It was during a rainy, eight-hour drive to Charlotte, N.C., that Thiago de Oliveira and Jesse LaVigne realized that their dream could become reality. They could actually make a living as game developers, and even sooner than they’d hoped.
The pair knew each other from a gaming development class, but weren’t close enough for the togetherness of a long drive. They fumbled awkwardly in conversation, trying to distract themselves from their ensuing meeting and mounting angst.
As the scenery changed from East Coast flatlands to the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, their conversational topics turned to aliens, conspiracy theories, death metal and favorite childhood games. Somehow, no matter what the topic was, the conversation always returned to the anticipation of what this day could mean for them. Just as they began to feel comfortable with each other, they arrived at their destination: Exalt Games.
LaVigne and de Oliveira were traveling to meet the founders and partners of Exalt Games, a boutique video gaming company whose staffers were interested in utilizing the duo’s talent. At the time, both were Wilmington University undergraduate students, but their skills were obvious. They had been a force of action in developing a mobile smartphone game for the Exalt Games team, named Puzzlesque; now their hard work would be rewarded.
Both felt anxious and nauseous at that first meeting, especially when the non-disclosure and job agreements were presented to them. Once the necessary documents were signed and contract negotiations finished, the two sat in amazement. They were now official members of the Exalt Games team. They were no longer contractors. More astounding, their gaming knowledge paid off before they received their WilmU degrees. It was a sweet deal.
Beginning a Partnership
Let’s start from the beginning.
The Exalt games partnership with Wilmington University began as a class project when Exalt’s co-founder, Dr. Michael Bossé, approached Scott Shaw, chair of WilmU’s game design, development and video and motion graphics. Bossé had a unique gaming concept, which he called Puzzlesque. But it needed fleshing out, and Shaw’s expertise was critical.
Shaw presented this project to his Game Development II (GMD 405) class in the fall of 2013. De Oliveira and LaVigne, who happened to sit next to each other during the class, immediately began sketching game concepts.
It took a seven-student co-op team from WilmU to turn the idea of Puzzleque into a working game for Exalt. The students worked for the client and earned credits while doing it. In just four weeks, the students created a workable prototype, and in 12, it was operational. Clearly, the WilmU team delivered.
LaVigne and de Oliveira were chosen to see Puzzlesque through to publication. Each worked overtime on the project, and in time, understood each other’s strengths. It was a natural progression into their roles as computer programmer (de Oliveira) and program manager (LaVigne).
The founders of Exalt Games could see the duo’s potential, so much so that the company offered to relocate de Oliveira and Lavigne close to its headquarters in Boone, N.C. This would have been a ready-made living situation for the duo, but they declined, choosing to stay near WilmU. They were familiar with the student talent pool, and could extend opportunities to fellow gaming students.
This was the start of Wilmington University’s incubator program with Exalt Games.
Picking up Speed
Things moved fast for de Oliveira and LaVigne.
In March 2014, they traveled to Charlotte, N.C., and quickly started working on new games. Puzzlesque became available for iPhone and Android smartphones in April. In May, the duo moved to their new working digs at the New Castle campus, and LaVigne graduated with a B.S. in game design and development. They launched their second game, Fruit-Slingers, in September. This month, they are in production with Stellar Harvest: Proving Ground, the first installment of a gaming series.
The team’s next 12 titles are in production and scheduled for publishing and more ideas are brewing. Working with lightning speed, the team shares a vision: LaVigne manages production and de Oliveira constructs code. Continuous projects keep them busy, just the way they like it.
LaVigne and de Oliveira are not the only ones who benefit from this expeditious turnaround. Six current WilmU College of Technology students are contracted with Exalt Games to assist in creating functions for upcoming games. Two are quality testers, two are 3-D generalists, one is an icon artist and one is an audio technician. Five of them are undergraduate students and one is working on a master’s at WilmU.
In his managerial role, LaVigne plans to increase the collaboration with WilmU students as the business expands into software design and publication for new clients. “This provides students the ability to see the whole process of game creation, not just a curriculum” he says.
The Creative Process
With the looming pressure of creating the next big gaming hit that’s akin to an Angry Birds or Candy Crush, the team stays motivated via a foolproof method. When it’s time to produce a new game concept, they go home, dust off their old favorites video games and start playing.
“When we get ideas, it’s a snowball effect,” says LaVigne. “One idea leads to another, and we can be as outrageous as we like. We talk it out for about an hour and then see how manageable it is to develop.”
