Capstone to console: UC Santa Cruz student-developed game releasing to Nintendo Switch

Four UCSC alums pose under a poster at a gaming convention.
4 members out of the 5-member Squish team pose for a picture at the PlayNYC gaming convention.
A screengrab of the Squish game showing blocks and planets.
A screengrab of the Squish game showing a character jumping over blocks.
The Squish game in action.

Three years ago, a group of UC Santa Cruz computer game design and arts, games, & playable media (AGPM) undergraduate students collaborating on their senior capstone project set out to design a fun, engaging game. None of the 10 students at the time thought that Squish, the game they developed, would eventually get picked up by a major publisher and released onto the Nintendo Switch platform. 

Squish is a fast-paced, competitive multiplayer game featuring skelegoos—ghoul-like characters—that must escape a collapsing underground crypt. The game begins with the characters partying so hard that the ceiling begins to fall down. In order to escape without getting squished, players must navigate the skelegoos around various obstacles and utilize the environment to their advantage.

“The thing we kept saying during our three-quarter capstone is that this game belongs on Switch. Our dream was to get it on the Switch console, and now it’s happening in a month,” said Fernando Zamora, Squish music and sound producer (Porter ‘19, AGPM). 

Level 0: Game design conceptualization

The computer game design B.S. and AGPM B.A. programs require students to complete a three-quarter capstone project. Engineering and AGPM students work in teams to design and produce a novel game. The first quarter focuses on game brainstorming and prototyping followed by two quarters of production and fine-tuning. 

During the first quarter, the Squish team decided on a spooky aesthetic and a design and name for the main characters of the game—skelegoos. Prototyping and idea development began with cardboard models before being transferred to computer production. 

Team members refer to Squish as a mashup between Tetris and Super Smash Bros. The original game format was inspired by a community level within the puzzle platform video game series Little Big Planet.

“I find a lot of games are inspired by what game developers grew up playing. You can see that in the design and aesthetics of Squish,” said Reed Scriven (Merrill ‘19, computer game design), Squish technical art designer and media relations manager. “We wanted to design something that was interactive, fun, and can involve multiple players.”

By the end of the third quarter, Squish was chosen as a finalist for the E3 College Game Competition. The southern California summer gaming convention “helped put us on the radar for publishers and was a major stepping stone for our game,” stated Athene Yip (Rachel Carson ‘19, AGPM), president and environmental design producer for Squish.

Level 1 and beyond: From competition to publication

After speaking with Warner Brothers at the E3 competition, the Squish team was referred to major game publisher PM Studios. By summer 2020, the team, which was now reduced to five alums with the other five leaving to pursue other career opportunities, signed a contract with PM Studios.

Aided by the expertise of PM Studios, the team was able to improve game production, add a multiplayer format, and enhance the user experience with new designs and music. 

“I like to joke and say that this has been the longest homework assignment I've ever been given. But it’s all helped to build experience,” Zamora said. I’m excited to continue building on this and make this the best game we can possibly make.”

Squish was first introduced to gaming enthusiasts in August 2021 at PlayNYC, a small convention geared towards indie games. Within a month, they were showcasing their game at the popular and major west coast gaming convention PAXWest.

“With a few major companies not at that event due to COVID concerns, it gave us a chance to shine. We had people coming back multiple times telling us how much they liked the game and wanted to play it again,” Yip explained.

By the April 2022 PAXEast gaming convention, Squish had built up a fan base, and gamers who attended previous conventions were excited to try out the game again—an indication of Squish’s increasing popularity.

The latest convention was memorable in more ways than one for the small Squish team. It provided a moment to reflect on three years of hard work and a way to celebrate while looking forward to the upcoming game release to Nintendo Switch and Steam.

“When I think back to the beginning, I felt like this was a cool game idea and I really enjoyed being around my team members,” Zamora said. “None of us thought this was going to continue on and become something more.”

With Squish’s upcoming digital and physical release, the alumni team members reflected on the game development process, beginning with their time at UC Santa Cruz. Yip, Zamora, and Scriven mentioned that although they are a small team, they were able to use that to their advantage during the entire production process. It allowed them to collaborate closely with one another, generating new ideas for content and how to improve the user experience. 

"Being able to see a project through to the end like this has brought up so many lessons and experiences that have been invaluable to our growth and development,” Reed reflected. 

Despite facing the challenge of lacking industry experience, the Squish team quickly proved their potential and successfully found opportunities to continuously grow. They are now on their way to becoming seasoned competitors in the gaming industry.

Squish is available for pre-order. Visit the Squish website for more information. The other two members on the Squish team are Coulter Petnic, designer and lead gameplay programmer, and Jessie Aniguid, gameplay programmer, designer, and artist.