June 2012 | Home
Video: If a box is "still unpacked," does that mean it's still full or still empty?
In this month's column, Victor Katch hits us where it hurts: right in the gut.
Discover the ties that bind Bonnie and Clyde to Superman and Streisand.
Video: Equipment manager Jon Falk reflects on nearly four decades working with the Wolverines' football program.
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Let the Games Begin
June 20, 2012
You are navigating the jungles of the city, desperately trying to catch the bus. You're dodging traffic, jumping skateboards, and avoiding construction zones. But first, you must make a game-changing decision: Would you rather be a hippo, a man, or a mouse?
This is the theme of a video game designed by three engineering students at the first-ever "Sid Meier Game Design Boot Camp" at the University of Michigan earlier this summer. Sponsored by Microsoft, the camp featured lectures and activities from designers at that company, as well as EA Games, Zynga, and Binary Creative (founded by U-M alum Matt Gilgenbach).
As in all video game scenarios, one key player emerged as dominant. When asked what drew them to the camp, the participants immediately exclaimed, "Sid Meier!"
Meier is a verifiable celebrity in the video game world, designing such popular games as Sid Meier's Civilization and Sid Meier's Pirates! He is one of the rare game developers who can claim to be a household name.
A U-M computer science alum, Meier came up with the idea during a visit to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department where his son, Ryan Meier, attended. Ryan graduated in 2011 and now works for Blizzard Games.
"I would drop by every now and then to see how he was doing," Meier says. "It was fun to see how much things have changed. When I started, the computers here were not like they are now!"
Meier returns to campus often to give lectures in the Computer Game Design and Development class taught by John Laird, the John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering. It was during one of those visits that Meier proposed the idea for the boot camp. The inspiration came from so-called "game jams."
"'Game jams' are weekends when programmers don't eat and don't sleep for 48 hours. That's fun, but it's limiting in what you can accomplish," says Meier, who wanted to create some structure and instruction to the setting, and maybe add a different aspect to it—"like sleeping."
Theory into Practice
Twenty-two students from five universities were selected to participate. The game described above, called The Bus Chase, features a design team from three universities: U-M senior John Kendall, Michigan State senior Yue Lu, and Georgia Tech junior Ross Regitsky.
"This gave us a lot of insight behind the theory of game design," says Kendall. "We got to take a step away from the code and think about the whole user experience. That's not something we get to do often as engineers."
The students used the Unity game development tool, which allows one game to be adapted for multiple platforms, including the PC, a mobile device, or even Facebook.
"I found out that for social games like Facebook, the average user is a 43-year-old female. That blew me away!" admits Kendall, who believes the future of gaming is in the social platform where games can reach a wider audience.
Lu agrees. "I think the future is in changing the way you control and interact with the game—there will be more assets and a more social aspect to it."
A New Platform
Many of the games built at the camp were developed with that in mind. Almost half were designed using the Unity platform, including the game Pantheon Puzzle Platform designed by Michigan State senior Chris Flynn. In this game, the player is required to appease four gods in various levels, ranging from watering the plants for the god of agriculture to killing bears for the god of death and chaos.
In another, designed by University of North Texas grad Mary Yingst and Alicia Avril of Full Sail University, the player tries to move a dolphin through the water by creating and then riding on eddies and ripples—at the risk of crashing into rocks.
"In my classes we would spend an entire semester working on one game. Here, we had to do it in two weeks," says Yingst.
Laird, who teaches the second-oldest video game design class in the nation, says this workshop was designed to allow students to get a game up and running fast, and give them an opportunity they wouldn't ordinarily get in a classroom.
"We asked them to do something a little risky," says Laird. "Something you couldn't do in a class because you might be worried about succeeding or failing. Here, if you fail, that's okay."
Students, who were all required to have previous programming experience, were expected to brainstorm, design, and then implement a game from the ground up. They also participated in creative exercises, such as designing and playing board games in a group environment. The workshop ended with a showcase where they displayed their work to each other and the public.
Even Sid Meier's mother, Alberdina Meier, attended the showcase. A proud mother, Alberdina bragged that all three of her children graduated from the University of Michigan. But when asked if she plays video games herself, she laughs, "I haven't had the time!"
is a writer and web content specialist on the communications and marketing staff in the College of Engineering.