Game Design: Students & Faculty Collaborate, Innovate in Diverse Courses

Kellyn Borst demonstrates the use of the Leap Motion sensor on her laptop, showing her avatar's hands on screenKellyn Borst demonstrates the use of the Leap Motion sensor in her game prototype

Gaming is storytelling. From a design perspective, a good game presents a world that is both accessible and fantastic; at its center are good characters.

The cross-disciplinary educational opportunities for gaming at CCA combine the latest tech with back-to-basics instruction on character development and world building, with the goal of training designers to create a fully immersive experience for the player. From this simple model, infinite variation emerges.

“Animation instruction hasn’t really changed since it was taught with pencils and paper in the 1970s,” says Animation adjunct professor Ken Cope. What has changed is the speed at which certain steps in the process can be accomplished and the variations in style afforded artists through digital tools like Photoshop and TV Paint.

He highlights new technologies like “augmented reality,” which takes gameplay off screen and superimposes it onto our three-dimensional reality -- so the baddies that used to scroll from one side of the screen are able to leap at players from the walls in their living room, not just with goggles, but with smartphones.

Student Creates a World with New Tech Tools

CCA students like Kellyn Borst (Animation 2016, MFA Comics 2018) are already making use of these new technologies, as is evidenced by her prototype, Dredkuld. In the world on screen, everything is white. The wind is high, and hidden in its howl is the voice of a goddess.

All you have to guide you through this blizzard are your wits and spells. Your avatar is a shaman, a manifestation of the goddess who shares a name with the game, trapped in a snowstorm.

Borst’s vision is still developing. As it stands, the snowdrifts that impede your movement are white blocks you can disperse by grabbing onto them or by casting spells, depending on their size.

Even in its beta phase, Dredkuld is an interesting digital interaction, and you can sense Borst is creating a sort of spiritual successor to games like Myst and Shadow of the Colossus. An Xbox controller moves your avatar forward, backward, and side to side, but there’s an element to the movement that’s not so familiar. In order to cast spells, you must abandon the controller in favor of your hands by themselves.

With the help of a Leap Motion sensor, a rectangular device one-quarter the size of an iPhone, your real-world hands are recognized and digitally represented on screen. So when you open your fingers to let fly a bit of magic, you can see them spread apart in the digital world as you push the snow blocks out of your way.

In its final form, Borst intends for the game to operate using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, meaning the user will be in the middle of a 3D environment.

Complementary Skills of Game Design Instructors   

A healthy balance of self-confidence and generosity helps game designers avoid building a system that, to the players, feels like it’s them versus the designer (a game of control). Having some distance -- and a scientific approach to the design -- is very beneficial, but most important is the designer’s sense of empathy.

This quality becomes especially important with games involving virtual and augmented reality, like Dredkuld. The worlds these technologies make possible are stunning, and they can have a somewhat hypnotic effect on the user -- which is why CCA students are fortunate to be in the hands of faculty members Chris Platz and Rob Hamilton, the self-described “good cop, bad cop” tandem game-design teaching machine.

Platz and Hamilton are longtime friends and collaborators. “We have very unique skill sets that make us a good team,” Platz says. “Rob handles music, coding, and visual design. I’m a traditional artist with a background in traditional gaming (he’s created interactive stories and worlds for Dungeons & Dragons for over 30 years), illustration, and character modeling.

Their classroom is future-forward, as the instructors make sure students get comfortable using the 3D game engine programs Unreal and Unity and virtual-reality “wetware” like Oculus Rift.

Collaboration Is Key

The consensus seems to be that we will not see the full use of these new tools -- or their full potential -- for a while. Hamilton and Platz are optimistic about where things are going, as is their student, Kellyn Borst.

After years of development, virtual and augmented reality are finally becoming affordable, with a host of new devices hitting the market in the near future, promising the ability to visit new worlds and superimpose digital constructs on top of our regular old reality.

For Borst, the immersive quality of gameplay offered by a combination of these technologies has a lot of implications for interactive storytelling.

“We can move games beyond a win or lose format.  They can be designed with different consequences besides ‘Game Over.’”

Platz talks about being able to sculpt in a 3D environment using a virtual reality headset while friends in other places across the globe do the same thing, so they can work on the same project simultaneously.

“Who knows where it’s going to go?” says Platz. “There’s no predictability beyond the fun stuff we can do with it.”

This story is an abridged version of a feature that appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Glance magazine. Read the full story, p. 5.