There are times when you’re cruising the usual arch-gamer haunts that they’ll flash by. Next to a beautifully thought-out post on the de-evolution of the modern JRPG is a cheeky elf maiden, her glossy Maya model intruding against the carefully considered commentary on that lost art of manga and elipses. This subset of art schools can be recognized by their signature collection of trite images; The College of Anonymous Spacecraft X, The School of Art and Soldier Y, etc. I have never clicked on one of these ads, but I can only imagine that doing so brings up a Flash animation of a matchbook with a cowboy on the front, inviting you to poke out a quick bit of Illustrator art inside the cover and submit it for review by a committee. Perhaps you, kind sir, might earn a scholarship in “The Digital Arts™”.
No doubt there is good and serious work being done at these schools. Just as Charles Schulz was a teacher for a time at Art Instruction, Inc. in Minneapolis, I’m sure there is a solid staff behind these programs that is busily stamping out the necessary cogs for modern game production. There is clearly quite a bit of demand for this type of specialized talent, and there must be woefully few game designers and artists that burst fully-formed from their parent’s heads able to make today’s games. I can surmise that having a degree from Elf Maiden Z Institute of Designing on your résumé does have cachet in certain circles.
When I was invited by DePaul University Game Dev Program to attend an unveiling of their senior's final projects I didn’t really know what to expect. The dichotomy of a four-year liberal arts university which I very much respected next to this seemingly trade-school digital-media program threw me. But by the end of the class of 2011’s Game Development Capstone Showcase I would learn just how ignorant I had been of this burgeoning world of collegiate digital arts education.
There are only a handful of schools like DePaul in the country. And in this context I don’t mean Catholic schools — they’re a dime a dozen up here near Chi-town — I mean liberal arts schools with game development chops. There’s USC, MIT, Miami University in Ohio and a few others, all very good company for DePaul to keep. But what makes the provenance of the DePaul program unique is that it was born from student interest. Professor Charley Wilcox took a group of students up on their plan about five years ago and helped them build the whole program from scratch. Since then they’ve had many good classes go through the system, and lately several games have found niche acclaim. You’ve no doubt heard of The Devil’s Tuning Fork and Octodad on these very pages.
The games I saw displayed by these seniors in June will show up in the Fringe Busters column here at GWJ over the next few weeks. I’m not going to talk about them yet, just tell you that what I saw was remarkable for only 20 weeks of development time. What I am here to talk about is the program itself, and how these college seniors came to graduate college as game designers.
The game development capstone is a two-quarter class for DePaul seniors. This past year it was divided up into two sections, one headed by Assistant Professor Jose Zagal, and the other by Visiting Assistant Professor Joseph Linhoff. Dr. Zagal was kind enough to grant me an interview during his summer vacation, and the bulk of my notes come from him.
The goal of Dr. Zagal’s class was simple: Make a game. But the way he guided his students through the process was clever. He made his course as much about the games industry as he made it about game design. Throughout the 20-week course, the students would play the role of game publisher, game designer, programmer and artist all through cunning simulations and classroom exercises.
The first step was to think up some games. Dr. Zagal’s students were encouraged to brainstorm ideas, generating a long list of game pitches. The potential projects were eventually cut to eight, and with only five teams of students, three more pitches had to be cut. It was time to take on the role of game publisher.
Criteria for evaluating games included difficulty of implementation, mass appeal, level of innovation and commercial viability. Students had to decide which games they wanted to fund, and do it in a cold and calculating manner. The games were rated, ranked, and then made anonymous. Only after the anonymizing was the debate allowed to begin, and this Dr. Zagal says was a long class indeed. Arguments were heated. “If it’s not innovative, but hard to carry out, and very commercially viable,” Dr. Zagal said, “What’s that compared to a commercially viable game that is easy to implement?” With their own necks on the line, students pleaded their cases while not fully knowing which games they were voting for or against.
In the end Dr. Zagal tells me that two of the teams in his section very nearly had their games dropped from the publisher’s list. These teams were taken aside, told about the difficulties perceived in moving forward, and shown the data generated by their peers. They were given the opportunity to change their direction before they put a single line of code onto the screen. What changes, if any, were made is a private matter, but it is telling that only three of Dr. Zagal’s five teams presented their final products publicly at the capstone event.
With each team married up to a game concept, Dr. Zagal then moved them into the prototype phase. “One issue that was interesting to me was a problem where students over-scope things. ‘We can do this huge thing …’ and they hit road blocks and crunch. I wanted to narrow the focus as early as possible and iterate when it’s cheap, iterate and course correct.” And so he had his teams create a physical prototype. For some, this took the form of a board game, ginned up on a weekend with notecards, rules, and dice. For one team it took the form of a cardboard box, rigged with tape, glue, and pins. As the box was rotated, the levels took shape, and by opening a side the team could see what was happening in their first-person game from a third-person view.
When the rubber really met the road, each team needed to select a development platform. In past capstone classes, students were required to work on a single platform, but in 2011 they were allowed to pick their own. For Dr. Zagal’s teams there was quite a spread, from XNA and Windows Mobile, to Unity. Students knew that there were members of DePaul’s staff that were familiar with each of these platforms, but also that Dr. Zagal was not familiar with all of them. Regardless, he felt that if a given team had a comfort level with a platform, they should be allowed to proceed. The next 16 weeks would effectively be the longest crunch time of their short careers in game design, and the students that I met all performed admirably and presented solid games.
From this point on, the games very clearly diverged. Each took on a different set of goals and objectives, different missions and ideals. But all of the teams relied on a similar background earned through more than three years in the College of Computing and Digital Media. Several of these teams have compelling stories to tell — something I look forward to doing for Fringe Busters in the weeks to come. After demoing the games in June and speaking with each of the teams, I’m excited to get other GWJr’s opinions of how the results stack up. There are side-scrollers and serious games, first person physics puzzles and pop-culture mashups. It was quite the rogue's gallery, but I think that you’ll be pleased at Dr. Zagal’s students and the work they created.
At DePaul you may not get as much repetition and grind as you do at The College of Anonymous Spacecraft X, but by god do you get a holistic game-design experience. I think the results will speak for themselves.