A fear of advanced mathematics causes Nicholas DiMucci to question his childhood dream of becoming a video-game developer.
Chapter 1: Mathophobia
Written by David L. Craddock
Einstein + Mario
From a young age, Nicholas DiMucci had life all planned out. He would parlay his love of video games into a career designing the next smash hit, guaranteeing him a star on the walk of video-game fame next to names like Shigeru Miyamoto and Cliff Bleszinski. “I remember writing letters to DigiPen when I was in fifth grade—this was when they were in Canada—asking how I could get accepted there when the time came.”1
DigiPen Institute of Technology was the perfect training ground for aspiring developers like DiMucci. In 1990, the technical school entered into a partnership with Nintendo of America and offered a post-secondary program designed explicitly for teaching students how to program games. DiMucci and DigiPen seemed a match made in thumb-twiddling heaven. There was just one problem. “I had the completely wrong and stupid notion that you had to be a math genius to be successful, so that always scared me off,” he admitted.
Visions of nightmarish equations that filled up entire notebooks shook DiMucci’s confidence. The 3D games he played were grounded in equations used to render environments out of complex geometrical shapes, and physics that determined how players moved and the angle at which grenades bounced off of walls.
Convinced he was not cut out for game development, DiMucci shied away from computer science. He pinballed between several majors before settling on film studies at Mercy College in 2004. For a while, DiMucci believed he was on the right track. Between semesters, he attended a six-week workshop at New York Film Academy in 2007 where he wrote, produced, edited, and directed three short films. When he was not behind the camera, he acted in student projects. Reorienting his plans for the future, he set his sights on getting his undergrad degree and continuing his education at a prestigious film school.
DiMucci felt little excitement upon graduating in 2008. Instead, he felt stuck. His degree was not landing him any jobs, and the notion of paying thousands of dollars to attend film school suddenly lost its luster. He began to reconsider making games, but not as a programmer. Drawing on his background in film, he introduced himself to a team of amateur developers who wanted to create a pack of tailor-made levels, known as a modification, for Valve Corporation’s Half-Life 2 shooter on PC. Mods were typically released at no charge, but their makers could gain exposure if their mod became popular, potentially leading to employment offers from studios. DiMucci joined the team as a writer and designer. “I wrote the script, wrote dialog, journal entries, [and so forth]. I helped flesh out the initial idea. It’s actually a pretty good story that I’d love to visit again one day.”
Shortly after he joined, the team drifted apart. Some members lost enthusiasm, while others chose to pursue different projects and passions. Fortunately, there were other avenues into the games industry. DiMucci downloaded the Unreal Development Kit, a free toolset used to build levels for Epic’s Unreal series of first-person shooters, and started designing expansive maps for Unreal Tournament III. He instantly felt at home. Level designers stitched together maps by dragging and dropping modular elements such as terrain, monsters, weapons, and buildings assembled room by room — operations that could be performed without delving into trigonometry or physics.
For the first time, achieving his boyhood dream seemed plausible. Reinvigorated, DiMucci applied to The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, which offered a program dedicated to level design. The Guildhall accepted him, but he ended up turning them down. Moving to Texas seemed too big a step to take. A move to Connecticut, however, held much more potential.
“My then-girlfriend, Sarah—now fiancé—graduated shortly after me and got accepted to the University of New Haven in Connecticut, so I decided to follow her there and pursue a graduate degree in computer science. I had nothing to lose at that point, and felt learning to program would open a lot of doors, and it did.”
For DiMucci, who still worried that advanced mathematics would stand in the way of programming games, beginning a master’s program in computer science was like an acrophobiac conquering their fear of heights by signing up for a skydiving course. “I just decided to stop letting that fear prevent me from trying and came to realize that I would just have to work harder in order to be successful. Thankfully, I quickly learned that a lot of software development actually doesn’t involve much math.” He found his footing quickly and climbed the ranks even faster, gaining acceptance into an honor society that recognized students for their success in math and physics curriculums.
