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Digital Savant: Student team builds spooky game in just one semester

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 16, 2014


The little girl sits alone on a small bed in a cabin of a large boat. She cries as she tries to remember what brought her to this place. Inside the room, books float in the air, held aloft by some kind of psychic energy.

Something’s wrong here, but you probably already knew that when you passed by a line of shadows on the way to this room. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this ship is full of spirits. The only question is whether you’re alive and, if so, where this boat is headed.

That’s the gist of a spooky, atmospheric video game, "Port of Call," that was developed over the spring semester by six University of Texas students in a Capstone Course, part of the Game and Mobile Media Applications, or GAMMA, program.

The game is short (it takes about 30 minutes to complete) and its themes of self-acceptance and regret aren’t your typical shoot-’em-up or action platformer video game fare. But "Port of Call" might still have a hard time standing out given the explosion of indie video games in recent years. Like many of them, "Port of Call" has been submitted to Steam Greenlight, a community game publishing program from gaming giant Valve Corp.

But Team Underdog Games, the developers of "Port of Call," have an ace up their sleeve. Their game will be showcased this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo’s College Game Competition. Universities can only submit one game per school, and "Port of Call" was only one of five games accepted to the competition.

Paul Toprac, who is in charge of the GAMMA program, was thrilled. It was his first submission to E3, and now he’s batting 1,000. Toprac says he’s impressed by how quickly the team was able to settle on a game idea and use the different talents of the team members to create an immersive 3-D world and a compelling narrative. The entire game was completed in only three months.

"The easy way out would have been to make a party game," Toprac said. "It’s really easy to make a bad narrative game. It’s really hard to make a good narrative game."

The team had to learn to use Unity, a game-design engine that allows "Port of Call" to be made easily available as a Web browser game as well as a downloadable game for Mac, Linux and PC systems. Team members combined skills as varied as programming, art design, script writing and lots of communication. They even released a YouTube trailer for the game as it was being developed.

"They’re learning all this and creating the game at the same time. Putting all that in one semester is crazy," Toprac said. "But what’s cool is they stepped up to the challenge and they did it."

Wilson Villegas, a computer science and radio, film and television senior at UT, worked on dialogue and descriptions for the game with co-writer Ricky Llamas, a computer science and journalism senior. "It started off as this concept of getting on the ship where there are lots of interesting passengers going somewhere. They all have some relation to you," Villegas said.

The game was influenced by exploration video games such as last year’s indie hit "Gone Home" and in its visual style by "The Legend of Zelda" and "Okami." Lynn Vuong, a fine arts graduate, said the game was also influenced by the atmosphere and environments in the Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film "Spirited Away."

The version of the work-in-progress game I played was not perfect. It ends abruptly and, compared to other narrative games, it’s narrowly linear; no matter what decisions you make, you’ll wind up at the same narrative crossroad.

But the game’s moody tone cast a spell on me in a way few other games do, and I found myself playing through a second time to catch elements I missed the first time and to see an alternate ending.

The team received feedback from game design veterans Richard Garriott and Warren Spector, who played through the game and sat through a post-mortem, respectively. The team is continuing to tweak the gameplay and the visuals in "Port of Call" and is planning to post details about the game developments on a website, portofcallgame.com.

At the E3 event, they’ll rub shoulders with Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and thousands of others from the game industry. "It’s definitely a dream come true for all of us," Villegas said.

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MESMERIZED BY HEARTHSTONE

"Mario Kart 8," a gorgeous racing game for the struggling Nintendo Wii U, has been a blast of fresh air in my video game world. But the game I really can’t stop playing is "Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft," an online collectible card battle game from the evil geniuses behind "World of Warcraft."

It’s available on Windows PC, Mac and Linux, but its most dangerous format is the iPad, where it can become addictive as an on-the-go game you might never want to stop playing. And it’s free (unless you decide to engage in Arena battles or buy extra cards, which is completely optional). It has that Blizzard Entertainment polish that is very tough to resist.

Play "Hearthstone" with caution, as you may lose hours and hours of your life if you’re not careful.

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DIGITAL SAVANT MICRO: WILL APPLE’S ‘HANDOFF’ SIMPLIFY DEVICE JUGGLING?

(In this space every week, we’ll define a tech term, offer a timely tip or answer questions about technology from readers. Email ogallaga@statesman.com)

Two weeks ago at the kickoff of its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple failed to introduce any new hardware, but it debuted a new programming language, Swift, and lots of software tweaks. The updates for its Mac OS (next version named "Yosemite") and iOS mobile software (next version: 8) are due in the fall as free software upgrades. What feature are we most intrigued by? Something Apple calls "Handoff."

For Apple devotees who have Mac computers as well as mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads, Handoff may provide some sanity, allowing users to finish tasks on one device that they started on another. For instance, you could begin an email on an iPad and finish it later on a Mac, picking up right where you left off. Even better, Apple says it’ll allow an incoming iPhone call to be picked up via computer or iPad. Same goes for receiving and replying to any kind of text message.

It’s promised the feature will work with Mail, Safari, Maps, Calendar and other apps, including some developed by companies other than Apple. Though it should bring some welcome continuity to those of us juggling multiple devices, we’ll reserve judgment until we see Handoff in action.

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