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The Road Traveled, and the Road Ahead

Those of you reading this probably already know me, some of you probably pretty well, but in case there are a few stragglers… welcome! Thank you for checking out our site. My name is Mark, I’m the project manager at No Sleep, which is a position that is hard to summarize in a concise job description. Some days it involves dealing with business affairs, a lot of days it involves planning what needs to be accomplished if we want to keep up our (at times) breakneck pace, and every day it involves herding what can only be described as a group of 6 stray cats, who sometimes are cooperative and other times just wander off. That being said, I wouldn’t be here doing it if I didn’t love every minute of it, and for that I am thankful.

As we continue through development of our first game, and coincidentally build and grow our business, we’re going to be doing a rotating series of blogs here on our site. If you’ve made it this far and checked us out, I’d encourage you to see what everyone else on the team has to say, they’re not likely to be nearly as long-winded as I am. I enjoy writing, and oddly enough have found ways to incorporate that into what I do whenever I can (though I’m sure the rest of the team rolls their eyes at some of the weekly internal posts I make). For this blog I want to tell the story of how our team formed, abridged I promise as I probably could actually write a novel, if for no other reason than to archive it somewhere. A lot of people have asked me about it over the past couple years and I feel like I’ve only ever doled out bits and pieces. It seems apt with Radio Violence entering early access this weekend to look back once more before looking forward. To those on the team I hope it brings back some good memories. To friends and family of the team, this is what we’ve been doing for the past 3 years when we’ve repeatedly been busy and unavailable for comment. And to any others who don’t know us personally and have no obligation to care about this, I really don’t mind if you sit this one out.

 

The Early Days

We’re a team of 7 dudes who were brought together through the Game Programming program at George Brown College, but not everyone knows we actually started as a team of 10. When we walked in, on the first day of class no less, we were tasked with coming up with a team of 10 people on the spot (from an atrium of 150+ strangers), who we would then be responsible for working with for the rest of first year. How does one even. I can’t speak for the others, but I knew I needed to get myself on a strong team or the next 8 months was going to be miserable. I’ve thought many times how differently things would have gone had it not been for one member of our team being cheeky as all hell during orientation in the previous week. Our program coordinator Albert asked the entire group “Who here can program something, anything, in one programming language?”. Most of the room raised their hand, and I definitely wasn’t one of them. I knew less than nothing, but was happy to watch how the exercise unfolded. The follow up question of course was “Okay, how about 2 languages? How about 3?”. With each step hands went down, I don’t think anyone’s hands were up past 4. Except Dan. Sitting in the front row with a grin as the count reaches 7 all I could think was “If you know how to code in 7 languages why the hell are you here?”. But the beacon was lit, and you can bet when I had to find a stranger in a crowd of 150 in what can only be compared to the Chinese stock exchange (an absolute free for all), I was going for Dan. Turned out to be a good move.

Our group of 10, like the rest, was a group of strangers (though Dan and Rob did know each other from a previous year together at UOIT). What I feel differentiated us from the rest of the teams, most of which fell apart by the end of the year, was our immediate professionalism. For some of us this was our second time through post-secondary, others were fresh out of high school, but everyone was on board that we should conduct ourselves like we were a business from week 1. We held weekly meetings, the members with programming experience helped those without (I was the latter), and we founded the tenet which has kept us together to this day. “If you’re willing to put in the effort to contribute to the team, and you want to be a part of this team, then no one gets left behind”. At the end of first year we lost 3 members, but none of them left because they failed. The path can be unpredictable, I can attest to that having fallen into this after spending 3 years studying architecture, and some of us parted ways. Though we were down 3 heads, those remaining have continued to prove to this day that they both want to be here and are willing to contribute however they can. That is why we chose to incorporate our business with 7 founding members despite concern by basically every third party to this endeavor, but I digress.

                  

The screenshots above are taken from our first game we made as a “studio”, the product of everything we learned in our first year, called Immune Wars. The tower defense game about defending your internal organs from barbaric bacteria. Also fondly remembered as “Dan carries the team”. I dug this build of the game out of our Google Drive, and it’s playable. It was developed in Unity, which we weren’t even supposed to be allowed to use for the purpose of this project as we hadn’t been taught how to use it. Since the first semester was spent planning the game, and the second was spent making it, over the holidays in between we all downloaded and learned how to use the engine on our own accord so we could get a head start on this project. We were all really proud of it at the time, and I think it was a big motivating factor to continue working together as a team. After first year there was no requirement to continue working together in second year, but I don’t think there was ever a question. If we could whip this together, with most of the team having little to no experience, tools, or organization, what could we do by the time we were done? We may not have been a business at the time, but from this point on we were, and continue to be, a team.

