Sunday, September 26, 2021

New East Lansing game studio set to release MSU's first licensed video game

July 12, 2021
<p>The arcade version of Plunder Panic, located within the game design and development studio in the Communications Arts and Sciences Building, was photographed on July 8, 2021.</p>

The arcade version of Plunder Panic, located within the game design and development studio in the Communications Arts and Sciences Building, was photographed on July 8, 2021.

Photo by Jared Ramsey | The State News

The newly formed East Lansing-based video game studio, Will Winn Games Inc., is set to release Michigan State’s first-ever commercially licensed video game in early 2022, Plunder Panic. 

Plunder Panic’s development began within Michigan State’s game design and development program as a passion project for students and professors alike, according to Professor and co-founder of Will Winn Games, Brian Winn.

The game experienced a lot of success early on in its development at gaming expositions, winning the 2017 IndieCade audience choice award and being the official selection of the Indie Mega Booth at Pax East 2018. 

“A lot of our early success is measured there, where we had this product that wasn't released and not even full of advertising and marketing,” co-founder and 2012 game design and development graduate Will Jeffery said. “It was mostly grassroots but it was still gaining traction and building a community of players who really love the game, wanted to buy it, and that's what necessitated us creating Will Winn Games as we needed to find a legit avenue to get this game out there for people to play it.”

Will Winn Games partnered with MSU Innovations to help the game have a successful commercial launch. The CEO of the studio, Matt Rudd, is from Spartan Innovations and is working on the business side of things to increase the audience for the game and set it up to do well on the open market. 

Plunder Panic is an arcade-style game of 12 players that pits two pirate crews of six against each other trying to destroy the other team’s ship. The game is a blend of classic 90s style art and fast-paced action that is common in lots of games released recently.

“It's a game that is kind of a blend of classic and modern games, where it's retro graphics that look like a Super Nintendo game and really simple controls,” Jeffery said. “So just running and jumping and picking things up, that's about it. But it's this fast-paced, kind of frantic arcade action. So there's lots of players on the screen and lots of things happening and you're shouting and yelping to your team.”

Jeffery said that their goal during development was to be able to create a game that is simple to understand and begin playing for people of all ages but has enough of a skill gap that people can develop strategy and master the game as well. 

“What we're trying to make is something that has this low barrier of entry that young kids can play and older adults can play and maybe it'll remind adults of games that they used to play on the Nintendo or Super Nintendo but kids just see it as a fun thing that they could understand,” Jeffery said. “And one of the greatest strengths I think of it is when we bring it to an expo, you'll have like a four-year-old playing, and maybe they're with their grandparents, and they're both enjoying it, and they both get it.”

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The original intent was for it to be a local multiplayer game to be played with 12 people in the same room around the same console but the studio switched its focus to online capabilities for Plunder Panic when the pandemic forced everyone to be isolated. 

“We had to do a big pivot,” Winn said. “The original game was a local multiplayer game, up to 12 players, and it didn't make sense to launch a local multiplayer game in the middle of the pandemic. So we basically have hired up a team of, counting ourselves, there's 10 of us now involved in the company, mostly MSU alumni. And we've recreated the game as a fully online multiplayer game. It still supports local, so local and online multiplayer.”

The planned release date for the game is set for early 2022, Winn said, and will be released on all platforms immediately to try to bring in as many players as possible to have a successful commercial launch. 

“We're certainly trying to cover our bases too with all the platforms right?” Jeffery said. “It's not just on one. Give yourself the best shot that you can, releasing it across PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PC, all those things. And we're even working on a mobile version for later next year to further tap into the casual market.”

The ultimate goal, Winn said, was to develop an indie game that reaches the same level of success and popularity as Among Us did last year during the pandemic. 

“Among Us was this little indie game that came out in 2018 that very few people knew about and played, and then, of course, it just totally took off during 2020 with the pandemic...,” Winn said. “So our hope is that we could tie into fans of this sort of game, tie into casual gamers and (hard)core gamers that are wanting to play together to kind of have this shared experience and we think we have a game that really hits all those things.”

Will Winn Games has not set an official release date but is planning to release it in the fall and have a launch event on campus depending on the status of the pandemic at that time. 

“Overall, we're hoping that not only will this be successful out in the world at large but it's going to be successful at home as well,” Winn said. “So we're hoping to really tie into that Spartan nation.”

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Jeffery and Winn said that the studio has had conversations about the future after the release of Plunder Panic but has not decided on a direction quite yet. They said they are focused on making sure that Plunder Panic is set up to be successful when it is released and will determine what to do next depending on its success at launch. 

“There's certainly plans that can change depending on how well Plunder does, you know, whether it's DLC or a sequel for the game, or then something that's a new IP entirely that we wouldn't disclose quite yet,” Jeffery said. “But we're really trying to figure out what the studio stands for, what our specialty is, and right now, we think that it's making these sort of innovative, multiplayer games that are built for anybody to play.”

The only certainty that Winn and Jeffery provided about the future after Plunder Panic is that Will Winn Games will continue to work with MSU and its game design and development program moving forward.  They want to keep talent from MSU’s program in the area and provide them with jobs out of school. 

Michigan State has the seventh-ranked game design program in the country and the number one ranked program of any public university, according to Princeton Review. However, there are a limited number of game studios in the Midwest, forcing students to leave to the West Coast to find a job after graduating. 

“We saw it as an opportunity so that we could help provide that first launching pad for students who we also help teach at MSU,” Jeffery said. “And Brian (Winn) being a professor there right now, it definitely helps scratch that mentorship and education itch that we have where we're teaching students how to do it, and then giving them the opportunity to meet where the rubber meets the road. Like a prove-it moment where we can identify talent and then give them that opportunity to help us get that game out there and give them some experience.”

Plunder Panic has a Discord and Twitter that will have updates about the game's upcoming launch.

Editor's Note: The article was updated to say that Plunder Panic will be released in 2022 and that Co-Founder Will Jeffery finished his undergraduate degree from MSU in 2012.

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