One of the first decisions a game designer needs to make is what game engine they plan to use when developing their idea into something other people can play. If you don't already know, a game engine is the basic software framework used for the creation and development of video games. They typically encompass several different engines packaged together under one larger system, each handling specific tasks including rendering, physics, collisions, animation, artificial intelligence, and so forth. While one can always build their own engine, there are lots of options available for use that can save a team tons of time and effort. In fact, many game engines are free to use until you start shipping games. At that time, you typically have to pay a small fee which differs from engine-to-engine. Here in NC, the state has endorsed the use of two different engines since the early days of the GAD courses: Game Maker and Unity.
Over the past couple of years, I have been a good employee and followed the state's lead in endorsing these engines for use in my classes. However, we ran into a glitch earlier this year. For some unknown reason, despite nothing changing on my computers, Game Maker decided it would not run for the students in GAD. So, knowing that Unity added support for 2D development in recent years, I decided to move them straight into Unity. I thought: how much harder can it be and what are the benefits of doing so now instead of waiting a year?
The benefits were clear: since they need to learn C# to code for 3D, having them start now means they will be even better at it next year. Also, it would give the students experience with a professional tool that is widely used in the industry. CTE directors are always touting the importance of using industry-standard tools, especially software, so this plays up to their desire to do so. And, I found some great introductory tutorials by Brian Moakley on the Ray Wenderlich tutorial website for free to teach the students the basics of C# programming. So, what could go wrong? Plenty!
For starters, learning the basics of coding via the video tutorials should have taken a week...maybe a week and a half for those who really struggled or slacked off. I went through them and there was nothing truly difficult or too in-depth. It took considerably longer. I helped the students through the process as needed, but the idea that attention to detail while coding, especially things like being consistent in spelling, capitalization and punctuation, simply didn't sink in for many of them. There is a reason coding is compared to learning a foreign language. As is the case with learning any written/spoken language, programming languages have their own sense of grammar that needs to be closely adhered to or one's code simply won't work correctly. This makes programming less forgiving than spoken languages.
Next, some of the students really struggled with the concept of simple programming logic: conditionals, loops, variables, etc. These logical, left-brained concepts made my creative right-brained students' heads spin. But, eventually they all finished the tutorials and could start working in Unity 2D. This opened up an entirely new set of problems as the students continued to struggle with the coding.
Game Maker was awesome because it allowed students to learn coding logic and design with a bit of a cushion that Unity does not provide by being graphically oriented instead of "grammatically" focused. Students in GAD, being more creative than analytical, tended to pick up the basics well this way and appreciated the visual aspects of a simple interface. I saw a lot of the same problems with coding from my students in AGAD this year as well. Which makes me wonder: is Unity the best choice for high school students when it comes to selecting game engines?
This weekend, I decided to examine a third option: Unreal Editor 4 by Epic Games, located right here in Cary, NC! UE4 is another game engine that is used all across the game industry. While I am only just beginning to examine UE4, I have to say that I truly like what I see. The interface looks and feels a lot like Unity. Sure, there are different names for each panel and different options on menus, but moving around and the tools are not completely unfamiliar to me. Where I do notice a huge difference that gives UE4 an advantage is the coding is handled.
While one can (and probably will eventually need to) get into learning C++ coding to create desired games, a lot of the logic can be setup using what they call blueprints. So, what are blueprints and why do they matter? At its most simple explanation blueprints are objects created using a form of visual scripting. Much like Game Maker, this means it takes away a lot of the confusion of coding logic for individuals who are more artistic in nature. For more on Blueprint and its related objects, check out this UE4 video on the subject!
Where does this leave myself and my students? Personally, I have a lot more to learn about the UE4 and it seems I will have a very busy summer doing so. While I am under the belief that it will not run on the school computers due to lack of necessary hardware resources, I'm going to try it anyway! I haven't given it a shot yet and want to make sure my earlier beliefs are true before making huge changes to the program. But, I have quickly taken a liking to UE4, preferring the interface and tools over Unity, and believe my students will as well. While it is too late in the year to make such a switch now, it makes me wonder about doing so next school year. And, like Unity, UE4 offers options for both 2D and 3D development, though most people use it for 3D alone.
This past week, I brought 23 students (and a fellow educator) to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). Doing so has become an annual event for my most advanced and/or most promising game design students. I generally take students who are currently in CTE Advanced Studies and Advanced Game Design as well as a handful of students in my Game Art & Design classes. Attending the conference gives students a chance to learn about topics that are relevant to the game industry from professionals as well asspeak with representatives from colleges/universities that offer degree programs in game design. Typically, ECGC is a major highlight of being part of the Game Design concentration at DSA for many of my students.
In the past, I have spoken about the importance of making real-world industry connections for students, so I will not bore my audience with a repeat of that information. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on this topic, check out these filtered posts. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about the sessions that I specifically attended this year. Due to transportation conflicts, we could only stay at the conference a limited amount of time each day this year. While this meant missing several presentations, it did allows us to hear up to three talks per day and spend some time checking out booths manned by schools and companies. The talks that I attended included:
I want to focus on one of the talks I enjoyed enjoyed most this year which fell in the Art Track: Snyder's talk on digital painting. During his talk, Snyder explained how it is extremely important to examine different artistic styles, and not just those of a digital variety. He stressed how examining the way artists use a number of techniques like oils and opacity with paint on canvas can improve one's digital skills. Snyder pointed out that you can look at the work of video game artists and trace back their influences in a clear and concise manner all the way back to the classic artists who inspired those artists they were inspired by while learning their craft. But, he didn't just state the importance of looking at the classics, he also encouraged examining more modern art and how it pushes current conventions to its limits. He noted that by taking the time to become more knowledgeable of style, one also learns to pay closer attention to detail. This, in turn, helps them become better digital artists. A second thing he stressed was the importance of not overusing the undo option. To quote Bob Ross, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." Sometimes, it is the mistakes that help to make an artistic piece really shine or focus the viewer's attention to the part that really matters.
After making sure everyone understood why examining traditional art was important, he discussed the artistic tools he specifically uses when creating a digital work. His main tool set includes: Photoshop using a simple round brush with sensitivity turned on and an inexpensive Wacom Bamboo tablet! He then demonstrated how he uses classic paintings to improve his skills. He began by opening an image of as painting by Sargent in Photoshop where he noted the manner in which Sargent used oils to build up paint, forming his self portrait. He then began blocking out a copy of it using the digital tools in a space next to the painting. It was nowhere near polished but in less than five minutes, you could clearly see the features coming through. Snyder's talk will become the inspiration for a new assignment on digital painting techniques to use in class next year. But, I will have to flush that out more over the coming summer.
Over the past few weeks, dare I say two months, I have struggled with being a teacher. Between Winter and Spring Breaks is always a difficult time for many teachers and I am no exception. If you look at my blog regularly, you may have noticed the drop-off in posts. This is a large part of the reason for this lack of writing. But, the end is near and I am rejuvenated after last week's Spring Break! I am hoping the same goes for both my fellow educators and my students alike! So, it is time to return to regular writing habits.
Over the next two days, I will spend time with my advanced students (and a handful from GAD) at the East Coast Game Conference. While we cannot stay for the whole day because of bus issues, the students will get to hear six talks by professional game designers as well as meander around the expo hall to see displays and speak with both professionals in the industry and college/university representatives about their programs. Each student (and myself, of course) will be doing a blog post as a follow-up assignment to attending the conference. So, early next week, take a peek at the student blogs for the Advanced Game Design and Advanced Studies students if you are curious to see what they took away from this always important experience! And, come back here to see what I found interesting about this annual experience.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.