Whether you’re into RTS, FPS, RPG or all of the above, you’ll need to level up before you can go from easy mode to expert.
If you think games are hard to play, consider this: Making them is even more complex.
By the time a game hits store shelves, every aspect of it — from the sound to the text, the art to the code — has gone through rigorous consideration and testing. When you consider that it all happens in an ever-changing ecosystem of consumers’ tastes and technology offerings, it really forces you to appreciate how far we’ve come since “Pong.”
If you want to be a content creator or start your own company, you’ll need to build skills that can be used to create a portfolio, and the connections to network with people already in the industry. Schools like Alma College, in Alma, Michigan, where game design is taught as a course — along with complementary, multidisciplinary instruction in areas like computer science, math and English — can help get you reach the hallowed halls of Nintendo, or wherever else you want to be.
Lauren Woolbright, an assistant professor at Alma, shared some insight on the game design course.
What’s in a game?
Since it came out 10 years ago, Cards Against Humanity has become a staple of adult parties. You and your friends may have giggled at the offensive, risque and politically incorrect words and phrases printed on the cards in your hands. But are you able to say what the game stands for, as a whole? What do you think the designers intended to say about society when they created it?
To answer that question, Lauren assigns students a “content analysis.” They take all 550 cards out of the deck, put them on the table and look at them at the same time — not just hand-by-hand. They look for themes and messages, trying to get down to the bottom of how CAH was made, and why it is so successful.
Students teaching students
At Alma, there are actually two game design courses — one upper-level and one lower. Upper-level students are required to design a presentation for the class, and are given a lot of leeway to discuss the topics that interest them.
In one recent course, Lauren said, a student presented on the topic of modded, or modified, games, in which players or fans themselves alter games which have already been released. It’s considered outdated to think that games won’t be modded after they are released, she says — and the authorship that comes from players having the control to guide their own experiences offers some really cool results.
Another student presented on a couple of horror video games, “Until Dawn” and “Dead by Daylight.” Going beyond what makes the games so fun to play, Lauren said, the student dove into how narrative structure and technology have made horror a great genre for the new generation of video game systems to explore.
In both cases, these presentations discussed topics that are being held today — and will continue to be held in the future — in meetings at the world’s biggest video game companies. Students learned, from each other, about theory and practice in video game development. It goes way beyond “just playing” video games for fun.
Work hard, play hard
Speaking of playing games — there is a lot of game-playing that happens in Lauren’s game design courses. It’s not just for fun, however. There’s a lot of learning involved.
One of the students’ last projects involves play testing games that their classmates have made. In Lauren’s class, play testing is a rigorous process, taking several class periods, where game players test every possible outcome that can come from every conceivable decision someone could make. A designer has no idea how a game will be received by the general public until they watch someone else play it, Lauren says, and the process is always extremely enlightening for students.
Video games have been animated by computers for some 30 to 40 years. But a trend that has come up in recent years, surprisingly, is hand-drawn animation. Dundee University, in Scotland, teaches courses in hand-drawn animation — and Alma College students can get there by taking a study abroad course. Find out more on alma.edu.
Have you ever thought about making your own game? Want to learn more? Visit alma.edu to learn how you can get started in this growing (and fun!) industry.