In May, Rilla and I travelled to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to run a three-evening workshop at Western Arctic Moving Pictures (WAMP) as part of the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF), a large scale grant we’re both co-investigators on. A major part of the IIF’s mandate is to facilitate Indigenous people’s imagining and envisioning of themselves in the future through digital technologies. As such, the workshop in Yellowknife was aimed at teaching Unity to people up that way. (Note: not everybody who attended the workshop identified themselves - at least to us - as Indigenous, and it wasn’t any kind of requirement.)
Developing the workshop
We’d initially been thinking of teaching GameMaker for the workshop, but ended up moving away from this because the technology has changed a fair bit since either of us had used it, and because it felt, in the end, overly complex for the timeframe. Instead, we went with Unity in no small part thanks to the existing resource of KO_OP’s How to make cool stuff in Unity. Importantly, KO_OP’s tutorial assumes no prior experience, and introduces you to creating simple models in SketchUp, importing them into Unity, lighting them, and adding a character controller to experience them ‘in person’.
What’s wonderful about the KO_OP tutorial is that it makes the really fundamental elements of creating a 3D game (or experience) feel like it’s possible for you, even without some pre-existing relevant training or ability. You really do go from nothing to having a little world (albeit probably misshapen or imperfect) that you can jog around in, bump into, and admire. This was the tutorial that got me started in Unity and led me to make The Stolen Art Gallery, for example.
We wanted to capture that feeling of understanding the baseline possibilities of Unity and ending up with your own world, but quickly determined that teaching SketchUp along with Unity was going to be overwhelming, particularly thanks to the frustrating little differences between their interfaces. Instead, we focused on creating a world by teaching Unity’s Terrain and how to obtain and position assets from the Asset Store. Similarly to KO_OP, we included some basic discussion of lighting in Unity, and extended the idea of ‘worldness’ by including a basic introduction to Unity’s sound possibilities, particularly in terms of extra-diegetic music along with in-world sounds.
A basic outline of the workshop goes like this (each ‘day’ was a three hour session):
- Day one: The basics
- Introducing Unity as a tool
- Navigating the scene view
- Adding and manipulating primitive 3D objects
- Using the Asset Store to find 3D objects
- Adding a character controller and entering the world
- Day two: The terrain
- Recap of day one
- Adding and sculpting a terrain with brushes
- Adding a character controller and walking on the terrain
- Painting textures on the terrain
- Adding trees, grass, and water
- Basics of adding 2D and 3D sounds to the scene
- Day three: The jam
- Recap of days one and two
- Basics of lighting in Unity with directional and ambient light
- World-jam for rest of the session to create a scene that conveys an idea/mood
- Show and tell
(Naturally there are many, many details involved in actually teaching this material, but the basic structure was as above, with one of us to be demonstrating the techniques on a computer with its screen projects, while the other person talked through the ideas and went around the room helping people who got stuck.)
The workshop was definitely a success in terms of the participants being empowered to create their own 3D landscapes populated with objects/structures and sounds. There was an impressive diversity of work that came out of it in the end, from a car driving around on a lava planet to a deep-sea dive amongst whales to a psychedelic Trump and Putin hell-scape. Perhaps most importantly, then, we could absolutely see participants expressing their own personality through the tool, a good sign that the ability to use that tool had become natural enough to be playful and thoughtful.
In the Yellowknife context specifically, this kind of workshop doesn’t necessarily come around often, and we heard from multiple participants that it was a very significant experience for them in terms of opening up the possibilities of developing their own games. This was further emphasised by the fact that a number of the participants quickly made plans to meet up again to do online tutorials together and to eventually work together on a larger project.
Overall, we think that the structure of the workshop helped make these things possible. Notably, we made a conscious effort to keep the scope of the workshop fairly small, such that it would be possible to reiterate the key skills more than once over the days, and to make sure that the core workflows and activities that are most basic to Unity would be internalised. Additionally, we went with the ‘grain’ of Unity by focusing on a small set of its technological possibilities that is does exceptionally well: world building and lighting, asset placement, environmental sound, and first-person navigation. Unity takes care of most of the hugely complex aspects of these formidable game development challenges, making it possible to teach them in a short period of time and to give participants a sense of creating a really substantial chunk of what makes up a game.
These kinds of workshops are nothing without great institutional support and great participants, and we got lucky with both, which isn’t a given. The combination of what we think is a solid introduction to a number of Unity’s key strengths with ready and willing hosts and participants led to some genuinely excellent work, and a lot of promise for the future.