For the past six months that they've been developing their first-ever video game, the Big Super Happy Fun Fun team knew pretty much from the get-go that their hometown of New Orleans needed to play a major part in it.
This vibrant city - synonymous with multicultural food, music and architecture - shows up in the team's hand-drawn rhythm game, Colin's Crunchy Beets, through signature dishes, original music from a local band and in landmarks as the main character battles his way to victory.
The game is still under development, but its progress in becoming a reality at all is a testament to Xbox Game Studios Game Camp New Orleans - Powered by Unity, an experience that ran from Sept. 28 to March 25 that engaged 170 people over the age of 18 throughout Louisiana and organized them into 17 teams (the program paired about a third of the people together from different disciplines). Some teams pre-existed or were created prior to applying.
For Jon Broder, a New Orleans-based playwright and producer who's played video games, but never knew how to build them, it's been a revelation to work as the narrative designer for Colin's Crunchy Beets.
'Thousands of people in the South do not ever get the opportunity to do this kind of thing,' says Broder, who lives in the French Quarter, where the ubiquitous presence of buskers influenced the feel of the game. 'By placing it here, it opened a floodgate of opportunities for people. I also want to say that the visibility of equity and diversity in the presenters and the people involved in the program in the meetings is really great to see in the South.'
'Game Camp's foundation is based on the belief that extraordinary talent resides everywhere,' says Peter Zetterberg, a senior director for Xbox Game Studios. He started the first game camp in his native Sweden several years ago, which would serve as a prototype for the New Orleans iteration. As in the previous camp, this one sought to inject structure, resources and connections to the gaming industry in places where that infrastructure wasn't as developed as in major gaming epicenters. 'If we provide the tools, the access and encouragement to people from any walks of life, they will shine and become empowered to change the trajectory of their lives.'
Working with Team Xbox's head of human resources, Sharman Mailloux Sosa, it was also important to Zetterberg that this camp draw from a diverse pool of folks often under-represented in the industry: women and people from various racial, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
'We had several initiatives at the time that intended to bring more people of color, specifically Black folks, into the gaming industry,' says Melissa Boone, a senior Xbox research manager who formerly led a group at Microsoft called Blacks at Xbox and is a spokesperson for the camp. 'Peter approached me after hearing me speak about this and asked, what can we do to increase diversity in the industry?'
After Zetterberg told her about the Swedish Game Camp, Boone realized that was an idea they could easily import to the U.S. New Orleans bubbled to the top of the list of potential locales due to its distinct culture, an abundance of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and the recent addition of an office for inXile - a company that falls under Xbox Game Studios - to the Big Easy. And when schools and studios in the area started circulating information about this camp, the Xbox team realized they had tapped into a burgeoning game development scene eager for opportunities to connect and grow.
This was a scene that Chris Douglas, born and raised in New Orleans, knew well.
A graduate of a Xavier, an HBC, and a former esports competitive player, he was Microsoft's lead program manager for this camp.
'I've always done a lot of local work with gaming, giving kids of color a place where they can have solace and then also see someone else that looks like them,' says Douglas. 'I'm trying to help the community locally here get into gaming and even more specifically help their parents understand why it's important. It's not just people playing games all day. It's a $200 billion industry.'
Although he had played basketball at the prestigious all-boys school he attended, he knew early on he wanted to do something else with his life.
'Everyone was pushing you towards like sports or towards medicine and away from like gaming,' he says. 'So I would tell them ever since I was 12 years old, I wanted to work for Microsoft and I wanted to be in gaming specifically.'
Game Camp was supposed to commence in the spring of 2020, but it underwent a hiatus and a pivot when it became clear that the pandemic would shut down in-person meetings. It emerged in the fall of 2020 as remote-only, using Microsoft Teams to connect campers to each other, as well as to help them participate in weekly panels, discussions and mentoring with game industry veterans as they built and presented a game over about six months, concluding at the end of March. They learned about the nuts and bolts of development, as well as the business side of the industry: analytics, marketing and user research.
In February, the teams presented pitches of their games in progress to a trio of judges: Shannon Loftis (studio head of World's Edge Studio Microsoft), Chris Charla (senior director of content & curation at Microsoft) and Ken Lobb (creative director at Xbox Game Studios). The trio came in with decades of experience in the gaming industry. It resembled reality show competitions, but with helpful and constructive feedback.
'We weren't going to let COVID stop us from being helpful to others, when this was needed more than ever before,' says Zetterberg. 'Of all companies in the world, we can do this.'
Unity, Adobe and Autodesk contributed to the camp by giving away free licenses of their software development kits and middleware. LinkedIn also chipped in, donating six months of free Premium subscriptions to all campers.
Ultimately, beyond the pandemic - which affected some campers directly - the teams also had to contend with several hurricanes and power outages. Participating teams also shifted over time, with some people unable to stay until the end. But they, like New Orleans, remained resolute in their journey toward bringing their games to life.