capture” rocks for their team’s territory by converting them to their team’s color.

Players controls one team each and win when they eliminate all their opponent’s colored rocks or miners. Additionally, players play cards to perform a variety of actions, such as setting traps or swapping miner positions.

This year, Samia teamed up with a CGD team to digitally create his game, dubbed “Mine Wars.” Though many club members formed new developer groups this year, Samia’s teammates are the same who have worked with him for the past three years in CGD. The team actually began fall quarter by completing their project from last year, a top-down shooter game that Samia also designed. Once satisfied with its progress on its previous game, the team moved on to this year’s project.

Samia said that working with a group can sometimes be challenging when miscommunications or issues arise with merging multiple programmers’ code. However, he said having a familiar group is convenient because he already knows how to work with his teammates.

“Having our group dynamic formed already, we were able to skip a lot of the preliminary steps that you might have to take if you were a new person in the club,” Samia said.

Having worked on two games together, Samia’s group of five has established roles for each member over time. Every member of the group codes, but one member produces the artwork for their games. Samia said he codes less than his teammates, but fourth-year computer science student and Samia’s teammate Frank Fu said Samia is a better game designer than the rest of the group.

“Everybody has a niche in our team, so it works out very well,” Fu said. “Even if some of us may not be very experienced at programming, we help each other out, and I think that’s a very good thing.”

Fu has coded to implement game cards that Samia designed. While Samia had the preliminary ideas for cards that revive or kill pawns, Fu coded the software mechanism for a miner to return to the game board and animated the explosions that sometimes accompany their deaths. Fu said he most recently worked on an arrow animation that activates when players use the “beguile” card to swap the locations of two miners.

Fu said the friendships he made through CGD extended outside of the club when he realized many of his teammates, also involved in computer science, shared classes with him. Over the course of three years and two games, his friendships developed alongside the games.

“It made me realize there are people out there who are just like me and are really interested in games, but they may be too shy to talk in class,” Fu said. “It’s through this club that we actually get to know each other better.”

He said that the bonds he’s nurtured with his teammates have been advantageous while making games in CGD. While spending hours coding the game – from the color-changing rocks to the randomized virtual card deck – Fu said the team remains enthusiastic because of its camaraderie.

“It makes working together a very enjoyable and relaxing experience, because we can be social and work at the same time,” Fu said. “I feel like that increases our productivity by a lot.”

Like the group’s last game, “Mine Wars” wasn’t completed in just one year, though this time it’s unclear whether it will be able to finish the game at a later date. Samia, who hopes to go into professional game design in the future, said that the experience he’s gained from working on a steady team has been valuable regardless.

“Being part of a team and working on something – whether we finish it or not – is just a good experience to have,” Samia said. “Getting a taste of that is what we’re here for.”

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Evan Charfauros
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