Creative Inception: Daniel Hooper Makes Game Design Debut With Percepto

Monday, June 6, 2011


Like many instances of artistic inspiration, this one came to Daniel Hooper in a dream.

“I saw this room, and it kind of flattened,” says the rising senior from Alpharetta. “You could rotate it a bunch of different ways. Then I woke up, right after the dream, and I jumped out of bed and just started sketching.”

What Hooper sketched was a puzzle game in three dimensions. His initial idea was, by his own admission, “bizarre,” like something out of the movie Inception, with shifting rules of gravity and playing spaces flipping upside down. “It was just going to be really crazy,” he says.

But Hooper scaled back his Escheresque vision. Three years after its genesis, the product of Hooper’s dream made it to the iTunes homepage. It’s called Percepto, a deceptively simple game that asks players merely to escape from a room. Their avatar is an unassuming human silhouette, like those seen on restroom doors (yes, players can choose male or female), and the object is to place the figure in front of the room’s sole doorway, maneuvering around obstacles that grow more troublesome with each level.

Now in its version 1.0.3 release, the game carries with it an impressive 4.5-star rating. For the week of April 14, 2011, it was Apple’s Game of the Week in 75 countries worldwide. And though its creator is mum on total number of downloads, he will allow it’s doing quite well. “We’ve seen clever puzzle games before,” raved the game review site AppSmile, “but we’ve never seen anything like this.”

Door-to-door iteration

It’s a gratifying moment for the Computational Media major, who’s been programming since 7th grade—“It’s pretty much all I did as a kid,” he says—and creating games for nearly as long. But Percepto is the first one he’s released, and he may want to send a thank-you note to Apple for focusing his ambition.

“My plan is to go work at Apple after I graduate, and they have rules that you can’t work on outside projects,” says Hooper, now interning at the company for a second consecutive summer. “So, if I wanted to put my stake in the ground, I needed to do it right now.”

Released in April, Percepto had undergone long and rigorous beta testing. To find willing game testers, Hooper did what any enterprising college student would do: He roamed the floors of a Georgia Tech residence hall, knocking on doors.

“I kind of had the shotgun approach—just get as many people as you can,” he says. “So I’d knock on doors and say, ‘Hey, I’m making a game. I need people to test it.’”

Many obliged. In the tests, Hooper tried to simulate actual customer experiences, so he’d hand his testers an iPod Touch with the game preloaded and watch them play—no hints, no guidance.

“It was really painful at times,” he admits. “I’m standing over their shoulder, so they’re looking at me for help, and I won’t say anything. I want to see what they do.”

Indeed, Hooper specifically avoided asking his testers to suggest fixes. He asked them to report gameplay experiences, particularly anything they considered problematic, but for actual remedies he relied on some century-old advice from one of history’s more famous entrepreneurs.

“I was working under this quote from Henry Ford: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse,’” Hooper says. “People are really good at identifying problems. You have to process what they do and think, ‘How can I really fix the core problem?’”

Marketing adventure

As he prepared to bring Percepto to the App Store market , Hooper registered for the Spring 2011 “Computer Science Ventures” course (CS 3101) taught by Distinguished Professor Merrick Furst. Through the course, Furst, who is leading a new Georgia Tech initiative to support entrepreneurial dreams like Percepto, provided the development and marketing expertise to help Hooper carry his creation that last mile.

“We take our students seriously in these endeavors, and we’re very interested in their success,” Furst  says. “Daniel and I went back and forth with ideas, both inside and outside of class. He had a clever idea for a new kind of game dynamic, and I worked with him on how you translate people’s interest into a product that’s sustainable and can grow.”

“I really tried to get my professors’ help this semester as I was getting ready to release the game,” says Hooper, who also cited Brian Schrank, a research scientist in the School of Interactive Computing, as a mentor who was always willing to share his experience. “Brian used to work at Electronic Arts, so he had really great advice about the game.”

In future versions, Hooper said he hopes to build into Percepto more of a virtual world. His own favorites growing up were 2D side-scrollers like Zelda and Metroid, which he admired for their sense of adventure (as well as their relatively simple play, especially compared to many of today’s popular games). Percepto’s current world is rather stark.

“That’s my goal as I update, to put that sense of adventure and exploration into the game,” Hooper says. “So players feel like there’s stuff out there that they just haven’t gotten to yet, but eventually they’ll find it and learn all these new things about this world. That’s something I’d like to copy from the games I love.”