A Gravitational Ballet: The Creation of Stellar Smooch

The following story comes to us from guest writer Justin Snyder, and chronicles a collaboration between an MFA student and BFA student that led to an award-winning iOS released game.

After yet another late January night working on his thesis, Alec Thomson, a second-year MFA student at the NYU Game Center, woke at what he describes as “an ungodly hour” (but is, in reality, about 1pm). He rolled over, blinking the sleep out of his eyes and checked his phone. The notifications list on his lock screen was just a stream of Twitter mentions. He read one tweet after another, but couldn’t process the contents.

“I thought I was dreaming,” remarked Jenny. It took some convincing from Alec before she was able to accept that she was, in fact, awake and they had, in fact, been offered a spot in the IGF Student Showcase at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). Stellar Smooch, the game that had brought Alec and Jenny together, that they had released just a month prior, had suddenly found new life.

A year earlier, in his second semester at the Game Center, Alec was taking Bennett Foddy’s Game Prototyping class. One of the more intense electives in the program, the students produce a new game prototype each week, with different themes or constraints every time. Stellar Smooch, then known as ‘Dents in Metal are Just Memories of an Embrace’, was Alec’s week three project. Working to make a game designed for an alien culture, he was at his wit’s end trying to come up with an idea. He became fixated on the Voyager probe as an integral part of the game, but couldn’t turn that into a working concept.

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“I then had a dream about this anthropomorphized Voyager probe, and it’s been in space for decades or centuries or millennia, who knows?” Alec described. “And it finally manages to see an alien probe that’s supposed to be its analogue and they just sort of pass each other in space and never see each other again. So, I made a game where the idea is that doesn’t happen. And you the player make sure it doesn’t happen.”

While Alec thought of the project as something that would be worth returning to, he shelved it after that week, having little time to work on it with everything else he had going on. In the middle of the semester, when Foddy offered his students feedback on any prototypes they’d made so far, Alec asked him about ‘Dents’.

“I remember he told me that he thought it could be a really successful game with a particular, cuter art style,” recalled Alec, later. “It was actually what made me think of Jenny, because what he described was similar to stuff she had done with other games.”

Despite getting pointed feedback that left him with ideas of where to take the game, there just wasn’t enough time to dive back into developing it. So, he shelved it again until the summer, when random chance brought him and Jenny together.

“That summer, I downloaded Tinder,” recounts Jenny, laughing as her cheeks turn a light shade of red. “And, while I was playing around with it, I saw Alec’s picture.” The two ended up matching, and after the usual pleasantries, decide to meet for coffee. It wasn’t a date, but two peers venting and sharing their current projects. A week later, Alec showed her ‘Dents’ and asked if she wanted to work on it with him.
They spent the summer months revamping the game’s art, adding music, more levels, and the poem presented between levels that establishes the game’s narrative arc.

“Overall, the poem took shape over two days,” says Alec. “Around the end of writing [it], I thought it would be cool to divide the levels by different sections of the poem.” That left them with the option of dividing the game into 12 or 24 levels, and, given that the game floated in the 18-20 level range throughout its development, the decision was easy. “In the end, we had more mechanics to explore than would fit in 12.”

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With the game’s narrative in place, Jenny finally had a strong understanding of everything Alec was trying to do with the game. They worked on a final coat of polish before bringing it to one of the Game Center’s Playtest Thursday events, where students and local developers can bring their projects to get feedback from the community of students and faculty around the school. While they were excited to show off what they’d been working on and get the crucial feedback that would help improve the project, things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Many of their testers were confused by the poem and the UI more than they were engaged with the game. One specific piece of feedback from Diego Garcia, a recent graduate of the Game Center MFA program, left Alec feeling dejected and disinterested in working on the game.

“He told us that he understood what we were trying to do, narratively, but it didn’t fit the game that we had to go with it,” recalls Alec. “It was a bummer, because we thought it could be so much more than [a strict puzzle-solving] kind of game. I kind of let Jenny take the reigns at that point. It still wasn’t Stellar Smooch, we hadn’t solved some of the fundamental problems.”

