Sitting in a theatre at the University of Calgary with no windows, a local programmer plugged away on his keyboard developing a game. The night before, he sat at a coffee shop thinking of what he wanted to make, and the day after, he would be putting the finishing touches on a complete game at home.

This was in the summer of 2014, and it was the first version of Semispheres that Radu Muresan would eventually release this year on PlayStation – the first Calgary-made game to do so.  

 Back in September, he repeated the landmark for another console, releasing on the Nintendo Switch. The release surpassed previous launch sales on the PS4 and PC’s Steam combined, and he now has plans to release on the PS Vita and Xbox One.

 Semispheres is a puzzle game that was first created two years ago during a game jam, a global event in which game developers are given a theme and they must complete a working game by the end of the weekend. By then, all the local participants play each other’s games and offer feedback. This is where Muresan heard his game was a clever and novel idea.

 “You’d be surprised at some of the games that come out of there,” says Muresan. “They’re not finished, they’re not polished, but it’s a lot easier to get started making games. To finish something, that’s still very difficult.”

 He shelved an early version for a few months to finish other work, but he knew he could work out the bugs and make it intuitive. He wanted to make something fresh, and he wanted to finish it.

 “I know if you go to Hollywood and ask people about their screenplays, everybody’s going to be like, ‘I have one and I haven’t finished it.’ It’s the same in the gaming space. A lot of people are working on games and they never end up releasing them in any way.”

 The Romanian-born programmer had previous experience making mobile kids games, but he had never attempted something so big. Initially self-taught, Muresan’s affinity for programming hadn’t quite put him in the position to do what he always wanted: make games. It had only recently become a living.

 During the development period, he utilized his knowledge of Android mobile systems to do contract jobs for stability. He was also taking his young boys to school and tucking them into bed. Between all that, he could work on his game.

 Muresan outsourced the music to a composer in the Netherlands and also received storyboard help and illustrations from a couple artists, but otherwise, he worked completely independently.

 “I still felt like I didn’t belong for the longest time and that’s one of the things that also drove me to finish it and claim the credibility that came with releasing a bigger game,” says Muresan.

 He was able to feel more comfortable in his skills with the Calgary Game Developers Association, the group he participated in the game jam with, and where he received valuable feedback on his game. He’s a co-organizer for their events, and was around when they were founded in 2013. As was Farhan Qureshi, who blew up with his re-creation of a popular, yet short-lived game called PT.

 The Calgary Game Developers Association was formed in 2013 to foster a community of game development in Calgary. They are currently run out of the the Inc. at the Alastair Ross Technology Centre in Calgary’s NW. Photo by Thomas Bogda

Working on games can be a solitary endeavor and having a community to be apart of and share ideas is a great feeling, says Qureshi. Muresan, especially, can be a big help because of his well-known knowledge and pragmatism.

 “I still felt like I didn’t belong for the longest time, and that’s one of the things that also drove me to finish it and claim the credibility that came with releasing a bigger game.” – Radu Muresan

“We’ve all come to say, ‘Okay, if [Muresan] says something about game development, we should probably listen,” says Qureshi.

Another member of the group, Justin Luk, released his own game on Steam in December last year, called Astervoid 2000. Luk only got into making games three years ago after a long time in web development, and finding a group so productive only a few blocks from his house was a huge motivator.

He attended his first meetup in July 2014, only a month before Muresan made Semispheres for the first time, and during the coming two years, Luk would spend a lot of time sharing hotel rooms and attending conferences with Muresan to show off their projects.

Muresan attended the PAX conferences earlier this year, as well as previously attending the Tokyo Game Show and the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last year – one of the biggest in the world. For him, it was a special experience seeing his game cross cultural boundaries and produce a smile off gamers clever enough to solve his puzzles.

Luk’s memory of Muresan at GDC was slightly different, however.

“He was showcasing his game all five days, all day and I had to bring him food,” says Luk, laughing. “He didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of possibly chatting with someone that might be an important business connection.”

It’s an example of the seriousness that Muresan has implanted in his work. Him and his colleagues don’t subscribe to the starving artist adage, and as a husband and father he understands the weight of his new career path. In the past he’s made a habit of not sticking around at a job too long should he tire of his passion for programming.

Even in aid, Luk points out that Muresan isn’t afraid to distance himself if someone is taking the wrong direction. But as long you’re open and trying your best he’s more than willing to help, and he has patience and knowledge in spades.

In the midst of development, Muresan was riding a rollercoaster of validation and a lack of it. At first he thought the production would take five months. That changed to three years. He said he was ready to drop it, but support kept coming. When he got negative player reactions, it would put up a wall. A good reaction would bring it down again. It wore on him, but having a community around helped lift him up when he was down – and vice versa.

Their group stands as a shining light in a shadow covered development landscape. Calgary’s gaming community is dry and it lacks an ecosystem. It only added another challenge for Muresan in the way of finding funding but somehow he managed.

The final version of the game opens to a screen that looks like a glimpse inside the brain; a system of neurons run through the background, and two spheres, one orange, one blue, stand on opposite sides. Airy music is constant.

When you enter a level the stage reveals itself before splitting in two nearly-identical sides with one sphere each. You must rejoin them by reaching a portal whilst stealthily maneuvering obstacles with a varying repertoire of one-use abilities.

A difficulty curve gradually increases until solving each puzzle isn’t a quick or simple task. Eventually the music blends with the wavy constrains you find yourself jumping in and out of. The independent spheres start to collaborate as your brain learns the solution to each level.

Muresan says the release on the Nintendo Switch was similar in process to previous releases, but it’s exciting releasing the game so early in the lifecycle of a new system. A new generation and market of gamers can now discover the puzzles he worked on for so long.

Semispheres now seems like a far cry from something developed on a weekend. Since then, Muresan has been gaining attention for his work, and the guys at the Calgary Game Developers Association joked he’s a “superstar” now.

And the group is growing themselves – or, at least they now hold their game jams in a room with windows.

Semispheres is available now on Nintendo Switch, Steam, and PlayStation 4.

Thomas Bogda tbogda@cjournal.ca

 Editor: Jan Kirstyn Lopez | jlopez@cjournal.ca