A Letter Regarding Chambara’s July Launch

I originally wrote this post in July shortly after Chambara’s July 26th launch. I put it on the cooler and held off on publication until the time was right, adapting bits and pieces of it for two talks I gave at USC. Since 2016 is on its way out and we intend to have news about the game in 2017, this might be the right time for a li’l retrospective on the game’s journey. If you’d like to support us, consider purchasing the game on PlayStation 4 or playing it with your friends. 

In Fall of 2013, I was in my Sophomore year of game school, and the egotism and imposter syndrome common in rookie games students had largely left my system by then. I had friends across the school, and a few games and a lot of writing under my belt. The previous year had opened me up to a beautiful, vast world  that went deeper and wider than I could ever possibly imagine, and the optimism of the time had yet to wane.

That year, William Huber, professor of game studies at USC, was preparing to leave for Scotland to teach at Abertay University. William taught my theory-centric classes, and while throughout high school, I grasped for any elevated discussion about games I could get my hands on, William guided me directly to it. His classes were foundational and influential to me.

On the last day of the semester, the students of my year rushed to the second floor office to say goodbye to Willam before he left, but his office door was closed shut, and he was nowhere to be found. On the whiteboard outside the main office, we wrote farewell messages for him and took a picture posing in front of it. I uploaded it to Facebook and posted it to his timeline, tagging everyone in it.

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That evening, William responded to the post, “Hah! I’m in the office!”. I rushed out of my apartment and down the stairwell to grab Catherine Fox and rush over to meet Esteban Fajardo, who was already in the games building. We found William and went to the Starbucks at the dilapidated shopping center across the street from USC. He bought us all drinks and two packs of crackers to share. As we thanked him for what he did for us, he urged us to apply to Dare to be Digital, a summer game-design competition ran by the university that he was going to teach at.

We promised to apply.

And hence began our odyssey. 

Our base of operations was my living room. Cardinal Gardens, apartment G465. We met around a little, square table on hardwood chairs, drinking store-brand chamomile tea.

Our first task would be to recruit two more people to round out our team. We decided on Alec Faulkner, a film-school expatriate whose games floored us with their creativity and character, and Tommy Hoffmann, Esteban’s creative partner from high school, and a expert with Unity. We wanted to form the team before coming up with a game idea because we thought team members would be more personally invested in the project if they were involved in selecting a game idea.

We met in early February to brainstorm projects. We put forward several, but none of them connected with everyone. At that point, I suggested a fighting game based off episode XL of Samurai Jack, where Jack fights a ninja by hiding in an abstract, black-and-white world. This was a game idea that Esteban had already ideated from a personal brainstorming project in high school, and this, was the game that would become Chambara. 

The rest of the story is fairly straightforward. We settled on a title, came up with a pitch, filmed and submitted it, had a Skype interview, and were accepted into Dare to be Digital. With the help of our families and a bit of IndieGoGo money, we travelled to Dundee, Scotland in the summer of 2014 to compete. Fifteen teams were there from across the world, and our job was to build Chambara over the course of two months for the ProtoPlay Festival that August, where all the Dare games would be judged by a community audience. Helping us along the way were industry specialists and our friends back home, who we delivered weekly builds to for playtesting.

We were one of the three winning teams at Dare Protoplay, and were nominated for the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award.  The other nominated games were GlitchRunners, a multi-device platformer from Manchester, and Sagittarius, a VR shooter from an Indian team. As the confetti rained down above us, my heart pounded with anticipation, knowing that what we did at Dare to be Digital would not end with Protoplay. We travelled home to Los Angeles for our third year of game school.

The BAFTA Game Awards would not happen until the next Spring, but their presence crept across my mind through the months and days. News of our accomplishments had already reached home by the time we returned, and our peers and professors welcomed us with congratulations, even the new freshmen had heard the word by the time we returned. In our new visibility, we found ourselves tasked with the responsibility of being role models for the younger students, and there was new consequence to our words and actions.

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That Spring, we traveled to London for the BAFTA Game Awards, and I was anxious. Our careers as game designers could change, or stay the same, from Academy’s decision.

How would it feel to lose? What would happen to us if we won? As we sat in the great hall of London’s Tobacco Dock, waiting for the “Ones to Watch” category to commence, my body was wracked with anticipation. My heart pounded and every invisible itch, urge, and pain became glaringly accentuated. The MC opened the envelope, and we were declared the winners of the award. We walked up to the stage, pushed forward not quite by our volition, but the energy of those who rooted for us back home.

The project expands! 

