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  • Teaching Game Design: Problems in Educating the Next Generation

    - Michael Prinke
  •  Introduction

    The digital gaming business has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry that refuses to back down even in the face of broad economic problems and political criticisms. As such a mesmerizing and popular form of entertainment and such a lucrative one it's no wonder that students across the world flock towards it as a career interest. Digital games, though, are still a very young entertainment medium and still a black box even to veterans who have been making games since the conception of the industry.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that techniques in teaching to this industry's needs are only in their infancy. What's more in so many peoples' minds games and education are polar opposites. As such, a gap exists between teaching to the professional goals of aspiring students -- and indeed the companies they aspire to work for -- and the academic goals of instructors, to an almost paradoxical degree.

    Game Design and Production -- Professional Issues and Their Impact on the Classroom

    An Outline

    To understand where these paradoxes arise we must first understand the challenges posed in the industry itself as the challenges in the classroom are very similar. We will cover the process of game development itself and outline the challenges involved, the conflicting points of view that are currently prevalent in the game industry, and how the challenges reflect on academia.

    The Process of Digital Game Production

    The process of bringing a game from conception to production as detailed by Maic Masuch and Michael Rueger is as follows:

    • Developing the core idea
    • Writing a game concept
    • Producing the artwork
    • Programming the game engine
    • Game content production
    • Playtesting
    • Balancing and Bug Fixing

    It should be understood that this process is outlined with reference to a single cohesive product. A finished game, regardless of its genre or scope, is expected to be designed with a series of rules in mind and with a series of elements that all contribute meaningfully to the player's experience. The conception of these core ideas should be a series of careful considerations, and the visuals, sound, and narrative are all expected to be an appropriate reflection of gameplay.

    The process of creating the game content itself, meanwhile, is an intricate collaboration between highly skilled programmers, artists, and designers. Every object in a game world, from the smallest blade of grass to tall skyscrapers and hulking monsters must be conceived, built in a computer either in 3D or as a series of re-useable images called sprites, programmed to be functional, and tested extensively for balance and bugs.

    If we use the metaphor of a painting to describe this situation, though, it's as though one set of individuals drew a sketch, another set are doing the heavy brush strokes, another is doing the light ones, and each person on the team has their nose only inches away from the canvas, working on a single stroke per person.

    One programmer may be working only on a physics engine for the game while another may be working on a handful of artificial intelligences, for instance. Artists may become highly specialized, with whole teams devoted solely to concept art, solely to modeling, solely to preparing models for animation, or solely to texturing models; such is the technical complexity of creating in-game content and the challenge involved with creating a single working asset for a game.

    Managing this process usually falls on designers who oversee the project and have a clear vision of what it should be like when it's finished, but it's a chaotic process and no two companies handle it alike. For instance, the exact role of someone with the title of "designer" varies widely from one company to another. One company may restrict designers solely to writing, communication, and project management while another might expect designers to program or use special in-house software.

    This variance is an issue within other fields as well. One company may define a "technical artist" as one who understands the technical aspects of animation and prepares CG models for animators while suiting them to the technical specifications within a game engine while another may define it as one who draws preliminary artwork that modelers use as blueprints. The corporate culture is such that the term "industry standard" is very loosely used as there are none to truly speak of, owing to the fact that in game development, to borrow a film analogy, the developers have to rebuild the camera every time they want to make a game -- and no one is sharing their cameras.

    The nebulousness of game industry practices coupled with the diversity of skill sets that it needs to function presents a difficult challenge for educators in that no single curriculum can prepare students for every position or every company. Instructors have to find ways to match students' abilities and interests to what exists and help them at a more personal level than one might normally see in a college course.


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