This weekend, I had an amazing opportunity, I joined a small group of teachers from across North Carolina at Epic Games in Cary, NC to learn about the Unreal Game Engine!
Our visit started off with a tour of the facility or at least the areas that we were able to see, that is. The first stop was a hallway lined by framed examples of products put out by Epic Games over the years. I never realized just how far back Epic's history went. It all began with a map on paper in 1991 and a game called ZZT with all of Epic Megagames titles distributed on floppy disks. I was thrilled to see Jill of the Jungle from 1994 on the wall which I had received in a mail order package of games back when I was in college. Somehow, I never realized it was created by Epic! The "wall of fame" identified several game titles such as Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Infinity Blade, Fortnite, and of course, the release of the Unreal game engine.
The hallway opened up into a large open space where we were first shown pictures of Epic's teams located in offices all around the world. Epic is a private company but they have several worldwide offices including teams located in Germany, China, Canada, the Chair team, and so forth. But, their Cary headquarters contains the largest collection of employees in a single location.
This large space was also their cafeteria. We were informed that at Epic Games, all of the food and drink in the cafeteria is completely free. Employees can work long hours and Epic doesn't want their employees to have to worry about leaving the site to grab a bite. This is especially important at crunch time, when employees are likely to spend very long days in the office. I also noticed they had some areas to help employees blow off a little steam: there was a climbing wall, a slide from the second to first floors and several tabletop games such as air hockey. It looked like the game room also gave employees a place to play video games but it was nice to see they had options that allowed them to do things away from a screen if they wished. I'm sure that is important when you spend all day looking at a screen and a break from it might be nice at times.
When our tour ended, we returned to a conference room for the meat of why we were there: getting some hands-on experience with the Unreal game engine from the experts who created it! The conference room itself was amazing. They had set up laptops with separate keyboards and mice for us to use along with snacks and swag to take home. The hospitality they expressed was amazing and something that we, as teachers, are not accustomed to receiving. It was definitely appreciated!
We spent the next several hours going through the game engine. We explored interface basics and how to move around in the engine, creating a basic projects, basic workflow and standard naming conventions, working with objects (actors) and using blueprints for coding actions. To be honest, it was a ton of information and I could have easily spent several more days just getting my feet wet with it. But, a few things were abundantly clear to me from this experience.
For starters, using Unreal is a lot easier to understand than the Unity game engine, which is what we currently use in Game Art & Design as well as Advanced Game Art & Design at DSA. A lot of the features overlap between the two engines, especially when when you look at creating environments. And, the basic tools are similar to other software students learn, such as 3ds Max. But, the biggest thing that students struggle with in Unity is understanding the basics of programming using the C# language. This is often the point of contention for most of my very artistic students and while they can follow the steps in a tutorial, I often find they don't understand why they are keying in what they type despite several weeks spent on learning C# coding. Unreal helps to destroy this barrier of entry using a method known as blueprints. Blueprints are a node based method of writing code using a more visual interface instead of keying in line after line of text. In other words, it is very intuitive. That being said, one can access the code itself and code away to their heart's content, but they don't have to for the majority (or even any) of the game development process unless they really want to. This by itself makes moving to the Unreal engine highly enticing.
The next thing I noticed about the Unreal engine was the level of immediate functionality it provides to young game designers. Almost immediately, a student can get a game up and running simply by dropping any of the predefined actors into a level. Support is provided for common player modes including: 1st and 3rd person, puzzles, wheeled and flying vehicles, and even virtual reality! Creating the environment is as simple as painting what you want on the mesh using tools that are easy to understand. The same is true in terms of materials/skins and using particles, though the student will need to edit simple and easy to understand parameters as well. In short, students can get the basics down in a matter of minutes, not weeks!
