Following the exciting news that the Sumo Digital Academy’s first commercial release - Zool Redimensioned - is coming to Steam on August 18th, Trainee Programmer Owen Lyons shares his experience of being part of the inaugural Sumo Digital Academy cohort.
"As a Computer Science graduate from the University of Sheffield, I had a slightly different entry point to Sumo Digital Academy compared to other interns. At first, I was brought into the Academy for a three-month internship to develop my C++ skills. Although I’d shipped games in Unity for a local ed-tech company, I was struggling to get interviews for Junior Programmer positions at AAA game studios due to my lack of experience with C++. Like many other Computer Science courses in the UK, my University use a variety of languages on their course, but the focus is very much on Java and Python. This, unfortunately, can make it difficult for Computer Science students to enter the AAA games industry when compared to graduates from other courses who will have less overall programming experience but may have studied C++ before applying.
"On my first day at the academy, Jacob Habgood [Director of Education Partnerships at Sumo Group] gave me the materials from a tutorial book he had written for Game Maker and asked me to try and implement the example project from the book in C++ -- a 2D platformer demo that used assets from Zool. Despite the game being originally released on the Amiga in 1992, I had heard of Zool before as it was developed by Sumo Digital’s spiritual ancestor, Gremlin Graphics (later Gremlin Interactive). I’d used Game Maker a fair bit as a teenager and had a lot of fun translating the Game Maker implementation into C++ and even putting my own spin on some of the movement mechanics. Development progressed rapidly, and after a couple of months, Jacob showed it to Ian Stewart (the founder of Gremlin). Following this, my contract was extended to 12 months and I was tasked with leading development on a full remake of the original game.
"While I had a lot of fun developing the prototype, serious development on the game didn’t really begin until the other Academy interns started to work full time on the project. Until this point, we’d all been using the PlayBuffer framework that Jacob had given us. This used a software renderer, which was useful for learning and being able to easily understand what was going on but heavily restricted the performance of the game. This necessitated the development of a new engine for the game that would use DirectX (which we dubbed “Nth Dimension Engine” or NDEngine for short). Peter [Dawson] and Tom [Wintle] worked under the direction of Dave Moore on developing the backend for the new engine and implementing the rendering pipeline, while Emma [Rogers] worked on font and XInput support as well as programming the brand new, high-resolution front end. Rob [Funnell] was responsible for the audio functionality and updating the level loading pipeline, so instead of relying on the 30-year-old DOS level editor, we could load in level files after modifying them in a modern, open-source editor instead. Once Rob had the keys to editing the levels there was no stopping him. He continually tweaked and refined the levels to reduce some of the more dated design choices made in the original game while still maintaining their feel and style. George Allan (the original creator and programmer of Zool) even agreed that he had improved the levels by bringing them up to more modern standards.
"During the middle of development, each intern took responsibility for implementing the enemy behaviours and boss battles for different worlds in the game. I worked on worlds 1, 2 and 6 (Sweet, Music and Funfair themed) while Peter, Rob, Emma, and Tom worked on worlds 3, 4, 5 and 7 (Fruit, Tool, Toy and Sand) respectively. During this stage of development, there was a healthy sense of competition within the group, as someone’s work on a particular enemy or boss would often inspire other members of the team to become even more ambitious with their designs and build on top of the mechanics of the original game. Rob did a fantastic job on the boss for the Tool world, turning what was once a straightforward showdown into a cinematic rollercoaster complete with walls-closing-in-tension and a fake-out ending. This impressed everyone so much that we became a bit worried that it made some of the other bosses seem a little simple in comparison. Fortunately, Tom took up the challenge and upped the ante even further on his boss for the final world of the game by utilising remixed art assets, weather effects and even short cutscenes.
"About nine months into the placement, about 90% of the game was working but we hit an unexpected (but positive) hurdle: Rob, Peter, Emma and Tom all got 3-month placements on other development teams within Sumo Sheffield. At this point, Secret Mode were supporting the release of Zool on Steam, so someone needed to stay in the Academy and get the project finished in time for release day. I saw the opportunity to apply for a Gameplay Programmer role at Sumo Sheffield to see if I could sort something out for myself after the release of Zool. Unlike my applications prior to my internship at the academy, I received an email back offering me an interview for this position.
"Since then, I’ve been joined by Atikah [Hussain], Bradley [Tully] and Sandesh [Somani] - three new interns who are helping with the final push on Zool. Sandesh is an artist (the first in the Academy) who’s been helping to overhaul some of the graphics with gorgeous new hand-drawn places like the Level Result screen, while Atikah is a second-year Mathematics student who is interested in a career in the games industry. Based on how quickly she’s picked up C++ so far, I think she’d be a great fit. She’s been working alongside Bradley, an HNC student who came to Sumo from NextGen Skills Academy on a work placement. Together, they’ve been implementing the bonus levels for the game (a Gradius-like, 2D side-scrolling shooter) which are shaping up nicely. I think it’s fantastic that even though neither of them had done any C++ before Summer 2021, they’ll have programming credits on a commercial release by the end of August!
"In other news, my interview went really well and I’ve been offered a Junior Programmer position working on LSU which I can’t wait to start in September! Zool Redimensioned might not have been the project I expected to work on as my first commercial release, and definitely not the project I would have come up with myself, but I think we all learned a huge amount from working on it and bonded massively as a development team. Gremlin’s “interstellar cosmos dweller” may not have turned out to be “Bad News for Hedgehogs” in the end, but I think he’ll always have a special place in the hearts of everyone in the Academy who’s worked on the project over the past year."
The Sumo Academy is currently preparing to open applications for its second year of interns - due to start in January 2022 - to create more fantastic games and develop the next generation of game development talent. More information can be found here.