A group of UTD alumni created a startup company and a Kickstarter campaign to launch an indie video game, “Innerspace.”
What began as a team of friends in an ATEC game production lab class creating simple, short games grew to become what is now PolyKnight Games, an indie game company. The original creators include alumni Tyler Tomaseski, Nick Adams, Eric Brodie, Steve Zapata, Chris Miller and a small team of collaborators outside of UTD.
While the team has created a range of free, small-scale video games during Game Jams and in game lab such as “Castor and Pollux,” “Innerspace” is their first full-fledged game available on platforms such as PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and the Nintendo Switch.
“Innerspace” is a game in which physics is inverted, allowing the player to experience reverse gravity while traversing different worlds. In the game, the player controls a cartographer as he explores different planets and collects relics and items while flying on an agile craft. The game uses simple geometric shapes and pastel colors to create a fantasy-like universe to explore.
Steve Zapata, 3-D and environment artist, said he preferred rendering games without using techniques such as adding high levels of detail to create a unique aesthetic in the game. He said he liked the unrealism that video games traditionally had, and wanted to work with the medium rather than change the graphics in favor of realism.
“A big constraint we have is our team size. We have a small team and what we make has to be relatively easy, quick or fast to make,” Zapata said. “So instead of trying to fight the medium, we’re trying to use what’s unique to video games and to geometry to bolster and build aesthetics around it.”
Chris Miller, who works sound design and music composition, said the team first started working together in an environment where students could create games and learn about the process without extensive faculty involvement.
“It’s your first opening into building a pipeline yourself and you’re able to pick out and learn who else is also just as equally motivated just because of how much it has to be done through your own ambition,” Brodie said. “It was through working together and talking later on that we built a really good friendship and working relationship.”
Eric Brodie, producer and community manager, said game lab was useful because it gave the team a chance to work in specialized roles in creating games together and later recognizing their motivations with game design.
“I think (Game Lab) is really a very important thing for ATEC to maintain because … it teaches a lot of really good lessons in actually seeing a game through to the end,” Brodie said. “You get to recognize everything that’s going to go wrong in the development and how to solve those challenges and how to work in a team and work collaboratively.”
Within three months, the team create a “proof of concept” demonstration to prove they could make the game to Kickstarter as part of their campaign for “Innerspace.” After it was approved, they spent around three and a half years developing the game.
“There’s a lot of support between the various creators and you really do forge relationships with backers,” Brodie said. “Again, just like how reputation goes around, word moves around in the Kickstarter community, so a lot of our early support and initial outreach we got to have started through Kickstarter.”
Brodie, Zapata and Miller said they saw the gaming industry as much more unpredictable compared to what they learned at UTD. Miller said he didn’t realize how quickly a person’s reputation and work spread throughout the industry, and that it was important to build relationships with people to get connections and opportunities.
“It really is true that everybody at all the studios around here knows each other,” Miller said. “It’s about who you know and who you impress with your work because people won’t just vouch for you because they know you.”
Zapata, Brodie and Miller also spoke about how not all of the team members pursued work directly related to game development right after getting their degrees, and how that was still helpful for their future in game design. After graduating, each alumnus pursued a different path such as completing internships and doing side jobs before later coming together to form PolyKnight Games and start developing and releasing games. Zapata interned at the UTD Brain Performance Institute on virtual reality research in the medical field, despite it not being explicitly related to game creation and design.
“I had a couple of different mentors who worked there and they … gave me access to resources and information I wouldn’t have had access to with the university because of time constraints for classes and the core curriculum beyond your normal ATEC degree plan,” Zapata said. “Those are opportunities you can make the most of.”
After the game’s release, the team continues to receive feedback from reviewers and other players, and will continue to add updates and expansions to the game. The alumni and their coworkers are currently looking into prototyping new ideas and working to create games similar to “Innerspace.”
“As a team, when we set out to make games, I don’t think any of us thought we would be making a flying game,” Zapata said. “Judging by how unique ‘Innerspace’ is as a flying game, I think we can safely say regardless of what genre we pick or what type of game we make next, it’s going to be equally as unique even if it’s a different kind of game.”