Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Look Back at Being A Student of Video Games

Ever since I was young, I was fascinated with video games. I hated playing them, but I would watch my brothers for hours as they journeyed to far away mystical lands or deep into space to fight aliens. It didn't matter, as long as I could just sit and watch as the hard bosses killed them over and over again, until they were so frustrated they quit. It was then, in fourth grade, that I decided I would pursue a career in video game design. I really just wanted to tell stories to people, but felt that writing a book would take way too long for my own patience. Looking back on the decision now, I laugh, because creating a game can take years for teams of up to 200 people to create.

So I might not be the best at making decisions, but I have stuck to that decision since then. It's that decision that drew me to UNC Charlotte, which was local and actually had a Video Game Design certificate I could graduate with alongside my Computer Science Degree. For the first couple of years it was all about learning the basics, which in all honesty I had no interest in. I just wanted to start creating games.

So once day one of Intro to Game Design (ITCS 4230 for those who are curious) I could barely hold in my excitement. It was finally time to make games and get going. And then Dr. Micheal Youngblood entered the room. Within a week people started to drop. We didn't create video games right away, but rather created board games. I was almost heart broken, but I persevered.

An Image of a card from the board game I made
After one month, we were able to jump into code. And code we did. Every week a new assignment was due. Every week new techniques were learned. And every week someone else dropped the course. This sounds bad, but it is just the nature of game design. It's a lot of work. All of that ignorance and ambivalence to the basics came to bite me in the behind as we shifted from simple sprite animation to AI coding and collision detection. Some weeks I wanted to cry as I started aimlessly at two in the morning, coding as best as I could. I spent hours in his office learning new software and better ways of coding. It hurt, a lot. But it was a good hurt. The kind of burn you feel after a great work out.

Then our final month came: one month, a team of four, one game. After hitting the ground running and working tirelessly for three weeks with plenty of stumbling blocks (including one group member refusing to participate), the final week came. The final hurdle. I went to class in the morning, to work in the afternoon, and to the Video Game Lab, located in Woodward Hall, at night, usually until 4 am, and started all over again the next day. The day our project was due, we had stayed up all night, polishing bugs and refining our paperwork and preparing our presentation. With class at 9:30 am, we slept for an hour and a half before downing a cup of coffee and walking into class. We presented our game live, showing a quick 2-player run through. After the presentations, we were to sit down with Dr. Youngblood as he played our game, one on one. The nerves were unbearable as he tore through the game. He then sat down each student in our group, one at a time, and had us display the code we worked on as well as explain what it does. After being under his keen eye for five more minutes, we were free. And we recieved an A for our final project. All of that hard work. All those nights awake and weary days. All the caffeine and junk food and upset stomachs and headaches. All of it was worth it.
A sample image from the Final Project, named Tower Trouble. Check out the link above to play.
I have moved on since that semester to Advanced Game Design and finally Game Lab, but that first semester pretty much sums up my thoughts on game design and working towards becoming a game designer. I will never forget anything I learned in that class, both the lessons taught intentionally (I'm pretty sure I can animate a sprite in any coding language given enough time) to the ones that were not so blatant. In order to get far it requires work, a lot of work. There will be sleepless nights. There will be pain. But it's all worth it. It's worth it to see people enjoy playing your games.

So where to from here? After graduation I hope to gather a small group of close classmates and start creating games of our own to release. With the lift off of mobile gaming, the entire landscape has changed. Large triple-A companies are going bankrupt as the little guy makes small games for phones and computers and prospers. Larger corporations, such as Sony, are turning their large console lines over to the indie gamer as much as the triple-A. Now is the time, and I plan to take it. With a little bit of pain. And a little less sleep.

Brent Metcalfe

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