Throughout the years I started to know more about myself and my limits and one thing is certain: I cannot stay still. I am constantly looking for new ways of improving myself, educationally and professionally speaking. It's that feeling of achievement, that makes you smile and keeps you moving forward every time you look back. Now I'm looking back at Team AVe's participation at the Imagine Cup 2012 World Finals (Game Design: Phone) in Sydney, Australia and I must say... it was one hell of a ride. This is the story of "Cityquest".
At the right place, at the right time
Autumn 2010. I was going to see prof. Buraga to talk about some possible dissertation thesis subjects and teaching opportunities during my Master Studies, but we ended up talking about something completely different. In the office there was Victor and Teodor - two brilliant Computer Science students who wanted to compete at the Game Design section for the Imagine Cup Competition (2011, New York). They had a daring idea: an Augmented Reality Game for WindowsPhone that helps achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They were seeking a design member to complete their team and prof. Buraga recommended me for the job. Without hesitation, I said YES. Who wouldn't? I get to help design a game from scratch. From here on, it was all about iteration and feedback.
Having an idea set in mind, we went on a road of constant exploration to shape it into a working game. So, we started to meet constantly at the Faculty and we just put our ideas on paper. It didn't matter if they were absurd or pure genius.
After many refinements, we basically reduced the game mechanism to this: you open the application and based on your geo-location - a map is generated. Then scanning your surroundings with the camera, you search for MDGs, enroll them and then look for non-playable-characters (NPCs) to raise awareness for that specific goal. Together with a PBL system behind (Points-Badges-Leaderboard), this simple gameplay was the foundation of our proposal. Now it was time to give it a name. We went very "orginal" and named it "Augmented Reality City" aka ARC (or as we like to tease it: CRAP).
Moving forward, we were trying new ideas, new features, changing the schematics - we needed the game to fit tight into the Imagine Cup theme and its requirements. We were even thinking of adapting the game for playing it inside (in a room) - this way we would answer ourselves how could a person with disabilities play the game? Making changes meant updating the user flow. I still remember now, drawing and printing the flows on large A0 paper and reviewing them on each meeting with the team.
The "Extra" player
For the competition deliverables, we needed to present our game using a video trailer. This was a major downside - none of us were video experts, so we decided to look for an extra team member to help us make that movie. We send emails to all students willing to participate and we got to decide between two candidates.
After briefing them with what we need, we asked them to showcase a demo for us so we can make our decision. One of them dropped out, and the other, Alex, managed to present us something WOW! I remember it even now: a 3D glass shattering effect with screenshots of the game on each glass chip. We were happy. We were now five (4+1 mentor)!
Trouble in paradise
All seemed fine. We had the team, we had the will, we received even a phone for testing (LG E900), but sometimes, dreaming too much can backfire on you. For personal reasons (which we perfectly understood), Teodor left the team. The other colleague, Alex, didn't left a word or try to contact us what so ever. We later found out that his demo was actually an online tutorial file customized (that's why he had "trouble" completing the video change requests). And to top it all, WindowsPhone being a young platform (it was released in October and we were playing with it in the upcoming months, winter 2010-2011), it didn't had that much of freedom for developers, leaving us on a dry spell - we couldn't implement the augmented reality feature.
So, in conclusion we were only three members left (Victor - the developer, me - the designer and Mr. Buraga - the mentor). Did we quit? No!
CITYQUEST is born
We knew we couldn't continue with ARC, so we needed to reorganize our angle. First things first, we had to choose a new name. After brainstorming a few ideas like Millennium City, Revelation, Shadows of White or Roadwalker, CITYQUEST seemed like the best choice.
The concept basically remained the same, but adapted offline, without any augmented reality features: you controlled a player, assigned yourself a goal, seeked NPCs to raise awareness and Eureka! You move on to the next goal.
Next, we had to make it pretty, so we created a new logo, designed new MDG icons and thought of new forms of achievements and trophies.
With only two weeks left until the next round submission deadline, we managed to pack "something" to send for the judges. Victor made a working prototype based on the initial idea, I created the design assets and made the movie out of presentation slides. The overall look-and-feel of the game was such a laugh it resembled more with Pacman than what we wanted. But we had one shot, so we played our cards 'til the end. Also, we needed a name for the team. We decided on "Team AVe" (meaning "Hail" or "Salut" in Latin or as we liked to joke around: Alecsandru Victor Entertainment).
Exactly! What the fudge? Surprise. We made it to the semi-finals. We were one step from reaching New York. Now we really needed to stand out from the competition. We made a drastic decision: we will ditch the 2D Pacman-like graphics and switch to a 3D open world with satellite/birds-eye view over the player. Practically we got inspired from the early versions of Grand Theft Auto and combined the 3D textures with 2D flat silhouettes and graphics (it blended very nice).
