January 12, 2006

Video game development: a new trend and a new class at the Case School of Engineering

VW Lab

He looked kind of like a little red smurf, but Alizarin was actually more like a red roaming gnome trying to make it to the end of a long journey. All the cherubic, bouncy and focused little creature had to do was make his way to 'carnival,' and then his fun would last forever. He made it—but not before he overcame such obstacles as fire, ice, water, wind, cloudbursts, mountains, rivers and rocks—all in a unique, colorful, and complex way.

'Alizarin’s World by Numbers,' a video game created by a team of students from the Case School of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences and the Cleveland Institute of Art, was the biggest hit in the final presentations of Case’s new Game Project Design course which was offered for the first time in Fall 2005. The presentations were given as part of the students’ final grades in the class. Students also produced CD/DVDs of a 30-second 'commercial,' or highlight package, of their completed projects.

Most notably, 'Alizarin' was enthusiastically received by representatives of Electronic Arts (yes, that EA, as in EA Sports, EA Madden) of Santa Monica, Calif., one of the largest computer/video game producers in the country. EA served as advisers to the faculty and students during the semester.

The EA reps, complimentary in their judgment—via videoconference—of the second of four teams’ projects, compared 'Alizarin' to the Beatles’ groundbreaking 'Yellow Submarine,' the only non-Disney animated feature film of the 1960s to enjoy any measure of commercial success.

'Alizarin conveyed the type of complexity that sophisticated video gamers enjoy and are accustomed to,' they said.

'That’s quite a compliment,' said Marc Buchner, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Virtual Worlds Gaming and Simulation Laboratory at the Case School of Engineering. 'You can’t get a higher tribute to your work than that. It just proved that we have such creative students here—not just in the arts and humanities, but in engineering as well.'

Buchner added that the new class far exceeded his expectations.

'Teaching this class has been a fascinating experience,' he said. 'I think all of us had a great time—the students, faculty and the industry people who worked with us. What makes the end of this semester even sweeter is the fact that the students did everything on their own.'

The new class, part of a nationwide trend by American colleges and universities offering everything from video game development courses to full-blown majors, has been featured on National Public Radio and written about in The Wall Street Journal.

The course represented an innovative and successful cross-institutional approach to experiential education. The first class had about 30 Case students (from Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, English and Music) and 20 CIA students. Students were organized into four teams with each team being responsible for the job of developing a computer game from initial concept through to jacket design and testing.

'The students designed their games from initial idea through to the wrapped box,' Buchner said. 'The idea was to experience the entire game development cycle as they executed their projects. They were responsible for creating a game idea, writing a story, developing the artwork, designing characters, implementing music and sound effects, programming and testing the game, and documenting the entire project.'

Buchner also emphasized the concept of teamwork in the class. 'Students from all disciplines who took the game development project course focused on the design and development of a complete, fully-functioning computer game—as a team,' he said.

The Virtual Worlds Lab opened for business at the Case School of Engineering in Fall 2005—with courses, research and experiential learning opportunities—bringing together an interdisciplinary group of advanced undergraduate students in the fields of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), art, music and English, as well as students in the Case School of Medicine, though med students were not part of the initial group of game project design students. The medical students will take surgery simulation courses through the lab in the near future.

The new lab is the basis for experiential work in existing game related courses such as artificial intelligence, graphics and simulation, and for the development of new gaming/simulation courses in EECS. The lab was the classroom for students taking EECS 396L, 'Special Topics: Advanced Game Development Project' and similar courses.

What used to be primarily the exclusive domain of universities and high-tech businesses in California and other West Coast areas, the Case School of Engineering hopes to turn Northeast Ohio into a hub for video game publishing by training students in the latest game technology. The hope is to possibly attract game publishers to the region so they can tap into the students’ expertise, as well as encouraging the students to become entrepreneurs and launch their own companies, Buchner said.

The lab, located on the fourth floor of the Olin Building, features a PC room, a console room, an immersion room, an audio room, a medical simulation room and a virtual reality room containing:

  • 22 High-performance gaming quality PCs
  • Virtual reality components, e.g., HMDs, data gloves, trackers, and haptic interfaces
  • Game consoles, including PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Nintendo DS, PS
  • Large screen 2-D and 3-D projection displays
  • Audio and music production equipment

In March 2005, Case’s new program was featured in an article in The Wall Street Journal on how courses and labs in video game development are sprouting up at several universities throughout the country, not only for the purpose of educating students and answering the demand for new, more educated workers in the billion-dollar video game development industry, but also as economic development strategies. EECS student Christian Miller, 21, was sent to the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to make industry connections for the university.

'I want to give people a better idea of what we’re doing [at Case],' Miller told the Journal. 'Cleveland is pretty much nowhere on the game-development map, so it’s an important step.'

While it may sound funny to some that these students spend a lot of their time in and outside of class playing video games, Buchner emphasizes that students won’t learn unless they're actually experiencing actual game play.

'We want students getting their hands dirty, working on specific projects and learning by doing,' he said.

For more information: Laura M. Massie (216)-368-4442.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, January 12, 2006 04:20 PM | News Topics: Arts & Entertainment, Case School of Engineering

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