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Polished Platforming and Detailed Level Design Carries Guardian of the Gears to E3

Guardian of the Gears, a senior game project from Studio 76, is an elegantly simple game. Using only a few 3D platforming mechanics, the game’s detailed levels — dominated by large rotating gears, moving pathways, and intriguing architecture — provide a satisfying and immersive play experience. The game recently had the honor of being nominated as one of five finalists to the E3 College Game Competition, which was held last month at E3 in Los Angeles.

In the game, players take on the role of a small, plucky robot who resides in a large, clockwork machine that is, as the game’s trailer puts it, “the beating heart of the universe” and the source of all life and energy. As the guardian of this life-giving clockwork, you have to navigate your way through two complex levels before facing off against a nefarious entity that is trying to usurp those precious gears.

Navigating these levels highlights the fact that they are the game’s primary showcase. The dynamic set-piece environments, which immediately capture the player’s attention on a visual level, are complemented by sweeping camera movements that guide players effortlessly through the world.

“From the beginning, what we wanted was a game where you could move lots of things around,” says Kaden Nugent, the team’s technical producer. “A moving environment was our big thing. We had a lot of iterations on the game design, but that’s always been what our focus is.”

“We don’t do hand-holding, but we keep it simple.”

As for the player character’s interaction with that dynamic environment, other than hopping and running around in it, it’s pretty much limited to your standard video game “use” key, which typically causes the robot hero to brandish his trusty wrench.

“We ended up just using the wrench as a motif, like, ‘Okay, he’s a fixer guy,’” says Roland O’Campo, one of the game’s character artists. “But he just whacks things with it. It’s comedic effect.”

Using the robot’s wrench triggers a funny and satisfying animation, but it’s also functional.

“We only have two ways to interact with the environment. The first way is to hit the gear switches with your wrench and the second way is to plug in the batteries,” Kaden says. “That’s it, that’s all [you] do.”

The batteries he’s referring to form the basis of the game’s puzzles mechanics, as they fit into various ports found through the levels. The batteries must be moved between those ports to shift stairways, slide open gates, align gears, and so on. Matching the right batteries to the right ports and figuring out the correct sequence of actions is the key to moving forward.

“There are hinges on the environment. It’s a very small, minute detail, but the hinges and the gears actually interact together to make the environment move. It’s not like these are just floating pieces. It’s mechanically accurate.”

The clever design of the levels makes way for some excellent puzzles with multiple solutions, while still retaining the game’s remarkably simple and straightforward learning curve.

“We don’t do hand-holding, but we keep it simple,” Kaden says, noting that the team was able to use things like scripted camera movements to guide the player toward the correct solutions and emphasize the next step in their progress. So while there’s no text or dialogue telling the player what to do, they never have to feel mystified or lost while playing.

Beyond the terrific level design, however, the game’s creators say there was a lot of effort that went into making those levels as seamless and visually appealing as they are.

“All the moving objects are one giant system, where you can say, ‘Hey, I want this gear to move this,’” says Juli Gregg, the game’s technical director.

The objects have carefully linked action sequences that even work in reverse, she says. Being able to make a staircase rise in a satisfying and believable way is crucial to the gameplay, but given the nature of many of the game’s puzzles, making it go back down smoothly is equally important. A lot of detailed programming work went into making sure that the gears and platforms move fluidly, but Juli and Kaden both were quick to praise the artists’ contribution as well, noting it was no small feat to make sure the gears looked like real gears when they moved.

“When you hit a switch, giant things move. We always tried to get that action-to-reaction stuff.”

“Our environment artist spent a lot of time making sure the gears turn in a way that makes logical sense,” Kaden says. “There are hinges on the environment. It’s a very small, minute detail, but the hinges and the gears actually interact together to make the environment move. It’s not like these are just floating pieces. It’s mechanically accurate.”

Much of the game’s look, they note, is inspired by Hob, an upcoming action adventure game from Runic Games. That game, Kaden says, is chock full of the same kind of stone, wood, and ancient machines that feature prominently in Guardian of the Gears.

“We really enjoyed the play style of puzzles, things going into things to make things work,” Roland explains. “When you hit a switch, giant things move. We always tried to get that action-to-reaction stuff.”

As much as they drew inspiration from Hob, the Studio 76 team nevertheless made sure to create a distinct look and feel for Guardians of the Gears, which they accomplished through the use of rich and rusty textures, pared-down gameplay, and close attention to detail.

When the levels shift and move you can almost feel it, thanks in part to the superb sound design, which works to create the convincing sensation of huge, rumbling gears making their rotation. The game even makes use of floating dust particles to give the 3D environments an extra layer of liveliness.

“In a windier area, where you hear the wind, you’ll see them move more,” Juli says. “On the first level there’s a little whirlwind in a corner. The player also kicks up dust when he runs around.”

“We all wanted to make a cool portfolio piece. And every year we’ve been getting better and better and closer and closer, so we just found the people who were like, ‘Yeah I want to dedicate my time to it.’”

The audio, she adds, was every bit as detailed, thanks to the work of sound designer Spencer Mauro.

“You go in this corner and you hear mosquitos,” she says, “You go over here and it’s a different wind sound. He has a whole system that we helped him set up so that we could have the areas be affected by sound.”

According to Juli, it’s all a testament to the amount of time the team invested into polishing up the entire game experience during the final stages of development. Taken together, the detailed art, active environments, and dynamic sound all do wonders to support and enhance the game’s satisfyingly simple mechanics. That overall integration is what made Guardian of the Gears the school’s selection for submission to the E3 College Game Competition.

The game’s selection was also a great end to the team’s DigiPen career. All 11 members had some previous connection, either as friends or from previous game teams, and came together with the same goal in mind.

“We all wanted to make a cool portfolio piece. And every year we’ve been getting better and better and closer and closer, so we just found the people who were like, ‘Yeah I want to dedicate my time to it,’” Juli says.

Clearly, that dedication paid off!

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Guardian of the Gears is available to download from the DigiPen Game Gallery. The game is also part of VALA Eastside’s Art of Game Design exhibit, viewable at the VALA Art Center in Redmond through July 30, 2017. For more information, visit http://valaeastside.org/.