The following story comes to us from guest writer Justin Snyder, and chronicles a group of Game Center undergraduate alumni’s journey from class project to successful indie studio.
On a hot October Sunday in Culver City, California, the original members of Nevernaut Games stood amongst the crowd in the parking lot where IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, was holding the award ceremony for its 2013 conference. After a weekend of brushing shoulders with so many other indie developers, from veterans like Mark Essen (Nidhogg, Flywrench) to relative newbies like Matt Thorson (TowerFall, Chaos Heart), the crew was blissfully exhausted, but also somewhat resigned to the fact that they wouldn’t be going home with any awards.
“I remember I didn’t even want to go,” says Adnan Agha, 23, one of the game’s co-creators, and the primary programmer on the project. “I kept saying we should go get dinner because there was no point, that we weren’t going to win anything.”
It was Reynaldo Vargas, 23, a jack-of-all-trades through the game’s first year, who provided art and coding support, among other things, was the voice of optimism to counter Agha’s negativity.He convinced Agha and Alexandre Gresh, 24, the game’s audio lead, to stay and check out the awards (initially absent was co-creator and programmer Vivian Allum, 22, who was embroiled in the finals of a TowerFall tournament). As the audience choice award, was being announced, the team was already getting situated to make their exit and grab some much-needed dinner when they heard SlashDash called out by the presenter.
“I remember they said SlashDash and I literally said, ‘What?’ I think before the people around us knew we were that team they probably thought, ‘Wow, that dude’s really rude’ or something,” says Agha, laughing. The team as a whole is in high spirits as they sit in our quiet corner of NYU’s MAGNET space. Recalling the early days is easy and fun for them, as it seems to be the first time they’ve stopped to reflect on the events of the last year.
Winning that award last October was a serious turning point for SlashDash and the team behind its development. Receiving this recognition provided some validation that their efforts were amounting to something. And, while they had no way of knowing at the time, connections that they’d made on that weekend would turn into the key relationships leading to their recent acceptance into the ID@Xbox program and the associated publishing deal with Microsoft.
Fast forward to this June, and the new roster of Nevernaut (Vargas left to continue his education, and Armand Silvani, 22, came on board as the game’s art director) found themselves flying to LA to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known in the industry as E3. After signing the contract and entering ID@Xbox in May, everyone was excited to be presenting SlashDash in the Microsoft booth. However, Allum and Agha, who flew in together on the morning of the Microsoft conference, made it in too late to actually be at the conference.
The duo was huddled together in the back of a cab, watching the conference live stream on Agha’s phone, running with a slight delay. Chris Charla, the director of ID@Xbox and Nevernaut’s primary contact at Microsoft over the last year, stepped on stage to talk about the indie-centric program.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, cool, Chris is going to talk about ID@Xbox,’” says Agha. “Meanwhile, I have this app on my phone to pick up web mentions of SlashDash. So, we started getting, like, a million mentions at once and we just think, “Something happened, something happened.’ We didn’t know what, but something happened.” That something was a few seconds of SlashDash on screen during a montage presenting the ID@Xbox games, seen by millions of viewers around the world.
“They told us we could present in their booth, but never that we’d be in the montage,” says Allum, the remembered shock and joy of the experience glinting in her eye.
A short eight months from winning its first award at IndieCade 2013, SlashDash was on screen at a major press conference from one of the biggest players in the game industry. And all of this comes less than two years after the game’s birth as a simple, local multiplayer project for a class here at the NYU Game Center.
“It was their final project,” says Kevin Cancienne, 39, an independent developer and former adjunct professor at NYU, who taught the Game Modding class where the first iteration of SlashDash was created. Over the course of the class, he made four simple games in different genres, and gave them to the students as templates to work from. For the final project, Cancienne allowed the students to implement whatever idea they wanted, but they had to use one of the base games they’d worked with earlier. One of them was a four-player, local multiplayer game similar to Bomberman, which ended up being the one chosen by Agha, Allum, and Vargas. “So, under the hood there, there’s still that one-weekend’s-worth-of-work bomberman game of mine. I know for a fact there’s still weird, crappy code of mine,” says Cancienne, laughing.
