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From Tag to Portal 2: One Game Team’s Success Story

RTIS graduates Tejeev Kohli, Brett English, Pongthep “Bank” Charnchaichujit, and Ted Rivera had a “wish list” for their time at DigiPen: “Make a sweet game, win at IGF, and get hired by Valve,” in English’s words. For most student developers, accomplishing one of those items would be a tremendous achievement – but these DigiPen all-stars managed to hit all three.

From Tag to Portal 2It all started at DigiPen’s annual Career Day, where students present their projects to visiting game developers. The team already had their “sweet game,” a 3D platformer called Tag: The Power of Paint in which players travel through an urban landscape by “tagging” surfaces with magical paint, and they were demoing it to recruiters. That’s where they ran into Robin Walker from Bellevue-based Valve Software. “He played the whole game, and while he played it he kept asking us questions about our process and how we worked on the game,” Kohli says. “It was essentially an interview with us, but a very informal one.”

A month later, the team flew down to San Francisco for the Independent Games Festival, where they checked the second item off their list:Tag won the honor of Best Game in the festival’s Student Showcase. “That’s when the Valve guys got back to us and said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to work at Valve?'” Kohli says. They didn’t need to be asked twice.

The team’s first project at Valve was an unusual one. “It was just the four of us in our own office, and we were told, ‘Make Tag in the Source Engine,'” says Kohli. (The Source Engine is Valve’s proprietary game development framework.) “So we essentially re-wrote all the stuff fromTag – the painting and the paint gun – and made a few levels so that people in the company could try it and then assess what to do with the technology.”

"We took it as a 'sink or swim' situation – being thrown into the deep end."

Around the same time they finished their tech demo, the “paint guys,” as they came to be known within the company, found a new opportunity: playtesting Portal 2, the sequel to Valve’s 2007 blockbuster that was itself based on the work of a DigiPen game team. “At that point, which was maybe two months into our jobs, we were deciding what to do with the paint technology,” Kohli says. “We had a bunch of options, and one of them was ‘let’s incorporate this into Portal.'”

The transition wasn’t completely smooth. “It took a little while for us to convince the Portal team that it was worth experimenting with,” says Rivera. And even after they found allies willing to take up their cause, they discovered certain elements of Tag simply didn’t translate into their new setting. “The feedback we got was that adding a second gun to Portal would complicate things a bit too much,” Kohli says. Likewise, Tag‘s “stick paint,” which allowed players to walk on walls and ceilings, was deemed too disorienting for the game’s already complex puzzles.

But it wasn’t long before the entire Portal 2 team was coming up with their own ideas for how to incorporate the Tag team’s paint technology into their game. “That’s when it really cemented itself as a core part of Portal 2,” Kohli says.

At that point, Kohli, English, Charnchaichujit, and Rivera were assigned to separate teams within the greater Portal 2 group. Charnchaichujit jumped into the main programming team towork on the game’s core features. English helped write code for a redesigned camera that was more intuitive for players. And all four of the “paint guys” helped design new and unique obstacles for players to overcome.

They couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. “The first few months there, we were very much on our own, and that was scary,” says Kohli. “We took it as a ‘sink or swim’ situation – being thrown into the deep end.” But by trusting in their abilities and working as a team, they didn’t just finish their checklist – they helped create one of the best games of 2011.