Even though the Game Art & Design class focuses mainly of the creation of 2D games and their assets, there are also a number of 3D modeling techniques included in the curriculum. One of them involves rigging a character for animation. You can ask any student who has previously taken this course to list what they consider to be the most frustrating activities they completed in that course and my bet is that 9 out of 10 of them will say rigging a 3D model. And, it is with good reason that I would expect this response.
Rigging involves adding bones to your model, connecting them to one another and then making sure the falloff for what they affect works as expected. It can get highly detailed and is definitely not a task for the casual modeler. Most students enjoy modeling but rigging, that's a whole different ball of wax. However, this year, I think I might have found a solution even though it is far from perfect.
Enter Adobe Fuse and Mixamo. Fuse is Adobe's answer to the 3D modeling. It allows the students to create a bipedal character using various body parts that are already modeled, then using slider controls, one can make adjustments to the character. It also has several outfits one can choose from to skin their model. In short, it makes creating a human character exceptionally easy.
Once created, you can save the model to your Adobe libraries for additional manipulation. From there, you can pull the model into Photoshop and by using the 2D Essentials workspace, you can gain easy access to the materials on it for quick and easy personalization of the model's skins.
Now for the best part: rigging! One can pull the model into Mixamo from their Adobe library or if that was problematic, simply export the model from Photoshop into a standard 3D format such as and OBJ file, then import it into Mixamo and utilize their automatic rigging system! You simply define where specific key points are located on the model (chin, wrists, elbow, knee and groin) and the program does the rest! It even has several predefined animations that you can apply to your newly rigged model, then export it as FBX for use in other applications such as the Unity game engine. It couldn't be simpler. The only downside - it only works with humanoid bipedal models. So, if you want to rig anything else, a monster, vehicles, etc., you still have to rig it from inside a program like Autodesk 3ds Max. But, for getting down the basics, this process should work.
Now for the real test of this change in how I teach rigging and skinning: letting the kids try it out. The modeling part went well and several got into skinning it in Photoshop quickly. Next up when we return to school: getting it rigged. I hope it goes as well as I predict, but more on that later.
This may seem early to you, but we are already starting to plan for next school year even though we aren't halfway through the current year! One of the things I have am responsible for as department chair is verification of courses and descriptions in the registration booklet for the upcoming year. I just completed this task on Friday and thought everyone might like a sneak peek of the upcoming changes to the Game Design concentration.
For starters, the course titled Scientific Visualization will no longer appear as a main course. The title replacing it is Digital Design & Animation. This is the revised course which is taking the place of Sci Vis statewide and focuses more on the creation of digital artwork and other topics that are important to modern artists using technology as their medium. That being said, while it is still awaiting official acceptance from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), all official paperwork (such as report cards) will list students as taking Sci Vis.
We've also added the replacement for Scientific Visualization II. This is a course that wasn't added in the past due to it's heavy focus on science curriculum since we are focusing our attention at DSA on game design. However, it is being replaced at the state level by Digital Design & Animation II which directly follows the content from its namesake's predecessor curriculum. The entire course is designed to focus on increasing one's skills and understanding of 3D modeling. This means the new course fits right in line with our program. Students in DDA-II also have the opportunity to earn certification as an Autodesk 3ds Max Certified User. This is professional recognition of their skills which can be used on both college applications and added to their resume when applying for employment.
Next, students have been asking why there are no honors level courses in game design for quite some time. They know my expectations of them far exceed that of the state curriculum, so I have always thought of this as a valid question. The problem with it revolves around what can and cannot receive honors designation as set by DPI. Mainly, this involves any course currently in field test or pilot status, which has been my more advanced classes for many, many years.
However, this year things are different. I have permission from the CTE instructional management coordinator to add honors designation to the Game Art & Design course in DSA's registration booklet while I complete the necessary paperwork for approval. GAD will continue to be the student's first opportunity to dive into creating their own games with a main focus being on 2D techniques once the basic tools are learned in the previous two classes but by adding honors designation, they will receive a GPA benefit for going above and beyond the required curriculum.
And finally, as a senior, students can take Advanced Game Design as their finale in the concentration. To the best of my knowledge, this course will remain in pilot status next year without any major changes. But, I do know changes are coming down the road and once it is taken out of pilot status, I plan on applying for it to be considered honors level as well. AGAD will continue to focus on 3D game development and associated skills.
While this new alignment is perfect for this year's freshmen, I do realize there are students who have been in the program for a while and may not want to follow this direction. For them, we will continue to offer CTE Advanced Studies (an independent study where students can delve deeper into a topic or tool they learned in previous classes), they can opt to take DDA-II since all students have taken Sci Vis or they can take Digital Media with Mr. Maya in order to complete a concentration in Game Design at DSA.
I believe this is a good change both for our students as well as the program in general. If you are curious about any of these curriculum, you can learn more about them on the About pages above (coming soon) or contact me via email with your questions.
