The Medical Necessity lore nobody asked for

Remember Medical Necessity? It was the game development project where I had my first ill-fated experience as a project manager. In the end, we got cancelled due to lack of progress during the first quarter of production, and the only surviving product is the purchasable sprite sheet on itch.io.

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The design document and production wiki note that the default names for the player’s allied soldiers are Homer, Berenson, Collins, and Cunningham. And while digging through a lifetime of old boxes preparing for my move to Portland, I found the original action figures those names came from. Their plastic has gone gummy and they’re now too fragile to do anything but collect dust, but at least I can photograph and chronicle the 4 most important toys I owned growing up.

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“Corps Man adventures” were one of my favorite pastimes growing up with my younger brother Jake. We had huge boxes of GI Joes, LEGOs, Star Wars figurines, and other assorted toys, and we went on countless adventures where we’d each control one or more characters in sprawling odysseys that often took us around the house, backyard, and even our friends’ houses if they were participating. Arctic expeditions, police/detective procedurals, time-traveling, natural disasters, jailbreaks and manhunts… we role-played a huge amount of scenarios throughout the years, very rarely reusing characters or locales in favor of constantly inventing new backstories and storylines.

The squads on this page are among the very few action figures who always represented the same recurring characters. Jake and I each controlled our own 4-man team of special forces soldiers, and over the years they went on dozens of different missions for the “Power Team”, an international peacekeeping force. We made them ID Cards and everything.

The Rangers

My squad was the Rangers, and tbh they’re way more boring than the crazy stuff Jake came up with for his backstories. Just jump straight to the Mini-Force if you wanna see what a precocious 7-year-old can come up with.

Cunningham

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Cunningham (the American) was the leader of my squad, with pretty typical leaderly qualities like being good at any team role and keeping a clear head under pressure. His main gimmick was believing that tools are unnecessary with sufficient skills, which was why he had no backpack and no attachments on his rifle.

Homer

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Homer (the Australian) was the team’s muscle and combat specialist. He was always needlessly positive and optimistic, and had a tendency to get injured and need the other characters to drag him around until they found medical attention or a lull in combat to patch him up. He also wore the team’s parachute, which in our young minds made him literally immune to falling damage at any time.

Berenson

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Berenson (the Brit) was the team’s engineer and tech specialist. He wore a radio backpack so he could communicate with HQ, and was usually the one hotwiring vehicles or “hacking” something while everyone else defended him. He was the team complainer and usually sarcastically whining about having to do anything.

Collins

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Collins (the Norwegian) was the team’s pilot and sniper. He’d always be the one driving/flying whatever the squads were using to get around, and during combat he’d often hang in the back and snipe with his scoped rifle. He was a scaredy-cat and always nervous about what the teams were getting themselves into.

The Mini-Force

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Jake’s squad was the Mini-Force, and they wore tan uniforms to distinguish themselves from the Rangers’ green. Each teammate also outranked the next (unlike the Rangers, where everyone but Cunningham had the same rank) and could issue orders to anyone below them in this list.

Jake

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Jake himself was the commander of his squad. He had a custom uniform we made by stitching a bunch of different army men pieces together ala Frankenstein, and it represented his chameleon abilities–because he didn’t wear the uniform of any specific army, he could bluff his way into enemy bases by claiming he worked for them. His sidearm was a laser pistol he canonically built himself.

Cooper

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Cooper (the Canadian) was “the competent one”; he was the teammate who knew how to do everything, and Jake’s second-in-command. This often left him in-charge whenever Jake was infiltrating an enemy base. I don’t remember a single time he actually put those goggles on.

When it came time for me to move away to college, our parents got Jake a dog so he’d still have someone to play with, and he named it Cooper since it was his new second-in-command.

Loft

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Loft (the Antarctican) had a Barbarian-style rage that he could enter whenever he ate a Snickers bar. He didn’t talk much and he didn’t use guns, choosing instead to wade into battle dual-wielding a knife and a metal club. We used him as a “Shit, we need someone to do xyz but no human could realistically pull that off” plot device a lot.

Fireburst and Bentley

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Originally, the fourth member of the Mini-Force was Fireburst (the English, cause we thought England and Britain were separate countries). He was “the stupid one” and usually just fired his gun at enemies or screwed something up to make the mission harder. Then one day we lost him in the backyard and he got replaced with Bentley (the Russian), who had a black printing error on his chin we both interpreted as a minuscule soul patch. Bentley was a rock climber who could scale any wall, but he never got much of a personality; his main gimmick was not being incompetent like Fireburst.

