Michael Makivic: College Student by Day VR Game Developer by Night

Michael Makivic

Are you a tired college student who has no time to achieve personal goals because you have too much schoolwork?  Well guess what, you really are as pathetic as you sound. No but seriously, why is it that some college students can’t manage their academics let alone other endeavors, while there are others that can balance academics, internships and personal goals? Maybe it comes down to genetics, or perhaps just shear will? It’s hard to say. However, I got to talk with Michael Makivic who is not only a college student but is also the founder of a VR and Game Development Club at his university, and he is also in the development process of his own indie game. Plus he has art skills that would make Michelangelo cry.

Michael is currently working on a multi-level base defense game. The main character is a medieval peasant who has been abandoned by the king’s army and is the sole defender of his town. Now you may be thinking what kind of enemy would cause the King’s army to abandon their post…Zombies. That’s right, Medieval Zombies! This game is going to take the Black Plague to a whole new level.

If killing crazy medieval zombies didn’t sound enticing enough imagine playing it in VR. However, the game is still deep in development. Even so Michael took some time to talk with me about his upcoming project.

 

So Michael can you give me a little bit of a background of your current situation, Are you in college? Are you working? Do you have any prior experience in the gaming industry?

I am actually a college student; I’m going to be a senior in the fall now. I don’t actually have any formal experience in the gaming industry besides some freelance jobs for other indie devs.

 

I saw that you are currently working on an endless runner game? Can you tell me a little about what sparked the idea for this project?

Oh yeah that endless runner was from about a year ago (laughing) that was just like something I was working on and I never really went through with it. I have a new project now. The new one has been what most of my Twitter posts have been about recently. Actually it probably looks similar to the endless runner because I like a lot of zombies and skulls and stuff (laughing).

Yeah, yeah that’s why I thought it was the same game – Ellie

Haha yeah I can see the confusion, also I never formally announced I was working on a game or anything so I just kind of post stuff I’m doing. But this new one is pretty much [Inspired from when] I got into VR last year. I kind of wanted to make a fun game that’s also kind of creepy that would work in VR and can also work on Steam without a VR headset.

I’m kind of designing it around just as a PC based game with VR as an add on. Yeah so anyone with a HTC can use it if they want to. But it’s pretty simple. It’s just a kind of point defense game. If you ever played the flash game the Last Stand, I know that was pretty popular a little while ago. It was really fun I played in middle school, and I really liked it. That was a flash game and this is a full 3D on unreal engine.

That game was just like you defend a barricade against zombies and then between rounds you go and purchase new weapons and build barricades, blah blah blah, you kind of just do things between rounds. So this is kind of a similar game where your character is a medieval peasant and the king’s army has abandoned your town. And you basically have to defend your town from zombies. (laughing) I’m building the story as I go through the game too.

I started messing around with the projectile physics in the engine and then I decided it would make a cool fun game. The friends and family I have shown it to have been really responsive so I’m guessing that’s a good sign.

So you’re like a lone warrior in the game? – Ellie

Yeah basically you’re just a peasant with a bow. Its very skill based there’s no heads up display there’s no cross hairs you kind of just have to learn what the trajectory is. And you get game points based on how far and accurate the shot was. So that’s kind of how it started out but then I started adding new weapons and new zombies with different abilities.

Again I didn’t really have a game plan when I started it so now I’m trying to (laughing) add more things and hopefully finish the game design document stuff, and get other game dev friends on the project too.

Michael Makivic

 

Now personally I have no experience on the development side of games, so how is it different creating a VR game compared to a 2D or 3D game.

Yeah so making VR games um… I’ve never play a 2D VR game, I’m not really sure how that would work, but I haven’t made a lot of 2D games either. But for 3D at least, there’s is a lot more you have to take into account with the processing power especially because basically when you have a 360 field of view, the computer has to render a lot more than if you are staring at just a 2D screen.

Basically you have to lower the graphics pretty much for a headset. And that can be done just by lowering the normal setting. But if you are building your game around VR it’s very important to keep in mind the processing capabilities of the computer and the target system. That means lower polygon counts on the models, lower texture resolutions, less fancy animations, less detailed particle effects.

So yeah that’s the main thing I keep in mind for VR games, there are some other things you got to keep in mind. Where the player is going to be looking, how things are going to work, how the player is going to turn around.

You can’t really turn around in a headset because there’s wires and stuff (laughing) You can’t do a 360 degree turn so you have to think about how the player is going to be turning around will it be with the controller? or will they player have to press a button to whip around 180 degrees? That’s kind of what you have to think about, but for the most part for 3D games [compared to VR] it’s pretty similar.

 

Your using Unreal Engine for the development correct?

Yeah – Michael

 

Did you pick Unreal specifically because you were developing a VR game? What brought you to go with unreal?

I’ve kind of just used Unreal Engine ever since I got into game development. I knew the big contenders were Unity and Unreal Engine. My older friend told me about Unreal Engine and to check it out, and I got really use to it. I think it’s really stable, it looks really pretty too. I’ve done stuff in unity too; I’ve free-lanced in Unity and made some small projects. But it never really caught on with me,

I think the Unreal Engine is just much nicer. And in terms of VR it has a lot of built in libraries and stuff, so I don’t have to do a lot of special programing or anything. I can pretty much just package it and send it to the headset and its done. It’s quite convenient, and I’m sure Unity has libraries too I just like it better on Unreal Engine.

