Tonight's Homework: Make a Videogame

Tonight's Homework: Make a Videogame

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What happens when students in a game development course are given ten weeks to design and create their very own games? The Escapist went to find out.

Film schools, art schools, literature schools - all of these have been around forever, but the meteoric rise of videogames seems to have caught the academic world by surprise. To be fair, it wasn't long before we started seeing videogame development schools and programs pop up. One of these programs is located at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and seeing as how that's just down the proverbial road from Escapist HQ, Brand Manager "Spinwhiz" and I went over to Wake Tech's campus to check out their end-of-term Student Showcase.

It might seem odd to have a game development course in a community college down in North Carolina - that is, until you look at it. The Triangle (that is, the area formed by the three cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) is one of the most tech-heavy areas in the country, with dozens of cutting-edge companies fueled by a steady graduate flow from prestigious schools like Duke and UNC - and, as the program website points out, that would include "over 30 simulation and game companies in the triangle area," such as Epic Games, Insomniac, and Red Storm.

Students in the program were asked to create a short game, or game demo, during the 10-week course, and were encouraged to work in groups. They were allowed to use previously-created personal assets, and beyond that, the only limitation was that the game they created would have to qualify for a "T" rating or lower.

In the 10 or so minutes every group had to present (eleven of them in total), we saw a very interesting range of games. DEFIANCE, a cel-shaded hacking FPS, Froggy Math, an iPhone app designed to teach little kids basic mathematics, Iron Outlaws, a top-down mecha shoot-em-up, and more - it was actually rather surprising to see how different all the concepts were. Obviously, the limitations of manpower, budget, time, and resources meant that all of the games were in various unfinished stages of development, but it was still interesting to see how all these students and would-be developers came up with their ideas.

As a general rule of thumb, most of the games seemed to be variations on classic game types and concepts ("Hey, we haven't seen many cel-shaded games in a while - let's do one!" "Man, whatever happened to top-down shooters and giant robot games?") which does make sense given the context - develop what you're familiar with, no? It was also interesting to note that two of the most complete - and most compelling - games on the floor were both rather unambitious.

Blake Leftwich's Panic was a simple brickbreaker a la Break Out and Arkanoid, whereas Mitch Johnson's Quark was an XNA title that spiced up the Geometry Wars-esque multidirectional shooter (with a pretty funny pun - the main subatomic particle switches from depressed to manic. Get it? He's bipolar!), only both with their own respective twists on the genre.

With Panic, not only is the ball affected by gravity instead of just moving in a straight line, but the game works on the principle of ramping up - every brick you break gives you a score multiplier, but makes the ball go faster, The idea is to use the "Panic button" to cash in your points and reset the multiplier before it becomes too overwhelming - it doesn't matter how high your multiplier is if you lose the ball.

Quark differs from games like Geometry Wars in that the normal attack doesn't destroy the enemies, but merely freezes them. Once frozen, shooting them with a more powerful beam will explode them - and cause a chain reaction detonating any enemies around them as well. It's a fairly simple change to the formula, but one that makes it surprisingly interesting.

What was the most impressive, though, was not a technical feat. With so many of the student teams working via middlewear - specifically, the Unreal 3 engine - it was surprising to see such a variety in terms of game concepts, let alone execution thereof. Maybe it would have been easiest to just create a generic FPS using Epic's engine, but there was very little overlap between concepts.

In hindsight, though, it probably shouldn't have been so surprising. After all, this sort of thing does seem to be the mantra of the indie scene, a throwback to the early days of game development - if you don't have much of a budget to waste, then you have to make up for it with creativity. A generic FPS will be held up to every other generic FPS out there, and if yours doesn't have all the features of the others, why expect anyone to take you (or your game) seriously?

So why even go down that route? The lack of a budget might not always make for a good game, but - whether indie dev or student - it may well make for a creative one.

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Top down mecha shooter sounds fun. Kinda like Ikari Warriors, but with mechs.

The lower the budget the more people improvise, so they discover new little tricks to enhance the gaming experience. Some of the best games were made that way: L4d's zombie spawn system was made because they didn't have the budget to put in individual spawns. The result was a revolutionary spawning system.

My mates being doing this at collage. I was pretty damn jealous of him playing games for homework, while I was slaving over chemistry.

Hmm... I wonder if I could get my school to do something like that. We don't have a Game Design course, but there is a Game Design Group that would probably be interested in doing something like this.

Some IT students in my school create some interesting things, like a 2D puzzle game in the style of portal except using a black hole generator to pull things towards you....but I digress, I love to see things like this ^^

Also...I don't go on the escapist for a day nd theres 3 pages to news to sift through? :P Awesome :P

Cant wait till i start my Computer Games Design course at uni this september, its just gunna be this (and maybe some other weird stuff) for 3 years! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

My roomate and I had to make a game for our programming project. It is amazing how a maze that took 2 hours to make got the best grade in the class because we played it the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song.

I went with John to this event and I have to say I was impressed. A lot of one person shows that you KNOW they put a lot of time and effort into.

This is similar to what the students in WPI's Interactive Media and Game Development major go through numerous times throughout the 4-year major. The dev time is shorter though. It's cool to see others doing it.

God, I'm becoming so obsessed over my own video game idea, I wish I was in a course like those guys. Of course, I wouldn't be able to get much of what I want in the game within only 10 weeks, but I have other plans for it to. I hope those guys are successful in their ambitions, good luck to them.

Hey, Raleigh, Durham and chapel hill...
I was born in Durham ^^ its a pretty awesome place, in fairness.