They’re both inspired by the simplicity of the classic games, but are intrigued by the games with strong anecdotes. They are creative people, so for them, the artistic process doesn’t end at 5 p.m., when traditional work hours end. It ebbs and flows.
“I can stay up until 4 a.m. thinking about codes and functions to enhance the player experience,” says de Oliveira. “Sometimes I think of a game while creating pieces to a model we are already using.”
Adds LaVigne: “We find inspiration in strange places, but we usually sift through them to find the core of a game.”
Then they turn up the tunes. During game development, the team often uses music as a backdrop to stay focused. de Oliveira has the analytical mind of a programmer. He can see a piece of a game and modify it with what he calls “simple math equations.” Others may not think they’re so simple if they take a glance at even five lines of code on de Oliveira’s whiteboard.
“I use everything I ever learned in math class when maneuvering my way through game mechanics,” says de Oliveira, adding that he programs each of the games down to the specifics of color for players and music.
LaVigne is also analytical, but is expert in marketing concepts. He studies games intrinsically. When most people play a game, they enjoy the experience but may not know why. LaVigne approaches games by discerning which mechanics sell them, whether they are successful because of competition or required skill level, or if graphics play a role in the experience. These questions help him understand what will be necessary to take Exalt’s games to the next level.
The secret to the team’s success? They create games they love. They don’t worry about comparisons to other games.
The duo works well together, and their strengths combine to form a great partnership. But their individual journeys that led to gaming were different.
de Oliveira, who is three courses away from earning his B.S. in game design at Wilmington University, always knew he would create games. His childhood computer didn’t have any software, but he wanted to draw and create photos on it anyway. His dad created a computer game for him from scratch, similar to Microsoft Paint. That’s when de Oliveira got the computer programming bug. By 8, he was programming his computer to do things his young classmates had never seen.
In 2009 de Oliveira created Demented Fun Studios, a small gaming company, and earned national recognition for his game called Boredom Shooters. He had worked for three years as computer programmer in the petroleum and chemical industry.
LaVigne had earned his B.A. in sociology from Wheaton College of Illinois, largely because of his incessant need to question everything around him. He worked in retail for seven years. After moving to the East Coast with his wife Elisabeth, he decided to go back to school to study gaming.
But that love for gaming started when he was 5. LaVigne’s mother had purchased a Nintendo to comfort her son as he recovered from pneumonia. She played Legend of Zelda with him for hours. “It was an amazing discovery for a child,” says LaVigne. “That game still influences my idea of gaming today.”
Fruit Slinging Fun]
The game is addicting, with plenty of physical interactions for the user to be connected. There’s a physical charge up motion detector that requires players to physically wind up the phone for more power when tossing fruits to targets. The interactive environment boasts fun sound effects, and it actually reacts if players miss targets. Each level becomes increasingly difficult with missions, ranks and trick modes that further the competition factor.
Fruit-Slingers took the duo about two months to work out the kinks, after honing the game concept. They presented a prototype to a Wilmington University gaming class to see if a student could create a game level with the right amount of competitiveness and interactivity. Dimitrius Brooks, an undergraduate senior, met the challenge and had his level added to the final model of the game.
Fruit-Slingers is available for Android and iOS software.
Are Incubators Programs Growing in Popularity?
The best university technology and business incubators model Wilmington University’s program: where business assistance service is offered to partnering companies and hands-on learning experience is provided to students. Also important is the opportunity for businesses that are affiliated with institutions that boast a non-stop flow of student workers. This is the hallmark of incubation programs.
The Exalt Games partnership with Wilmington University provides contract work for students and access to real-life lessons about meeting professional expectations.
Learn While You Game
Computer games provide sound ways to learn both explicit material (facts, dates, formulas, methods) and implicit material (critical thinking, attitudes, judgments).
Many gamers and educators believe gaming is a natural way to package new material for students, because it affords them an organic way to solve a problem.
“The gaming medium incorporates all media types, accounts for developing technology, encompasses culture and sociology, within an enjoyable context like gaming,” says Scott Shaw, chair of game design, development and video and motion graphics.
Teachers can also use gamification, which is the idea of adding game- like elements to a project. This can introduce a level of interactivity and practice. Students can take the learning of new topics into their own hands as they stay motivated and involved.
The key? Make game topics rewarding and engaging.