 

Do you have a timeframe at this point of when you want to complete this game?

So yeah I’ve been getting more formal, because people have been asking me that. And I’ve gotten other requests. So I’ve kind of said that I want this to be put on Greenlight by the end of this month or by mid September. And that would mean that I would have and actually hopefully playable demo with some kind of UI. Also some kind of AI too.

I’ve been working a lot of the AI…you see usually I build these projects with my programmer friend who has been busy this summer. So hopefully I can get him on board very soon, because he is a master with AI. So hopefully before mid-September I’ll have a demo and something on Greenlight that people can try out.

 

I saw that you founded a Virtual Reality and Game development club at your university, what kind of stuff are you guys focusing on in that club?

That’s an interesting story. The club started last fall actually, We initialy started as the Virtual reality club because I was involved in some VR architecture visualizations for my university. My friend and I we basically built this virtual museum at Brandies University. It’s a real museum but we recreated a virtual exhibit in 3D in Unreal Engine.

That was pretty cool and a lot of people got excited over that and said you should make a club for that. And we were like “Okay” so we made a VR club. But the thing is when we made it a lot of the gear wasn’t even out yet. Like the Oculus we only have a DK2. There was no consumer version of anything out yet. There was no HTC Vive. There was like Google cardboard. But we pretty much since then decided we don’t have to do stuff with VR necessarily we can do stuff in Unity and Unreal engine because you can still build stuff without the headset and still build while keeping a VR platform in mind.

So much of the year we kind of just spent working on game development, and that’s when the endless runner was being developed, it was with people from that club that I did that. And then we worked on another thing. We wanted to create a small open world survival game. We got actually really far with that but that was too big of a scope for us. It was pretty cool but we just couldn’t finish it. There was too much to do, which is why I’m kind of working on this smaller title now so this is a lot more manageable, you know its just shooting zombies (laughing)

And you know VR is a nice addition to that. But having one or two people on your team you really have to think about the scope of your project and it might seem at first that you can do this but…you know.

Things get out of hand kind of quickly – Ellie

Yeah probably a lot of Indies have experienced with that. But anyways for the club we just worked on a bunch of game development stuff and towards the spring a lot of the headsets came and we got a lot of money from the university to buy a bunch of them so that was really nice. So now this fall when we restart we are going to have a lot of gear a lot of hardware. A lot of good software too. We are hoping to do a lot of exciting stuff with that.

Michael Makivic

I saw you had written an article about VR. I just wanted to ask you outside the gaming industry do you think the potential of VR is being underestimated in other bigger industries, that they are not really taking it as a serious thing?

On the contrary, I think a lot of industries specifically are excited about it. In the article I talked about how there’s a lot of military and medical applications for the technology. I think its actually reached companies before its reached consumers really; because of the price tag and of course things like the accessibility of it. Most people have trouble using a browser much less using virtual reality. You know, it might seem easy to us because we’re all tech savvy but a vast majority of people are pretty detached from technology.

I think a lot of companies are utilizing it right now. I think it will reach consumers the more phone based headsets become more available. Like I said I think it keeps a niche in gaming because gamers spend money on their gear and hardware. Like the HTC Vive is $800 you know no one is going to drop 800$ for browsing Facebook. You know what I’m saying?

Hahaha yeah exactly – Ellie

Actually another product that I am working on…I got contacted by a start up here locally that was doing stuff with VR. They said we have no experience with VR but we think it would help with our research; they have some researchers from MIT. Basically they said they Googled VR Boston and my name came up I guess so they contacted me, and so now I’m kind of working with them to develop a VR app for their research. So companies are actually jumping on the train.

Michael Makivic

 

 Last Question, You are balancing your college career and game development on the side. I think that there are many college students who want to get involved in some aspect of game development but feel like it will take away from their academic progress. What sort of skills and management do you use to stay on track with both your major and your game development?

Right, that’s a good question. My other major is computer science [He is studying both Economics and Computer Science] so it kind of relates to it, but more of the hardcore game development stuff doesn’t transfer over to computer science. You know a lot of the game development stuff is pretty detached from what I do academically.

But what I would say is that Game development to me isn’t really work. It’s more like leisure (laughing) But sometimes it does turn in to work and intense frustration when there’s bugs and nothing is working, and your project is stalled or whatever it turns into a lot of frustration and stuff. But most of the time I finish my work and come home, and just start developing I find it as enjoyable as playing games.

I think that’s extremely important that if you want to be a game developer, especially when you have another day job or you’re in college. You really have to look at it like not work. In general it’s easy to get started especially with these free engines like Unreal Engine and Unity anyone can download them and there are so many tutorials online. Like I said, I never formally took a course in game development, 3D modeling or animations. It was all-just on YouTube, Google and forums.

 

Killing Zombies as a medieval peasants sounds fun, but I have to be honest. I think the VR aspect will be too much for me; I’m a total wuss when it comes to scary games. I have trouble as it is playing a scary game on a 2D screen. I can’t imagine a 360 view of zombies rushing me with weapons. I would much rather watch someone else get scared senseless while playing with a VR headset on. Now that would be fun. If you want to stay up to date with Michael’s game development progress, be sure to follow him on Twitter.

According to my license I’m an adult… I think that means I can perform a citizen’s arrest now. When I’m not protecting civilians I enjoy indulging in sci-fi or martial art movies. I play videogames when I can’t fall asleep, and if that doesn't work I fistfight the ghosts in my basement. Nice to meet you.

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