Plasticity started as an ambitious student project with an environmental message, brought to life by the game’s director Aimee Zhang and a team of 30. We reviewed Plasticity recently (available here) and Aimee has kindly agreed to talk to us about the process of taking the game from concept to completion.
How long have you been developing games and what made you decide to get into the industry?
I have been developing games for 4 years now. I recently got my BA from the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Game Design program. It was there when I decided I wanted to make games for a lifetime. During my time in school, I’ve created AR, VR, PC, tabletop, and mobile games and worked at a few indie games studios to create interactive experiences.
When I discovered how immersive and emotionally powerful games can be, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything else but make games! I really believe games are a vehicle for empathy. Games are a great platform to make people aware of problems in the world, without making people feel preached to or alienated because as the player you learn things for yourself rather than being a passive viewer. There is the saying, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” When someone plays a game, they are actually wearing the shoes, interacting with new systems and concepts. It’s an incredible medium not only for immersive entertainment but for empathy and learning.
How did Plasticity come about? Why did you create it and what was your inspiration?
I created the initial game concept with Michelle Olson, the lead designer of Plasticity, for a class project in one of our game design courses at USC. We were deeply inspired by papers published by National Geographic that tracked the amount of plastic dumped in our oceans: 8 million tons every single year. We were influenced by the imagery used in films like Wall-E and were moved by moments from Miyazaki films such as the bike scene from Spirited Away and the baby ohmu scene from Nausicaa.
We created this game because we wanted to bring attention to how single-use plastics are damaging our ecosystems, and we wanted to inspire others to care about animals and the environment. Plasticity realizes a world in which plastic consumption never ended. Players will see and play through a destroyed world. The game shows how all life, not just the environment, will be affected by this problem. But it also shows the importance and value of what we are fighting to sustain, and the game shows what a sustainable world that we care for looks like.
How many people worked on Plasticity with you and what was the process like?
I am so grateful to have my team. I got the opportunity to work with the most phenomenal group of 30 students from the USC Games program and USC Environmental Studies department. In total, we developed the project for 9 months, taking it through one of the games program’s capstone classes. We had a limited time to create the game, so development had to be organized and the direction needed to be efficient and clear. Design, code, audio, and art were rapidly iterated and tested over the course of the project. We worked incredibly hard and there were many sleepless nights working together in our shared lab space. To get to showcase the game at E3 at the IndieCade booth, and to see the game get positive reviews on Steam from around the world, is so surreal. We are all deeply humbled and feel rewarded for our hard work.
Over the course of the year, we got the chance to test the game with students from various primary and secondary schools in the US and Canada. It was really wonderful to see kids learn from and enjoy Plasticity! Continuously testing the game and iterating on the aesthetics, mechanics, and dynamics helped improve the experience drastically.
Were there any major setbacks along the way that you didn’t anticipate?
The project was very ambitious for a student project with less than a year of development time. Our goal was to create a full 30-40 minute, polished experience that we could share with others online for free. We developed the game while juggling attending school full time and working part-time jobs. Organizing such a large team was very difficult, but everyone on Plasticity was so passionate about game development and about bringing awareness to the plastic problem, that development often went smoothly.
Plasticity has an environmental theme and clearly has an intended message. What were you trying to say and are you happy with how this comes across in the game?
Mankind dumps more than 8 million tons of plastic in the ocean each year. This affects animals, environments, and entire communities of people. My team and I were deeply moved by this reality and were driven to create a game that could address this issue. We wanted to make a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience- a game that could inspire others to care about animals and be introspective about their own relationship to plastic. Plasticity repeats, “Even when all hope seems lost, it’s never too late to make a difference.” The intention behind that line is we want players to understand that even if they’d made unsustainable choices in their lives, and even if environmental issues sometimes seem inert to change, it is never too late to make a positive change in your life. We want everyone to be open to sustainability and feel empowered for self-improvement.
If you were to repeat the process of making Plasticity, is there anything you would do differently?
Plasticity is in no ways perfect. Originally when my team leads and I were dreaming about what the game could be, the scope of the game was even larger. We created plans for a 3-hour experience but due to the constraints of building the game within a class with only 9 months of development time, we had to scope down. Molding the game’s story, design, and aesthetics together after downscaling the game was a challenging experience, but my team and I learned so much from it. It was late in development when Michelle and I realized the limitations of creating a single-player platformer about sustainability. We believe sustainability is all about group effort, and although we tried to emphasize the importance of inspiring and working with others to make positive differences with the beach cleanup scene in Plasticity, we realized making a cooperative experience or using a different genre of play may be more effective in reaching the design goals we had.
What about Plasticity are you most proud of and why?
I am so proud of my plasticiteam. We learned so much working on this project; how to take a digital game from concept to completion, how to design for a game with a social impact, how to build a believable and immersive world, how to develop usable systems and tools for a game, and how to tell a story in an interactive medium. I’m grateful to my whole team and I’m so proud of my leads- Michelle Olson, James Collins, Timothi Lim, Zi Woythaler, Justin Lu, Alejandro Villero, and Dalton Chancellor. Without them, it would have been impossible to guide a team of 30 and put this game out on Steam. I think where the game succeeds is in the world building, visual storytelling, and animal encounter design, and the whole team had a part in that.
I really enjoyed Plasticity and am looking forward to seeing what you do next – do you have plans to make any more games?
Thank you so much! My team and I have a huge passion for creating games that make the world a better place. We’re hoping to create more games together that are fun and inspire social change. Although many of us still need to graduate college, you can expect more games from us in the future!
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