Cat Musgrove and Issam Khalil founded Trouble Impact in 2012. Three years later, on October 15, 2015, the company won the developer showcase at the Intel® Buzz Workshop Austin 2015 with its game Color Thief (Figure 1).
The designers describe the game like this:
“Color Thief is a third-person puzzle game where players explore abandoned ruins by manipulating color through touch. In the game, color works as an energy source, bringing life to plants, fluidity to water, or activating mechanical objects. The player uses this knowledge to solve puzzles to move forward and learn about the world.”
After working for Vicarious Visions (an Activision company) from 2007 to 2012 as an animator, Cat convinced Issam (a software engineer at Vicarious Visions specializing in graphics, networking, and performance) to start their own game studio. As Issam already had experience in starting a company (he had founded AlkymiaSoft Products in 2003), they soon were creating their first game together. Although that attempt wasn’t a commercial success, the designers learned some key lessons from the process, the most important of which was the need for extensive user testing.
Getting User Feedback from People New to the Game
During development of their first game, the only user testing was Cat and Issam and a few friends and family. Playing the game themselves was deceptive because they did it every day. Even though Cat never considered herself a “professional gamer,” the daily practice made her good at it without realizing the gap between the expert she was and raw beginners. Complicating things further, the feedback they got from friends and family was too kind—no one wanted to hurt the designers’ feelings and weren’t ready or even able to provide constructive criticism. As a result, the game turned out to be too difficult for new players and didn’t take off.
The duo approached Color Thief with a totally different mindset. They had people outside of their immediate circle play the game as much as possible and sought honest and constructive feedback from as many people as possible. They wanted users to test the puzzles so that they could make them as logical and easy to understand as possible.
Working Through Ideas for Color Thief
Cat and Issam have so many ideas for their games that filtering them to find the right ones—new, but not so new they are completely different from what players are used to. The game should offer a fresh, new experience without overstraining players.
The designers aren’t the typical target audience of the gaming industry. They didn’t like many popular game concepts, such as collectibles, levels, numerical rewards, and combat. So for their second game, Color Thief, they tried to do something completely different. In this game, the designers created a game play that omitted any concepts they disliked to allow the players to explore a mysterious world and solve puzzles through logic (Figure 2). The developers learned that to have a rewarding game, users have to experience some frustration. Of course, they are careful not to demotivate players by letting them accidentally break a puzzle. It takes a lot of cautious effort to design the puzzles so they’re challenging and fun to play, but yet avoid ways in which players can inadvertently take actions that may make it impossible for them to solve the puzzles.
In contrast to other games, where the graphics are often separate from game play, Trouble Impact makes the graphics a substantial part of the game play in Color Thief. The core theme of the game is working with colors, and colors influence what’s happening in the game. Water becomes solid and plants grow if they get the right color. That interaction between graphics and game play makes Color Thief unique.
Such a combination of graphics and game play works best in a third-person 3D game. It’s important for players to learn the fundamentals of game play in the demo puzzles, and Trouble Impact deliberately didn’t include any dialogue or written explanations. The third-person perspective lets players see what happens—with color—as they can transfer color from objects to the skin of their characters (chameleons) and then on to other objects (Figure 3). To explore a mysterious world, a 3D environment creates a great experience.
To make sure their ideas work, Trouble Impact spent more than a year and a half on the tutorial for the game alone. The designers created and updated it continuously to get the game play into the “sweet spot.” They started with puzzles that weren’t connected to each other, and only now are they starting to combine various puzzles into separate worlds, like the “octopus temple.” Trouble Impact expects to release the game in 2017.
To pick up development speed, Trouble Impact now uses conferences and events to create deadlines for themselves. Conferences provide the opportunity to show off new ideas, allowing them to focus on finishing features for upcoming events. Such deadlines work better than imposing self-inflicted, arbitrary deadlines—playing the game is so much more fun than fixing bugs.
Developing Towards the First Platform: The PC
To make sure performance doesn’t suffer, the team has five different machines on which they test the game. Using only the most generic features of the Unity* Game Engine ensures that they can run the game on almost any PC hardware.
The engine provides only basic features, so the designers created some elements manually, such as character movement. Unity provides a vertical capsule collider where the character must always be inside the capsule. Because the designers wanted their characters to lean forward while running or swimming, that vertical capsule didn’t work for them. So, they decided to write their own collider, using multiple capsules for the head, body, and feet of the character. That challenged the Trouble Impact designers to understand the basic physics of the Unity engine and required a lot of time to learn and work with it, but they are happy with the results.
The hassle-free portability of and the great community around the engine are definitely paying off for Trouble Impact. These advantages outweigh cons like not being able to see the source code. In addition to focusing on the most generic features of the Unity engine, the designers use C# to ensure portability. All plug‑ins they use are written in C# as well, and they make sure to acquire the source code for the plug‑ins. Issam uses Microsoft Visual Studio* and Plastic SCM to do the coding, while Cat uses Autodesk 3ds Max*, Adobe Photoshop*, and Adobe Premiere*.
The designers post every Friday at www.troubleimpact.com, reporting the progress of the game. That weekly blog creates another mini-deadline for the team and enables them to share achievements and problems they faced during the week with other people, helping the designers to gather even more feedback. They also use the weekly blog post for self-reflection and as documentation of decisions they have made.
Joining Conferences and Events Like Intel® Buzz Workshop
The Intel Buzz Workshops are full-day events that include technical sessions, panels, and opportunities for networking. Issam liked the people he met as well as the demos of the Intel debugger and profiler. The opportunity to use a profiler without any code changes particularly appealed to him.
In addition to the sessions, Intel offers a Game Developer Showcase contest during the workshops where developers can pitch their games. Trouble Impact joined the contest at the Intel Buzz Workshop Austin 2015. They saw it as yet another opportunity to get more feedback on Color Thief. Color Thief winning the contest was encouraging, but the fact that people liked what the company was doing helped even more. People were excited about the game play and the innovative idea of color working like an energy source that could change the world around the game’s characters.
After working alone on the game for so long, the workshop feedback was valuable. In the first months of development, Cat worked completely isolated in a New York apartment before Issam was able to join her. When the two were working together in person, they reached out to other independent developers to network. One such occasion was a “video game book club” where players gathered regularly to play games and discuss what they liked and disliked about them. The designers decided to move to Austin, Texas, to have a bigger community around them, and it's worked out well for them so far.