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May 25, 2023

Spartans are serious players in the video game industry

MSU game development professor leads independent video game studio and talent pipeline


Brian Winn is a co-founder of Will Winn Games and game development professor at MSU.

When Brian Winn was 10 years old, his family bought its first computer. Along with the brand-new Apple II, Winn received another surprise from his dad: a book on BASIC, the common programming language at the time.

Thanks to the book, Winn developed an interest in game design. By age 12, he created his first computer game. Winn later studied computer science at the University of Minnesota and pursued a career in game design.

Now, Winn helps aspiring and early-career game designers and developers hone their skills as a professor in Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, which boasts a top-ten ranked program nationally in video and computer game design, according to the Princeton Review. He is also co-founder and president of Will Winn Games, an independent game studio based in East Lansing and supported by MSU Technologies, a group that works with faculty and staff to bring technologies and copyrightable materials into the commercial market.

“We noticed a growing number of schools starting commercial studios as pipelines for their students. Once a student graduates, often it’s hard to get that first job, even if they’re very skilled coming out of school,” Winn said. “We wanted to help students and recent graduates get their first professional experience in the gaming industry.”

Setting sail

The studio was founded with the purpose of bringing to life some of the faculty and student passion projects created in the MSU Games for Entertainment and Learning, or GEL, Lab, which Winn directs. One such project is “Plunder Panic,” Will Winn Games’ first release.

"'Plunder Panic’ is a swashbuckling arcade action game with an indie appeal, retro aesthetic and innovative take on a multiplayer experience,” said Winn.

In “Plunder Panic,” up to 12 players are placed on two teams. The teams work together to win in one of four ways: plunder gold and bring it back to your ship, defeat the enemy captain and take over their ship, or sink the enemy ship by either filling it with three cannonball holes or rowing a dinghy full of explosives to its hull.

Sparty plays “Plunder Panic” with a group of children during the game’s launch event at the MSU Innovation Center in September 2022.

The game made its debut at the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival as the centerpiece of an interactive media showcase hosted by the GEL Lab. At that time, “Plunder Panic” was a prototype with a customized physical playing experience: a rum barrel with a mast in the middle and two mounted TVs — one for each team — on either side.

"'Plunder Panic’ did what we hoped it would do at the Traverse City Film Festival: it drummed up a lot of excitement. People came to the gallery where it was located and kept coming back,” Winn said. “After the showcase, we were like, ‘Hey, this was a big success, now what do we do with this game?’”

Winn and his team continued to refine “Plunder Panic” and submitted it to festivals recognizing independent, or indie, games. “Plunder Panic” won the 2017 Audience Choice Award at IndieCade, a Los Angeles festival dubbed the “Sundance of independent games.” It was an official selection of the 2018 Indie MegaBooth, a traveling independent games showcase, and a two-time award winner at PAX East (2018 and 2022), a large annual video game conference in Boston. Winn and his team also won runner up in a “Shark Tank”-style video game pitch competition at 2018 South by Southwest.

“We won a lot of awards along the way and realized that we had something unique that we and other players wanted to play,” Winn said. “So, we decided to bring it to market through the vehicle of Will Winn Games.”

Leveling up opportunities

Will Winn Games formed around the time the COVID-19 pandemic began. The team faced an immediate challenge: The original version of “Plunder Panic” was designed to be played locally, meaning all the players had to be in the same location. At the time, in-person gatherings were limited to a certain number of people, which meant the game needed to be retooled to succeed in the market.

“We wanted to keep the community aspect of our original game, but we also needed to support internet multiplayer options and allow players in different locations to connect and play the game together,” Winn said.

“Plunder Panic” now supports up to 12 players in different locations, as well as computer/AI players. It is available on eight platforms, including Xbox, PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch. It also supports crossplay — a rarity in gaming. This means, for example, a player on Xbox can play with a player using Playstation.

“It’s very rare for an indie studio to start up from scratch and make a game available on as many platforms as we did and also offer crossplay,” Winn said. “I’m proud we were able to accomplish both.”

This achievement is especially noteworthy, as Will Winn Games operates with a small team. This means everyone plays a critical role in product development and rollout.

“You're not a cog in the machine of hundreds, if not thousands, of people,” Winn said. “On my team, everybody has a big impact, and everybody has to wear multiple hats as they’re working on the game.”

Tatum Cho, former lead artist at Will Winn Games, said working for an indie company creates more opportunities for collaboration and impact. Cho now works as a digital graphics artist illustrating special edition covers and inlays for books.

“I really like how interpersonal Will Winn is and how you can offer a hand in or have a say in a lot of things that aren’t your direct, immediate task,” she said. “If I was at a bigger company and on art team of 100 people, I probably wouldn’t have had a lot of say on some of the elements of the game outside of the visual identity. But at Will Winn, I had a say in every aspect of ‘Plunder Panic.’”

Cho graduated from MSU in 2020 with a major in media and information and minors in game design, graphic design, comic books and graphic novels. As a student, she helped design the splash screens for “Plunder Panic.” Splash screens are logos and graphic elements that pop up before you start playing a video game.

“I thought the splash screen illustrations were the only things I was going to do for ‘Plunder Panic,’” she said. “When the pandemic hit, the team planned to make it so that the game didn’t require a bunch of people in the same room together, and they decided they wanted to grow it a little bit more. That’s when Brian reached out and brought me on to the Will Winn staff full time.”

“Hard fun”

During Cho’s time at MSU, she had Winn as a professor and worked for him in the GEL Lab. She said working for Winn in her first professional job was a natural transition.

“He’s been doing game development for a long time, so he understands the process. He’s patient and involved. He often wants to give feedback, which I appreciate; I always want to hear feedback on anything I do to know how to be better,” Cho said. “Brian always made us feel appreciated and that what we do is good work. At Will Winn Games, I was part of a team making a fun project together — and he made sure we were able to enjoy and learn from it.”

“I like to tell my students ‘Making games is hard fun,’” Winn said. “It’s very gratifying to see something that you’ve created be enjoyed out in the world and maybe have an impact on the world.”

Cho said working at Will Winn Games was a rewarding experience.

“I still care about the people that I worked with and the game we’ve created,” she said. “It has been cool to be part of the process of turning ‘Plunder Panic’ from just a local game to a local and online game. I really want it to succeed.”

Winn said seeing current and former students thrive in the gaming industry inspires him.

“As a professor at MSU, one of my core jobs is to educate the next generation of game designers and game developers going out in the industry. It’s gratifying for me to see them start as a freshman, flow through our program, graduate and get careers out in the industry – at Will Winn Games or elsewhere – and then be working on the types of games that I’m playing at home with my kids.”

By: Alex Tekip and Deon Foster

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