(Years later we found Fireburst, who we decided was now a badass survivalist that retired after being rescued and reintroduced to society.)

The Power Team HQ

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Some other action figures entered the canon as we bought more figurines from the same set. They only rarely appeared as “guest stars” for a mission, or in storylines that involved the home base being attacked by invaders.

Xaviers

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Maximilian Xaviers was the commander of the HQ, and often the one assigning us missions. He preferred to stay off the front lines, so he’d wield a high-powered sniper rifle whenever he found himself involved in combat. Sometimes he’d get kidnapped and we needed to go rescue him.

Damont

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At some point, we realized HQ’s radio operator should get a name since we’re constantly talking to him, and thus Omeed Damont was born. He was a redeemed criminal and sworn noncombatant who refused to fight or kill anyone, so he never did anything beyond being the radio guy.

Møter 

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Achmed Møter was far-and-away the least seen character. His only job was being “a soldier stationed at HQ” and filling any minor plot role when we didn’t have another character to do it. I think he even died once or twice. We pronounced his last name as “Moy-turr” but that’s probably not how that letter actually sounds.

Mahgninnuc

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Mahgninnuc was Cunningham’s evil twin, and he had a red eye and blond goatee we added with sharpie. Sometimes he commanded the evil forces, sometimes he was an underling working for the current villains, but he was always Cunningham’s arch-nemesis and the only recurring antagonist. He wielded a transparent red sword that could superheat to cut through anything, and often used it to escape after the heroes destroyed his evil plan of the week. I don’t think they ever ended up catching him.


This is actually the second time I rediscovered this small bag of action figures. They also reappeared while Jake and I were cleaning the basement shortly before I was gonna move away for college in 2009, and we enacted a short ceremony where Xaviers gave all eight of them medals and they retired with full military honors. Shame I can’t really remember any of the missions they actually went on, but these dudes are an important part of why I grew up loving storytelling to the degree I do.

Medical Necessity Post-Mortem

Bad news regarding the most important video game project I’ve been talking about this year. I only mentioned it once on this blog, but it’s had more of a presence if you follow my other communication channels, and it was definitely the most difficult of the many assignments. But it has come to something of an inglorious end.

I am talking, of course, of Hurdles, which got only 25/30 on Google Classroom, including a teacher comment that I’d made a classic rookie designer mistake of making the jumps too pixel-precise, leading to nobody being able to make them except myself. He is absolutely right; I’d needed to make the jumps easier because now nobody can see the rest of the game which I’d painstakingly balanced so no jump was possible that shouldn’t be. The intention was that the player progress through the life stages of the main character, crafting their life story through making decisions at each stage of the character’s life, and that failed jumps would signify failing at said life choice, leading to lesser options and locking off parts of the map. When the jumps are too hard, this is all really difficult to see. Alas.

Bad news for the other game, Medical Necessity, too. The final hurdle in pre-production was to convince a panel of judges that we’d finished adequate work on the project to justify continued development next quarter. We failed.

 

First, let me say that their criticisms were 100% valid. Medical Necessity just wasn’t fun. It had been fun at first, and people really enjoyed the early prototypes as we hammered out the foundation of the project, but as the game came together, it lost that spark. We’d marketed it as a fast-paced puzzle game, but it was neither fast-paced nor tactical. We’d lost sight of what our playtesters had enjoyed in the early builds, with each design decision slowing down gameplay even further.

Part of this blame falls on the programmers, which constitute the other 3 people on the dev team, but I firmly believe that the buck stops with the leader, and I was creative director. My premise was called out for being part of the problem, and I’d also failed to provide my team adequate directions, as I’d feared would happen. I was too tentative; I hated having to tell a tea member that something about their work wasn’t perfect. Worst conversation in the world is when a teammate comes back on Monday with his weekend work and I’m staring at it, and I have to find a way to say, “This work is well-constructed, I have no particular complaints or criticisms I can point to, and it fulfills the requirements I gave you, but it doesn’t work for the project. You need to make changes.” I always copped out and avoided telling them, instead I fell back on my common strategy of praising its positives and trying to pitch my request as “That’s really good! Can we add onto it by doing X?” More than anything else, I favored their contentedness and ensured my teammates felt like they were contributing to the vision of the game, as these were qualities I’d always wished to see in my leaders. However, this led to my team having inadequate guidance, and contributed to the lack of focused identity the game perpetually suffered from.