At the recommendation of some of our professors, we put forward Chambara to become a capstone project at USC Games. The new USC Games publishing label was in its conceptual stages, and contacts Tracy made with Sony and Microsoft were planning on providing gear to the school to support student projects. We were obligated to finish Chambara after Dare to be Digital, and the Advanced Games capstone class would be the ideal proving grounds to take the game forward.

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We pitched Chambara again and were accepted. We were joined by body of new leads, including Max Kreminski, Zach Vega-Perkins, and Nikhil Bedi. We started building a team of students to take the game forwards. We had the artists, engineers, and designers standard to student games. We also had usability researchers, web designers, foley artists, composers, planners, lawyers, translators, and testers.

Some of them stayed for the entirety of the project, some of them came on just to do a few days of crucial work. All of their talents, interests, and skills were necessary to make Chambara happen.

With two semesters as a student project in the Advanced Games class, we had about eight months to bring Chambara from game-jam prototype to complete experience. We had to structure the project around clear milestones, and since we knew Chambara had shown well at events and festivals before, we decided to build towards exhibitions.

The team would be showing the game off every two months. This meant we had to have four main exhibitions. These were to be IndieCade in October, USC’s Winteractive Showcase, the Independent Games Festival in March, and USC’s Spring Demo Day in May. IndieCade and the IGF were both selective and competitive, so we had to work them into the plan without the certainty that we would get in.

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This ended up being a good strategy for the team to enter development with. Exhibitions are great places to get playtest feedback on your milestones. They’re good for re-energizing your motivation and seeing what cross-sections of society your game’s identity connects with. This approach did direct our scope, the need to focus development on preparing and polishing features for festival exhibition created a game which shows its best self in crowds of friends.

This gave us the opportunity to reach many people and touch many hearts across many different regions of the gaming universe. The team got to show the game to different kinds of people and directly see how their decisions in their work impacted real players across professional and casual audiences. Some of the anecdotes I’ve heard from team members about their time exhibiting were extremely powerful and affecting.

The Independent Games Festival nominated Chambara for Best Student Game, and while we did not win, the honor of being considered for another award from a major organization electrified us with excitement and humility. Again, the chilling anticipation filled my presence as they read off the nominated games. The loss was not a crushing disappointment. I had time afterwards to meet the other nominees, and I have incredible respect for them and hope to see them again at future events.

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USC Games Publishing

USC started a game publishing label as part of their initiatives for the future.

The label would start with publishing student and faculty games, and later branch out to release games from marginalized creators and progressive game designers from the community. Its mission was to seek out radically different and culturally important games and elevate them to the zeitgeist and discourse by emulating the models of academic print publishers like MIT Press. By empowering developers near the fringes with the support and resources of a game publisher, USC hopes to bring games like those on itch.io to wide-reaching platforms like the PlayStation Store.

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This dream has potential, and if enriching and exciting games like Quiet Kissing, Waiting for my Protagonist, and Don’t Look at Me can reach people far and wide and can be granted whatever support they need, there is potential for a lot of good to be done to enrich the world.

Chambara was invited to be the debut game for this academic publisher. For Chambara’s specific needs, Sam Roberts granted us access to console devkits, software licenses, and a network of subject-matter experts across fields like certification, testing, and public relations. He also hired a small team of QA testers who quickly became a crack team that held us accountable towards a high standard of professionalism and polish. Chambara would have been impossible to release on consoles without the help of this publisher, and I’m glad to be able to help them further their mission.

There was a new pressure to succeed though. The more people who joined and contributed their hands to push this project forward, the greater the stakes became. As the debut game from an new publisher with an important mission, we suddenly found ourselves with great new responsibility. Carelessness and unaccountability would now impact other people and organizations, not just us on the development team. We could not recklessly charge into the future or avert our gaze from what we had to do.

In Conclusion, Thank you

What I’m trying to say with this post is that Chambara, like many other games that came before it, was an odyssey that spanned time, space, and hearts. The chapters of its journey intersected with the lives of hundreds of people from many walks of life. Their impact spans the quaint hometowns of its developers and reaches across international megacities like Tokyo, Chicago, and London.

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Chambara was built by its developers, yes, but it was also made by event organizers, speakers, account managers, journalists, academics, and bloggers. It was built by the developers we exhibited alongside and the players we exhibited to. Chambara was built by Lyft Drivers, printers, couriers, entrepreneurs, artists, mentors, rivals, fans, partners, friends. A game, and also a memory.

Many people united to build Chambara together. We built Chambara, and so did you.

We built a game, and in doing so, we formed a community. Even if Chambara vanishes into obscurity in a few days time, we should not forget this chapter of our lives that we wrote together.

~ Kevin Wong
July 28th, 2016

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