An empty cardboard box sits atop a tiny cartoonish hill, which emerges from the inky blackness of a forest floor in purple twilight. Silver stars glitter above the box, bobbing seductively as streams of shining stardust fall from them. These stars must be reached. They must be touched. But how? The answer: fling colored cats in the box, and stick the like-colored cats together to build a multi-pronged tower of cats that will touch the stars.
This is the core gameplay of “Comet Cats,” a mobile game released on Oct. 18, which Tufts junior Fury Sheron worked on. “Comet Cats” was produced through the 2016 iteration of the MassDiGI Summer Innovation Program. According to its website, it is an “internship program that includes the mentoring, guidance, housing, stipends and game development tools to help student teams finalize an original video game and prepare it for launch.”
Sheron, who worked primarily as an artist on “Comet Cats,” first heard about the Summer Innovation Program through Tufts Computer Science Senior Lecturer Ming Chow’s game development class in the fall of 2015.
“Monty Sharma, one of the directors of the program, came in to talk to Ming Chow’s game development course [about the program],” Sheron explained. “I thought that sounded like a nifty deal, and I applied and I got in, which was shocking but very cool.”
According to Sheron, applicants can apply to fill several positions on a game development team.
“You can apply to participate in … production, 2D art, 3D art, programming and music,” she said. “I applied for 2D art, programming and music. I didn’t know the term technical artist before joining the program, which is when you can make art and then put it in the game, so I guess I’m kind of a technical artist.”
The 11-week program, which took place at Becker College’s campus in Worcester, began in mid-May and ran through early August. The program began with students choosing game ideas to work on, selecting from a pool of roughly 20 ideas that spanned genres. Sheron described one unconventional game as “a meta-simulator of a gamer playing a game, and you have to keep him playing the game as long as you can.”
The inspiration for “Comet Cats” came from “Piyomori” (2016) – an offbeat Japanese mobile title that Sheron stumbled across.
“Last year … the Japanese Culture Club on campus held a contest to see who could get the highest score in a game called Piyomori, and I’d never heard of it before and I downloaded it and it was this unfortunate little thing that was strangely addictive but poorly made,” she said. “[It’s] a mobile game where you tap to throw 3D models of chicken babies into a pot.”
Despite its poor production values, the weirdness of “Piyomori” stuck with Sheron.
“I had never seen anything like it in the American market,” she said. “And so when the time came to think of games to create at MassDiGI, I did not want to be stuck creating just another “Bejeweled”(2001) clone, and I thought that [Piyomori] was an idea that could be improved upon … the only way to improve on anything is to make [it have] cats.”
With an idea chosen and a team of seven assembled, work began on “Comet Cats.” The working environment at MassDiGI was professional, with work taking place over standard five-day work weeks. As team members working and living together, the environment was geared toward fostering a collegial atmosphere.
“The most interesting and notable part of the working environment was that we also all lived together in the same building so it was a really interesting dynamic to try and separate ‘workplace us’ from ‘dorm us’,” Sheron said. “At work we weren’t allowed to call each other ‘students,’ or ‘guys;’ we were ‘peers’ or ‘professionals’ and all of these kinds of buzzwords that we found humorous for a long time. We understood that it was an attempt to differentiate a professional work environment that we [were] actually training for from the student environments that we were used to, but it felt a little silly at the time.”
By the end of the program, according to Tyler Haddad, the game’s producer and a student at Becker, the game was ready for release.
“Comet Cats” was … one of the few games to come out of MassDiGI nearly finished,” Haddad said. “All the content was completely done by the time the summer ended, the only thing that ended up happening between the first week of August and now was that our lead programmer, Ben Page, worked on a lot of bug fixes for the game and got it prepped to go up onto the app stores.”
Now that “Comet Cats” is available for download, the team is focused on the game’s post-release success, which they hope to guarantee through marketing and post-launch support. As the game’s producer, Haddad is also in charge of marketing, and plans to use a mix of social media and in-person events to reach potential players. The game will also be shown under the MassDiGI banner at a raft of conventions, not least of which is PAX East this coming March.
According to Haddad, post-release support will come in the form of new unlockable items, though future updates will not necessarily be handled by the original “Comet Cats” team, but rather by students at Becker, through the college’s “Live Studio” class. According to The MassDiGI website, the class “gives college and university game development students the opportunity to work on real games in the market.”
As for Sheron, she would like to spend next summer working at FableVision, a Boston-based educational multimedia studio that produces a variety of content, including games, for children. Looking further into the future, Sheron would love to continue working on games.
“[Making] wicked cool games,” Sheron said, “is what I want to do. [A game is] a medium that is so unique, and I think it can do things that no other medium can do … in a book you visualize someone else’s vision of something, in a movie you experience the sounds that someone feels will best accompany visuals that represent a story … but a video game you get to live, you get to experience it, you get to change it, and I think that’s just the coolest thing ever.”