Game Design Experience

Early Years

With great thanks directed at my parents, I do not recall a time in my life without video games. When I was five years old, my dad acquired his new Windows 95 computer. No longer needing his DOS based machine, he gave it to my two brothers and I. My older brother and I adored this miracle device. We learned how to insert the large five inch floppy disks, call up the correct code to run it, and opened a whole new world of incredible possibilities. My favorite by far was Mega Man, the first of two outsourced games produced by Hi-Tech Expressions Inc. The game was subpar compared to Capcom developed Mega Man titles, but as a fan of the television show, I couldn’t get enough of playing as my hero. Many hours of Risk, Monuments of Mars, and Mega Man were put into that computer.

Following this, our parents purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System – subsequently giving me access to my first official Mega Man game. This, too, occupied much of our time. Not only did these two gaming systems breed in me a love of games, it drove me to play them at every turn. If I could not find a game to play, I made one. At a time when I was watching a television show called Voltron: Defender of the Universe, I constructed an elaborate board game to mimic the show. I recall changing the rules as we played because I saw ways that it could be better, and in the mind of a five or six year old, when is a better time to change the rules than while you are playing? At one point, when my older brother and I were obsessed with a text-based adventure game called Enchanted Castle, we created an imaginary live action text based game in our basement, where one would describe the location and the other would take actions.

Games influenced much of my early life, and I loved both the playing and creating of them. At the library I saw the older kids playing BattleTech at the age restricted computers, and I knew that a whole world of video games existed that I wanted to be a part of.

Age of ZZT

As the years went by we acquired a PlayStation and my dad’s computer – which now sported Windows 98e – once he upgraded to Windows XP. Around the time I was in 5th grade, my older brother and I discovered ZZT. This program, though a little antiquated, opened up an entire world of possibilities. Unlike any other game I’d played, this one contained within it a game editor complete with a rudimentary programing language. My brother and I undertook the task of building a game together. He grasped the intricacies of the language faster than I did, but, over time, I began to understand. Near the end of completing our game, I had learned to create complex animation sequences and interactive scenarios.

After our game was mostly completed, I continued to use ZZT to build new games. I impressed my 7th grade teachers by completing an assignment using ZZT, which I was subsequently told take to the principal’s office to show off. I loved working with ZZT and loved making games with it. This same year, however, our computer underwent a catastrophic crash, and we lost all of our games and work. I continued to make games with ZZT for a while after, but by high school, I was ready to try something new.

Dawn of RPG Maker

During my time in high school, I discovered a program called RPG Maker XP. Compared to ZZT, RPG Maker was far more complex and powerful. I spent a lot of time digging through tutorials and picking through the interface’s menus to figure out how everything worked. Graphically, I discovered how effective layers can be. Layered scenery provides visual depth to a game. In terms of level design, I discovered how essential it is to build proportionally controlled spaces. Too much space makes the player wander or cause travel time to consume gameplay, while small spaces constrict the player’s sense of freedom. The most important things RPG Maker taught me were the principles of events and variables. Events allowed me to easily create storyline points while variables game me an incredible amount of control over the content and flow of the game.

Though I never built a full game using RPG Maker, it taught me many invaluable lessons which came in handy when I entered the next level of development. Late in this period I picked up a programed called Game Maker and built a simple puzzle game called Ball Maze. Then, in college, I was introduced to Web Design and Flash.

World of Web and Flash

As a Freshman in college, I took a visual design course that utilized web development. Though I’d never seen or used HTML or CSS before, it came to me like breathing. I found that many of the principles I’d learned using ZZT applied almost exactly to HTML. The hardest struggle was learning the syntax and grasping how much control I had. With that learned, I explored HTML and CSS with gusto. By the conclusion of the class, I had excelled beyond all of my peers. So much so that the director of my major asked me to work with him over the summer as a research assistant and web developer.

The next year I attended Dundee University, Scotland for a semester in their Digital Interaction Design program. Here I encountered Adobe Flash and Action Script. At the time, AS3 had just been released. The instructor was only versed in AS2. Being ambitious, I self-taught myself AS3 in order to build my final project. It was an immense undertaking, considering the fact that AS3 was my first fully fledged object oriented programing language. All of my previous experience paid off, and I produce a project which received top marks for coding.

It was during this period of web and flash design that I learned the intricacies involved in the field of interactivity. As a research assistant, I read through studies of interactivity theory and gained an understanding of the practical challenges involved in creating a seamless interactive system. This inspired my final project for my undergraduate degree, an interactive storyline called The General (click here to read more on The General).

With my appetite for interactive storytelling kindled, I began looking for new ways to tell stories. My searching took me to Ball State’s Digital Storytelling Master’s Program.

To the Future

At Ball State, I finally came to terms with the question of what I wanted to pursue with my life. It happened when I was asked to write a critical analysis of a story of my choosing built for a digital medium. In this instance, I choose to write my analysis on SuperGiant Games’ Bastion. In the process of breaking the game into its many pieces and analyzing them in light of the whole game as well as the context of the industry into which it was placed, I discovered the last piece of my puzzle. It is simple: I love games. Not in the way a college student might casually love to sleep or play ultimate frisbee on the weekends, but the way a baseball enthusiast collects cards, memorizes stats, analyzes teams and players, and talks with other enthusiasts about the intricacies of a play. For the first time, I dug into a game, found its heart, and saw my passion reflected back at me. From this moment on, my studies, personal and academic, have been towards games.

In the last few years I have explored a much wider selection of game development tools. I learned C# and JavaScript in order to use the Unity engine, Game Maker and the Game Maker Language, RPG Maker VX Ace, and the interactive fiction engine Quest. On the design side I know the Adobe Creative Suite and 3D programs like Maya and Blender. I’ve continued to develop my web design skills, integrating JavaScript and other interactive features into my work. There are many systems still to learn, such as CryEngine and Unreal, but I know that my knowledge base has given me the tools to quickly learn and adapt to any system.

In addition to my technical skills, I’ve also learned a lot about what it means to be a storyteller. While I know a lot about traditional story structure and how it can be applied to a non-linear interactive medium, I’ve also explored the complexities of making the mechanic emphasize the story, creating tone an atmosphere through level design, drawing on simple mechanics to create complex possibilities, and many other design and story-driven concepts.

My love of games has matured. I am no longer limited to enjoying only the experience. Now I analyze the experience, consider its pros and cons, discuss what worked and what didn’t. I have the tools, knowledge, and passion to jump into the adventure that is the world of game development. I sincerely hope that you and I will have the chance to journey through this adventure together.