An Indie Tale – The Pomp and Circumstance Behind the Birth of High Class Kitsch

High Class Kitsch’s Pandora: Purge of Pride set to hit the indie scene

Student projects rarely rise to anything more than textbook demonstrations which serve only to prove that the students behind them were awake through at least most of their classes. For one group of recent graduates, however, their project has become more than a letter grade. We recently sat down with a well-coiffed Ryan Casey and a much more laid-back Mike Frankfort to discuss their team’s current project, Pandora: Purge of Pride, and their newly formed studio High Class Kitsch.

Like any student looking to graduate from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Mike Frankfort, Ryan Casey, Jill Sauer and Alex Thorton-Clark needed to develop and complete a Major Qualifying Project. The project must demonstrate the student’s aptitude in their chosen fields, and together they decided that Pandora would be the game to do just that.

Ryan and Alex had collaborated on numerous projects throughout their student careers. They knew that they worked well together and that they could each play off the other’s strengths. Jill and Mike had a similar relationship, even traveling overseas together to collaborate on a separate graduation requirement. In the spring of 2012 the duos merged to form a single team. It was their reputation for being driven and dedicated students that had brought the quartet together.

With the team assembled, it was time to cultivate a project. While they had some ideas on what kind of game they’d like to make, Pandora: Purge of Pride was largely defined by the things they didn’t want it to be. Ninjas, pirates, and zombies . . . these were common themes they wished to avoid. And because many student projects tend to present themselves as run-and-gun shooters, they wanted to explore a different type of gameplay.

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The team opted for a more cerebral approach. Exploring the rich history of Greek mythology, they chose to let the story of Pandora’s box guide their theme. Pandora’s seven deadly sins would provide an excellent framework for their narrative while also lending itself to the in-game mechanics. As for the game itself, they would seek to craft an experience accessible to a wider audience. The result was a puzzle platforming experience that would draw inspiration from the likes of Portal and Quantum Conundrum.

With their game beginning to take shape, the team got to work. Rather than locking themselves in a room to pound out lines of code elbow-to-elbow, the team took a more individualized approach. Each team member would work on his or her respective job in whichever environment best suited their particular tastes; coming together once or twice a week to compile their work and offer feedback and direction.

“Part of that collaborative effort,” Ryan explained, “Is knowing and trusting each other enough that we know we can each do our own parts well. We didn’t need to constantly be right next to each other to know it will get done.”

With periodic reviews from their two advisers further serving to bring the project together, Pandora took shape. By the first quarter of 2013, the game was nearing its final stages. Yet these final months would prove to be some of the most hectic, with events such as MassDigi, the Made in MA showcase, and PAX East hogging much of the calendar.

Prior to the start of the year, builds of Pandora had been mostly limited to audiences consisting of friends, fellow students, and professors. Suddenly, the team was required to show the game off to industry professionals, media, and the general public at some of the year’s biggest events.

It was a trial by fire that the team took in full stride. With features being added just days before showings were to take place, the team managed to produce solid builds of their game while avoiding the types of disasters that tend to plague hands-on demos. Ryan particularly thrived among the chaos, feeding off the crowds’ energy while weaving what his team described as nothing short of “PR Magic.”

These events served to gain publicity for Pandora, which took home numerous awards, but also became a critical source of feedback for a team that had now taken on the name High Class Kitsch.

“Play-testing is really important,” admitted Mike. For a team intimately familiar with their own project, it can be difficult to see the game through the player’s eyes. After the demonstrations, the team realized they lacked a tutorial. They also gutted part of the first level to make it an easier transition for the player, eliminated some interface ambiguity, and addressed countless bugs.

Perhaps the most important lesson they learned was the importance of clear player feedback, or what Ryan described as “crunchy” gameplay. When the player acts, there needs to be some kind of reaction to actions, both visually and audibly. It’s about clearly conveying a sense of action to the player.

Interacting with industry professionals also gave the team a better understanding of how to present their game to publishers and, perhaps more importantly, to the gamers themselves.

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On May 11, 2013 — a sunny but breezy Saturday morning — Jill, Ryan, Alex, and Mike completed their journey as students when they participated in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s commencement ceremony.

Ryan and Mike look back on the past year with a clear sense of reverence.

“There’s nothing in the world like starting from and idea, developing that idea, making it into a game, and then getting it out there for people to actually play,” Ryan enthusiastically noted when asked about the experience.

Mike added, “They teach you tons of stuff in school, but until you apply it, it doesn’t reach its full fruition. We had advisers guiding us, but for the most part, it was us laying out the entire project.”

“It’s given us tons of knowledge, particularly towards developing future games.”

Ryan credits the project with helping the team tackle most of the legwork required to start an indie studio — They learned they can work together as a team, and that their individual talents mesh to form a well-rounded studio. Their work with advisers has taught them how to seek outside contacts and investors. And ultimately, they learned they can put together a complete game.

Pandora’s journey is not quite finished. Over the last few months, High Class Kitsch has been working with the considerable talent in and around Boston’s game development scene while gearing up for their game’s launch. They are also running a Kickstarter campaign that, at the time of writing, is over 50% funded with about two weeks left to go.

Pandora: Purge of Pride is aiming for release on PC through various channels this June.

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