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Game 101: inside the world of student game design


Hark at Tripwire vice president and former modder Alan Wilson, waxing apoplectic on the subject of university games courses:

“We’ve been jumping up and down for about the last five years, going, ‘It’s all very well learning bits of CE and Java, but the industry uses engines’,” he said. “We want people to come out of universities with skills, creativity, to get working. I don’t want to spend the first months teaching them what an FPS engine actually does.”

Staffordshire University run four different games courses, and their staff have the voices of industry figures like Wilson ringing in their ears. Consequently, they’ve take steps to make sure none of their students leave without some practical grounding in the way games are really made. While their students might be variously studying character modelling, texturing, realism and theory or game narrative, all come together for two semesters for a big engine-based group project. That’s students, in the course of two semesters, making an entire game.

Over the course of the next five months, a dozen teams will build their games in the Unreal engine’s development kit, UDK. They’ve each been tasked with producing a design document for a game based on one of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and are now setting about bending Epic’s engine to their collective wills and vision.

That’s where we come in. Between now and May, Paul and I will be tracking five of these teams in the wild as they engineer minor miracles and come to terms with heartbreaking compromises – in short, as they live game development for the very first time. We’re going to do this because it’s bound to be a bloody good ride, and because we hope it might inspire a few amateurs to start working on something themselves.

Of course, building your first game in Unreal is a bit like being asked to drive to the shops in a starship. How well do students cope when given the keys to a commercial engine?

“Well, we don’t give them much choice.”

That’s Nia Wearn, Staffordshire uni games lecturer and the module’s leader.

“It’s really helpful for us to be able to support the module with the wealth of extra information [available] for the Unreal engine,” says Nia. “It helps the students’ research skills too. They are also fully aware of the capabilities of the engine as well so they have something to aim for.”

XCOM and Dishonored. Mass Effect 3 and Hawken. All Unreal games released in the last year. Those targets may be distant, but as a former modder told me not so long ago, foolish ambition never sits more comfortably than in the lecture theatre.

“Especially as students,” said Wilson, “at the end of the day these guys and girls can do whatever they like. Just go and create something really offensive or deeply stupid or whatever. Who cares? Because if you get into the games industry you’re not going to be able to do that. Very high probability says you’ll be creating something for Mickey Mouse or whatever it turns out to be. And your creativity will be very focused, very channelled.”

So what can we expect? There’s Rapunzel, a 2.5D platformer which follows the titular princess’ hair up an ever-climbing tower; The Golden Twins, a frantic chase on foot through a dense cityscape; The Grimm Battles, an arcade fighting game which bids fairytale characters pugilate each other for whatever reason they can find; Shard, an action-adventure thing which rattles through the seasons and currently boasts a very pretty waterfall; and Hansel, an Amnesia-inspired take on the ‘…and Gretel’ myth which features more dry ice than the West End.

Expect, then, to see the silly, the surreal and the cerebral squeezed down the pipes of student game production. And if we’re to take Nia’s word for it, expect to see something rather accomplished emerge from the other side.

“If last year’s students are anything to go by we’re in for some really good work,” said Nia. “This is the first year we’ve asked for a full game as opposed to a more vertical slice single level. The work so far has been excellent but it’s a long time between now and the hand in May.”

What do they say about aiming for the stars? Something about Icarus. Stay tuned over the next few months to see the stories of five very different games unfold.