DePaul students show off the future of video games | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

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DePaul students show off the future of video games

Inside the world of an academic game development program.

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Last month, DePaul University hosted its annual game development showcase at the Richard M. and Maggie C. Daley Building on its downtown campus. For the 55 students set to graduate from the university's game development program this year, the showcase was the culmination of their schooling, a chance to share their work with their friends, family, and even potential employers.

"Several years have been leading up to this point," said Will Meyers, one of the program's main instructors. "The students have gone through difficult classes, learning about different disciplines, hitting deadlines, and building camaraderie."

DePaul's game development program, one of the few offered for undergrads in the midwest, is broken into three majors: game design, game art, and game programming. The game dev capstone is a year-end project that brings together students from all three disciplines. In the past, DePaul's capstone has produced two titles that have gone on to become indie successes: Octodad, where players take on the role of an octopus trying to pass as a human father, and That Blooming Feeling, a relaxing game about a water golem tending an oasis. Other DePaul alum have been scouted by local game studios such as NetherRealm, the makers of the Injustice and Mortal Kombat series. 

One computer classroom was converted into a showroom for PC and mobile games, with banners bearing game titles hanging from the ceiling. Another classroom showcased virtual reality, interactive fiction, and tabletop games. By the time the showcase had started, both classrooms were filled with instructors, parents, student developers, and prospective employers. People sipped from beers as they waited for their turns to play each game.

Captain's Hold - LEO HERRERA
  • Leo Herrera
  • Captain's Hold

One of the first games I played was Captain's Hold, a space-swinging adventure with an 80s neon flair. I played a space pirate who must grapple-hook his way into an enemy ship (think Spider-Man in zero gravity) and use his cannon leg to kill enemies and destroy the ship from the inside. "The objective is to always make the player feel like they're moving," said AI and navigation developer Joseph Walker (who doubled as the event photographer). Most of the students had two quarters, roughly 40 weeks, to develop the game. But Walker and his teammates already knew what they wanted to do with Captain's Hold last summer. 

Spacial Delivery - LEO HERRERA
  • Leo Herrera
  • Spacial Delivery

Spacial Delivery was easily one of the crowd favorites in the computer game room. "We wanted to mix the unwieldiness of Angry Birds with Crazy Taxi," said developer Jordan Sharpe. The result: a game that has players driving a truck through asteroid belts, orbiting planets, and delivering shipments, all while exchanging some spicy banter with a boss. The developers ported the title to mobile devices, and an iPad version was available to play at the showcase.

Team sizes ranged from solo developers to as many as ten people. Some team members were artists, working on 3-D modeling or drawing the characters and environments. Others were programmers, writing hundreds of lines of code to assemble the pieces of the game. Then there were designers, responsible for the level layouts and finding the "fun" in the game play. Meyers had arranged a collaboration with an audio class to implement sound effects and music. And everyone was responsible for marketing and squashing any bugs that turned up. 

Each of these games had a certain polish—they didn't just seem like student projects, they looked like games you could buy from an app store. Zac Mascarenas, one of the student programmers, attributed the polish to Meyer's standards. "[He] set out to push the rules and limits of the class to see his students make shippable games," Mascarenas said. While polish was never an objective in previous capstone classes, it managed to produce games that could be put on a portfolio. Meyers treated his capstone like running a studio. The strictest deadline was to have a beta version by the fourth week or risk being redistributed to another team. Not only did it encourage time management, Mascarenas said, but it "scared the living shit out of [them] so no one really coasted through the class."

While Meyers focused on polish and deliverability, Anna Anthropy, this year's game designer in residence, had a different mind-set. Anthropy's class focused on diversity of format and approach. "At the start of the program," Anthopy said, "we come up with goals and expectations for the class; my role is to help them hold on to those visions." In the classroom devoted to VR and interactive games, there was a greater sense of experimentation with the medium. Case in point: The Sanctuary, a virtual reality escape-room challenge. Although there were no jump scares, the dark environments and macabre puzzles (including one where players had to search for keys in hanging corpses) made for an eerie atmosphere ripe for exploration.

"Designing for VR in general is difficult," said The Sanctuaryartist and designer Chris Castro. "We wanted the player to feel immersed, but with as little ambiguity as possible. We had to scale items larger and create shaders [a sort of game-engine special effect] to make it less heavy on the system."

In the tabletop dice-drafting game Planter, players plant flora to make points and combos, with the goal of having the most points by the end. Developer Fabian Garcia wanted to design a game inspired by his roommate's "jungle of a room," and ended up drawing, then digitally editing each plant card. Garcia's goal was to design the tabletop game to be friendly and approachable even for people who don't usually play games.

Curse Bearer - LEO HERRERA
  • Leo Herrera
  • Curse Bearer

Although there were many more, the last game I got to play was Curse Bearer, a choose-your-own-adventure visual novel. In contrast to most of the other teams, the developers were predominantly women, and they shared a common experience of cancer within their families. "Your character encounters different monsters, each a metaphor for an illness or struggle," says Jaye Yetnikoff, the game's primary artist. What stood out to me was the aesthetic: hand-drawn artwork reminiscent of a children's storybook. Even the choices were more subtle, unlike killing enemies or racing to the finish, the game asks you take pleasure in simple moments, like observing butterflies between a conversation, or resting during a battle. "I work with a lot of people that don't play a lot of video games," says team leader Claire Rohrbach. "They're intrigued by the fact you don't just shoot people."

Speaking about the plans for next year, Anthropy hinted at bringing guest speakers to inspire the students. "Something I started doing this year is bringing in speakers from different parts of the games industry to talk about their career paths and what students' careers could look like after DePaul," she says. This year's guests included Michala Braker, a DePaul alum (character designer for That Blooming Feeling) who now works on the Mortal Kombat series, and Jake Elliott, a member of the three-person team who developed Kentucky Route Zero.

"I want to do more of that next year," Anthropy says, "to expose my students to a wide range of development and creative practices and what those potential careers could look like."   v

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