USC Games Expo 2019 is a special event where future game designers, animators, directors, and everyone in-between get a chance to create a game in a professional environment. Students have only a year to design, plan, create, and market their game in a no-punches-pulled challenge with strict deadlines and critique from industry faculty. Multiple student projects both big and small were shown at the Expo, and End of the Line was one of the most ambitious titles showcased.
Can You Survive Before the Last Stop?
End of the Line is a choose your own adventure game set aboard a train that lets you explore a post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy world. The player is the conductor and has to navigate the decisions needed to reach the fabled End of the Line, the last bastion and safe haven of humanity. However, nothing is as it seems at first when mysterious deaths start happening and passengers’ goals and agendas begin to clash. The player’s decisions are permanent and it is all about risk and reward. Do you decide to help the botanist? If you do, you may close off another opportunity with another character because of your decision.
I got to speak with Drew Credico, the Game Director for End of the Line, and he told me about the hardships of creating a narrative-focused project. What separates End of the Line from other games shown at USC Games Expo 2019 is the ambitious scope of player agency. One of the writers mentioned that there are 500 lines of dialogue in the game with thousands of branching paths. These students had under a year to make the game and solve the complexity of the branching dialogue choices all while balancing school, their personal lives, and feedback from faculty.
Not only did I get to talk to Drew about his experiences working on End of the Line, but I also interviewed Christian Gayle, Narrative Writer, and Lead of User Experience for the game. These two students and all the other team members poured a ton of work into bringing this game to the Expo as an Advanced Game Project, a high-level project for senior students and a capstone for their education. This is what they had to say about their work so far:
Kevin Alvarez: “What made you want to participate in the Expo?”
Drew Credico: “So this is an AGP (Advanced Game Project), so we’ve been working on this for a year, but it has always been my dream to work on a game with passionate individuals. This is my first shot and I got to make something that I truly believed in because I pitched this game. We all got on board to bring this game to life and we’re excited to show it off at USC Games Expo.”
Christian Gayle: “Well, I met Drew in the games writing class we took together and he made the pitch for his game there. I thought it was a cool idea and I was midway through my last year here at USC. That’s when I approached him and told him that ‘Hey, I’m a screenwriter and I’d never written for a game before but I would love to add that to my resume, how can I help?’ So I joined the team along with four other writers.”
Fixing the Rails
Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the challenges you had to overcome to get this game out in time for the Expo?”
Drew Credico: “Our first issue was how to bring our dream into reality. What did we need to do to ground the game and make it a viable project within an attainable scope? The second thing was figuring out what tools each person on the team brought to the game, and filling out the gaps in our skills to meet those needs or diverting certain aspects of the game. The third being that our classes emulate a corporate environment. We had to push or pull our concepts and ideas based on the feedback we received from faculty and having to react to those changes. It’s a delicate dance between when to compromise on your ideas or appease upper management; having to decide when to stay firm or be flexible.”
Christian Gayle: “Since we’re a narrative-focused game we had to figure out the right balance between story and actual gameplay. Too much narrative and it just becomes a visual novel, but if it has too much gameplay than its just like any other game. So trying to find that right balance was one of the hardest challenges that we had to overcome as a team. Also, the writing process was difficult because we had to write and rewrite several lines and make sure to talk to the engineers if it was possible to have certain scenes. If the scene would be to much work or if they ran into problems on their end then we would have to rewrite or cut content from the game.”
Kevin Alvarez: “How did having experienced faculty who worked in the industry help improve your game or development practices?”
Drew Credico: “Having experienced faculty was a major benefit because of the different perspectives and insight they provided for our game. One example is that one faculty member told our team that we made a map for our game but it never told where the player was at all times. We also had specialized faculty who worked on Telltale games and they provided specific critique and feedback which helped enormously.”
Kevin Alvarez: “What are your thoughts on industry crunch now as more stories about AAA development are starting to trickle out?”
Drew Credico: “We crunched a lot to work on this game and there were two different types of crunch we experienced. The first being that we were happy and excited to work on this game leading to a 24-hour crunch session to meet a milestone that the team set. It was a milestone that we wanted to do and knew we could get done and we were willing to do it. The second type of crunch was horrible because we had a milestone set by others that was unreasonable which lead to bad and uncomfortable hours. So that experience informed my opinion on the industry, there have to be protections to protect people from unreasonable milestones but at the same time don’t punish me as an individual who wants to work harder or longer on something that I care about.”
The Next Stop
Kevin Alvarez: “What do you want to do after you graduate?”
Drew Credico: “Right now my next immediate step is to keep working on End of the Line. We have an office, we have a startup and we’re going to work on this game while we look for funding. I just want to make games. I want to go somewhere where I can find my niche and make the type of games that I love or work on other games while working on my own stuff.”
Christian Gayle: “I want to go to grad school for psychology and also have a decent-sized portfolio for creative writing and storytelling for games on the side.”
Kevin Alvarez: “Can you explain to me who owns the IP for End of the Line and does USC games have any say about the use of a game developed at campus?”
Drew Credico: “Great question! As part of the AGP development process, we were assigned two lawyers who helped work out a legal agreement. I, as the director, own the IP, and we were free to choose what to do with the game after the class was over. Taking your games beyond the classes you create them in is strongly recommended by the faculty. They have classes that help you set up a company, work through budgets, and etc. Now we are in our second week of full independent development while we seek funding to launch episode one.”
Kevin Alvarez: “What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in video games?”
Drew Credico: “You have to come in with a genuine passion for video games. You can have your favorite type of games but you need a passion for all sorts of games, playtesting, and making games. You can’t come in just looking for money, there is money and we’re all looking for money but that’s not all it is. Find a passion for games, look for the type of games you want to make and learn the ins and outs of that genre and go from there.”
Inspiration For Story?
Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the games that made you want to follow a career in video games or favorite games you’re currently playing?”
Drew Credico: “For this career, I’ve always said Metal Gear was my top game but I try to play as many games as possible to get a wide berth of knowledge. Metal Gear holds a special place in my heart because you could feel that someone made it. It wasn’t a game made from marketing buzzwords it was a game made with a vision. I also enjoyed Mass Effect 2 even though it was a corporate product, but it still had that charm and personality from passionate developers.”
Christian Gayle: “I love The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was one of the games that I held near and dear to my heart when I played it on a Gameboy Advance SP. I loved the story and lore of that game and I wanted to spend more time in that world and that gave me the spark to pursue creative writing in games.”
Kevin Alvarez: “Thank you for your time!”
End of the Line is an amazing game and one that I personally would love to play in the future if the team is able to secure funding. It looks good and the amount of writing and reiteration it went through in just under a year is outstanding considering that these students had so much on their plate.
It’s great to see that future game designers are still interested in narrative-driven games even though the industry is leaning farther into multiplayer eSports juggernauts. Making games is easier than ever and with indie darlings like Firewatch and Oxenfree, it’s clear that there’s an audience for good storytelling. I don’t know where End of the Line will end up in the future, but hopefully, these students will take what they have learned to create the next crop of inspired narrative games.
Be sure to check out my other interviews with the student developers behind Plasticity and Empath at USC Games Expo 2019. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out my interview with USC Games Chair Danny Bilson, Shades of Magic author V.E. Schwab, and Black Panther’s Quest voice actor James Mathis III. For more great interviews, reviews, editorials, and news stay tuned to CultureOfGaming.com, or check us out on OpenCritic.com.