Do you know what three college students interning at Microsoft did last summer? They made their very own Xbox 360 game.
On Monday, Microsoft announced the free release of "Aegis Wing," a side-scrolling spaceship shoot-em-up for the Xbox 360's Live Arcade gaming download service. Three interns made it, with a little help from their friends.
Two summers ago, Matt Monson was 20 and midway through college at Texas A&M, where, among other things, he'd been part of a video game development program. That summer, though, he was interning for the Windows group at Microsoft. He had an itch: He wanted to find a way to get some game-making into his experience.
So Monson and a fellow intern wrote an e-mail, just a few sentences long, and sent it to J Allard, one of Microsoft's top executives and one of the lead creators of the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Zune. "We just e-mailed and said, 'Hey J, we've got this idea that we want to get some interns and make a game over the course of an internship. What do you think?' He e-mails me back a day or two later and says 'This is an awesome idea, let's do it.' "
A summer later, Monson, fellow Texas A&M student Danny Dyer and Michigan State University student Scott Brodie began a new three-month internship focused on the trio making a game. Right at the start, they pictured "Aegis Wing." The idea was to make a side-scrolling shooter with a twist: Four players would be able to pilot four ships during the same attack run and — this was the big idea — combine those vessels into a super-ship when extra firepower was needed. "We grew up with Power Rangers and Transformers," Monson said. It was a natural.
Monson and Dyer are programmers. Brodie is more of a vision and management guy, a producer basically. So they needed help. They needed sound people and graphics artists. They needed mentors to help the project stay on course. Various divisions from Microsoft pitched in, lending people and knowledge.
Set up in a building outside of Microsoft's core Redmond, Washington, campus, they worked hard, and when deadlines came, they crammed like the college students they were. "We'd stay up to 2 or 3 in the morning and come back at 8 or so, maybe 9," Dyer said of the deadline crunches. "We mostly lived off the free sodas." And if they needed a solid meal? "We usually took trips down to Wendy's because it was close and cheap. They've got the nice dollar menu. We're still in that college mindset where we're looking for cheap food."
The building where they worked also housed the offices of Carbonated Games, a Microsoft studio focused on making small, downloadable games like "Hexic" and "Uno" for Xbox Live. Carbonated production lead Joshua Howard said the interns were received with some awe because of how Monson brazenly got the program going with Allard. But his team basically said to the interns, "OK, you think you're hot. Prove it."
The Carbonated team was sometimes merciful, Howard notes. They helped out on the game, tackling a lot of what he described as the "not-fun stuff" involved in making games. Carbonated developers worked on the game's compatibility with the Xbox Live network. They helped test it. They made the game's menus.
Naming the game is fun, and the interns handled that. First they wanted to call the game "Wingmen," but the Microsoft people involved in clearing titles said they couldn't. "Aegis Wing" was the number-two choice, according to Dyer. He didn't sound concerned that it's hard to pronounce, though Howard offered a helpful mnemonic device, cracking the joke, "This is the 'Age of Swing.' The next game we'll do will be the 'Age of Pop,' then the 'Age of Rock' and we'll go from there."
Dyer just thinks it's neat that their game will always be one of the top titles on any alphabetical list of downloadable Xbox titles. "We tried to ask them if we could put an exclamation point at the beginning so that it would definitely be listed first," he said. That's the ingenuity of a college student.
Three months into the summer of 2006, the internship wound down and the interns faced a problem: They hadn't finished the game. "We had done all the graphics stuff," Monson said. "We had particle systems, we had bosses and we had the ship-connecting stuff all nailed down. ... We had a solid first level and a pretty good second level." But they didn't have a finished game, and that's what the plan had been.
Some people in the Microsoft organization considered leaving "Aegis Wing" clipped, according to Howard. It was up for discussion. "Honestly, once the interns had left it was a good chance to reassess the project," he said. "At the time, if we felt that the game sucks or it wasn't going anywhere or it was having a lot of problems, then we might have had to think a lot harder about whether to take it forward. But honestly speaking, the core of the game was there and it was a neat idea. And it worked pretty well."
From late summer to this spring, developers working for Howard lent time to finishing "Aegis Wing." The interns were mostly left to hear about the progress of others. Dyer said last week that he hadn't played the game since he last worked on it in the summer.
After graduating from Texas A&M on Friday, Monson set out for the Grand Canyon, which he'll pass en route to his first post-college job: a position at Microsoft game development studio Turn 10. Dyer has an internship this summer at Turn 10. Brodie got his job making games for Microsoft — under Howard — last December. Whatever the interns were trying to prove with "Aegis Wing," they seem to have done it.
"Aegis Wing" will be available to all Xbox 360 users who can connect to Live this Wednesday. Microsoft officials said they are proud of Monson's internship concept but are not repeating it this year.
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