I can’t decide whether we didn’t playtest enough. We playtested with multiple people each week, and most of them enjoyed it. The high schoolers in particular thought it was a blast. The seasoned panel of game developer judges and program directors were the only playtesters who flatout disliked the game, but I don’t consider this a case of Critic-audience dissonance because multiple factors nourished the divide. Playtesters are subtly encouraged to be nice, and most are affiliated with the program and/or knew us personally. That being said, I’m not sure what we could have done to alleviate the problems. We took what playtesters told us, analyzed their feedback for useful kernels of enlightenment, and improved our product thusly.

One of my biggest regrets was listening to a piece of feedback the program directors gave us two weeks before the vertical slice. At the time, our gameplay looked like this:

The levels were segmented into individual arenas, which the player defeated or restarted upon failure, and progression to the next level happened with the spacebar. This was the design we’d envisioned from my first pitch, as it allowed the player to move at their own pace and ensured the gameplay remained fast-paced. But for that same reason, the program directors disliked it. They mentioned that good gameplay is supposed to have “peaks of intensity and periods of inactivity” that let the player take breathers after particularly intense moments. Everyone on my team, myself included, resolved to fix this problem by revamping the levels into connected campaigns, where the player progressed physically to reach the next level. See the below GIF, where we’d successfully reached this goal after two weeks:

I was the only one who didn’t like this new system, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It felt like an unnecessary lull in the gameplay; forcing the player to physically march upwards between rounds took a lot more explaining than “Press Space to start the next level”, and the benefits of the new system felt incredibly minor compared to the effort of making it. A friend later added another good point, that it conflicted with the mobile-based gameplay we were gunning for, where users enjoy constant little levels that can be left at a moment’s notice, not long PC-styled campaigns with checkpoints. Even worse, we were going to use those two weeks for polish, to make our game look better and improve the gameplay we already had. Instead, by spending those two weeks implementing this system, we entered vertical slice looking significantly less flashy and put-together. If I had to name a single choice that most resulted in our game dying, it was the decision to implement that campaign system instead of commit to the bite-sized levels.

We were not plagued with any of the typical problems besetting a cancelled game. The four of us are good friends and worked hard every day creating new features, improving the old and remaining on schedule. Week after week we completed everything on our to-do list on time and under budget. I personally spent over $400 securing commissioned sprites and music, something we’d been told is an important step in passing vertical slice. Shame I couldn’t afford to spend more, as Tyler took our environments directly from the Unity Asset store, and they looked bland and generic as a result. This problem wasn’t completely our fault: the university had initially told us that we’d be cooperating with graphic art students at the University of San Jose, and it wasn’t until a week into pre-production they’d admitted the deal had fallen through. I’d leaned heavily on building my team around programming rather than artists for this reason, but I should note that we weren’t the only group severely-affected by this, and every other game survived vertical slice. Several other groups had artist/musician friends who agreed to work for free on their projects, but I paid mine market rates because I feel like professionals deserve to be paid for their work. Every freelancer, myself included, has found themselves in the situation where friends are begging them for free work, and it sucks. Harlan Ellison was the focus of a documentary called “Dreams With Sharp Teeth“, and he has an amazing scene where he explains why artists who work for free are negatively hurting the entire creative industry:

 

 

So I guess I can be proud that I wasn’t part of this problem from the contractee side. Medical Necessity paid for it, though. But honestly, in the long run I can’t help but feel a little relieved. Sure I’m disappointed the project got canceled, but I’d never wanted to be a creative director, and it was really difficult trying to lead other people. And it was really stressful to watch as the game slowly transitioned away from what I envisioned. Honestly, I didn’t even find the final product fun, and if I ever reattempt the premise, I’ll be tackling it from a completely different perspective. (Probably an arcadey, unrealistic shoot-em-up with powerups and no reloads.) And more importantly, I’ll be doing it alone.