Another important thing to note with respect to teaching young developers involves having access to up-to-date resources regarding the tools they are learning. Unreal has this mastered in a neat and easy to use online compendium of resources. One of my biggest complaints with Unity has been how they keep adding more resources with minimal updating for the current engine version they offer. In other words - they leave old tutorials relevant to earlier versions without providing easy to find information on how or even if they work with the latest version. It's a growing list with minimal replacement going back several versions that makes finding relevant resources more difficult, though not impossible. So, I am not a fan of their support site.
As a teacher, another area of importance to me is how well a company supports education. Epic has done an amazing job with this! The sheer magnitude of educational resources provided, access to in-engine assistance, and having expressed a willingness to help educators and students in person really fits the bill on this issue. Representatives from Epic games have been helping local colleges for quite some time now and we were the first group of high school teachers they have worked with but they expressed interest in continuing the conversations with us over time. Personally, I am looking forward to this and commend Epic for putting such effort into educating young game designers!
Also on the educator side, CTE teachers are constantly being told about the importance of making local industry connections for our students. Epic is a worldwide company that is directly relevant to our curriculum and students AND they are located right in our own backyard! On top of that, they are the creators of what is arguably the most popular game in the world at the moment. What more could a game design teacher want in terms of creating connections between content and industry outside of the classroom setting than to make a connection with them?
At the end of the day, I left mentally exhausted with a ton of reflect on. But, one thing is certain: I am completely sold on the idea that making the shift from the Unity game engine to the Unreal game engine is something we need to seriously consider. The cost is right (Unreal, like Unity, is completely free to use and contains no information sniffers, so privacy is ensured), it has a lower barrier to entry for learning, and with the company being local, especially when Unity is not local, makes Epic Games a great hands-on inspiration and resource for both students and educators. But, making this move is not without difficulties.
The Unreal game engine really needs a higher quality computer than what we typically have in our classrooms. My student machines are running with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an older NVIDIA Geforce GTX 680 graphics card. I have tried running Unreal on this setup before (and plan to test it out again soon) and as I recall, the experience was excruciating! The engine lagged, it stopped running at times or had graphics issues and it crashed, quite a bit. Maybe I need some assistance tweaking settings to make it operate more efficiently and plan on reaching out to Epic once I verify our specs, but the laptops we used in the training were i7s with NVIDIA 1070 cards in them. I forgot to ask how much RAM they had. Testing the engine on my personal laptop with an i7, 16GB, and an NVIDIA 1060, it runs smooth. So, we need to think about what we purchase when replacement machines are due for labs teaching game design. On the bright side, the cost of such high quality hardware continues dropping every day and finding a system with the specs to run Unreal for a reasonable cost shouldn't be too hard by the time we are due for replacement machines.
A second concern is the discussion of 2D vs. 3D games. Unreal is designed mainly for 3D game creation and we didn't discuss the possibility of 2D in our training, but there are some options for game modes that imply it can be used for such. This is just something that will need additional investigation. But, I wouldn't let this stop me from using Unreal in my classroom.
In short, nothing is perfect, especially when talking about using technology in a public school system setting. But, I believe the pros of making a switch from Unity to Unreal far outweighs the downsides. So, I'm going to make a concerted effort to ensure we can and do make this change, supporting a local NC business while that same local business supports our education efforts.
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.
This past week, I attended the NCTEDE Annual Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. While there, I had the opportunity to both learn from other Technical Education teachers as well as present the work of my CTE Advanced Studies students. I am going to review some of what I experienced while there.
I will begin with my presentation, since it was in the first time-slot of the day and probably what most of my readers are most interested in anyway. Although I could have taken on many different directions with my presentation (talk about VR in the classroom, discuss group projects, discuss many of the problems and solutions we have come up with, etc.), I chose to discuss how a project like ours can be a good replacement for the traditional internship. How, might you ask, is this possible? Well...for years, our school has not had a Career Development Coordinator (CDC) assigned to it. This individual is the go-between for both CTE teachers and their central office as well as those teachers and the community, including finding internships. Because we have lacked this role at our school, we have had a difficult time finding internship for our seniors. This problem is escalated when you consider that most companies in the game industry have strict confidentiality concerns with bringing interns from what is often their target market through their doors. This is where the Prison Flip Project takes over for my seniors. Throughout this project, the students are working closely with two distinct groups of professionals, which allows me to consider this project more like an internship that an Advanced Studies class.
