Creators of Inverted World Video Game Find the Upside of Teamwork
The UT Dallas alumni who comprise PolyKnight Games knew the risk of investing their futures in the game industry, but the group has found a tailwind beneath their wings after the success of their first game.
PolyKnight’s studio is a hive of computers, chairs and people in an unused wing of a rehabilitation hospital in Flower Mound, Texas. Amidst this hum of electronics, five alumni of the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) create not just a game but proof of their dedication to the craft.
Getting the Team Together
Though Tyler Tomaseski BS’14 and Eric Brodie BA’13, MA’16 knew each other before attending UT Dallas, they brought different skills and backgrounds. Tomaseski was a software engineering major with dreams of starting his own company, while Brodie was an English major turned game developer.
From left: Chris Miller BA’14, Tyler Tomaseski BS’14, Steve Zapata BA’15, Eric Brodie BA’13, MA’16, Tosh Shah BA’12, MFA’15, and Eric Grossman sit in their workspace at PolyKnight Games in Flower Mound, Texas, where “InnerSpace,” their first official game, was developed.
Both took part in ATEC’s Game Lab program, assembling a team of peers to develop a video game. Through the course, the students became familiar with each other and tried on different hats: development lead, audio, animation, et cetera.
Dr. Monica Evans MA’04, PhD’07, who managed the game lab back then, punctuated the importance of understanding each team member’s responsibilities. Directors, for example, often solve the “bike shed dilemmas” — trivial decisions, such as a bike shed’s color — that can delay a development team until a director picks the paint.
Teams showed off their creations and contributions. Tomaseski took notice.
“The student body in the Game Lab program was stellar. I hunted Steve Zapata down because I wanted to work with him based on stuff I’d seen him make,” he said.
Zapata BA’15, PolyKnight’s lead artist and 3-D technician, wowed Tomaseski with his skills when the two worked on a game called “Castor and Pollux.”
Chris Miller BA’14, a sound designer with a mind for music composition, also was scouting talent on a different student’s game, “Zarathustra.” Soon, artist Tosh Shah BA’12, MFA’15 and Miller were both on the short list of talented students they wanted to work with.
Along Came PolyKnight
ATEC faculty offered advice when asked, but ultimately let the teams learn through working on their projects.
“Student directors really led things with very little faculty involvement. That made it special,” Miller said.
Tomaseski and Zapata had already talked about starting their own company but broached the subject seriously after realizing some of the best talent they could find were ATEC students. Their prospects were feeling the same itch to strike out on their own. The nascent team felt confident that their education at ATEC would give them a critical leg up.
“We built experience working with each other through Game Lab. I think that gave us the experience to set out on our own and found our own studio,” Brodie said.
The team then set out to create a game and a full-fledged studio.
“We spent all of the spring 2014 semester just thinking about our first game, what we wanted from our studio, but also what the company would eventually look like,” Brodie said.
Blackstone LaunchPad, a campus-based entrepreneurship program, helped the team with intellectual property law, and ATEC faculty offered guidance and suggestions.
Naming their studio turned out to be more difficult than any other decision. Their first of dozens of ideas was Some Game Developers, but the team ultimately decided that was too cheeky and sarcastic.
“All of us were sitting around a table at Shady’s, and someone said they liked the idea of Polyfort because we knew we wanted to make 3-D games and be a 3-D studio,” Brodie said. “Then, in a group text later, someone asked, ‘What about PolyKnight?’ And before we all even agreed, Tyler had bought the domain.”
Journey into “InnerSpace”
With a name and a home base in Flower Mound, PolyKnight started investing all of its energy into the first game — “InnerSpace.”
The team wanted the game to take place in an inverted planet space — where an ocean encompasses worlds like an atmosphere — with the player flying across planets and exploring the sea between them.
An ocean encompasses “InnerSpace” worlds like an atmosphere with the player flying across planets and exploring the sea between them. (Courtesy photo by PolyKnight Games)
“We tried planning this game with our studio size and personnel in mind, and we still ended up way too ambitious,” Zapata said. “We kept getting the advice to scope our idea over and over. We listened, or tried to, but still ended up going overboard.”
The team gave “InnerSpace” a utility-focused art style that embraced limitations but retained the core concepts of the game.
“Everything we did in making this game was function over form,” Shah said. “The idea of how to make it work came before how it looks.”
The art team used a technique called dithering, in which layered patterns of pixels create a rougher look of what is normally a smooth color gradient. The decision boosted the performance of the game and created an appealing style.
“I am really in love with games as technology,” Zapata said. “I took things that were intrinsic to art in games media, and instead of trying to hide it, I built an aesthetic around them.”
Miller went to great lengths to create the sounds for the unusual universe.
“During one winter, I threw a bunch of frying pans and metal bits in my parents’ pool to get the sound of metal splashing,” Miller said. “I didn’t realize until after that I didn’t have anything to fish them out. So, I had to wade into the freezing water myself.”
Not Stopping at One
“InnerSpace” launched on consoles and Steam on Jan. 16, and the team immediately began working on a port for Nintendo Switch. Still, releasing a game doesn’t mean the work is complete.
“A studio is only successful once you’ve properly launched three titles. So, I wouldn’t even call us successful yet,” Tomaseski said.
PolyKnight attributes its progress to a mix of good circumstances, grit and world-class tutelage.
“We have a room of incredibly talented people, along with a ton of privilege: we went to a university with a game lab and program; many of us didn’t have to work a second job; we had supportive families along the way,” Zapata said.
“We had to know when and where to say yes and when to let an opportunity pass us by. It’s a lot of luck, but also a lot of perseverance and faith in yourself,” Brodie said.
Though the team wouldn’t discuss details of their next project, they will be pursuing the same wonder, weird and oddness in every fiber of “InnerSpace.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].