Dev Diary #0

New quarter, new set of dev diaries! They didn’t actually assign one this week, but I’m writing one anything just for recordkeeping purposes. These upcoming Dev Diaries are gonna have a slightly different tone from the old ones because we need to write them as if they were press releases. So kinda like the “What We Are Up To” updates the Killing Floor 2 devs love to release. And I don’t think a press release would talk about the first (and, honestly, only) hurdle we had to tackle: somehow it wasn’t until our third meeting as a team that I finally discovered none of them played shooters. Like, there were fundamental elements to the core concept of shooters that they were really missing. So yesterday, we skipped our daily meeting and all played Team Fortress 2 together on a server full of bots. They had a blast, learned a lot about the relationship between different classifications of firearm, and I’m hoping I can get them to play Counter-Strike next, even if it probably won’t be as fun and accessible.

And on every other front, we’re ahead of the 8-ball. San Jose University dropped a bombshell that they won’t be sharing their artists with us next year, which affects every team except us because we already have Will and his art degree. Unity decided to restrict free Unity Collab to teams of three or less, which all the teams are freaking out about. Luckily, my team is only four people and I don’t program, so the other three just made a Collab and we’re off to the races. Me, I’ve been working on a design wiki, since I love making wikis and I’ve found it a great way to sort my thoughts out in a clear, understandable way. Enjoy looking at what you see, because my team requested that I port everything to a private wiki so we aren’t forced to commit to everything I write down. A reasonable concern, I just have an uncontrollable urge to publish everything I ever work on so the hypothetical masses can see it. I really need to work on reining that in.

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Had fun making these little filler icons too. They’re not Rembrandt, but I do think I’m getting better at pixel art. 

 

So, uh, I won

the Greenlight pitch. And immediately failed in my self-made promise that I was going to decline even if I won. Medical Necessity had great reception, I had seven full minutes of questions, way more than anyone else got. I couldn’t have asked for that pitch to go any better.

 

So what next? Well, during the two-week winter break I’m going to write a design document. I’ve already chosen my technical director: Tyler, my old partner for the two-person project ZoneOut. He had a strong work ethic and a great grasp on programming. I also got to pick one teammate before the prof started assigning people, and went with Will, the only student who’d approached me about joining the team before I’d already won. Will got into the master’s program on his art portfolio, but his real dream is to be a programmer, and he’s made some great Unity games since then. His hybrid skillset will be extremely useful on a team this small, especially when we need to communicate with the designated art people at San Jose University. To round the team out, the professor assigned us Simon, a programmer from China and the only person on the team who actually specialized in programming. Since the bot AI is our biggest issue, I couldn’t have asked for a better final teammate.

Not much more to say. Normally I’m more talkative, but I’m just tired and really need these two weeks off. Onward and upward.

dev diary #9

The practise Greenlight pitch went poorly. A good carpenter never blames his tools, but I do think it would have gone slightly better if I’d known that pointing at a slide would cause it to click to the next one, and that “swiping left” would not return it to the slide it was on previously. I must have skipped seven of my slides trying desperately to return it to the place it was on, which ultimately led to my pitch finishing far faster than expected and with most of my content skipped. I guess it’s a good thing that everybody understood my premise despite this problem. Several students have asked me questions about the concept since the pitch, but they’re the probing sort that means they get the core concept and want to know more. I was seriously considering scrapping Medical Necessity and choosing a last-minute replacement idea, but for now I think it’s performed better than I expected under the circumstances and I should be able to make a decent pitch out of it.

I am bummed I didn’t get to test my method for showcasing the gameplay. The two ways I’ve seen people explain their core loop is through parallelisms to other games and with screenshots of other games, or through gameplay demos displayed as videos or GIFs. Neither really worked for what I was designing (a puzzle game with a bit of a learning curve, but fast rounds and infinite tries) so I wanted to verbally walk through a sample level, describing the player’s actions and repercussions while clicking through screenshots that displayed the level in slideshow format. Unfortunately, these slides were the ones skipped during my projector issues, so I’ve only been able to test the format on tiny groups of 1-2 watchers. So far it seems to work well enough. Akshay liked the format so much he said he’s gonna use it to showcase how his game works too, so it can’t be a completely wrong direction.

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Joey asked if I planned on having icons like this in the final game. Honestly, I originally was, but maybe I should switch to top-down humans, like Hotline Miami. I also should add a gif of Hotline Miami gameplay in case someone hasn’t played it in the audience

I’m also working on whatever changes I might need to make to The Just Us League before pitching it to Ford on Friday. I’ve playtested the game with a group of people who have never played it, and I kept silent so they had only my instruction sheet to go off of, and they were having a rollicking good time by the end of it so I’m pretty convinced the game is ready for Ford’s perusal.

