The art of levelling up: student club fills the void of a game development program

Game Makers

A student works at her game on a laptop, while GMU president Jordan Sparks is seen in the background at the club’s weekly meeting. (Eman Ali / Ryersonian Staff)

A group of students huddle around a single computer on a snowy November night as one man jabs at keys. He manoeuvres what resembles a cart filled with balls over a digital landscape on the screen as it tumbles about aimlessly.

“We’re thinking of introducing the concept of ‘levelling up,’” Dante Camarena says in a room in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. “You could start with a level zero badge and build up from there.”

“Like boy scouts or something,” someone adds.

“What do you guys think about that?” Camarena says.

“I like it,” chimes a voice from the back.

“But what if I don’t have any experience and make no progress?” someone asks.

“Then you don’t get any badges and feel discouraged and never come back to the GMU,” Camarena retorts, to laughs.

GMU stands for the Game Maker’s Union. It’s a Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) group that meets weekly to create video games. From the programming and debugging to the art — they do it all. The group was the recipient of the RSU’s highest member engagement award last year, so badges or not, they’re doing something right. GMU is also one of the only places on campus where anyone can learn to make a video game, and is a solution to the unfulfilled demand for a game-development program at Ryerson.

The club was founded in 2009 by a group of friends that came together to share their enthusiasm for video games. It has since expanded to five heavily involved executives and 15 to 25 students per meeting.

They didn’t always have a high retention and member engagement rate, however. When Camarena, the GMU’s director, joined, he noticed that while everybody was enthusiastic about video games, no one was actually making them. He then created programming and coding workshops that he wishes had been available to him when he was learning the ins and outs of creating video games.

The GMU found that while the game development workshops received a positive response, people didn’t always stick around to finish making their games. The group’s focus shifted from trying to attract newcomers to teaching and supporting those that were serious about creating their video game.

As a third-year computer science student, Camarena has extensive experience in software development. He was a senior developer for MixItMedia and a programmer and game designer for Plutoware Interactive.

However, previous programming or coding experience is not necessary to join or create a game in the GMU.

“Anyone can make a game,” says Jordan Sparks, the group’s president.

Sparks graduated from Ryerson’s new media program last year and is completing his master’s degree in media production. Sparks had no experience in game design when he joined the group in his second undergraduate year. He learned all the practical skills of game design from being in the GMU. He then took advantage of the flexibility of the new media program to incorporate video games into his thesis project. It featured a game called Who Are You? where the player answers a series of psychological questions and goes through corresponding doors in a hallway to reach a self-reflective conclusion.

Sparks thinks the GMU is filling the void created by Ryerson’s lack of a game-development program. “And because of that, we’re not going to expect everybody who comes through the door (to be an) ace-level game developer,” he says.

Game Makers

Two GMU members collaborate on their game development. (Eman Ali / Ryersonian Staff)

There has been talk since last year of the creation of a game development program at Ryerson. According to Imogen Coe, dean of science, the program would have been a joint effort between the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) and the computer science department. The draft for the program, however, hasn’t seen any progress since it was last proposed and hasn’t yet been presented to the Senate.

Coe says the delay is a result of “issues of resources.”

“It would require new faculty hires to support the courses and develop the research and programming,” she says. The university is constrained by a limited number of hires, which has prevented a possible game design program from forming, according to Coe.

An interdisciplinary video game development program would be especially difficult and expensive to organize, Sparks says. It’d have to cover the basics of coding, 3-D modelling, storytelling, art and design, which is why the computer science department would have to collaborate with creative departments in FCAD, like the RTA school of media.

A specialized game development program also requires the university to rethink the current design of computer science classrooms. A study conducted by the University of North Texas analyzes the challenges of teaching game development in post-secondary institutions. It suggests that because of its collaborative nature, game development can’t be taught effectively in the standard computer lab found in the George Vari building. It also notes that students in the program are particularly enthusiastic about what they do and “tend to be rowdy and loud.”

The computer science department has secured the GMU a computer lab in the George Vari building for its meetings and has equipped the computers with software like Unity, a popular tool used for game development, to create games.

“I definitely think there’s a demand out there,” Coe says. “I think it’s an area of growth and interest. You never know how much of a demand there’s going to be until you start it.”

Colleges like Sheridan and George Brown already have these types of programs. Carleton University offers a computer game development degree and the University of Toronto allows their computer science students to pick game development as their focus.

Kris Alexander is an RTA professor who teaches a popular introductory course called Gaming Theory and Practice, by the end of which each student creates a game. The only one of its kind at Ryerson, it’s open to anyone interested and usually has about 80 students enrolled, most of who show up consistently.

“What (the GMU is) doing is setting the stage for the importance of gaming in the school (and) in this department,” Alexander says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

For Liam Clarke, a first-year business technology student and GMU member, making video games may turn into more than a hobby. After acquiring Unity in the summer, his interest in game development piqued, making the student group a perfect place to explore his skills and options. He and a partner are working on a two-player game similar to the popular iPhone app, Temple Run, featuring a rat traversing a never-ending terrain.

Game makers 1_websized

Orelle Fitoussi, a Ryersonian bachelor of commerce student, works on her game at a GMU meeting. (Eman Ali / Ryersonian Staff)

Unlike Clarke, fashion design student and the GMU’s head of marketing, Morgan Brandt, had no previous interest in playing video games, let alone making them. Brandt recalls manning the display for Fanatics Domain, a group dedicated to popular fandoms like Marvel and Legend of Korra, at a Ryerson club day last January when then-president, Ian Najstus, approached her. She was sitting behind the Fanatics Domain table when they began talking about the GMU.

“(Najstus) was just so passionate about it that he convinced me to crawl out from underneath the table,” she says. “I went over to their display … and play-tested some of the games they had.”

She signed up to join the club and attended her first meeting after a class ended in the engineering building. She hasn’t missed one since — she’s hooked.

Initially, Brandt focused on developing art for other members’ projects, but she soon had ideas for a game of her own.

“When you’re with a group of people who are just so excited to do something, you can’t not get excited to do it too,” she says. “The energy is just contagious … and then you start to actually work on something and you get that feeling of accomplishment.”

While the thought of creating the next Mario Kart might sound fun and exciting, video game development, even in an extracurricular group like the GMU, isn’t easy.

“What you see is a lot of people come in at first and then people drop off. You don’t see them again because there’s a little bit of that (learning) curve to get over,” Clarke says.  Luckily, most of the executive members are there to help newbies understand the technology.

Until there’s an actual game development program at Ryerson, the GMU will continue to be a placeholder for it, while inspiring people to become interested in creating video-games.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Jan.  21, 2015.

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