From Pittsburgh to Pixelopus: CMU grads are at the core of Sony's newest gaming studio


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On a scorching June evening, thousands of video game fans and reporters packed the seats of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena for Sony’s 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo presentation -- the announcement of what video games would be rolled out the coming year.

Opposite of the bustling crowd behind the massive stage of PlayStation logos stood a small group of recent college graduates who were excited for a different reason. These young developers were about to to introduce their first creation to the world.

Sony’s newest game studio, Pixelopus, was announced that day. The San Mateo, Calif.-based studio is made up of 13 developers, six of whom are 2013 graduates from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. The team took the stage in front of thousands and an additional hundreds of thousands watching online to unveil their new game for the PlayStation 4, “Entwined.”

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft save their biggest announcements and show their highest quality products at the annual show in Los Angeles. Jitesh Mulchandani, an engineer at Pixelopus and CMU graduate, struggled to find the words to describe what presenting on that stage was like.

It was crazy because we had never experienced that in front of such a large audience,” Mr. Mulchandani said. “We had only shown it to our colleagues or team members. Just to show our game on that massive stage was amazing and overwhelming. It was just awesome. I can’t come up with another word.”

“Entwined” was released that same day. In the game, players control a bird and a fish who fall in love but cannot be together due to their different environments. Players must guide the two characters through mystical stages of art and music, bringing them closer together. The project grew from a prototype built in 2013 by CMU graduates and Pixelopus engineer Eric Zhang and designer Jing Li.

The three additional CMU grads on the team are engineer Nagarjuna Harisena and artists Ashwin Kumar and Haewon Nam.

The project grew from the prototype stage under the tutelage of creative director Dominic Robilliard, art director Jeff Sangalli and executive producer Alex Lee. These three industry veterans individually worked on popular games such as “Crazy Taxi 2,” the “2K” sports series and the Pixar film “Toy Story 2.” What started as little more than a school project quickly grew into a full-fledged release on one of gaming’s largest platforms.‘

Going back about two years, we starting working with Carnegie Mellon‘‍s ETC, looking at ways that we could encourage small development and learn about new and intuitive production processes,” Mr. Lee said. “We had a great time, and we chose to extend that into sort of an internship co-op program, which rapidly became Pixelopus.”

But the work doesn’t stop now that “Entwined” is in the public’s hands on the PS4. The team is wrapping up versions for the PS3 and PS Vita handheld system, which are due in July. Shortly after the work for those platforms is complete, the game will get a release for iOS and Android mobile devices.

The creation comes not only from the exceptional talent of the developers but also the close-knit bonds that are made from working as a small team. Many team members are still roommates.

“We have a totally flat hierarchy on the team,” Mr. Robilliard said. “The opportunity with a small team is to have true collaboration. We really wanted to make sure that [‘‍Entwined’‍] was a shared vision. ... Every decision is a conversation, and it really feels like everyone has a joint ownership over this product. I think that’s something that can only truly happen in a small team.”

Engineer Eric Zhang also enjoyed the hands-on feel of working with a small team.

“I really appreciate that part, where you feel like the project is your baby,” Mr. Zhang said. “You contributed everything to it. It feels great.”

Max Parker is The Game Guy at communityvoices.sites.post-gazette.com. Twitter: @GameGuyPGH.


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