all photography by James Ledue
Nestled in Boston’s Fort Point district, between law offices and news organizations, around the corner from swanky hotels and posh steak houses, are the offices of a rising independent game developer. The fine folks of Gradient Studios are a small group of creative fish swimming in a deep sea of suits—both in the location of their office and their placement in the industry. Their game, co.llide, is poised to make a huge splash in the indie scene; it just needs a group of hungry sharks to chase it first.
In 2010, as you may not-so-fondly remember, our country was in the middle of a recession. Not many companies were hiring. Job prospects were, for all industries, grim across the board. With this in mind, three recent graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—Maxim “Mak” Mendelson, Michael “Z” Goddard, and Trevor Sayre—made their own jobs.
Gradient Studios was born in 2010. They dabbled in some iOS programming and contracted work, but nothing of notable acclaim came along. A few months passed and the three-person team picked up another member: Eric Li, also a graduate of Rensselaer. Another six months passed and they picked up another Rensselaer graduate: Andrew Dolce.
This allowed the small team to appropriately divvy up responsibilities and, with the help of some modest financial backing, start capitalizing on the ideas they, as creative types, wanted to capitalize on.
“Originally, it was supposed to be a racing game,” Dolce says. He catches my skeptical look—co.llide features fast moving spaceships, true, but racing isn’t the core part of the game—and adds, “I know. It’s weird.”
How did it go from being a racing game to the game it is today?
“Basically,” Mendelson chimes in, “everyone was tasked with coming up a dozen or so ideas to bring to [group meetings].” Mendelson, Dolce, and I sit in a spacious, well-lit conference room; the room these meetings must’ve occurred in; the room where the ideas that made the game we have now—a game currently in a free open alpha, by the way—likely came to fruition.
As it stands now, co.llide is a top-down, arena shooter, centered around spaceships. Each player controls a spaceship. Four people per match, rounds last five minutes. The combat revolves around shooting other players’ ships, with lasers and cannons and such, or, all eponymous-like, smashing into them. On impact, pieces fall off of each ship. It’s notably non-violent, though; less kill, more insentient objects being broken apart.
The really cool part about co.llide: you build your own ships. “Obviously, you could just have ships,” Mak explains. “We could provide players with ships that fall apart. But having people build their own ships really adds an entire layer over the combat system.” While there are stock ships, trust me when I say the full enjoyment comes from building—and eventually destroying—your own ship.
You build the ships Lego-style, which should cater to the inherent ‘90s soul that slumbers deep within all of us. Currently, there are thirty-six building blocks—called “modules,” in-game—to choose from. Mak, as Gradient’s art director, was in charge of designing and drawing these. He’s done it twice.
A few weeks before the second annual Boston Festival of Indie Games, an event held earlier this year, the team noticed something: all of the modules were too small. You couldn’t make out what they were supposed to be! At that month’s Boston Indies—a gathering of local Boston developers, where gamemakers share their games for feedback—fellow developers noticed it too.
Mak spotted it, and agreed to redraw them on a larger scale. He then sent it over to Dolce and Goddard, the team’s lead programmers, who then reassembled the modules in the code. By hand. All told, it took fourteen nights—many of them sleepless—for the team to redo the modules. They worked. Gradient was good to go.
Their BFIG booth was a success. They had a presented a pretty, easy to play game—and their booth featured four kick-ass, light up blue cube chairs—that catered to a “wider demographic than we expected,” Mak says. “Little kids really like it.” And adults! I mean, I’m an adult, and I really liked it.
The game went through a lot before it became so catchy, though. When they first started designing the game, it was all in 3D (this was back when it was still a racing game). “We had a feature where you could crash into another car and explode and all the pieces would fall off,” Andrew explains. “When we were done we realized, like, ‘You know? That’s the most fun part of the game right now.’”
They brought it to PAX East that year, 2012, and people seemed to like it. So they retooled the game around that. “We realized: there’s something about physics that a lot of people seem to like,” Dolce says.
“Angry Birds, for example,” Mak offers. “Throw the ball at … a bunch of blocks?”
Andrew nods. “It looked okay, but then we started thinking ahead, looked online.” The game ran too slow, and Gradient “ended up with a game that didn’t run anywhere close to a reasonable frame-rate.” Plus, the physics, on a 3D plane, just didn’t work. After some deliberation, they flattened it, turned it 2D.
A year and change later, they had one of the busier booths at BFIG 2013. All of this comes from a browser game made by five people—plus sound technician Cliff Anderson, who made a concerted effort on co.llide but isn’t technically part of Gradient.
It’s this that fascinates me: that a game, easily accessed by a few mouse clicks, can be so complex. Most studios, nowadays—particularly with looming console launches—are thinking big. Gradient, on the other hand, is thinking small; but that doesn’t mean they’re any less large. Being set in a browser, and programmed entirely in HTML5, opens a lot of doors; streamlines the process, but doesn’t diminish innovation.
“The browser, I think, is a really powerful tool,” Dolce explains. They picked HTML5 because “the toolset is [all] there.”
“It’s easy to share, it’s easy to play, it’s easy to join a game,” Mak says.
“We just put in a button that allows [the player] to Tweet, ‘Hey, I’m in a game,” Andrew adds. Interested players hit that button and they, too, will be in the game.
“The reason we’re pushing it to be a browser game, the reason we’re so excited about it, is because there’s such a low barrier to entry. Most people nowadays have a machine that can run our game.”
So, gamers, open your big shark jaws wide and chase this fish.