The sad part was that the phone we received was temporarily developer unlocked, so the key expired, leaving us with no way to deploy the game for testing. Eventually, with some insistence, we managed to get a new one (Thanks to Petru for that). Now everyone was eager to help since we qualified for the next round.
Moving forward, we focused on the game and its next iteration. Victor worked hard on the new 3D surroundings and actual gameplay, while I was struggling to deliver both design assets (icons, graphics, textures, sprites, characters) and that damn video (there was no way escaping that - I had to make a better video).
Pulling on all-nighters right to the finish, we managed to deliver. We submitted our proposal to qualify to the Finals. It had its glitches, but we were proud of our work and glad it's over, at least for now: we were pretty confident (we were getting close as aesthetics to Assassin's Creed version on the WindowsPhone and I'm not kidding).
Remember the video? Well have a look at what I like to call - The Day by Day movie and yes, that is my voice:
Lightning never strikes the same place twice
The results were in, but this time no more fudges. We didn't qualify for the World Finals in New York. To put it right in front, we were very disappointed (I was really pissed off), especially after looking at some of the finalists. Let's say from that day, I don't like dragons like I used to do.
Here is a copy of the feedback we received, if anyone is interested. We really appreciated the weak points they highlighted. It made a huge difference in 2012 ;).
Hello Team Ave,
Thank you for your Imagine Cup 2011 Game Design submission. Unfortunately, your entry did not advance to the Worldwide Finals of the Game Design Competition. However, we know you want to be able to learn from your Imagine Cup experience as these skills will benefit your educational and professional career. Therefore we would like to provide you with a one-time opportunity to receive feedback from the Game Design judging team:
Very nicely presented and plays well. Not particularly engaging though. Tutorial could use some work in scaffolding me up to a decent understanding of the game and how to play it.
Innovation: This game resembles last year's Imagine Cup winner - Wildfire with significant graphical improvement. Theme: The theme is Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems. Using a social media to raise the awareness of the issues is indeed matches the theme correctly but it has been overused virtually by everyone. I wish to see a game that introduces innovative technology that actually tackles the issues themselves rather than about raising awareness. Fun Factor: There is not much of challenge in this game where the only thing that the player has to do is to pick up an issue, speak to three people, and advance to the next level, and repeat again. As the level of the player advances, I expected additional challenges or obstacles (Wildfire at least had those who try to hinder the player). I did not see any of those. In the end, after a while the game was no longer fun. Production Quality: In terms of quality of graphics and gameplay mechanics, this game is nearly flawless. The only missing is background music that is vital to the game…. In addition, the main character did not move according to the player pad. And there is only one game level to play. Presentation: Excellent job!!!
The game can be a bit confusing at times especially around the challenges given by people on the street. With more variance of how you achieve goals the game could reach enjoyment to the level expected when compared to the high quality of the interface and the in game models.
There was nothing left for us to do now, but to just temporary archive the whole project and maybe someday we shall open the Pandora Box again. And we did.
Imagine Cup 2012, Sydney, Australia
The next year, me and Victor chat a little and decided - we wanted to try again. It's payback time and I wanted revenge - we were meant to be in the Finals. We've met with Mr. Buraga and convinced him to mentor us once again.
This time our strategy had to change. Based on the feedback and looking at what we did in 2011, we made our minds: we will keep the general look of the game, but we need to add a story to the mix, we need a hero to save the day. After lots of ideas and storytelling, we've come up with the next plot: A hero travels to an unknown city and starts making friends. What the hero doesn't know is that his friends are getting sick (they suffer from Osteogenesis Imperfecta aka "The brittle bone" disease). To save them you have to get the antidote and to get the antidote you need to find a series of ingredients scattered around the map for you to find (simply exploring the city or solving a series of mini-games). Finally, you distribute the antidote and save the day.
Now we have a story, a main character and three game levels (explore-find-save). For the main character we chose a lion-shaped creature (I have a thing for lions and besides, our Romanian currency is called "Lei" (lions)). We codenamed the hero, Muffin (though we didn't stick with this name, mostly because of its urban roots). We animated the characters so that they can move around more fluently - they can nod their heads and wag the tails.
To go with the new direction of the game, we revamped the logo to look clean and modern. We were really happy where were we going with the new and improved Cityquest. Too bad the phone developer license expired again, no one from Microsoft responded to our request, so I got angry and bought myself a new WindowsPhone (HTC Radar), which I managed to unlock via a third-party-publisher with a Microsoft Student Partner voucher (Thanks, Adrian!).
On and on and on
From here on it was an ongoing struggle to deliver the best experience we could get out of this game. We changed the flows, refine the game elements and worked on performance - at one time the game constantly crashed because of the overload of graphics so we needed to be careful - for instance, Victor had an awesome idea to replace the elements that are going to crash with simple white images - yes, the game had some glitches from time to time, but it didn't crash and that was the most important thing for us, especially for the judges.