As they began working on this class project, there were only a few things they were sure of, as a team. Agha wanted to make a multiplayer game with asymmetrical playable characters and Allum wanted the game to have a capture-the-flag objective. From this starting point, they created the rudimentary Soldiers vs. Ninjas. One team of two soldiers – based on Reapers from StarCraft – used their jetpacks and rocket-based weapons to battle a team of ninjas – based on the same game’s Stalkers – who could teleport around the playing field and attack from close range with their swords.
But, when the time came to present the final game, Cancienne and his guest panel made up of other professors and indie designers thought the game would be much more fun if all of the players were ninjas. Agha corrected the code on-the-fly and booted up a new version of the game. Everyone thought this game was more fun than what they’d been playing previously, and the first real iteration of what would become SlashDash was born.
Once the modding class had finished, Allum, Agha, Vargas, and Gresh – who had helped with the game’s audio but not been an official member of the team until this point – continued to spend time together as friends. At first, they didn’t actually work on their recent project.
“I was really passionate about the project from the start,” says Agha. “We had talked in our group about what kind of game we wanted to make, and I said that I wanted to make a really great game.” Even once the class was finished, he still wanted to make that really great game, so he continued to pour his time, more than he probably should have, he admits, into this game, adding features and iterating on the gameplay and feel.
In the semester following their class together, Agha, Allum, and Vargas all took another Game Center class, Game Studio. In this course, the students form groups in the beginning and spend the entire semester working on a single project. Despite having this project that was ready to be shaped into something bigger, the group added another member in this class and decided to spend their efforts working on a new project. But their interest in SlashDash continued, “Adnan would bring the game to play after class every week and we got to watch it get really good,” says Silvani, who met the rest of the team in the Game Studio class. “Before a big Game Center event they were struggling to put an instructions screen together in Illustrator & I was like ‘Guys this is painful. Here, let me.’ A month or so later Adnan asked me to do the art.”
That event was the 2013 Game Center Student Showcase, an exhibition put on every May where students are encouraged to show off the work they’ve completed in their classes. The showcase varies greatly, showing off the work of undergraduate and graduate game design students, but also those in other majors and schools entirely, who had the opportunity to take the classes as electives. This was the first really public showing of SlashDash, and was what brought it back to the minds of the Game Center faculty and staff, including program coordinator Dylan McKenzie.
Just over a month later, in late June, McKenzie approached Agha about showcasing the game at the Evolution Championship Series, more commonly referred to as Evo, a massive fighting game tournament held every summer in Las Vegas. The Game Center would be in attendance for the first time to announce the EVO Scholarship, a partnership with the tournament to award a scholarship to an active member of the fighting game community with an interest in pursuing game design as a career. Agha accepted the offer, and SlashDash was seen by thousands of fresh eyes as the Game Center showcased student work in their booth.
“We did start taking it more seriously after Dylan asked us to go with him to EVO 2013,” says Silvani about the effect the invitation had on them. “The encouragement that SlashDash was good enough to be on display at an NYU booth at an e-sports event was huge.”
Not long after EVO, as everyone found themselves working on the game with a new vigor, they found out that SlashDash had been accepted as a nominee at IndieCade 2013. With renewed hopes, they set off for Los Angeles, and started on the course that would bring them back to the city less than a year later to have their game shown on stage at Microsoft’s conference. Now, almost two years after that first Game Center class, the team of Nevernaut Games is on the cusp of releasing SlashDash, their first project, on the Xbox One. They’ll be joining the growing ranks of Game Center graduates who have gone on to create and release their own projects, or to join the teams behind the AAA titles played by millions. But everyone is taking it in stride. While they are not certain (or, more likely, not ready to say) what it is they want to do next, they’ll continue using the core skills they built at the Game Center to propel themselves to even greater heights in the game industry.