Aquaducks was the first game that I’ve ever published and made publicly available, and is one that is still, to this day, one of my favorite projects. Taking inspiration from the shooting galleries of the late 1800’s, Aquaducks allows players to each use their own water balloon launching slingshot to send water to the cities of Utah, each represented by a “duck” with the city’s name emblazoned on its banner. The game featured five small touchscreens and a large projector screen, with the projector acting as the gallery and each player using a touchscreen “slingshot.”
In October 2011, The Entertainment Arts & Engineering Graduate Program was contacted by the Utah Natural History Museum to create a game utilizing a custom display in the water conservation area of the museum. (I know that’s a bit of a mouthful, but I’ve read it several times, and it’s as concise as I can put it.)
The museum was to open within a month, and two teams were challenged to build fun and interesting games that would focus on water conservation, as well as make unique use of the five touchscreens and large projector screen that made up the presentation display. Immediately, we went into brainstorm mode.
We threw around all kinds of different ideas, some good, some bad, most of them strange. We knew that we had a hard deadline of just four weeks, and so this project would require a lot of effort just to have a completed title, and so the game would of necessity have to be simple, fun, and easy to understand. As the design lead, my specific goal was to make this something that was just fun to play for any age.
The release trailer for Aquaducks.
After the brainstorm we didn’t have anything really locked down, so I insisted that we take a break for the night, and reconvene the next day.
That night, as I was still wrestling with the brainstorm session, I opened up a book called “The Imagineering Way” by The Imagineers of the Walk Disney company. I’d read it before, but the book gave me the idea to look into Disney parks, and more specifically into Disney presentations. While, of course, I knew that we had neither the time nor the resources that WDI has at their disposal, I was encouraged by their thought processes.
Growing up, I’d been to Disneyland dozens and dozens of times, and I especially enjoyed when they opened up the Innoventions attraction in the late 90’s. Thinking back through my experiences there, I pulled up a drawing pad and started sketching.
About ten minutes later, I had an idea on the page of a bunch of slingshots firing from the small touchscreens onto the big one, hitting “thirsty” cities by splashing them with water balloons. It was simple, it was crude, and it really didn’t have a whole lot of gameplay to it.
But it was awesome.
I presented the idea to the team the next day, showing them my sketches and asking about the feasibility of putting this together. We talked about the idea, talking about how water management would be handled, the possibility of even getting the computers to work together like this, (we’d not even seen the display yet, at this point), and finally the feasibility of our small team of five even pulling this off.
As I was putting together the presentation for that next week’s pitch, I scribbled out the name “Aquaducks” on my notepad, grinning a little at my wordplay. I shouted out to Christian and Pace the idea to use as a team name, and while they may not have been as excited as I was at the time, I was still quite giddy about the idea. I emblazoned it onto the presentation.
That next week, I had the opportunity to pitch the game to the museum’s approval board, and I was blown away by their positive response. They were not only excited about the project, but were actively offering ideas of things to implement into the game. They agreed that this would be a fun and engaging way to bring kids into the exhibit, especially considering that their other idea originally had been a “water conservation quiz” activity that kids had had a difficult time with.
With the pitch handled, and the client excited, the team went to work.
Pace, our lead engineer, hoped to create the game using ActionScript. Given the speed at which we needed to get the game put together, and realizing the technical limitations of a five-man team, he and I agreed that this would be the best choice that we had available. Within less than a week, we were able to put together a working network with the machine running the projector as an input-only “server” while the other five touchscreens would be utilized as “clients” that would send their information to the projector.
At that point, we started working on the delay, trying to balance out the speed of the balloons while attempting to compensate for the minor lag from one screen to the other, as well as the math involved as we tried to keep the illusion working properly.
Pace and Jorge spent hours crunching the numbers, doing a lot of geometry, and making sure that everything worked properly, working to make the system as easy-to-use as possible, having been informed that the techs running the display would best be served by a simple system. In the end, we had to provide some minor start-up instructions for the display, but everything seemed to come together quite well.
Our artists, Christian Munoz and Christine Olinquevitch, worked hard to put together a fun and quirky art style for us, creating some interesting balloons, slingshots, ducks and even an impressive midway-inspired backdrop.
As for my part, I filled in wherever I could, managing the team through Scrum, but we blew through tasks almost too fast to keep track. While I utilized Microsoft Project for this game, keeping track of our development timeline and completed tasks, the team was just on fire for this project, each of us putting in a lot of hours both during the day and often late into the night.
As we worked to make the cities represented well, Christian mentioned that we should just use something else as the targets. Initially, I’d planned out multiple targets, with large targets for large cities, with the targets getting smaller depending on the population. The problem was, we just didn’t have the time to put in that kind of complexity with the team and time that we had available. So, we started to cut.
Considering our team name, Christian suggested using ducks as targets and, with a glance at old shooting galleries, we agreed, and the name of the team became the name of the game. Aquaducks was born.
With the amount of work involved with the project, as well as the time-crunch that we were under, the client was understandably impressed by the product that we were able to create, as was I.
A special thanks to the Aquaducks team, as well as the EAE program and the Utah Natural History Museum, as I include a video of the museum techs playing with the game for the first time:
The tech support crew of the UNH Museum sneaking in some play time.