It was fun at the beginning, but now It started to get exhausting. Besides Cityquest, Victor had his Mozilla and BSc Thesis duties and I has joggling between Master classes, Teaching Assistant activities and part-time job at Idegrafo. And to top it all, I was falling behind on my MSc Thesis. We were both in our final year.
Round by round we qualified and once again reached the semi-finals (just like last year, we were the only team from Romania to get this high on the Game Design Phone section - we've equalized our own record). Now was the time to prepare our last submissions deliverables: the game in .xap format, the game instructions, the game storyboard, three screenshots and TWO VIDEOS (a full game presentation of maximum seven minutes and a marketing one minute game trailer). No worries, we managed to create all of these and even add a little extra: a 4-page comic book that stood as our primary source material for the game trailer.
Check out the materials:
We submitted all the materials, double-checked everything and from now on... it is all in the hands of the judges. We just had to wait.
Yes it did! It happened! We qualified for the World Wide Finals all the way to frickin' Sydney, Australia (I didn't exit Romania 'til then - imagine that - my first trip outside). I jumped, I kicked, I cursed and yes, I had tears of joy in my eyes.
Since we made it to the Finals, everybody has become our friend. I’m going to be a bit rude now, but all of the sudden, Microsoft Romania grew an interest on us: they sent their Academia Evangelist to guide us through the process and My God! This is all we needed now – more headaches. Besides trying to “teach” us how to present our game, he didn’t even know what the game was all about. And the funny part, he managed to send us a scratched second-hand phone (Nokia Lumia 610) to deploy and test our final game and guess what: it wasn’t even developer unlocked (it was just a phone they used on their MSP tour; how did I know? From the pictures stored on the phone – they didn’t even reset it). Sorry MS Romania, we were expecting a little more from your behalf.
While MS Romania was “struggling” to prepare the road to Australia (sending us just links and the rest was up to us), we've already been practicing our presentation for the Finals, participating at all sorts of local events (BringITon, RoCHI etc.). On the same time, both me and Victor presented our thesis papers (MSc and BSc) and graduated the Faculty. After, finally, getting the Visa, we were all set – a two day flight all over to Sydney. Even today, I still don’t it get how the delegated agency planned that flight (First we go from Iasi to Bucharest with Tarom, then from Bucharest to London with British Airways and then from London to Sydney with Quantas with a pit stop in Singapore – we didn’t even have seats near each other). After 40-45 of flight and waiting hours we arrived at Sydney.
Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
After registering and completing all formalities we made our plan: in the first day we will rehearse our presentation, present the next day to the juries, after that get hands-on with each jury member. Leaving also time to visit Sydney. I know we were distant from the other teams (Timisoara, Cluj and Bucharest), but we still had work to do and we needed to play our cards straight.
After hours of rehearsing it was presentation time and I must say we did more than great – we presented our strong points, gameplay, future involvement, all of the package – we didn’t babble and answered all the questions without hesitation or incertitude.
Next up, it’s hand-on with the jury members. Here, we were totally surprised and confused. We thought that it’s going to be private discussions with the jury, but nothing like that. It was like a fair. We had to expose our product, market it and so on. We were totally taken by surprise and from what we were seeing, the juries were more attracted to the display, rather than the games. We were no match for the other teams (they had costumes, stickers, freebies, all that cosplay madness).
Speaking of jury members… Dear Microsoft, please, next time, be more careful when selecting these members: we were very disappointed when some of the international jury members didn’t know how to phrase two English sentences together (“Yes Yes” simply doesn’t count) or one of them was handling the phone like she was fingerpainting the touchscreen blindfolded and held upside down. No more comments.
After these rounds, we simply made our conclusion: after competing against over 370 teams from all over the world and reaching Top Ten, we believed that we might have a chance for Top Five, but the podium seemed more than far away. Basically we tried to enjoy our stay as much as possible. We also got some goodies from MS (a Nokia Lumia 900 and later on an ASUS Vivo Tab RT tablet)
That was it
The results were in. We didn’t advance. This was pretty much it. We had nothing left to do, except benefit from the extra day we gained. So we visited and seen as much as we could what Sydney had to offer. Let’s be honest: How often do I get to visit Australia? Or when will I ever get to return?
So what's next?
Well... life. Victor is working at the Developer Tools for Mozilla, I got hired as UX Designer at Grapefruit and Mr. Buraga continues teaching and shaping the next generation of professionals. Regarding the game... this chapter is closed.
These words are just my thoughts on the whole experience I wanted to share with the world. In the end it was fun and for those who are looking to participate... it won't be easy, but surely not impossible. I've learned my lessons and hope you will learn yours ;). Good luck!
PS: Here are some other sample photos from our trip: