With just 15 weeks of development time, limited personnel and only the vaguest sense of an idea, the cohort of SMU Guildhall students known as Think Arcade weren't planning on much past hitting deadlines. They certainly didn't expect to create a video game, FrostRunner, that would set university records and win overwhelmingly positive online acclaim.
That's because their first idea was, in their words, pretty terrible.
"We wanted to make an exploration game where you explored an environment by building things," lead game designer Andrew Chase says. "I believe that was by far the worst idea in the entire cohort. We got nothing but negative feedback.”
You wouldn't believe it by playing FrostRunner now. You zoom through frozen obstacle courses like an Olympic speed skater with turbines strapped to their feet. When the ground gives way beneath, you must latch onto glowing orange crystals that slingshot you toward the next iced-over runway. Jumps, turns and dizzying falls must be timed with pinpoint accuracy if you are to safely reach the portal at the end, hands clammy and heart pumping. You must also avoid deadly red ice, bottomless pits and other hazards that will send you back to the start, chastened by failure.
The students in Think Arcade are nearing the end of their tenure at SMU Guildhall, a school for graduate level video game development located on the university's Plano campus. Throughout, they have collaborated on teams to create games of various scale and complexity while still attending classes. This last would be the most ambitious undertaking.
For their capstone, each of four cohorts would have 15 weeks to design, plan, create and polish an "industry level" game with 15-30 minutes of stable play time. It doesn't sound like much to those outside of game design, but Mark Nausha and Steve Stringer, the two consulting faculty who designed the practicum, simulated what they experienced while working as professional developers.
They wanted the students to hone career-level skills and familiarize themselves with the sort of deadlines and stress they could expect from any post-graduation job. By structuring the process to mimic actual companies, all of the students would hopefully be able to slot seamlessly into pre-existing teams, easing that transition from school to career.
Often enough, though, that meant taking a hands-off approach. "It’s all about learning. Our goal here at Guildhall is to launch them into their career, which involves solving problems creatively, not necessarily the way we would do it,” Stringer says.
A big part of mimicking the structure of a professional game studio meant some students became team leads. They would be responsible for a specific facet of the game's development, along with managing team members assigned to work under them. Andrew Chase (game designer), Gerald Milton (producer), Phillip Carter-Tracy (design lead), Zach Bracken (tech lead), and Claire Chengyixiu Bian (art lead) spoke recently about the trials they faced bringing FrostRunner into existence.
As a fresh team with no prior work experience together, finding the right dynamic and workflow proved an early challenge. To have a chance at producing a quality product in 15 weeks, they needed to meld the five distinct teams into a single creative force. For Chase, that meant fomenting trust among everyone looking to him for guidance.
“Trust had to come through my leads first. Accountability bled upward from team members to their leads to me, the GD," Chase said.
But earning trust is easier said than done. The leads implemented some interesting strategies to help build team morale that had their instructors, initially, scratching their heads.
"We forced the team to take a 15 minute walk every day at 11 a.m. We ‘lost’ tons on man-hours to those breaks, if that’s how you want to look at it,” Milton says. But the team looked forward to those 15 minutes, using it to stretch their legs and tell members in other departments about their current tasks. Independently, team members began sharing inspiration, collaborating and excitedly comparing progress on challenging tasks. While Nausha and Stringer were perplexed at the line of students walking past their office windows, they couldn't complain about the excellent work it produced.
“They had a vision and kept working on it without ever losing sight. That’s what made this team so special,” Stringer said.
Each cohort were provided a large conference room on campus to use as their complete design space. Think Arcade spread out, claiming every surface for laptops and monitors, every inch of wall space for sketches, mood boards and mock-ups. The creativity ran as hot as the room temperature sometimes, but they remained as friendly as a dozen people can when spending 30 hours a week together.
