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July 6, 2016

SCA Alumni Stories: Michael Effenberger

By Eileen Kwon

Recent graduate and multi-talented storyteller, Michael Effenberger ’15 shared his experience, as a double major, of discovering and pursuing a long-time yet unfulfilled passion for games. Effenberger discussed the evolution of his skill set as a creative, his journey as co-founder of Syndicate Atomic, and his ambitions for future projects.

What influenced you to pursue a Production major at SCA? I remember I would watch films religiously as a kid, in ways that most kids wouldn’t. I’d be watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit and would just keep replaying the Benny the Cab sequence over and over again. I was always fascinated by certain parts and portions of a film and I would get in pretty deep trying to figure out how they did it. My high school had a film program that I was pretty involved in which ultimately lead me to SCA. While in high school, I first took part in a beginning filmmaking program at USC during the summer where I met some of my future classmates. That program secured in my mind that USC was the school I wanted to go to. So, I applied and entered my freshman year as a Production major.

How did you then decide to add Interactive Media & Games as a second major? With the start of freshman year also came the introduction of the Reality Ends Here program which was introduced by Jeff Watson, Simon Wiscombe, and Tracy Fullerton. They encouraged all five programs within SCA to collaborate together on projects, incentivized with the promise of points rewarded at the end of every week and possible prizes. During my participation, I began to get involved in Interactive projects. I began to understand and discover a little more about the Interactive Media & Games program and immediately fell in love. Games have always been an important part of my childhood—a touchstone amongst a lot of my friends while growing up. It was like a dream come true to finally be able to take part in that area without any prior training. And it was such an inviting space as well, for which I really have to credit the Interactive program. They foster a lovely community, a very transparent one that made it easy to learn and get involved in any way that I could. So, not only did I start volunteering for IndieCade, one of the largest independent game festivals in the States, but I also served as one of the game runners for Reality Ends Here along with Jeff Watson in my sophomore year. I started off as a player then became a game runner and helped create some fun puzzles and opportunities for the players. Along with that involvement, I also took some Interactive classes and then ultimately applied for the double major.

How did your interdisciplinary pursuit of a double major affect the development of your own creative voice? I learned a lot while participating in two different media—while they are both very visual in nature, they interact with their audiences in different ways. I was able to discover a lot about what made each medium strong within their own specific capabilities. My double major was an amazing opportunity to meet a lot of creative people who are really good at what they do and who are really good at a variety of disciplines. I was able to interact with not only screenwriters and cinematographers, but also programmers and engineers. My eyes were really opened to how the media landscape is growing and what sort of opportunities are presenting themselves outside of traditional media. I think a large part of my creative voice was influenced by the community that I was able to surround myself with. The Class of 2015 were some truly amazing students whom I was honored to get to know. And, thanks to SCA’s focus on putting you in situations where you’re collaborating with your peers, which is something that the film and games fields absolutely require, I was able to learn more from my peers and be exposed to new ideas.

In the context of your post-grad life and career, do you see an integration of your passion for both writing and games? A writer needs to understand the construction of a narrative and that skill set has in turn transferred over to pretty much everything that I work on. Whether working with code or a camera shot, I’ve learned the importance of effective communication with your audience. My team is just finishing up a multi-player game titled EctoPlaza, which is coming out this summer on the Nintendo eShop. While you might think that a multi-player title would be relatively sparse on narrative, myself and the team as a whole took great efforts to inject it with as much life and personality as possible. We put in details that we’re not explicitly calling out but we hope will inform the tone of the game and the overall experience of the players. I think in whatever you’re doing, even if you’re delivering a presentation at a team meeting, you’re always telling a story. Being able to have that tool set of knowing what works, what’s engaging, and how to effectively communicate a point will always be useful regardless of the medium.

How was your experience with the Bridge program? It was pretty great. The Bridge program was just forming around the end of our last semester at SCA, and I along with Max Palazzo ‘15, Colin Horgan ‘15, and Zaid Ziauddin ’15 took a part in that with our game Howie and Yarla. That project is very near to our hearts and we had a fantastic time working on that together. The team got along so well that we knew that we wanted to continue to work together beyond our time as students.

One particular highlight was at E3 when I got to shadow Gordon Bellamy, who was essentially co-running and co-directing the Bridge program with Sam Roberts. I was able to see him walk around the show floor and I was absolutely astounded by the amount of contacts that he not only developed but maintained over the course of his career. With the amount of introductions that were made, I had lost my voice by the end of the day. I learned a lot from that moment about how to pitch yourself and your work. I was happy to develop that skill set at Bridge. It still serves me and our Bridge team, which has since then been incorporated as an LLC named Syndicate Atomic.

As co-founder of Syndicate Atomic, what are some challenges you have faced while transitioning from student to graduate and how did you overcome them? When you graduate the real world hits you. The practical nature of life after college is the toughest. At the end of day the greatest challenge is making revenue while developing our projects and paying for food and other basic necessities. It was really tough for our team the first month after graduation because we had to balance our need to do freelance and our want to find contract work, and whether all that was doable with our own respective schedules. Will that allow us the time to work on our team’s projects consistently? Ultimately, we were able to resolve this situation through the development of our game EctoPlaza and by taking day jobs. It’s been going well and everyone has been gathering quite a large amount of experience that has been helpful in our own lives and in further developing and honing our craft.

What was your experience leading a team of eight members in winning the Microsoft Audience Award at Dare To Be Digital 2015? It was fantastic. I got to work with some very close friends all of whom I greatly admire and who frankly put me to shame with the amount of talent that they have. We were able to present at Dundee, Scotland, which was a delight. Dundee is a rather small town in Scotland and the game studios located there actually helped boost their entire economy. The people have a deep respect and reverence for games and the industry. Thankfully, the game we made, EctoPlaza, meshed well with the audience. We made EctoPlaza a very friendly experience, purposely designed to be inviting for all ages. People responded very well and we’ve developed quite a bit of fans that we still keep in touch with. The Audience Award ultimately led to some conversations down the line that got us our current contacts at Nintendo.

How do you hope that your own work impacts its audience? I hope to be able to explore some of the minutiae in our day-to-day that we all experience, and in doing so maybe bring to light even bigger questions that have been plaguing us but we never answered because we weren’t looking at the granular stuff. For example, whenever something really bad happens on the news, it’s easy to point to a single solution. But trying to point to a single cause is impossible. The reality is that so many little decisions, which you’re probably not even conscious of, ultimately build up to something happening that just seems too large to process. I’d love to be able to create experiences that don’t set out to address and correct some of the largest issues that we face, but that instead explore smaller moments while asking people to really think about why those moments happen. And maybe that’ll lead to bigger questions that will ultimately lead to some change. At the heart of it all, I’d like to think that whatever work I create will respect the audience that I’m interacting with. I’d like to leave things a little bit better than I found it.

Any advice for current SCA students and alumni? Don’t follow trends—start trends. Believe in yourself because only the valiant can create and only the daring should be in art. Recognize how sacred and special a moment it is for someone to let you into their life for two hours or more whether it’s through a screen or a game controller and a TV.

What are you up to now? I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch much to my roommate and lead engineer Colin Horgan’s chagrin. I still cover screenplays in my free time and I take a great joy in doing so. In my day-to-day job I’m currently working at Disney Interactive as a Product Manager Producer for some of their mobile media apps. And I’m continuing to create stories—even if they don’t see the light of day, but hopefully they will in one form or another.