The Creative Collaboration Behind Plunder Panic

Imagine living during a time when pirates ruled the high seas— battling enemy ships, plundering treasure and avoiding Davy Jones's Locker. Last summer, a group of two faculty and 10 students worked together to develop a game in ComArtSci’s Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab to bring this idea to life. The result was Plunder Panic, a multiplayer arcade game based on the swashbuckling lives of pirates.

The Game’s Success

Despite a small budget and a major time crunch, the game debuted at the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) in July and won the Audience Choice Award at IndieCade last week.

“IndieCade is one of the largest and most prestigious independent game festivals in the world,” said Brian Winn, Director of the GEL Lab and executive producer and co-lead designer of the game. “Winning the Audience Choice Award in particular is especially exciting, as we built Plunder Panic to entertain our players. Having the festival audience choose our game over the 100+ other titles at the festival is an extreme honor.”

Jeremy Gibson Bond, a professor of practice in the Department of Media and Information, has served as IndieCade’s Chair of Education and Advancement for four years and was responsible for encouraging MSU’s sponsorship of IndieCade.

“It’s like winning audience choice at Sundance,” Bond said. “Over 1,000 games are submitted every year, with about 175 games shown at IndieCade, and the audience award went to us out of all of those. It really shows the quality of work that can happen in our department as a collaboration between faculty and students.”


The Inspiration Behind the Arcade-Style Fantasy

Plunder Panic was inspired in part by nostalgia— nothing quite compares to the simple joy of spending a Saturday playing video games with friends.

“A lot of us grew up with games like Super Smash Brothers, playing in arcades and on couches,” said William Jeffery, academic specialist and instructor, who served as a producer and co-lead designer for the game. “We missed that and we wanted to create an experience where people could play a game together.”

Jerod Pennington, a Media and Information senior who served as a designer for the game, believes it was a smash hit with the audience because of its easy-to-understand concept and simple, two-button controller that resembles an old Nintendo controller. He said the pixel-style art was another reason, because it was reminiscent of console and arcade games from the late 80s and early 90s, which served to pull in a broader audience.

The Program

The performance of games at festivals like IndieCade impact rankings for the Princeton Review, where MSU placed 10th in the world and number one in the Big Ten last year. Bond believes Plunder Panic’s win will have a positive effect on rankings and pay dividends to the school for years to come.

“Our program has been doing a fantastic job at training people and getting them to know what they need to know, but we’ve always been a bit quiet about it,” Bond said. “This speaks very loudly for when we go to talk to prospective students and recruiters.”

While the GEL Lab often focuses on creating educational games, Plunder Panic was a chance to show off faculty and students’ talent in creating a game that was simply for entertainment. Jeffery hopes that the award at IndieCade will lead to more recognition for work that comes out of the GEL Lab. 

“I did my undergraduate and graduate years at MSU and I've been through the game design program,” Jeffery said. “It’s a really cool experience to have that recognition and to have so many people come by your booth and enjoy playing [the game] so much. While we were at IndieCade, we played over 30 hours of our game and we didn’t get sick of it. We totally believe in it and we think it could go farther.”

According to Pennington, minoring in game design is often quite challenging because it utilizes project-based learning and quick deadlines, forcing students to work together and put in the time. 

“This means meeting up outside of class two to three times a week depending on how soon the project is due and working with your team members to get stuff done, Pennington said. “With many game projects, you only have a few weeks to complete a finished product from start to finish, so it takes dedication, hard work and commitment to make a great game. But when you do, the result is awesome— you have something cool to show to others and a sense of accomplishment.”

The Next Steps

According to Jeffery, this is only the first stop on Plunder Panic’s voyage.

“We are not done with the project,”  Jeffery said. “We are looking for funding and continuing to develop the game. The ultimate goal is to not only put this game in a game cabinet in venues like bars and the lobby of ComArtSci, but to also look for ways to distribute it online. There’s more plundering to be done!”

By Rianna N. Middleton