As a precaution, the team leads made sure nobody overworked themselves. If someone felt comfortable with burning the candle at both ends, they needed to make sure the work stayed consistent. Labor issues in the video game industry have recently become a critical topic of debate, and Think Arcade seems to be listening. Above all, they wanted to keep the experience positive and healthy. Daily yoga didn't catch on with the team, but daily doughnut deliveries and overnight decoration sprees by Bracken kept spirits high.
Developing a winning theme proved tough. Remember that stinker of an initial pitch? It haunted Chase and his leads at the beginning of the development cycle, but he was sure they could find a diamond if they dug deep enough.
"I sat down with the core team to figure out what was wrong. The one thing they felt the strongest about was player movement. So, they focused on one particular type of movement: warping. It was inspired a bit by games like Portal, and it felt really satisfying. We decided to build the rest of the game around that one really satisfying feedback loop," Chase said. Portal, a 2007 game developed by Valve, tasked players with navigating a labyrinthine scientific facility using a gun that created teleporting doors on any flat surface. Precision timing and a solid understanding of velocity were keys to success., much as they are in Frostrunner.
The art team delved into brutalism architecture as an inspiration for Frostrunner's cold, sparse, and cubic environments. Pinterest, oddly enough, was a great organizational tool.
“It was really interesting being able to explore and draw inspiration from all of this beautiful architecture in the brutalism movement. We’re basically in Pinterest, typing in ‘brutalism’ to create mood boards for our artists,” Bian said. The frozen landscapes served a dual purpose. Not only was Bian and her team able to efficiently create art assets that seamlessly fit together, they retained high fidelity when players rocketed through the level.
On the design side, Carter-Tracy and his team worked tirelessly on creating levels that straddled the line between challenging enjoyment and abject frustration. Often, the game's entire sensibilities would shift, forcing his team to throw away the work of the last two days and start over. But it was necessary to nail the difficulty. If art was the frosting and tech was the bake, design needed to balance the flavors of this cake so that it was nuanced and complex while still defined enough to satisfy a wide range of palates. They mentioned once walking in on the design lead perfectly playing the game's levels with his back to the screen.
On Jan. 1, Think Arcade had officially completed Frostrunner. Friends, family, and professionals from nearby studios like Gearbox gathered for a party and a very special event: going "live" on the digital game distribution platform Steam. While not a flashy affair (essentially clicking some button behind the scenes) it helped every member of Think Arcade feel like legitimate game developers. Their game was available via the same platform as recent blockbusters, like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. They cheered and hugged and celebrated.
A few hours later, their little hour-and-a-half game was rocketing up the charts.
On the first day, they reached the front page of Steam as a free-to-play game. This is no easy task. The algorithms that determine visibility of a game on the website's main landing page can seem arcane, but an outpouring of positive reviews from players, along with a fortuitous spotlight by YouTuber "KYRSP33DY" (2.3 million subscribers), helped the game vault over barriers where other games of their size might get lost in the crowd.
“Within hours of hitting publish, we passed my wildest expectations,” Milton said.
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As surprising as that initial surge was for everyone, instructors included, they were astonished to see it Frostrunner topple the previous SMU Guildhall record of 40,000 downloads set by 2017’s Dawn only two weeks after release. When compared with Steam's overall numbers, it seems a drop in the bucket. But with 7.8 million games currently registered on the platform, and an average 21 new games added every day, their accomplishment is remarkable. Popularity might have plateaued by now, but not before cementing Think Arcade's culminating work as the most successful game a cohort has produced since Guildhall began the program.
"The Think Arcade team made a lot of smart choices in how they developed Frostrunner," said Brian Thomas, managing director of design at Gearbox Studios. "The core game play is simple to learn, but hard to master. This way of thinking about game design allowed them to really polish their gameplay, rather than spending time bloating the game with extra features. It also shows a real maturity you don’t often see from college students."
Plans for future additions to Frostrunner aren't out of the question, the team said, but they are focused on finishing the school year and their next steps after that. To that point, every one of their members plans to springboard off this accomplishment into the game industry, though the team leads are glad their first job probably won't have the same levels of stress and responsibility.
Oh, and if you're wondering, they passed the class.