“It was a game, and it was polished, but it still wasn’t something we were proud of showing,” says Hsia. “It was missing that one thing that would make it what we really wanted it to be,” says Jenny.”
So, they went back to the drawing board. Jenny spent time tweaking the art, and when Alec was ready to come back to the project, he dove into making the music. In the meantime, the working relationship that had formed between the two of them started to evolve into something more and, after a night out in June, the two began dating. After that night, Alec was still mostly taking a break from the game, working on the music and other projects he had on the backburner, but Jenny redoubled her efforts in nailing the art style.

“I just wanted to make it more silly and fun, because that’s something I’m good at,” says Jenny. “So I started adding faces to the planets, making the look of it more goofy and playful.” That was the point where the game’s art and tone took the radical shift from the too-serious, narrative-focused game that was ‘Dents in Metal are Just Memories of an Embrace’ to the playful, cute, minimalist game that is ‘Stellar Smooch’. After some more tweaks, including a reduction of the color palette to five simple colors, they were again happy with the game in front of them.

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The development duo brought this new version to another Playtest Thursday session in August and received heaps of positive feedback from their players. The new art radically changed the feel, and everyone was having more fun with the game, encountering less issues, and engaging with it more. Soon after, the title was officially changed to Stellar Smooch, also from feedback received that day, and everything was nearly done.

After a few months of debugging, slowed by the start of classes in September, and testing on the newest generation of iPhones, Stellar Smooch was release-ready. They submitted the game to Apple’s app store in late November and released in mid-December. With their project finally out in the wild, the couple thought they were done, and ready to move on to new things. Alec had his thesis to worry about, and, similarly, Jenny had her undergraduate senior capstone just a year away. After some convincing from their professors, they submitted a build to the Independent Games Festival for consideration in the Student Showcase.

A few weeks later, before a groggy Alec learned they’d been accepted into the IGF showcase via Twitter, he was contacted by The Wild Rumpus, a UK-based, indie-focused arcade and club space. The group curates events and parties around several gaming-related conventions and events in the US, including South by Southwest (SXSW) and GDC. They wanted to commission a version of Stellar Smooch with a more tactile control scheme for their annual party at GDC in San Francisco. Excited by the prospect of being included in such a high profile event, Alec and Jenny agreed and began work on this all-new version.

Once the pair learned the news of their admittance into the IGF Student Showcase, they began work on an expo build of the game, with small tweaks to allow it to work better in an exhibition environment. Suddenly, Stellar Smooch had found new life, just over a month after its release on the app store.

While that build mostly involved code changes and other small tweaks, their new co-op version of Stellar Smooch was a whole different ball game. Utilizing an exercise ball adorned with buttons, Thompson and Hsia had created a brand new control scheme that was at once appealing and dissonant, at least for players familiar with the iOS version. Now, each button controls one of the probes, with one player working each. It requires a high level of cooperation and exact timing on the part of the players, and makes for what feels like an entirely different game.

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Now, only a few short weeks after their cross-country trip to GDC, with three distinct builds of their first cooperative project under their collective belts, the couple are already embroiled in their own projects. In the time they’ve been working together, the relationship they’ve built has made it so their projects are largely collaborative. As of about a month ago, Jenny is providing art and helping with Alec’s thesis project, Beglitched, a hybrid match-3 action game that combines elements of cyberpunk and fantasy, where the player discovers the computer of a witch and tries to unlock its secrets. Meanwhile, Alec is helping Jenny to improve her programming skills and build the game that will be her senior capstone, Consume Me. This very personal project, inspired by the works of Nina Freeman and Anna Anthropy, uses the rules governing food tracking for someone counting calories to lose weight, and uses them as the primary rules of the game’s system. These two spend much of their time together, working out of the Game Center and around the city.

The both of them have come away from Stellar Smooch having learned more about themselves and each other. That experience, enabled only by the open and collaborative atmosphere of the Game Center informs these projects they’re now developing. As their relationship grows, so will their skills as designers, and we look forward to the myriad new and interesting games that will inevitably come from their collaboration.