The first group is Lucid Dream VR. Lucid Dream has been our mentors throughout the process. They have assisted us as consultants and guides throughout the process, much like an internship's supervisor would do for the students. When the students have experienced problems, the members of Lucid Dream have provided instruction and assistance. They have been the individuals who have truly made our ability to do anything with virtual reality possible!
The second group is Growing Change. Growing Change has been a real-world client for the students' project. They are the reason that we are creating the VR walkthrough and they will benefit from the class' work the most. So, without them, we wouldn't have the opportunity to have our "simulated internships" environment either. So, by thinking outside the box of what is normally considered to be an internship, I am providing my advanced students with the opportunity to get all the benefits of an internship without leaving the classroom setting.
Another item from the conference that i want to touch on involves teaching 3D modeling techniques. Working with 3D has never been one of my stronger skills but after lots of practice and research, I found ways that worked for me without using (many) of the state's outdated video tutorials. But, at the conference, I attended a session on teaching students to complete the 3D modeling unit in Scientific Visualization. This talk sparked an idea that I used just this morning with my students. Normally, I lecture using the state's PowerPoint, then I might walk them through the interface and let them attack a number of video tutorials. No more!
While I am giving the class the lecture material for use when studying for quizzes and tests, I am not lecturing it. They are intelligent and can read as well as I can read it to them with minimal added commentary, as that is all that is really needed. Instead, we dove straight into 3ds Max. I started by showing them a few of the items in the interface that they will need to get familiar with and where things are located. During the training, the speaker demonstrated making a dog. I decided to change things up a little by telling the kids: Today, you are making an elephant! We didn't cover every tool or technique they need, but it did give them a glimpse into how one can quickly and easily model change a simple primitive, like a cube, into a complex object. Over time, the modeling and relating techniques will get more involved but for now, this simply set of instructions appear to have really motivated the students about 3D modeling!
Last Friday, the students in Game Art & Design attended the US2020 STEM n Art Expo at The Frontier in RTP. This was the second US2020 field trip I have taken students on in the past couple of years. This expo presented them with an opportunity for them to learn about different ways that various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers use art to accomplish their goals. The event was split into three experiences: Path to the Park, Speed Mentoring and a Food Truck Rodeo for lunch.
Most students seemed to really enjoy the speed mentoring the most. In speed mentoring, students had an opportunity to speak with four to five different individuals while discussing what they do in four minute bursts. It was interesting to see the kids move around quickly to interact face-to-face with complete strangers while not being distracted by each other or their technologies. This may be something I can use in my classroom, though not in a mentoring fashion.
In Path to the Park, several displays were set up featuring a wide variety of careers. Students got to take part in a wide variety of hands-on exhibits ranging from scientific research to audio and graphical work. As one would expect, the display to draw the largest interest from both my students and the kids in attendance in general was display on virtual reality. This booth allowed students got to experience an HTC Vive by using Tilt Brush to paint in 3D space. This display was was the most relevant exhibit to game design, though they did have a hacking Minecraft display as well.
While you would expect an hour of downtime for lunch during the Food Truck Rodeo, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had set up one more display outside. While the focus for most kids was on eating during this time, several explored a display on robotics. They also enjoyed checking out the makeshift shop they put on-site.
