Wendi Sierra

Assistant Professor, Games Researcher, Paladin

2 years of design

I’ll be using this design journal to record the evolution of a game I’m co-developing. While this entry gives an overview of the project to date, I’m hoping in future posts to talk a bit more about specific challenges and solutions.

GradLife: The RPG, a quick recap

GradLife is a role-playing game (RPG) based on the graduate school experience, with a focus on common experiences in Rhetoric programs. As of June 2019, there have effectively been four different versions of GradLife the RPG. Of those four versions, three were total or near total rebuilds (hence, what I’ll call version 3 and 3.1 here is just version 3 in the infographic). One of the things that’s interesting about each version is that they’re not all strict upgrades. Features get added and taken away throughout. For example, Player character walk animations show up in version 1, but then don’t come back until version 3.1. Non-player animations also show up in version 1, and haven’t yet returned. Regardless, at each stage we worked out important elements of functionality and made important advances.

I optimistically hope we’re done with total overhauls, but of course only time will tell.

Version 1: KairosCamp

Version 1 was created as part of the two week KairosCamp workshop that ran from July 24th to August 8th 2017. KairosCamp, a digital humanities author workshop supported by the NEH, of course had its own schedule of fantastic activities and work. Thus, at the camp itself we did substantial work on the concept, theme, and research behind the game, but were limited in our ability to develop. Thus, this version of the game uses freely available art from https://www.gameart2d.com/ (the player and non-player character sprites and animation) and https://kenney.nl/ (the backgrounds and interiors). Functionality was limited to walk around and transition between two scenes. We also had a very basic, non-variable dialog system (characters always said the same few lines) that activated on click. Nonetheless, it was enough to demonstrate the general art style and provide a rough sense of the gameplay/direction. At this point, it was not at all an RPG.

Version 2: C&W 2018

As part of our participation in KairosCamp, we were invited to demo our project at Computers and Writing 2018 at George Mason. Given the limited nature of the first game and a new version of Unity with exciting tools (tilemaps!), it made sense to rebuild from the ground up. This was a total reboot, as V2 includes essentially nothing present in V1- even the character movement and camera movement scripts are different.

I created 9 new custom sprites for V2. The main character sprite is based on one of the KairosCamp participants. The three faculty sprites are modeled on actual scholars in the field. Finally, the remaining NPCs, the fellow entering student cohort, were loosely based on friends of the designers. The interior art was found on OpenGameArt.org. Because the character sprites are custom made, there was no time to animate them.

The most important edition in this version is the dialog and quest system. At the time I was unable to figure out a simple way to handle dialog and quests, so I used a plugin called Fungus. It definitely gave us the functionality we need to demo the game (branching dialog with the ability to make choices and impact stats), but it often felt like we were fighting the tool to make it do what we wanted. Further, this didn’t give me the customization I wanted and I was frustrated at not doing everything by hand. This version also included a UI that listed stats. This was the first version that showed the basic features of an RPG.

Version 3

The third version of Gradlife began in March 2019, when I felt I had learned enough in Unity to develop my own quest system. Having worked a bit on an action RPG, I felt it would be fairly simple to just re-use that system for GradLife. Since we were no longer using the Fungus plugin, I once again completely scrapped the previous version of the game, starting from the ground up to build a version with the same functionality.

Because I was adapting from an action RPG, this version included some new features (a menu system to record the player’s academic transcript) and some superfluous functionality ( an inventory and items system- useful in the action RPG but not features we planned to add to GradLife).

I also began at this point to redesign the exterior map. V2 didn’t include an exterior at all, ending at the point that players were ready to leave the grad student orientation. In this version I began building the world map, but didn’t implement scene transitions.

Version 3.1

The next big iteration on V3 was started in June 2019. I realized that the quest system I was using was overly complicated for what I needed in the intro level (and at the same time missing important functionality for later stages of the game). This wasn’t a complete overhaul, as I was really only deleting and rebuilding the dialog and quest systems (the scenes, art, and other assets stayed the same). At the same time, these are the most complicated systems and comprise a majority of the code base at this stage, so from a design perspective it feels right to call this distinctly separate from V3. separate version.

In addition to overhauling the quest system, I made several major advances in other systems. V3.1 includes a start screen with menu and end screen with menu. I have fully finished the exterior map and built the interior for a coffee shop, and built a transition system to move between the two. This version includes an audio manager that plays theme based on scene and includes sound effects at key moments. Finally, I identified new sprites to use for the UI, making it better fit our theme.