Still set on making games, DiMucci discovered GameMaker, a software package that allows anyone to drag-and-drop their way to fully functional games. GameMaker was versatile and simple to use, but no longer appealed to DiMucci. His fear of math was dwindling. He tackled linear algebra, geometry, and trigonometry with alacrity, accepting that game programmers needed a solid background in those subsets of mathematics. “To this day, I still struggle with certain topics, but I’m improving [as I face] problems I have to solve. Again, it’s probably just a matter of having to work more than the next game developer, but it’s what I have to do.”
As his skills ripened, he experimented with more advanced software. “I started delving into XNA [Microsoft’s suite of game development tools], which I used to develop my master’s project, Deep Space Dog, an endless side-scrolling space shooter starring my dog. It never really left the prototype stage, but looking back, I’m still proud that I was even able to piece something like that together.”
Nearing graduation, DiMucci got together with some of his classmates and talked about fashioning a clone of the popular Words with Friends mobile game. Unlike the original game, their clone would accommodate hundreds or even thousands of players simultaneously. The idea seemed a surefire way to strike it rich. They worked for six months until life took them in different directions.
DiMucci pressed on and received his master’s in computer science in 2011. Surprisingly, the first thing on his to-do list was not to shotgun his resume to game studios. He had heard horror stories about life at big studios like Activision and Electronic Arts: 100-hour- work weeks, low salaries, broken marriages, and mental breakdowns that sent developers fleeing to nine-to-five programming jobs that delivered a better salary-to-hours ratio. After a short stretch writing software for a medical company, he joined 3M in November and set to work writing user interfaces and software used by healthcare companies and government organizations.
Holding a day job did not mean making games was off the table. In April 2013, DiMucci joined Ludum Dare 26, a game-development sprint — known among participants as a game jam — where entrants attempt to cobble together a functional game in 48 hours or less.2 He drafted a proposal for a small game called Minimally Run n Gun. The concept was simple: what if Unreal Tournament, a fast-paced shooter, had been made for the primitive Atari 2600 console?
Displayed from an overhead view, Minimally Run n Gun was a retro-themed take on Unreal Tournament‘s popular capture-the-flag mode. A single player controlled a blue square using the W, A, S, and D keys, and fired bullets with the arrow keys. The goal was to maneuver across an arena rotten with obstacles and capture the red team’s flag while avoiding or shooting red squares. The player scored points by transporting the captured flag to his base.
Forty-eight hours did not give DiMucci quite enough time to create a full-featured capture-the-flag variant. The clock stopped before he was able to finish writing scripts that instructed the computer-controlled red squares to seek out the player’s flag, and the blue squares on the player’s team lacked the artificial intelligence needed to defend the flag and join the player in capturing the opposing team’s flag.
What DiMucci viewed as shortcomings ended up becoming a fun twist on the formula: the red squares focused solely on chasing the player, transforming Minimally Run n Gun into a compelling against-the-odds hunt where the player had to focus on capturing a flag while evading four red squares bent on his destruction.
Super Mario and Shotguns
DiMucci knew he had something special in Minimally Run n Gun. Deciding to build on its fast-paced gameplay, he pondered what would happen if he mixed shooter elements with platforming elements. “I remember playing the Mario Bros. battle game bundled with Super Mario Bros. 3 with some friends back in late 2011. I’ve always enjoyed competitive games like that, and I don’t recall there being many games like that at the time. So the idea of developing that type of game always sat in the back of my mind.”
The release of Mario Bros. in 1983 marked the debut of the world’s most famous plumber. Played from a side view, Mario Bros. took place on a single screen filled with platforms patrolled by enemies. To defeat them, Mario had to jump up and punch the platform directly beneath an enemy, flipping it onto its back and leaving it defenseless to stomps and kicks. A second player could join as Mario’s brother, Luigi, which added a competitive wrinkle. Players vied for points by eliminating enemies and collecting coins that rolled around the level.
