One of the ultimate outcomes of the VFS Game Design program is the final project, where “guided by mentors carefully selected from local development studios, student teams conceive, plan, and execute game design projects.” The results are presented at the industry night Pitch N’ Play. Students strive to be original and entertaining, and in the case of Major Hertz, they certainly hit the mark. The game was developed by students James Daniell, Alex Schmidt, Josh Reader, Michael Shannon and Ed Hicks (with collaborative help by Moritz Grabosch, Alastair Leong, Bobby Sangha, Alan Riva Palacio, Kevin Locsin, Daniel Martin and Cody Howes).
Major Hertz won the prize for Best Final Project for their graduating class and was recently one of the featured games at the 2013 Game Design Expo. I spoke recently with the graduates about the game and their experience creating it.
Hello and congratulations on winning Best Final Project and on a great presentation at the Game Design Expo. Can you describe for us the concept behind Major Hertz?
Team Major Hertz: The concept behind Major Hertz is simple. The evil, tea-sipping Onyx Cross have made the grave mistake of invading Major Hertz’ home planet of Corrosia. Major Hertz is put in charge of the fleet responsible for defending the planet – but unfortunately for Corrosia, Major Hertz is a meathead and can’t lead. So he does the only thing he can do. He grabs his gun. He dons his armor from wars long forgotten. He tears off his sleeves – because real men don’t need sleeves in space … and boosts off in the direction of the enemy – to single handedly take down the Crown Jewel of the Onyx Cross fleet.
At its core, Major Hertz is a third person shooter, where the player shoots, boosts, and runs on walls and ceilings to rack up a huge body count and achieve the greatest score possible by the end of the game. It is broken up into four sections and takes approximately five minutes to play through entirely.
There is great humour in the game — it is obviously a parody of both a certain kind of game and a certain kind of male action hero stereotype — but it also just obviously shows a kind of affection for the fun side of these kinds of game — so it both parodies and celebrates the genre it is representing. How did you approach building such a game with this concept, and work to make sure that the results were both entertaining and provided a good game play?
TMH: Our approach was simple. We didn’t want to try too hard to make something incredibly emotional or groundbreaking as many other students try hard to do. At the end of the day, we only had three months to build a full game, which is daunting, considering we were doing a lot of things for the first time. We decided early on that we just wanted to make something that was fun and over the top.
It’s actually much easier to make an over-the-top, parody style game than any other. The confines and restrictions many other games work within simply disappear. Realism? Out the window. Laws of gravity? Makes the game boring. Having an over-the-top game actually allowed us to dig down straight to what made the game fun without having to worry about if Major Hertz looked silly going off a ramp upside down. (He doesn’t, it’s actually pretty badass)
How did you approach development as a team? Did you fall naturally into specific roles? How did you manage the process of collaboration? Did you all pretty much stick to one aspect of the development, or did you help each other out?
TMH: Before production began, our team naturally gravitated towards each other because we knew that we all had unique skills we could bring to the table as individuals. So when production did begin, it was fairly clear what each team member was going to be responsible for. However, being such a small team with such a small time frame to complete the game, there were in fact a few times where we would need to help each other out in different areas, and I’m sure many other student project teams can relate to that.
Obviously the best way to collaborate is to communicate, so in addition to morning stand-ups (“What did you do yesterday, what will you do today?”), we would have meetings if we ever needed to discuss an important design decision. It was important that these meetings took place away from our computers, since at your work station there are always so many things circling in your head. Meetings would be concise and brief — you never want to be stuck in one for too long — You have a game to make!
What was the biggest challenge in the development of Major Hertz – as a game, as a project, or as working relationship?
TMH: Obviously there are a number of major challenges involved with a final project, but one of the larger ones for us was reigning ourselves in. When our team formed, we knew that we had a powerhouse combination that could make something that was truly unique and very fun – but we needed to make sure we did it in an intelligent way that produced a clean, well-scoped product, which demonstrated an ability to work responsibly in the industry.
With a concept like Major Hertz, feature creep was a constant challenge to keep in check. At one point, we were talking about riding on enemies like surfboards, having other ships crash into the environment, and Major Hertz firing homing lock-on missiles when we reaches maximum man-power. It’s always fun to think about what would be awesome to do, but when you quantify an idea into the effort and the work hours required, you start to see that building a game from scratch is a lot more challenging than just daydreaming cool game ideas.
What would say you are most of proud of in terms of both your individual and group effort?
TMH: In our second week of production I found myself in the elevator with Dave Warfield, our Department Head. He asked me how I was enjoying production so far. I told him “I love it, I feel much more comfortable in a production setting, where you’re just sitting down and getting good work done on your own project.” He turned to me with a grin and responded “We’ll see if you feel the same way when you reach beta.”
What I was personally proud of was the fact that when we reached beta, I did feel the same way. We were releasing a huge amount of creative energy, learning new things, and overcoming big challenges – and enjoying every minute of it. We exceeded expectations and created something we could really be proud of. Everyone on the team felt the same way, and we were as proud of each other as we were of ourselves as professionals and as friends.
As a group effort, we’re proud of the choices we made and for standing strong for the type of game we wanted to make. From settling on a game concept that took advantage of our individual strengths, to sticking to our guns when mentors expressed doubt on different design decisions – we knew the game we wanted to make, and we made it.
Looking back on the design and development of the game, how would you describe the value of the project as a learning process? Do you think that building this game has helped prepare you for a career in games?
TMH: Everything involved with the production of Major Hertz was an incredibly valuable learning process. Everything from pitching the game in its early stages, learning to use the Unity Engine, making tough design decisions, and everything in between, provided a wealth of knowledge and experience that each of us will no doubt use in our future – even outside of games.
VFS has really structured the final months of the program to feel like a genuine in-studio experience. You’re going to crunch against hard deadlines, solve incredibly difficult problems, and above all else, learn to work as a team – because there is no room for egos in game design. Your project will live or die based on how well you work together.
Congratulations to James Daniell, Alex Schmidt, Josh Reader, Michael Shannon and Ed Hicks! — You can check out their winning game, Major Hertz in the games section of Arcade!