Game Studio – An Unconventional Game Design and Development Course

To the casual observer, Jerome Solomon’s Game Studio class – a game design and development course – at USV might present an unremarkable first impression. When walking into the class, one sees 25 students at their workstations. An alert visitor might first note how the room is quiet and yet active at the same time. Looking closer, they might notice that each student is working on something unique. They are using different tools to do different things, all at the same time. Some are working in code, whether C sharp or Python. Others are working in Maya or Photoshop. Still others are deep into a spreadsheet or word processor. More interestingly, students regularly get up and walk over to their colleagues to hold mini-conferences to resolve questions as they come up. What’s going on?

Key Takeaways from the Game Design and Development Course

“The goal of our Game Studio class is to put students in an industry style production studio”, says Jerome Solomon, Dean of the College. “Students are grouped into functional teams in order to build a working game for a client like AC Transit within a two semester time period. They use industry standard game design tools for version control and team communications as well as for game development and production. In addition, they must interact with each other to design and develop a working game product, provide updates to our client and receive feedback every step of the way.” As an upper division college game design and development course, Game Studio has helped USV’s game program achieve a Top 20 ranking from Princeton Review in 2016. Alumni from this program have landed positions at established companies like Google, Accenture, and 2K Games.

Working with a client like AC Transit, students in this game design and development class learn to pitch their ideas and receive feedback on a regular basis. The class is frequently broken into teams to prepare presentations or updates. Advanced students earn team leadership roles: for game design and UI, audio, engineering, art and project management. “I get a strong sense that I’m developing the problem-solving skills that will carry me forward through my industry career”, said Sean Langhi, an engineering lead on an earlier Game Studio project who was later hired by Google.

The Game Development Course That Transfers Thoughts to Things

Students take on responsibilities in this game design and development class related to their abilities and the needs of the team. They learn the process of agile development, of scrums and sprints, while they conceptualize and prototype a game in one semester, then develop and release the game in the next. “I pretty much have to interact with just about everybody,” said design lead Jacob Levine. “Every day I spend my time designing new game features or game play mechanics, even evaluating camera angles to determine what will be the best UI”. Another game designer, Mohammed Zaid Shaikh developed the idea of progressive generation, where an AC Transit bus will drive through an endless cityscape with new buildings and roadway appearing automatically as a series of tiled 3D objects. “As the bus is moving, the tiles will randomly spawn. I made those tiles.” The early project prototype illustrates this tiling functionality along with rough audio and user controls.

In a game studio environment such as this, students do what they came to learn. The high degree of coordination across functional game design and development groups in the class enables them to dive into problems as they come up. Cory Binkerd is on the UI team and found himself rigging the foot of a three dimensional human character to enable it to move within the game. “Normally you would do this by parenting one joint to another joint, but in Maya, you have to create a handle that attaches to the first joint and then the second one in order for them to move correctly. Someone figured this out way before me and posted their solution on youtube so I don’t have to figure it out on my own.” Cory also happens to be colorblind, so the team decided to take that into account. Engineer Christian Saario used Python to create a gray scale script for the artists so they can work in grayscale to ensure that the game works for colorblind people.

A Culture of Practice in the Game Design Class

“This class enforces doing things the right way”, said Cody Wright, a member of the art team. “If you do things the wrong way, you have to go back and fix it and that takes up a lot of time”. The entire class learns what moves the project forward, and what they can do in their own role. With a UI/Design team of three students, nine engineers, five digital artists and three on the sound team, the team structure enables students to figure things out as they go.

Says Jerome Solomon, “We have some students who are more senior and some are less experienced. The games that we typically try to create in Game Studio go across many different facets of our game design and development curriculum. They really learn to depend on each other.”

Assessing Proficiency, Teamwork and Purpose

A simple measure of output reveals a secret strength of the Game Studio class. Over a two-semester cycle, students will check-in over ten thousand individual pieces of code, artwork or other documentation. That pace equates to roughly 3 commits to the version control system every class hour for every student. With so many more data points at his disposal when compared to a more traditional college environment with weekly assignments, rubrics for evaluating performance can be quite nuanced and helpful to student success.

Separate grading rubrics for engineers and artists help drill down to expose three dimensions in which students can excel: technical proficiency, emotional intelligence and personal integrity. These map nicely to the professional world where hiring managers choose candidates who are strong in at least one area, recognizing that some technical superstars can be difficult to work with, some skilled communicators may lack technical chops and some people just make others work better around them. With many opportunities to contribute to the class, students feel empowered and tend to commit themselves more fully.

Bugi Kaigwa led the art team on an earlier project and now works in a similar team environment at 2K Games. When reflecting on his experience in the class, he said, “Game Studio was a great opportunity for me because I got to work with many different people with different skill sets and different temperaments. Learning how to function in an efficient team was a learning experience for me and relates directly to what I am doing now.”

Subscribe to the Newsletter