Speaking of playtesters (the focus of the ninth and final assigned chapter), the book helped me through a big problem I had (aka finding playtesters for running the mute playtest). Since everyone in the class knew about the game, I wasn’t sure where to turn after that. But then the book specifically mentioned roommates, and I realized I’d never playtested anything I’d ever made with my roommates! It’d also be nice to see them play it since they aren’t game designers. That playtest went great too, so I feel confident I’ve made the best possible product I could. Hopefully Ford likes it!

Nearing the end of the beginning

This isn’t a dev diary, this is just me talking to me. Cause I’m not sure who else to tell this to.

The first quarter in my Game Design masters is wrapping up. The big thing on everyone’s mind is the Greenlight pitch. Every student needs to pitch their idea for an awesome game to a team of industry professionals, and five of those ideas will be selected and turned into next quarter’s projects. Everyone’s pretty excited with their ideas, and I’m…not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every part of this program. I’ve learned all sorts of things, and while the workload has been steep, it’s reinforced that game design is my true passion and my calling at this stage of my life. But I’m drawing a complete blank on anything to pitch for the Greenlight, and there’s no real point lying to myself…I’m hoping I don’t get picked. I don’t want to be selected. I want to work on someone else’s project as a writer, do my job and keep my nose out of other people’s business.

I’m well aware that’s not the right attitude going into the most important pitch of the quarter, and I’m not sure how to break it. I’ve confessed this to my parents and the program director, and both reminded me of what I already know: this is an opportunity that won’t come around once I’m part of the greater games industry. I’ve got a whole career ahead of me where I’ll be making other people’s games, I need to seize this opportunity to make something I’ve always wanted to.

But I already make whatever I want. The internet is littered with hundreds of my games, articles, GIFs, scripts, and videos. There’s no secret dream project I’ve always been fantasizing about, because I just go ahead and make anything I’m thinking of. And the ones I haven’t made yet are all solo projects because that’s how I work best. Medical Necessity isn’t actually something I’m hoping wins; it’s my latest solo project framed as a ‘prototype’ because I can’t very well march up in front of the judges and go “Yeah, I got nothing.” I know it’s not stage fright; I love talking in front of a crowd. If only I could pitch for somebody else…

I guess in a way this is something of a comforting position. I can’t really lose if I’m hoping not to win. Part of me worries that I’m sabotaging myself, or lying to myself because I don’t want to face the prospect of losing, and I’ll regret this attitude after the Greenlight comes and goes, but we’ll just have to see. At the moment, I’m far more excited about the Ford pitch. The Just Us League is going to blow them out of the water.

Dev diary #8

I had a tough time coming up with my idea for this Greenlight. As I’ve mentioned in other dev diaries, none of my ideas felt right the correct scope. They were either too easy, designed for a single developer to create at his own pace, or they were ambitious multiplayer games that required teams far larger than the purview of this team.

I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure how great my idea even is. It was something I found in my Google Drive, where I’ve written design documents for various ideas over the years. I pitched a few of them to Eddie and Kelsey, and this was the only one they thought sounded interesting. My original plan was completely different; I was going to pitch Streaker Simulator, a humorous third-person parkour platformer where the player character ran around with no clothes on at public events like soccer matches or Macy’s Day Parades, and you scored points based on both how long you evaded the ever-increasing security measures and accomplished objectives (like tagging every player on the pitch). Program director said it wasn’t breaking any new ground, and the judges would be looking specifically for clever idealistic games hoping to make something new, not just another simulator. These are fair criticisms, so instead the game I’m pitching is Medical Necessity, a top-down 2D puzzle game framed as a healer in a CSGO-style shooter. You’re the healer on a 5-man team of bots, facing an identical team of 5 bots, and the two teams will try to kill each other. Your job is to figure out how you need to position yourself and heal the right people to keep your team in the fight long enough to win the match and move onto the next level.

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This week’s reading was on Digital prototyping. I plan to prototype my game in Clickteam Fusion, since I know how to crank out quick playable prototypes. I can’t play a prototype during the Greenlight pitch, so I’m going to record my prototype as a long GIF and include that in my powerpoint presentation. I plan on having that prototype done quickly so I can playtest and refine it ASAP.