At the Casual Connect Asia conference, four game developers and educators were a part of a panel called But You Try and Tell the Young People Today That… and They Won’t Believe Ya. The panelists reminisced about what works, and what doesn’t from a decade of teaching students the Art and Science of Game Development. In speaking of his students at Digipen, Joe McGinn admits that he is “a little jealous of them. I wish there had been a program like this when I went to computer science I was learning how to program myself in my spare time on my Commodor 64 at home. When I became a game designer, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing.” The students have a great opportunity to really get immersed in the industry and learn.
Could hockey really be a stepping stone to a career in the game industry? For Joe McGinn, department chair and senior lecturer in the Department of Games Software Design at Digipen Institute of Technology, Singapore, it was. He was skating almost as soon as he could walk and, like many young Canadians, dreamed of playing in the NHL. In the ’90s he was writing game reviews when he met some people from Radical Entertainment who were working on a hockey sim, and suddenly, he had found a new dream job. He pitched his expertise in interface (UX) design to make the transition from programmer to designer with the company. Unfortunately, his beginning was not as auspicious as it first seemed; four months after he joined Radical Entertainment, the company lost all four of their game contracts in the same day. And, as Joe says, “Welcome to the game industry!”
Always a Gamer
He was also a gamer from as early as he can remember, starting out with Pong. He quickly became fascinated with programming, asserting that a PC was then the best possible toy, but programming was about the only thing to do with it. And he would have joined the game industry immediately if he had known it existed.
The success of The Simpsons Hit & Run, still the best-selling Simpsons game ever, is the career accomplishment that has given him the greatest pride. He credits the success of the game to the talented, passionate team he worked with at Radical Entertainment and the maneuvers of Producer Vlad Ceraldi with Fox Interactive. At that time, despite the fact that most games were created for multiple consoles, they were still required to be finished in only 12 months. But because of the success of The Simpsons Road Rage, Vlad convinced Fox to allow them an extra three months for a follow-up game. Since this meant the game would come out in February, he was then able to talk Fox into an extra six months to polish the game for a Christmas release. According to Joe, those six months made all the difference in turning a good game into a great one.
By 2008 the game industry was changing and the mid-core market was disappearing from consoles. Activision Blizzard, then owned by Radical, saw this coming, but was contractually obligated to deliver a game under its Dreamworks contract. They offered Joe the lead design role in Taipei, Taiwan, where he found a lovely country and wonderful people. After finishing this game he moved to Shanghai, China, to work for Disney, but what he really wanted was to work on an online, free-to-play game, preferably in a genre he hadn’t done before. So he came to Singapore to work on Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon Phantoms, a free-to-play team-based hardcore shooter.
Transition to Teaching
While working at Ubisoft, Joe began taking the first steps toward his third and current career. For some time he had wanted to try teaching, so he began teaching part time in the evenings. He loved it and discovered he had a talent for it, so when he had the opportunity to teach full time he immediately took it. Although he had worked on “fantastic franchises and great teams” in the game industry, teaching lets him give back. It allows him to give young designers and programmers an advantage that was not available to him.
Joe gained his first experience teaching as a lead designer, mentoring less experienced teams and creating workshops on such things as level design. Yet he believes that in some ways the most helpful experience for his teaching career is the credibility he gets with students through having worked on well-known games such as Simpsons Hit & Run and Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Joe admits that all teachers love the brilliant students, those who create award-winning games in a very short time. After all, they make the job easy and the teacher look good. But his favorites are the struggling students. They have ability; they have drive, but they are not sure they can make it. He emphasizes, “If I can help them first survive and then prosper, nothing feels better than that.”
“How can I best engage the young creative minds that have been entrusted to me?” This is his greatest challenge. “I’m overcoming this by awareness that I don’t know everything and by not being afraid to ask more experienced teachers for advice.”
Most people in the game industry believe virtual reality will be the next important trend. But Joe expects augmented reality to become an even bigger trend, truly mass market. He says, “By the time something like Microsoft’s Hololens can fit in a comfortable pair of glasses, or even contact lenses, AR will be the next revolution in computers. It’s the thing that’s going to replace smartphones.”
To deal with the changes coming, Joe is working to get devkits as quickly as possible so Digipen graduates will be able to develop games and interfaces for the next-generation devices. He has ordered an Oculus devkit and is already looking for a Hololens. He believes the only way to handle rapidly changing technology is by being proactive rather than reactive. So it is essential to have VR and AR before they become main stream. Digipen offers a four year university program; a current technology, for example, smartphones, might no longer be as important by the time the students graduate.
One of the most effective tools Joe has found to support the students is Unity. Unity includes tutorials and information on every conceivable game development challenge, so it is extremely effective for students. And there is huge demand for people experienced in Unity.
Another outstanding tool for their program is the internally developed component-based game engine called Zero. Digipen offers degrees in computer science as well as game design and art. One of the requirements for programmers is to make a game engine from scratch in C++. Having the source code for their own game engine allows them to teach this piece by piece. First-year students can then work through difficult pieces like physics and rendering, and, in later years, develop everything.
Joe insists that the remarkable Research and Development Department is an outstanding team essential to the work Digipen is doing. Not only has this team developed their game engine, they have also worked with clients such as Boeing, Lotus FI and Valve.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.