By: Giancarlo Gioielli, Game Design ’21
While studying abroad in Montreal this semester, I was fortunate enough to land an internship at a small indie studio called Back to the Game. Back to the Game is known for developing and publishing several mobile games, as well as a piece of software called rob0 that specializes in data collection and analytics that any studio can purchase for their own games in order to gain more insight about their audience’s habits. Back to the Game has also worked closely with Unity, creating visual demos and videos for their official documentation pages.
As for their game history, things started with Reach. Now known as Reach classic, this is a mobile Match-3 puzzle game about surviving as long as possible. A sequel was later released called Reach versus, which featured a brand new twist on the typical mobile puzzle game formula – players could bet real-world money on matches they were about to play. Since puzzle games tend to be more skill-based than RNG, the idea was that someone who is more confident in their abilities could bet more and reliably win.
This leads us to the current project, and the one I’ve been assigned to for the semester I’ll be here. City Cleaner is a mobile clicker/idle game with a focus on environmentalism. The story is about the player, someone who is unknown initially but quickly rises through the ranks of their organization in order to clean up all of Montreal.
As an intern (and especially for a small studio), you end up doing lots of different things. I was hired as a Game Design intern, and from what I understand the narrative-heavy personal projects I’ve launched were what really sold Richard (my supervisor) on me. Writing dialogue for characters is one of my favorite things to do as a designer, and I’ve had the opportunity to do lots of that over the course of development. From the start we were brainstorming what kind of character would players enjoy accompanying them throughout their adventure, and we settled on a young friend who uses casual language and has a big heart for the earth. I know that people like to be around others who are positive and driven, so I tried to make that shine through in the friend’s dialogue. I wanted her to feel like someone anyone could see themselves spending time with and making a difference.
Of course, narrative wasn’t the only thing I was responsible for throughout development. Early on, I did a lot of research and compiled a spreadsheet of notes and links about existing clicker games. I eventually presented that during a design meeting, pitching some of the mechanics I thought would fit City Cleaner well and receiving feedback from the rest of the team. I’ve also done a lot of in-engine and programming work using Unity. When I arrived at Back to the Game, there were some other projects being focused on for the first week or two. This meant I had a lot of time to take some general direction and just go ahead prototyping new features. Ben and I created several new Git branches and got a lot of work done over the course of these early days.
Another big part of my work for Back to the Game was design documentation. I enjoy creating visually appealing documents almost as much as I enjoy writing dialogue, so this was right up my alley. For example, I created visual mockups for the core gameplay loop, a daily rewards screen, a manager-hiring screen, the map screen, and the tutorial screen. In fact, I eventually was tasked with implementing the map screen with Ben and it’s visual design is currently what remains in the build, at least until the artists can recreate it in a more polished way.
We will also be taking City Cleaner to MIGS, so I’ll have the chance to run our table for a few hours. I was tasked with creating a spreadsheet to help everyone organize what times they can and cannot be at the table as well.
I’ve also been able to learn a lot of things that I otherwise would have missed out on, had I not been an intern this semester. One of the earliest things I learned was about json files – a data structure I’d heard of but never used personally in development. The lead programmer of City Cleaner worked closely with me to explain how they work, and how we were going to use them for the game’s dialogue. We ended up linking a spreadsheet to Unity that would hold all of the game’s lines of dialogue, then convert them to individual json files that his scripts could then interpret.
Another technical thing I learned was which programs in the Adobe suite might be used in a small indie environment like this. I’m very comfortable with things like Photoshop and Illustrator, however Back to the Game seems to use a lot of Adobe XD. I was given a task to create something that they would then use in XD, and there was eventually a file conflict. Rather than spending a ton of time learning a new program and attempting to recreate my document from scratch, I did some research and came up with a solution that would produce a filetype that both programs could work with just as well.
Finally, I learned how to be (even more) independent, at least in a professional work environment. Slack is the best way to contact someone immediately around Back to the Game, however lots of people are juggling more than one thing at a time and so they can be busy when you need help or a little extra direction. Part of my experience as an intern has been learning how to find ways to contribute to the project without constantly asking for new tasks. Sometimes this manifests through prototyping, and other times through taking another look at existing things like written dialogue. It’s taught me how to be a bit more independent when it comes to navigating a professional studio environment.
It has been an amazing experience to be an intern at Back to the Game. Things felt familiar amidst the controlled chaos of an indie studio, given the small teams I’ve worked with in the past. If 10 year old me knew that he would be working for a real studio even before graduating, his mind would be blown.