 

Stepping Up To The Plate

Second year was mostly forgettable if I’m being honest. We had a bunch of graphics courses that we all scraped through and hated (except Dan the masochist), but the best thing to come out of it was the opportunity to work with some post graduate students on their projects. We were all promoted in first semester based on prior work to help the post grads get their games ready to show at various showcase and networking events (except Rob, who decided he didn’t want to? You goofed it bud). Among all the regularly scheduled schoolwork, these were what we looked most forward to and worked the hardest at. We had the opportunity to go to events, talk to people in the industry, and get our feet wet in terms of exhibiting a game. I can’t overstate how important this was, because showing your work to complete strangers isn’t the easiest thing. We had the chance to learn the ropes in essentially a 0 pressure environment, since they weren’t technically our games, and learn we did.

           

The screenshots above are from the two games various members of our team worked on, “Shots Fired” on the left, “Paddle Baddle” on the right. After a lot of hard work we were able to attend Level Up, which is a student showcase in Toronto that brings together game developers from schools across Ontario. I got to work on Shots Fired, alongside Cody and Andrew, and we had a time. It’s a great event, judges from big industry companies like Microsoft, Ubisoft and others come around and judge your games. Every team prepares their game differently, trying to get the attention of the judges. We chose the flashy colour, party game approach (sounds oddly familiar), and focused on making sure that above all else our game was completely free of bugs and technical issues (being programmers at heart). It paid off in the end as the judges took something away from it, and we won second place for “best overall game” at the show. We would continue on to attend this same event the following year, using what we learned to a come up with a repeat performance, but they say you always remember your first. I can’t believe this happened a little over a year and a half ago, what a ride.

 

Punch It Chewie

Returning in third year definitely felt like there was more urgency. With the 7 intact I seem to remember thinking that it may well be the end of our shared path once we finished the year. In third year we were responsible for making a bunch of small games on various platforms, in various programming languages, with varying complexity. It was… a lot, and since we were constantly juggling what we were working on it never felt like we had a chance to really buckle down and commit to a specific project. It also didn’t help that the entire year was thrown into chaos by the provincial teacher’s strike. First semester overlapped into second, and second semester was condensed which was a gong show as we were responsible for making 3 “complete” games in 12 weeks, one which was on iOS which we had literally never used before this point,  and that’s without building a game engine and completing any outstanding lab credits (for those who hadn’t gotten them all yet over the course of 3 years, fortunately for me I had). But that’s when it came to us. A solution to all of our problems, stress, and uncertainty.

We decided “Fuck this, we’re going to make our own game on top of everything else, we’re not going to get school credit for it, and sort the rest out as it comes”. A creative solution to the problem to be sure, but we don’t tackle things in a conventional or often rational manner. Our final semester was hell, nothing short of it. It was bar none the biggest turning point for all of us, where we would either put up or shut up. In the brief respite between first and second semester we participated in Global Game Jam, which for the uninitiated is a glorified 48 hour creative test of your meddle, with the result (ideally) being a functional prototype of a game. After a first semester of projects that all ended up being slapped together over the holidays (I brought my whole rig home for Christmas and set up shop in the living room for 3 weeks just to get through those courses), we all needed something to be happy about. This was an opportunity to make a game on our terms, and we didn’t mind losing some sleep to punch out a prototype at the end of January, roughly 9 months ago.

 

You can see the result above, which can still be downloaded from the Global Game Jam site. To everyone who’s been asking “so when can I see your game?”, jokes on you, it’s been available the whole time! When we looked at this for the first time, even though it was a rushed, broken, visually unappealing mess, we were incredibly stoked. We felt like this was the best thing we’d made since Immune Wars, and we’d made it in 48 hours. There were no menus, the game never ended, and once enough towers were placed the game would lag to a standstill because each tower model was over 2 million tri’s, but it worked! We let it rest for a couple weeks while we started class for the semester, but when our program coordinator Alex put out an announcement that he had a couple of booths available for students to show their games at an upcoming event it wasn’t a question. We told him we were going, that we had a game that was ready to show, and for him to save us a spot. We then immediately panicked, planned what we could do in 2 WEEKS to make this game even somewhat ready to show to the public, and got to work. That event was EGLX, the same event that we are attending this weekend to celebrate the launch of the game. A few shots below show how we improved the game in that time to make it playable.

 

The main menu, join screen, and results panel all were made in that sprint, as were improvements to gameplay which included our second tower, improved appearance of the board (which honestly is super similar to what we’re still using), and small improvements to the game’s UI. Still, very rough around the edges, but we made good on our promise. We had a game to show, and show it we did, in fact we had quite a few people play the game asking if they could buy it in the state it was in. We thought this was insane, we had barely scratched the surface of what we wanted to do with the game, but we took it as a compliment. We took every piece of advice we could get from those who saw us back in March, and got back to work as soon as we could. We hadn’t considered it much before then, but we all knew what we really wanted, which was to take the game to Level Up.

This was a bit of an ordeal. We needed to prove that this game was worth showing at a student showcase. This event was typically reserved for post-graduate students, which we knew having attended as interns the previous year, but we felt that with more work this game could stand up next to anything else at the showcase. We jumped through some hoops, and against all odds we got approved to go to the event…. which was three weeks away. You can see the trend here. I’m not sure what it is about this team, but we seem to shine the brightest when the circumstances are the most strenuous. We were the first undergrad team from GBC to attend Level Up, and we didn’t want to miss our chance. So we did what we do best.