The only surprise, or downside, to this event was that there weren't any representatives from the game industry present. Seeing as we have such a large game industry in the RTP area, this really surprised and disappointed me. But, overall, this field trip was a success as kids got to see that the skills they learn as game design students can be transferred to a wide variety of careers. There seemed to be a lot of younger students in attendance. This makes me wonder if I should take Sci Vis kids next year instead of Game Design...or maybe both. Regardless, I would definitely consider taking students again next year, depending on the topic of the event.
As a Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I understand how powerful it can be to expose our students to industry experiences. And, over the years, I have done so at every possible opportunity. This is one of the reasons I take my advanced students to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC) every Spring. At the conference, they get to hear from and interact with industry leaders in the game industry. But, I also want my younger students to have this kind of exposure as well, even though I know they are not ready for the freedom and responsibility that I provide to students attending such a large scale event.
Last year, I took my students in Game Art & Design to the US2020 RTP STEM Expo, which focused on the game industry. This event had the feel of ECGC on a much smaller scale. It gave students access to both industry professionals and colleges/universities that offer degrees in game design, allowing them to hear about the various topics that matter to the industry while exploring industry careers and the higher education needed to attain them. The size of the expo made it more suitable for my younger students and easier to supervise them. I will be taking this year's GAD students back for their second expo in a few weeks which is focusing on the use of art in STEM careers. While it's a more general topic than the previous expo, it still equally relates to our game design concentration.
Another way I can expose students to industry professionals involves inviting guest speakers to visit my classes. Although this does not always work out as I often have two classes of the same curriculum separated by one or more periods each day, I haven't had any issues so far this year. My schedule is really convenient for guest speakers staying for multiple classes for the first time since I started teaching. Over the past two weeks, students in Sci Vis have been introduced to two industry professionals who spoke about using visualization techniques in their individual careers.
The first to visit my class was assistant director Richard White. He has worked on films such as Terminator: Genysis, 300: Rise of an Empire and the upcoming Max Steel as well as several TV shows. He explained to the students how digital effects are an integral part of the film industry, even at those moments when you think they are using live special effects such as bullet shots. He also explained how they use digital mock-ups of scenes for previsualizations in order to make the live shoot go much smoother and to make directorial edits before involving the entire film crew and actors.
They were also visited by Colin Dwan from Prologue Games, located right here in Durham. He discussed what skills are used in the creation of his narrative style games, which are currently being converted to VR. He provided real-world advice that mimics the information I give my students about employment in the game industry from a position of personal experience. This is something I am unable to do for them and it is always powerful for them to hear about how difficult it is to work in the game industry as well as the skill set they need to develop and how it connects with what I teach them over their four years in my classes. He also explained the tools that are used in the creation of his games, most of which are learned by students in the GAD concentration throughout their time in high school.
However, hearing from industry professionals is not solely important for my younger students. My CTE Advanced Studies students are working closely with the team from Lucid Dream VR in creating their virtual reality experience for Growing Change. In doing so, they get to learn how the same tools that create video games can be used outside of the game industry. They also learn what it is like to have real-world clients, how to work as a small design team, and how to overcome project difficulties as they arise.
Down the road, I have plans to bring several other professionals into my classroom. My daughter, Melanie Fisher-Wellman, who not only graduated from DSA herself but is the creative director for Boostopia B2C can speak as a graphic designer on the importance of understanding how to use the design principles as well as elements of design. Pierce Freelon of Blackspace Durham, a hub for Afrofuturist thought, can discuss his creative ventures in support of African-American youth. In the past, I have brought in Dr. Chris Hazard of Hazardous Software who works in the field of game theory both in terms of his own game company and as a contractor for the federal government. And, having such a huge connection to the game industry in our area, I am currently attempting to make some connections at Epic Games as well.
Each connection with industry professionals that I can provide gives my students a unique perspective on the creative industries and how the digital art are used outside of a school setting. While I hope these connections inspire my students to be even more interested in my curriculum and aware of how the skills they learn in GAD relate to more than just video games, hearing from industry professionals can also provide direction to students who might not be sure about what they want to do some day after high school.
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.