Hmmmm, I just have to point out that doing a degree in games design and so on doesn't give you any more of a chance at getting into the industry than anything else. As a Maths undergraduate student I was told when I started the course that the industry is looking more for Mathematicians now than anything else, which is lucky for me since I hope to do level design or programming when I graduate. As it happens I'm doing a three year course with an optional year in industry which I hope to spend with Rockstar Leeds, and an elective module in computer programming, which will all give me a decent chance of getting into the industry. However, a games design or programming course is still pretty good as it gives you experience and a better portfolio, even if it doesn't necessarily give you the less recognised skills such as knowing about the use of geometry or linear algebra and matrices within 3D modelling. Overall there are good points to the course, but it isn't always the best way of getting into the industry and less recognised subjects such as computing or maths have often proved to be better, according to the Rockstar Leeds staff who did a careers expo at the university, for those aspiring to enter the gaming industry.

Where is that place? I need (NEED) to go to that university, and get that assignment.
You know what they say, "A diamond in the rough". There's bound to be a little gold nugget in that mine of imagination.

Trivun:
and less recognised subjects such as computing or maths have often proved to be better, according to the Rockstar Leeds staff who did a careers expo at the university, for those aspiring to enter the gaming industry.

Exactly the conclusion I drew after doing some research - besides which the industry is notoriously difficult to get into; I'd rather take some like Computing, English or Maths that offers a wide range of carers instead of limiting myself; especially when the general view appears to be the vast majority of courses are not recognised by the industry, as you stated.

To me this all seems a bit of a waste - surly they could have created these games in their spare time and gone for a more rounded degree. Then again it's their call, I'm sure there are successful people who have gained these game degrees and gone on to do well within the industry.

Lucky pricks...

Funny, I did this exact same thing in College. Well, except the fact that it was a Java class and the final project was wide open so I decided to make a game. I got an A+ in that class if I recall properly. You don't need to go to a specific place to be creative, you can always work with what you have.

I had a game design class in middle school where me and one other friend made two games in a span of, what was it like 5 months? One was a top down shooter reminiscent of Raptor: Call of the Shadows (awesome game by the way) and the other, affectionately named "Tub of Lardio" was a spin off of Mario beyond his golden years when he'd put on a few pounds. The first game was pretty unimaginative because it was REQUIRED by the teacher to make that game (and we used the teachers instructions to make it), but the second one was totally left up to our imaginations so it had some more "interesting" features... for example, using his fat to stick to walls and climb to places that he otherwise wouldn't have been able to reach.

I have the second one on a 3.5 inch floppy somewhere I'm sure but I haven't been able to find it for years :(

Unfortunately I never did go on to take this kind of thing in university (Engineering, PAH, I'm actually waiting for my Thermodynamics Lecture to start...). Lucky for those guys to be doing something they love. However, as other people have said before, the games design industry is one of the harder ones to get in to. The reason for that probably has to be the fact that the industry is looking for people that not only have a passion but also a natural talent for the kind of things they need.

I still pursue game design in my spare time and anyone who's interested in making their way into the industry should look at making a portfolio, doing some work on a mod (You should watch for the kind of mod you sign up for though, as those of us who have been around the modding community for a long time KNOW there are plenty of them that are an annoying waste of your time), and in general creating an image for yourself in the indie industry. I personally have been designing maps for games such as Counter-Strike since, well, longer than I can remember. Even if you never release any of your projects, getting to know your way around the community is a great way to learn. I've recently picked up 3d-modeling which is by far one of the most challenging and rewarding things that I've learned.

Oh and anyone who was wondering, what I did in junior high wasn't what I PERSONALLY would consider game design. The games were created using a fantastic little program known as Game Maker.

I recently went through a sequence in game design courses where we worked in groups for 10 weeks to make a game. The only rules we had to go on was that it had to be done in DirectX 10 or XNA, it had to be fun, we had a $0 budget, and we had to use minimal middleware.

Early on, we did realize that the groups were less than perfect in terms of the range of our abilities and the resources at each person's control. Some of us were better at engine programming, some of us were better organizers, some of us were great gameplay designers, some of us had really good story ideas, and none of us could draw or model to save our lives. Fortunately, we did have a friend who was able to fill in the role of the artist. Another group experienced the same problem, but they were somehow able to get half the art department to help them out.

If we were in fact given a budget, I could see where it would be useful in that it could essentially go towards filling in those gaps where your core team's strength is lacking or to purchase licensing for top end middleware to cut down on production time. Since we live in the era where game engines are so complicated, having to build a brand new engine with every game would be insane. Creating our game engine took a massive amount of time, leaving only a couple weeks for proper design and beta testing. Thankfully, the second time around we were able to reuse many of the core components from our original engine (ie: hardware management, input management, audio, and a particle engine) for the next game, which we were able to cut down on coding time and add more features and better gameplay.

In short, adding a budget can help to fill in the gaps for what you or your team may lack in your production. Can't draw? Hire an artist. Terrible at programming physics? Cough up some cash for the license for a physics engine. What it all comes down to is that no matter how much money you throw at your game, it needs to be FUN, which is something that can be achieved even without a budget. If you have a great idea, act on it, bring it to life, and if it works, invest a little in it and see what happens.

All of these projects were done through the Game Design and Development Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Who knows? I might end up working on video game design some day. I have no programming skill, o' course, but a lot of the big-budget game developers bring in people from the film industry (me?) to help with the pacing and overall design of the game, as well as the story line. So that could be fun. And Montreal isn't that long a train ride.

Creativity works alot in many fields Art and every form of it Mechanical stuff like auto's, motorcycle's etc. Videogames to me a good way use one creativity the better fun mind the cool stuff i'll likely see in the game to make it fun. Sure it may a rehashing of old game i liked, but somedays if you cant think of something new take an old thing and make it better

 

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