Hard Sells
(or all of the above)
Part 2 of 4


ITP 499, Video Game Production, had assignments. Lots of them. More than 60% of the course grade was decided on written assignments.

Hopefully the above shouldn't be a surprise to anyone reading this. As a 400 level four unit class, students should come prepared to put in serious effort. Students are required to show something for the time they spend in the class. Underwater tetherball - Phys. Ed. 101 this ain't.

Unfortunately, there were some dangerous precedents set for the class well before the semester started. Many taking the class this fall semester saw what was being done in the first experimental incarnation of the course, which is to say: not much. The most popular activity in the specialized video game lab some 10 months ago was Super Smash Brothers Melee. Followed closely by some incarnation of Grand Theft Auto. Followed by whatever the flavor of the week game was.

What does one expect when every station is outfitted with one of the three current consoles, a Sony widescreen LCD, and a few dozen games?

This fall semester, I was certain I could make some changes. I could buckle down and get these guys to use the creative and productive tools available to them. Get some guys to play around with 3D Game Studio and Renderware and the other middleware tools the school has made available to them. Maybe see if some guys would be interested in any of the groups around campus that are making mods and full-scratch games. Get some guys to help out in the commercial handset game that a few people in school are partaking in.

In other words: something related to making games. Surely some people in the video game production class would be interested in, oh, you know...PRODUCING GAMES?

Because they certainly weren't interested in learning the material for the tests. Which brings me back to my opening thought: assignments. While we, the TAs, thought that this would be quite the weekly chore, it turned out there was a good bit of entertainment to be gleaned from our lengthy grading sessions. Since this course will not be offered in the coming semester in its current form, there is nothing keeping me from posting such examples of fine test-taking as:

Atari was founded by Nolan Ryan.

The players' willingness to immerse themselves in the fantasy environment you create is called Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming.

While originality sells, one area of design that greatly benefits from reusing successful predecessors is: Music.

Despite early success, Dance Dance Revolution failed due to uninspired gameplay, expensive and unreliable laserdisc players, and huge production costs.

Occlusion is: Something a Level 43 Druid can do in Diablo II.

(These came straight from the multiple choice section of this semester's exams.)

And while students attending my lab sections had little problem with the mid-term exam and other written assignments throughout the semester, the other two sections didn't do nearly as well.

Probably because they were doing the exact same thing that students did last semester, except with Soul Calibur II in the place of GTA3.

Now, there actually is a class for guys who want to play games, and that's the video game testing class: ITP 499, Quality Assurance in Interactive Software. I actually wrote the first iteration of the course syllabus. (No, that's not the original name. The things you have to do to put things by the curriculum committee...) Bug testing, focus testing, concepts, and game critique were the focus of the class, and those guys got their credit hours worth in the work they put into that class. Almost everyone who took that class, expecting for fun ride by playing video games a few hours every week, was at their wits' ends trying to make sense of the MMORPG the school was lucky enough to use as the subject for this course.

While I didn't tell the director that I had an agenda, and the final iteration of the syllabus was toned down, the message was clear: QA testing is difficult and thankless work. Isn't the point of college to prepare young adults for the trials of adulthood in the working world?

Which must be why the other TA's Video Game Production lab consists of playing Smash Brothers on Fridays...

But before we go down that path, let's talk about the last assignment these Production students had to turn in before the final exam. Students were encouraged to make something original, either by using the middleware that was available in the labs or by modifying existing games and creating original levels showing clear structural elements discussed in class. Those proficient in coding were further encouraged to design and code a small original game. In my own lab section, I had the pleasure of watching some really great ideas come alive. One person made an interesting take on Asteroids with obstacles you could bounce off of to maneuver away from enemies but (SURPRISE!) they could persue in the exact same manner. Another did a surprisingly entertaining 3d game where the player had to grab jewels that were thrown from erupting volcanoes. There were a few other projects worth mentioning: the beginnings of a Laura Bow-style mystery done in Director, a well crafted Command and Conquer level...

But then there was the untextured room with the evil sorceror. And the pool with the evil sorceror. And the garden with the evil sorceror. (The joy of middleware tutorials.) About half of the projects fell into this category. There were some very good designs made entirely in 3D Game Studio, but these were few and far between. Putting some enemies and weapons into a hollow box is not game design.

And then there was the guy who turned in a 3 year old Japanese doujinshi shooter with his name placed in the title jpeg. He called it a mod. "I changed some of the sprites," he said. Not cool.

In the end, the professor and I were appalled at the students' inability to exert effort in the assigned projects. We wondered: Could we really grade these kids so harshly? For the first year professor and me, the first year TA, we look for an answer from higher up the chain-of-command.

We ask Johnny.

"Well, this is supposed to be a 100 or 200 level class once it gets in the books, and it's the intro class for the more specialized classes in the video game program. Don't be too hard...we just won't allow them into the next tier of classes."

The next tier consists of three basic paths: design, programming, and art. "These are the real classes..." Johnny says.

So production really doesn't mean anything?

"Well, there is a bunch of it that we cram into the beginning of the design course," he says. "But we'll still have the production class."

Is that why it still hasn't passed the curriculum committee to be placed into the books for next term?

"Well, there's a bit of a problem with that at the moment..."

It seems that looking at the new semester syllabus and the actual class content (and subsequent comments), there was some disappointment expressed in this ITP class being less "hands-on" compared to other ITP classes. The thought proffered was that perhaps there was too much focus on historical concepts...

"These kids should already know that stuff, right?"

Vincent Diamante likes to think he knows stuff...

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[Part 1]

[Part 2]