SOLVING A CONUNDRUM By Sara Courtney
A CHS student collaboration creates a video-game hit
When Wesley Sappington got the idea to create a video game, he did what any budding CEO would do: He tapped into his local network in his search for the best and the brightest, seeking out the newest talent that would be up for the challenge and suited for the various roles.
Of course, Sappington faced an unusual challenge: He may have harbored ambitions of releasing his very own video game, but technically he was still just a kid at Columbia High School. A ninth grader with a knack for coding and a penchant for dreaming big, Sappington had started programming in middle school when the idea to create a video game first came to him. He quickly adopted a “fake it till you make it” philosophy as he worked towards improving his coding skills.
A natural leader, Sappington just needed to inspire fellow renegade gamers like himself. He set about pulling together a talented team: coders, writers, composers, and artists. He turned to the high school version of LinkedIn: his school library. “I remember just going up to people in the library that I heard had skills,” he says, recalling how students would share recommendations. “‘Hey, did you know Sky could do this? Hey, did you know Thomas could do this?’ And then I was just running up to those people afterwards, essentially cold calls, that kind of thing.” Before long, he had assembled a wide range of fellow high school students to take on the challenge, a sort of Goonies for gamers. He called his company Eyesight Technologies.
Among the fellow Columbia High School students to whom Sappington pitched his video game idea was Thomas Culhane. A member of the robotics team, of which Sappington was captain, Culhane signed onto the project from the beginning. “When I first joined the team, we were working on a different game called FWT [Fallen World's Traveller] and I was programming for that,” says Culhane, who would go on to do programming and game design for Conundrum, the video game Sappington’s Eyesight Technologies would eventually release. Sappington has high praise for his programmers, whom he calls “the backbone of it, in that they make the game. They make the functionality of the game.”
Another fellow student who joined Eyesight Technologies was Sky Garcia. As an artist, Garcia was integral to the development of the game by producing the character art. “I think most of the people who join Eyesight are kind of nerds,” Garcia says, and the team “meshed really well.” Garcia drew the art on a program, then made it transparent before sending it to Sappington, adding, “I would make them in a program on my computer and send them to Wesley and he would pixelate them because that’s the style of the game.” It’s a role that was critical to the project. “The artists are absolutely vital,” Sappington explains, “because they design what the game will look like.”
After assembling the Eyesight Technologies team, Sappington hosted weekly meetings in his basement. “We are proud to be the authentic basement startup,” he says, noting that the focus of the meetings wasn’t about developing and coding so much as it was focused on team building and touching base. “The important thing about making a game is you have all these moving parts. You have musicians, you have programmers, you have writers, you have everything under the sun and they all have to synergize to work together. That was really the goal of the weekly meetings.”
Culhane emphasizes the challenges of creating a video game while managing school demands, extracurricular activities, and the many social engagements that came with being a high schooler, calling the weekly meetings a “good solution” to the tricky balancing act. “It forced you to get things done for that meeting,” he says. And it helped that the meetings were, unlike most work meetings, fun.
“It didn’t feel like an office,” Garcia adds. “It felt like hanging out with a group of people that I see as friends, and that I get to make something really cool with them.” Plus Sappington’s mom provided snacks.
It was at these weekly meetings that the Eyesight Technologies team went from high school kids dreaming big, to a company implementing its goals, step by step, week after week, for three years. The work initially focused on a much beloved video game project called FWT, which was ultimately not released. Yet all that hard work became invaluable as they moved away from producing FWT and onto the video game Conundrum. “I will say that that project walked so that Conundrum could run,” Sappington says.
When the pandemic hit during Sappington’s junior year, the meetings moved to Zoom, but the bonds they formed in person remained strong. “At the risk of sounding overly sentimental,” he says, “I will say that Eyesight meetings were kind of a magical experience. Imagine this: We all go to my sort of dirty basement. We sat around this long table. We all have snacks and we all have our computers out. Usually I would do a preliminary presentation like ‘Okay guys, this is our timeline, this is our budget.’ And then we’d all start working on our computers, laughing together, that kind of thing. It was a brilliant social experience.”
Ultimately, developing a video game together made them all better prepared to handle remote learning and the isolation that often accompanied it. “Eyesight leading up to COVID really gave us self-management and sort of self-directed skills so that when COVID hit, it was a really good training program for us to be able to set our own schedule for schoolwork and robotics and Eyesight,” Sappington says. “It gave us those skills of organizing our time.”
Under the crunch of college applications and virtual learning, the team continued to develop Conundrum, and this past April, as the college acceptance envelopes were being ripped open, their video game was released to the public. Sappington describes the game as “a combination of tower defense and strategy gaming that relies on a lot of problem solving, coupled with fast-paced action and reflexes to survive and escape.”
The team has been thrilled that so many people are playing it, not just locally in SOMA – a community that contributed significantly to a fundraiser Eyesight previously held for the game – but far and wide on social media, where it’s receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Amidst the final weeks of school, while most of the team readied themselves for prom, graduation ceremonies, and life outside of Maplewood, Eyesight Technologies held its final meeting. Ever the leader, Sappington lauds the team for creating “something that is completely our own. We built something from the ground up as the starter lifestyle. A lot of people are successful in their own way, but this is a huge success to have at just 17 or 18 years old. We are all able to say that we made and released something, and I think that that experience is going to stick with all of us forever.”
The experience heavily influenced the students’ future plans, as many of the Eyesight Technologies seniors are moving on to prestigious universities where they will continue to hone their skills and widen their talents. Culhane said the experience solidified his desire to pursue computer science, and he plans to attend UC Berkeley to major in computer science and focus exclusively on coding. Garcia is heading into senior year of high school and plans to go into the arts one day, noting the experience at Eyesight “lasted three years and I can track my growth as an artist through a lot of the work I made.”
As for Sappington, he has one more accomplishment to add to his résumé: programmer, entrepreneur, leader, CEO, big-dreamer, and, finally, high school graduate. Sappington is headed to Miami University to study a merged program of entrepreneurship, business and technology.
Sappington’s advice to any students with seemingly impossible dreams is to charge ahead, undaunted. Perhaps thinking back on those magical basement meetings, he emphasizes one thing. “If you don’t have a skill, that’s what a team is for. You can’t do something like Conundrum all on your own. It’s too big. It’s too complicated. It requires too many skills. I think that’s the value of bringing people together, and the community is going to be there to support you as well. If this is what you want to do, go for it.”
Want to try Conundrum yourself? The game is free. Just go to
Sara Courtney is a writer and TV producer living in Maplewood. When she
graduated high school, she didn’t even have email.