DiMucci’s brain lit up. He envisioned merging the frantic shooting of Unreal Tournament with the competitive run-and-jump action of Mario Bros., but on a two-dimensional stage: sprawling levels littered with platforms, power-ups that granted special abilities, and up to four players firing weapons that shattered opponents into bloody chunks and splattered the surroundings with gore. Gameplay should be twitchy, like Unreal Tournament and other shooters of yore, which favored players with lightning-fast reflexes and pixel-perfect aim.
Unlike DiMucci’s favorite shooters, his new game would call for players to gather around the television rather than convene online from their separate computers. “I wanted this game to be experienced among friends in the same room, to deliver the same experience as when I was younger, when my friends and I played games like Goldeneye or the WCW/WWF wrestling games on Nintendo 64. There’s something special about playing against people who are actually next you, and not just ghosts over the wire. It’s always much more fun that way.”
Minimally Run n Gun played on the nostalgia of the Atari’s blocky, featureless visuals, but DiMucci wanted to bump up the aesthetics in his new game, which he took to calling Overtime, to evoke nostalgia for a different era of retro games. “I grew up playing pixelated, 2D games. From the NES to LucasArts adventure games, I find pixel art just gorgeous and awesome. Logistically, pixel art is cheap to create. That, combined with the fact that I have zero artistic skills—[pixel art was] really the only realistic option.”
Starting out, DiMucci lacked the funds to contract a professional artist, so he saddled himself with the responsibility of drawing characters and levels for Overtime. Then, on a whim in the summer of 2014, he posted a want ad on pixeljoint.com, a site where artists can share their portfolios and employers can post offers for artists looking to get paid. Kyle Nunery responded. A programmer who had founded his own startup, Burnout Studios, Nunery aspired to create art for games. DiMucci reviewed his work and decided he was just the artist for the job.
“Initially, he’ll be doing environmental art, creating tile sheets and environmental sprites for the level designs,” DiMucci explained. “I’m currently waiting for him to complete a first round of concept art for the cemetery themed levels. Eventually, I may have him redo the player characters as well. It’s all very new and fast, so I’m really hoping it all works out cause the pixel art has always been the game’s weakest aspect.”
Deciding on an 8-bit retro look for Overtime was an easier feat for DiMucci than settling on a theme. “The design of the game never sat right with me. At one point, the game was about mad scientists in the not-too-distant future hiring random volunteers to test crazy and dangerous prototype weapons. I actually did a lot of design and development work around that idea, but I just wasn’t happy with it.”
DiMucci spent the next several months testing and scrapping designs. In December 2013, he hit on a winner. “The mythology behind Christianity always fascinated me, and I’ve always been drawn to it, even though I’m not very religious. So making a game about demons, angels, priests, and death seemed like a natural fit with me, and I’m really enjoying running with it.”
By January 2014, he had fleshed out his lore enough to explain why players were running around shooting each other. Angels and demons have come to the mortal coil in search of souls that will tip the scales of the eternal war between Heaven and Hell in their favor. Players would control an angel, demon, or other entity such as a priest or reaper. Each character would enter battle equipped with a protective shield and a shotgun.
Fittingly, DiMucci renamed his game to Demons with Shotguns.
Preview for Chapter 2
As Demons with Shotguns takes shape, Nicholas DiMucci uses the game’s first public play test as an opportunity to gather feedback and address concerns.
Choose Your Destiny
“Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks” (Chapter 1 – 2)
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Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks is available as an eBook from Press Start Press, the publisher of Episodic Content. Purchasing the eBook edition of the story gets you:
- The unabridged story as published on Episodic Content
- Bonus chapters covering more behind-the-scenes anecdotes and exclusive interviews
1. I remember writing letters to DigiPen: Interview with Nick DiMucci. All quotes from Nick DiMucci come from interviews conducted from 2013-2015 via email.
2. In April 2013, DiMucci joined Ludlum Dare 26: “Ludlum Dare 26: April 26-29th, 2013.” Ludlum Dare. http://ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-26/?action=preview&uid=20275