Inside the Incubator: An Introduction to the 2015 Incubator Cohort

This is the first story in a series by Game Center alumni Justin Snyder chronicling the eight games progress in the 2015 Incubator.

They wanted to work on ideas they’d been mulling over for years. They wanted to create something that blended their disparate passions. They wanted to recapture the magic of their favorite childhood game. These are just some of the reasons that the eight teams in this year’s Game Center Incubator have come on board. The games are as varied and interesting as their creators, and the new twists they bring to familiar mechanics create experiences that feel fresh and innovative.

James Marion, creator of the musical-theater-inspired minigame collection Peter Panic, has covered a ton of ground since the beginning of the incubator. The game’s different locales have been fleshed out and their individual mini-games tweaked and balanced. James’s background in musical theater means he has plenty of connections at hand to voice the ensemble cast of vocally talented characters. The game combines the humor and spirit common to so many musicals with the need for quick thinking and twitch reactions to navigate the many diverse minigames. But, what he’s particularly excited about is the opportunity to learn more about the business side of making and selling games as an independent developer. “I love talking about the game and showing it to people, but I don’t love finding those people I should be showing it to,” says Marion. The incubator, and the program’s business partners, can provide that and a step further, not only getting games in front of the right eyes, but connecting members with potential publishing partners. In fact, James is already talking to multiple interested parties about publishing his game and aiding in promotion, with the goal of releasing Peter Panic by the end of this year.

Peter Panic

Peter Panic

Some of this year’s members are less interested in traditional publishing avenues. Kenny Sun – whose project, Circa Infinity, combines the traversal-based gameplay of traditional platformers with the kind of circular movement seen in games like Super Hexagon, put his game on Steam Greenlight – a feature of Valve’s digital distribution store that allows the community to vote on games to be added to their catalog – at the start of the incubator. Taking on the task of self-promotion, Kenny also hopes to release his game by the end of the year. He’s already made it over the first important hurdle there, as Circa Infinity was “greenlit” by the community a few weeks ago. With a game that’s light on plot and more abstract in its execution, Sun likes the idea that “better storytellers than [him] can make up their own stories,” and those passionate players are likely already among his greenlight voters.

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While James and Kenny, as well as some of the other incubator members, are flying solo on their projects, there are a number of teams in the mix this year. Alec Thomson and Jenny Jiao-Hsia, whose work we’ve featured on this blog before, are hard at work on a unique, competitive match-three game that pits players against AI “hacker” opponents, all from the computer of a witch. During his undergrad studies in computer science, Alec found himself finding some fun in the act of debugging code, and he wanted to create something that could capture that and make it into something that everyone could experience. “I really wanted to isolate that feeling of pure satisfaction you get from understanding [a] system and probing it until you can narrow down a problem and eliminate it,” he says. After many independent projects that “just weren’t fun” according to Alec (and Jenny), a Ludum Dare game jam inspired him to take the game in another direction and led him to create the prototype that, with Jenny’s art and design input, would become the cute, fun Beglitched they’re working on today.

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The incubator’s other two-member team is working on a radically different project, and trying to tackle cooperative play in a fresh and interesting way. The (working titled) Awkward Date takes players through platforming levels where they need to manage the two most awkward people in the world on a series of dates. “They’re so awkward that they don’t want to be too close, but so lonely they don’t want to drift too far apart,” says Fernando Silva, the game’s primary developer. He’s working closely with Abe Gellis, who devised the original idea for the game. The duo looked at the most popular platformers with cooperative multiplayer on the market today, and they saw a lot of games that didn’t really build on the concept. “[These games] have multiplayer platforming, but it’s actually just a level you can play as a single player or with your friends,” says Fernando. “You don’t need them to beat the level, you’re just playing together.” So Fernando and Abe became inspired to create something that really embraced the idea of requiring cooperative play for progress. Not unlike a first date, communication is key to finding success in their game, and the expansion of this concept through the incubator is an exciting new venture for Fernando and Abe.

An Awkward Date

An Awkward Date

The largest of incubator team consists of four members who were all brought together by their mutual love of board games. Geoffrey Suthers, Sigursteinn Gunnarsson (Sig for short), Josh Raab, and Misha Favorov were all in the same graduating class of the Game Center MFA program. “[Josh and I] knew we wanted to do something on the intersection of board games and video games from the start,” says Sig. When it came down to buckle down and begin work on thesis, Geoffrey joined them and they all decided to pursue that idea, while Misha came on board soon after. With their game, Sumer, they’ve created a hybrid of that quintessential video game platforming and the European worker-placement games they all love. Based around ancient Sumerian culture, players obtain resources and make sacrifices to the gods to earn points in game turns represented as different days. Each set of turns is represented as a year within the game, and between years players can use some of their resources to bid for items or advantages in the next year. The systems at work behind the scenes will feel very familiar to anyone who’s sat down and played a game like Carcassone or Catan, but as opposed to video game adaptations of board games, which just use automated systems to adapt their board game rulesets, Sumer is designed from the ground up to be a video game. With the freedom for complexity behind the scenes, the real challenge the team faces is creating a game that is simple enough for players to pick up after a quick introduction. While board game players delight in spending time with a rulebook and really learning a new game inside and out, video game players want to be able to jump in and play as quickly as possible. So, nailing the balance between video game mechanics and board game design has become the primary focus for this crew.