  

  

We overhauled basically everything we could get our hands on in the following 3 weeks. In the join menu; a colour wheel and portraits to choose as your leader. In game; board appearance, UI, the capturing effects on the tiles and towers, and a new dark and stormy game mode. Even the results screen was mocked up to raise the player’s flags, which we still use in the current build! At the event no less than 6 panels of judges viewed the game, and we ultimately placed second in what can only be described as the closest ballot since the Gore/Bush election in 2000. Though we didn’t win the night, it felt like winning the world series. We had set a goal, exceeded our own expectations, and we had pulled through in the clutch to finish what we started. Seeing the excitement on everyone’s faces is what I remember the most from that event. I’m not sure if it would have mattered whether we won, lost, or went unnoticed… but the outcome sure didn’t hurt. Part of me regrets not being able to put the cherry on top and finish first, but I know that everyone gave it their all. It may sound cliché, but I think coming in second only fanned the flames further, and pushed us to follow up after the event and carry on with the project.

Somehow, I still don’t know how, we managed to finish the rest of our schoolwork in time to graduate. After a much needed rest through May, and a fair amount of planning, we made the call to found the business. When we wrapped up Level Up at the beginning of April, it had been roughly 10 weeks since the inception of Radio Violence. In 10 weeks, while under the duress of an entire final semester course load, we were able to take our rough cut idea and turn it into a real, playable game. Its all we talked about, its all we thought about, and its all we wanted to do. If we could do that in 10 weeks, what could we accomplish with time and, God forbid, actual resources?

 

The Path

What you don’t see in the glorified screenshots above are the elastic bands and glue that held the game together for those events. They worked, they even worked well, but there was significant work required to turn this game into a releasable product. After a couple events in May and June, culminating in a trip to Ottawa to show the game at the Canadian Gaming Expo, we buckled down. It’s really been a breakneck pace ever since. In July we tore the game to shreds and built it from the ground up without the pressure of unreasonable deadlines. This was a huge step forward, and has served as a foundation for everything that is, and is still to come in regards to the game. We also incorporated the business, opened financial accounts, and began work on a shareholder’s agreement for seven parties (AKA a marriage proposal for 7 sweaty guys). George Brown has been a great help, offering us office space for a year in their Digital Media and Gaming Incubator on King Street, which has served as our home base for the past 4 months. At the end of August we decided to make the push to get the game to a releasable state for the end of October. We brought some artists aboard (who are interning for us just like we interned in second year), went into overdrive (as we tend to), and have arrived at the finish line.

In reality its more like a starting line. This weekend Radio Violence enters early access on Steam for PC. What that means is that for the first time the game will be available for purchase. It is, however, far from complete. The version of the game is playable, stable, and even fun to play, but it is far from the final version of the game. The price you can buy the game for right now reflects what we feel the current version of the game is worth. Once we are in early access we will have the opportunity to have people play the game outside of our supervision. They’ll be able to play it, judge it, review it, and maybe even share it with friends. Through every step of this process we want to gather as much feedback as possible to help us improve the game, add content, and somewhere along the line truly finish this game. From there… we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

If you’ve read this far, kudos to you. If you’ve cared to read through our origin story as it were than I’d make the argument that you maybe even care about what it is we’re trying to do here. So what can you do then to show us your love? We’re working on improving our presence on all the typical social media platforms, so any follow, share, like, whatever (I’m not much of a social media person) really does help. Do you enjoy video games? Do you have a PC and some controllers? The biggest way to show support is to check out the game. There’s a link to our steam store page from the Radio Violence page here on the site, even if you don’t want to buy it I encourage you to give the page a read. If you do buy it, we hope you enjoy it knowing the work we’ve put into it, and will continue putting into it. I can’t overstate the value of feedback from any and everyone. If you play the game, please tell us about it! If you liked it then tell us everything you thought was great! If you hated it, tell us why it sucked so bad! Whether there’s 1, 10, 100, or a million people playing this game we will be seeing it through to completion, and the feedback we receive along the way will only help strengthen what will eventually become the final product.

To any friends or family checking this out just because I wrote a thing, sorry I’ve been mostly absent for the past 6 months. I won’t lie, we’re not showing any signs of slowing down for the foreseeable future, so I will likely continue to be wrapped up in the thick of it. Know that your support has helped me get this far, as I’m sure has been the case for the rest of my teammates with their friends and family. Speaking of teammates, I’m proud of all you guys. There’s no way we’d have a shot at making this work without you all giving it all you’ve got.

This is only the beginning. Walk the path.

Mark Miller
About the author

Executive Producer, Co-Founder of No Sleep, and a programmer when I have the time. I'm into collecting vinyl, sipping whiskey, and playing hockey. In a nutshell: a proud Canadian.
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