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How Disney is making Star Wars: Commander better by letting its developers go wild

How Disney is making Star Wars: Commander better by letting its developers go wild

You might think that getting hacked is always a bad thing, but that’s not how the people who make games view it. And Disney Interactive’s Star Wars: Commander team are inviting everyone on the team to hack their game to make it more fun.

Over the last few days, everyone working on Star Wars: Commander set aside their typical work to partake in one of the company’s semi-regular hackathons. About once every four months, the studio asks everyone working on the game to come up with an idea that they want to try coding together in just a few days. The company then takes the best of those ideas and implements them into the final game. In fact, Star Wars: Commander, which is a defensive strategy game for mobile, probably wouldn’t have a basic feature like shield generators if it weren’t for a previous hackathon.

Star Wars: Commander is very important to Disney. Mobile games is an industry that will likely exceed $20 billion in revenues this year. Disney Interactive thinks that this game is its best bet to get a pick piece of that as the company actually removed some of its other apps from Google Play and the iOS App Store to focus all of its efforts on Commander. The hackathon is one of the ways that the company is working to keep Commander interesting and engaging for fans.

On Thursday, the team started working on a new set of ideas for the latest hackathon. Yesterday, the company picked the winners that could change the way you play the game. We’ll get to those in a bit, but we decided to catch up with Commander team to ask all about this development strategy.

“I like to do a hackathon about every three to six months on a game team,” Star Wars: Commander executive producer Nathan Etter told GamesBeat. “The idea is to let individuals on the team have the free time to work on any project of their choosing that impacts the game or the tools we use to make the game. We want to create something that would be nice for the fans or make our lives easier as developers of the game.”

About two weeks ago, Etter announced that the next hackathon was starting soon. That meant that everyone was supposed to start coming up with ideas for their projects. On Thursday, Etter said that he could already see 50 ideas on a spreadsheet the team was using for tracking.

“Then, at the kickoff, people present their ideas,” he said. “They can then recruit a team of people to go after their project.”

While a “hackathon” might sound like something for serious coders, Disney wants everyone participating in this event: artists, interface designers, the product team, and more.

“We see these self-organizing teams that come together across various disciplines,” said Etter. “For example, you will need engineers to write the code, but you may also need to artists to draw up the assets.”

After the teams coalesced Thursday, they spent the rest of the day working on their ideas. On Friday, no one does their regular job. Instead, everyone is all-in on their hackathon project. Those teams can continue working over the weekend if they want. Many do because only those projects that actually work have a chance of winning.

“Each team presents to the whole studio on Monday morning,” said Etter. “They get about 10 minutes to show off their idea. But it all has to be working software. We don’t look at slides. It all has to be something they built that’s either in the game or a tool.”

It’s all about the passion

In addition to Etter, we also spoke with Star Wars: Commander producer Eric Matsumura and engineering manager Adam “Bread” Slesinger (who led the shield-generators team). All three of them continually touched on the same word when explaining the hackathon: “passion.”

Whether one of the developers is coming up with their own idea or joining a team, everyone is supposed to work on the thing that they care the most about.

“People follow their passion,” said Etter. “We don’t put any management oversight into it at all. That makes it fun to watch. You’ll get a leader who says they need an artist, and you’ll see people raise their hand who are excited to work on it.”

Matsumura explained that the passion is what makes the hackathon so different from a typical day of work.

“These ideas don’t necessarily produce the same business results that would make sense in our standard development pipeline,” said Matsumura. “Usually, some of these ideas are really out there and crazy. We’re not sure we would want to commit to them. With the hackathon, we can see what could work and what couldn’t.”

“A great example is the project that Bread worked on: the shield-generator project. It’s a fixture in the game now,” Etter said. “You see it in the tutorial, and it’s a big part of the defensive structure for bases. But we weren’t sure how it would work with the rest of the game. It was an idea we considered as a possibility. It was on our schedule as something we might try. But Bread and his crew were passionate about, and they had a vision for how it would work. So they just went after it.”

Bread reiterated that himself.

“When it comes to the shield generators, we were super-passionate about that,” he said. “It is part of the Star Wars universe. It’s great. We gotta have ‘em. So when we went into the hackathon, we came up with a scope for the project that made sense. We wanted to implement shields during the hackathon that when we presented it, the judges would have to have a good argument for why they shouldn’t be in the game.”

That obviously worked out because now those shields are fundamental to the play experience. Games learn about them during the tutorial. The producers couldn’t think of any reason why those shield generators shouldn’t be in the game.

And that’s what a bunch of teams tried for over the last few days.

The winners of the latest hackathon

Yesterday, after working from Thursday and (in some cases) through the weekend, Disney’s hackathon teams presented their completed projects. Here are some of the things that fans of Star Wars: Commander might soon see in the live version of the app.

Best-in-show winner: Faction flipping
People’s choice winner: Traps

Faction-flipping is one idea that fans of Commander have asked the developer for. Right now, when you start the game for the first time, it asks you if you want to join the Rebels or Imperials. The game is different depending on which you choose, but you cannot switch to the other faction without completely restarting the game. Faction-flipping, the best-in-show winner, fixes that.

“This is a feature that enables players to create a secondary account to play and change factions,” a Disney spokesperson told GamesBeat. “This gives players the option to experience all of our exciting content from the other perspective without losing their progress on their original account.”

Traps is the other features that was the big winner. It earned the people’s choice, which means the entire studio voted for it and not just the panel of judges.

“Two separate teams focused on developing traps for the game,” Disney’s spokesperson said. “One team built a more typical traps system where they did three trap types. These included proximity starship strikes, vehicle-targeted mines, and a really cool Sarlacc pit that would swallow troops that came too close. The other team created a containment field trap that would trap units in tubes where the player could then sell/reuse captured troops.”

We’ll have to see if and when these new features make it into the game, but fans probably won’t have to wait very long.

Disney Interactive, one of the world’s largest creators of high-quality interactive entertainment across all platforms, is the part of The Walt Disney Company responsible for the global creation and delivery of interactive entertainm… read more »

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