Sumer

Sumer

The team behind Sumer used to include another member: Leandro Ribeiro. While he enjoyed working with the guys on Sumer, he couldn’t shake the pull to try something different, and set off on a solo project. After spending a lot of time playing stealth games, Leandro wanted to combine his love for them with his growing interest in local multiplayer games. His real focus is to create a compelling, competitive stealth game where all the action takes place on a single screen. “Everything is on the screen, but if you mask it with chaos and include just subtle cues as to what’s going on, you can utilize stealth to filter what data your opponents get,” says Leandro. And so, Ninja Tag was born. While there are several different game modes within Ninja Tag at this point, the core concept behind each is this: Anywhere from two to four players take on the role of ninjas competing for control of a magical crossbow. The ninjas’ different abilities allow them to turn invisible and teleport around the map, while the shadowy terrain and occasional plots of tall grass provide places to hide from the sight of your opponents. Leandro is joining the surge of local multiplayer games coming out of the dev scene here in New York, and the popularity they’ve seen bodes well for the future of Ninja Tag.

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While Leandro was busy working on his single screen, multiplayer stealth game, Winnie Song was hard at work on her single screen, multiplayer stealth game. The ideas sprung up almost simultaneously, but they didn’t know right away that they were working from similar starting points. Winnie’s game, Bad Blood, is a more intimate and even quieter affair than Leandro’s raucous competition. Bad Blood is designed for only two players, and its design encourages thoughtfulness more than quick fingers. While everything is presented to the players on the same screen, the entire map isn’t in view: players only see a section around their avatars. The twist to BadBlood, and what creates the need for thoughtful strategy, is that each player gets their top down view of the map from a different angle. Moving upward on the map for one player might actually mean that player moves downward from their opponent’s perspective. This limits “screen cheating” and also forces players to pay more attention to context clues. Your opponents can be seen only by the slight sway of tall grass as they move, or, if they move too quickly, as shadows. It’s an amusing coincidence that two games with the same basic concept have sprung out of the Game Center MFA and into the incubator, but the fact that they’ve taken such drastically different paths and become such varied experiences speaks to the skills of these designers.

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Of the projects in the incubator this year, Ape-Out has arguably had the most distinct iterations, with an initial concept that only vaguely resembles what the game looks like now. After finishing and releasing his first game, Foiled, in late 2013 Gabe Cuzzillo dove into a new project. His focus also settled on stealth games, but at first it was rooted in time travel, complete with potential paradoxes and all the complexity that comes with it. Gabe moved on quickly to something more refined, and that style of quick iteration has characterized this project as much as anything else. With each overhaul, mechanics change, features are added, and the narrative framework shifts as needed. Gabe accepts quickly when something just isn’t working, and will begin new versions frequently in order to hone what works and leave behind what doesn’t. Over time, the game evolved into what we can see and play today, Ape-Out. The player takes on the role of a gorilla trying to save her child and escape the scientific facility in which they’ve been confined. While the ultimate goal is a stealthy progression and exit, the game is also about wielding the raw power of a gorilla. Players can grab the guards who patrol the stage and use them as shields, or throw them against walls to incapacitate them. The gorilla is powerful enough that skilled players can navigate stages however they please, taking out enemies as you come across them, or avoiding them entirely. Other animals throughout the facility can be released to create distractions or take out guards and clear the way. With a top-down view and a style reminiscent of Hotline Miami, Ape-Out has become the arguably final iteration of this project, but Gabe is still hard at work building on and improving the experience of playing the game.

Ape Out

Ape Out

Each of these eight projects stand to be some of the most promising independent games to come out of the New York scene over the course of this year and the next. Past incubator members have found success self-publishing on Steam and mobile app stores, making publishing deals with partners such as Sony, and utilizing crowdfunding. While these teams haven’t all nailed down how and when they’ll want to release, their work over the next few months, enabled only by the industry access, hands-on guidance, and open workspace provided to them by the Game Center incubator, is on track to create a crop of truly compelling and downright fun gaming experiences for the community at large.