Born and raised in Key West, Florida, this is my first semester at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at UCF and I’m having a blast, working a lot and learning even more. FIEA is a graduate game-development program within the School of Film and Digital Media. In 16 months, I’ll earn a master’s degree in Interactive Entertainment.
I’ve been playing video games since I was four and I’ve been designing my own for almost as long. Now I’m 21 and in the producer track leading teams of my fellow students in rapid development, learning about the industry and refining techniques for creating new designs.
Thursdays always seem to have it out for me, and this one’s no exception – I’m five minutes late for my own meeting. Staying up late completing a rapid prototype for a completely different project isn’t a fantastic excuse, but because the prototype – a massive board game sprawling across four tables – is in the same room as the meeting that I’m now marching in double-time towards, my development team is suitably entertained in my absence.
I push open the door and am greeted with jeers of derision for not being on time. It’s just what I want to hear – if they can say it to my face, I know they’re ready to go to work. We’re working on a game for our Rapid Prototype Production class.
I keep things to a minimum, giving them a document that gives us a comprehensive look at the objectives that the player will try to accomplish in the game that we’re building, what they need to do it, and what rewards they reap. In three minutes, the rest of the team has clear art, audio, and programming objectives due for the weekend: the halfway mark in the two weeks that we’re given to design and build the game. We quickly prioritize what we should do if we have free time, and then the room is clear.
A missing document sent me rushing home and back like some sort of cartoon hedgehog, but now that I’ve got it, the team knows pretty much where everything is going to happen and how each scene needs to be positioned.
After two cups of coffee and a round of Guitar Hero in the student lounge, I’m ready to switch gears back to my rapid prototype project, which I’m developing for my final presentation in my Principles of Interactive Entertainment I class. Sheets of paper representing city streets and buildings form an elementary maze across which march index cards full of taped-on figures, ready to confront the giant robots waiting for them at intersections, their electric brains equipped for justice.
It bears remarkable similarity to the scenarios I’d create for myself when I was a kindergartener, but the behind the toys on the table is the ruleset for the gameplay mechanics behind a strategy game that I hope is the winning presentation in my Principles of Interactive Entertainment I class. As our class visit to EA’s Tiburon Studio the previous week confirmed, the rudimentary action-figure layout is the perfect model for experimenting with key concepts that are most easily changed in the earliest stages of development. What makes a game fun? What makes a game balanced? What makes a game original? How can I design a game with my development team’s strengths and interests in mind? I gear myself up for a quick run through the game when one of my professors, Ron Weaver, stops in to see what’s going on.
“What’s this?” he asks, playing with one of the robot enforcers.
“It’s a new game with robots in it,” I reply, “Would you like to play it?”
“Yes I would,” he says, already sitting down.
The dice roll, the figures move, the statistics change. He seems to be having fun amassing an army and destroying things, and I’m learning not only about the way the game should work, but also about how I need to present the game to my peers. Other student producers here will be presenting rival ideas, so I don’t just have to design my game to be good – I have to present it so that it looks like a better eight-month project than any of the other ideas. This will be the toughest sell I’ve done all semester, and the winning game pitch will be developed as a team project over the next two semesters. I make a note to start rehearsing early. I underline it for good measure.
Even in just an hour, I’ve already improved and tweaked my prototype design for an optimized experience. But despite the fun the professor is having tearing down buildings and battling mechanical enforcers, we give it a rest – he’s got a class to teach, and I have to attend it.
My Production For Media class begins to settle in once everyone arrives; I wrap up a quick match of King of Fighters on my Dell M70 development laptop that every student gets when they start at FIEA. The best part is we get to keep them even after we graduate.
The first half of the class deals with industry submissions and approvals. What will the executives expect? What about the marketers? The ESRB? On any given day, we’ll be learning about how parts of the industry work, how other people in the pipeline do their jobs, or the history of game development. I’ve still got my projects on the brain and do some side documentation as I listen in.
An early dinner is postponed when my fellow classmates get caught up in an impromptu programming class. I head back to the cohort space. Everyone has their own desk area, and the whole of the student space is littered with game paraphernalia; posters, toys, figures, game packaging. My own space is mostly surrounded by Kingdom Hearts materials, with an additional helping of miniature pirate ships. I spend my time tinkering with a mock budget for a theoretical fighting/adventure game that I’ve conjured a feature list and a task schedule for, as a primer for the real thing. The lessons learned in my Production For Media class are making themselves useful in our primary development projects: the beginnings of a feature list for my current game is already coalescing in my brain.
Dinner time. The local barbecue pit is just a minute away, so I meet up with my game development team for a bite to eat. We’ve still got games on the brain, and the discussion is largely project-related, with a standard helping of verbal barbs and rips as accompaniment. None of us have known each other for more than the three months that we’ve been together at FIEA, but we’re drawn together by common interests and a will to go beyond the expectations for not just what we’re doing now, but for every assignment. Any observers hearing the constant abuse we hurl at one another would think we’d been comrades since primary school. But it’s great because the rapport we’re building this semester will set the tone for our future interactions. It’s easier to manage a team of friends than a team of strangers.
Evening has settled in, and everyone’s still here. Walking back to my desk, I can see that the same crowd is punching away at lines of code, rattling out sound effects, configuring user interfaces. A programming student named Jennie Gritton brings me a list of what she’s got done and what needs a decision. We work through it and round out a list of definites and two or three hypotheticals that we’ll decide further down the scope. Every step of development brings up something new to consider in a future iteration.
Tonight’s task is user interface, specifically our item screen. I crank out placeholder imagery for the coder to layout the design and get it functional. There’s a steady flow of dialogue, thanks largely to the fact that my programmer’s desk is right next to mine. Yet again, half of what’s said is making fun of each other for having done something wrong, right down to spelling mistakes. The other half of it is actually relevant to the design – what goes where, when should buttons appear, what sounds and images should be tied to actions, what’s working and what’s not. Thankfully, tonight, most of it works.
Our user interface is complete and implemented. We’ve got a new list of stuff to work on tomorrow. The workday is just about over, and practically a third of the class is still here – it’s time to play video games.
Three hours of real-time strategy later, it’s time to head home.