Time for a Change

USP Software

USP Software logo

I got a phone call out of the blue from someone called Adam Caplan.  He told me that he was calling from a company called USP Recruitment, and was interested in developing a game.  It was a very confusing conversation. Why on earth would a recruitment company want to create games? I arranged to go and see him the following day, at his offices in north London.

However, he did have a recruitment company - two of them in fact.  He also had a training company (USP Training), and a software company (USP Software), which had created a website allowing companies to create courses to train new employees.  He'd also created a mathematics course for teachers, was about to create a version for children, and thought it would be a good idea to 'gamify' it.

He just wanted to do something simple, which would run on a website, so I went home and knocked up a quick concept for him.

Adam had mentioned that he quite liked the world screen in between the levels in the Mario games, so that's what I ran with.

I thought it would be a simple web job, knock up something simple, and he'd be happy.  So I started a couple of days later.

The office was a nightmare to work in.  Everyone was crammed into one room.  Adam and the sales guy were on the phone all day, while at the other end of the room, recruiters would be on the phone all day.  I was stuck in the middle, and couldn't hear myself think.

I managed to come up with a bit more than the initial demo (right).  It was now an isometric game, in which you could wander around a pseudo 3D world, unlocking doors, solving puzzles, and now and again you'd come across an instructional video, and accompanying quizzes.  All well and good.


One day, Adam had a brainwave.  Why not create a proper 3D game, where the player could wander around solving puzzles and doing math quizzes.  We'd set it in all the important time periods (as far as mathematics is concerned).  Over a few weeks this concept expanded into a sci-fi epic, involving time-travelling aliens stealing mathematicians from across the ages, and the player had to rescue them by passing math tests.

It would be called Mathatar (I know. Terrible name).

This kind of game would normally take a large team of programmers, and a whole slew of artists, quite a long time to create.

But there was just myself and Ruben, a 2D artist from Nektan that I'd managed to persuade to join me (He did the graphics for BoogieMan, shown elsewhere).

I decided to use Unity to develop the game, because of its excellent device support, and the fact that it used C# - a language I'd used a lot of before and was comfortable with.  Also, I'd had quite a lot of experience of the engine in previous jobs.

A minor inconvenience was that Ruben was a 2D artist, not a 3D artist.  He'd never touched a 3D package before. I got hold of a demo of Cinema4D and left him to it.  His first attempts were as admirable as they were interesting.  One day, he presented me with a 3D model of a simple door which had, inexplicably, 100,000 polygons in it.  We needed an expert.  Luckily I found Simon, a superb modeller, who made it his personal goal to teach Ruben 3D graphics.  Just a few months later, Ruben was up there with the best. 

We came up with a couple of levels fairly quickly.  Ruben worked on the Space 'Hub', and Simon on the 'Ancient Egypt' world.

I love Unity, but it became obvious that it couldn't handle the sheer size of the levels that the guys were creating.  They were building vast cityscapes, which could handle any eventuality.  Adam wouldn't employ a game designer, so we were really fumbling in the dark, and with no clear vision of how the game would work.  What vision he had would change almost daily.

Unity's lack of speed in the lighting department, and constant nagging by Simon, resulted in me reluctantly abandoning Unity, and moving to Unreal Engine 4.  This was far more capable at handling large environments, and the visual quality was much better.

While this was great for the artists, it was a problem for me. I had a lot of code written in Unity that was now useless.

We all persevered, I learned Blueprint (I didn't have time to learn the C++ API), and we got something reasonable working again within a month or two.  It still wasn't as advanced as the Unity version, but we were getting there.

Microsoft were now involved, and we had a couple more artists, and a proper professional games designer to cope with the load (still just me programming though).

The future looked pretty good.  We were under the impression that Microsoft would be funding us, and we could get more staff, etc.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. Funding ran out, and Mathatar was put on indefinite hold -effectively another redundancy.

It's such a shame.  I'd really enjoyed working on the game, and it could have done very well for all of us