Yesterday was our first district-wide training day of the current school year, requiring teachers to select an instructor-led session from several options offered across the district. These sessions are collectively referred to as Out of the Box training in Durham Public Schools. It's an initiative to allow teachers to lead and select their own professional development (PD) based on their interests and needs. I always try my best to either lead a session or attend one being offered at Durham School of the Arts, for simplicity's sake. This time, I selected an offering on digital literacy being offered in our media center, since training in this area has been made mandatory for license renewals starting in 2019.
This session was the first in a four part series being offered over the next two years. So, I guess I know what my Out of the Box PD selections will be for quite some time to come! It focused on the requirement area of Leadership in Digital Literacy. According to the description, teachers are expected to demonstrate leadership accelerating their integration of digital teaching and learning pedagogies. When broken down, this area states that teachers will:
One way teachers can demonstrate their mastery of technology is through the use of virtual learning communities. A virtual learning community (VLC) is a group of like-minded or goal oriented individuals who meet up online to discuss important information relevant to the group's overall topics or goals. They can include anything from technology education to game design/development to chicken farming. There are literally thousands of possibilities and everyone can find something relevant to their needs or interests.
The first VLC discussed involved using Twitter. If you are reading this post, odds are you know I am relatively active on Twitter as well. I have long known about searching for hashtags (heck, I use #dsaGAD for every post I make about my classes) and that there are lots of regularly scheduled group Tweet-chats which employ them for ease of communication. However, I did walk away with a valuable reference guide from the training containing a pretty comprehensive list of Tweet-chats and their schedules related to education specifically. It was recommended to keep track of our participation in them as evidence of our working with other teachers from around the state, nation and even world. I also shared how one can use of Tweetdeck in these conversations, which allows for filtering on hashtags and makes participating in them MUCH easier to follow.
The next tip provided was to use Listserv. Once again, there are tons of Listservs one can choose from based on interests. These collaborative conversations have been around for quite some time and are probably the grandparents of modern chat VLC groups using other, more social-oriented media. The difference is that they are shared via email, rather than in real-time, and this can quickly fill one's inbox. To be honest, Listservs don't appeal to me for that very reason.
The third tool we were introduced to was the Google+ Communities. I did a little searching through them and again I did not find them to be as useful for me as Tweet-chats. But, I can see them as a resource to use and perhaps direct students towards for advancing their knowledge. This conversation also included some introduction to Google Hangouts, which are similar to a Skype conference where you can chat in only text or include video.
Some additional resources for developing understanding of tools and techniques included Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) along with several options available through the school system and the Department of Public Instruction, though the use of NCCAT and Kenan Fellows were overlooked. If you search for MOOCs in association with related terms for your content areas or interests, you can find LOTS of free courses offered by colleges and universities as well as independent instructors for free. While you don't get credit from the schools for taking such courses, there is no reason to be confused on the tools and techniques one teaches given the possibilities.
How can teachers succeed in demonstrating leadership in digital literacy to meet the new licensure requirement? One method suggested by Dr. Reuben R. Puentedura is known as the SAMR Model. In SAMR, you begin by Substituting traditional instructional methods with digital alternatives while not making any changes to the activities. Next, you Augment those activities with functional improvements. Once improved, you begin working on Modifying the activities through significant changes to them utilizing technology. Finally, you Redefine what kind of activities are used which were not possible without the integration of technology.
So, where do I stack up in all of this? I use a number of tools to meet the various needs of this model. I use a learning management system (LMS) to distribute and collect work. I do my best to avoid the use of paper, which speeds up grading and provides students with access to my materials anywhere they can access the Internet. Activities like matchings, quizzes, tests, and so forth are augmented because they get graded immediately by the system and allow students to make attempts as many times as I want them to while randomizing questions and answers and providing immediate feedback when set up to do so. My students submit their work digitally and are involved in collaborative groups which allow them to work on simultaneous editing using tools like Google apps as well as communicate in individualized group settings. They also utilize websites for planning like Trello. These tools allow them to work in groups within the same class, different classes or even different schools/locations! Student collaboration and group work has never been easier!
This is also true for teachers and one reason why I always push using Schoology in their classrooms. Adding technology to instruction isn't only good for students, but it makes the lives of teachers easier as well. Automated grading, no papers to carry home for school breaks or weekends and transparency for all stakeholders in their students' education are just a few of the benefits teachers can experience.
So, to answer that earlier question: where do I stack up in all of this? I would say I am pretty far along in terms of being a leader for digital literacy in my school and well beyond! But, what else would one expect from a technology education teacher?
While it was slow for me to get back into the mindset that another school year has begun, things are now back in full swing! It appears that I have a great bunch of students who are all focused on learning the skills needed to make games. However, we are still in the honeymoon phase of the school year.
This past week, each group of students had a slightly different experience in my classroom, as one would expect. Students in Fundamentals of Design & Animation (FDA) got accustomed to Sketchnotes (a more creative way to take notes), set up accounts for Schoology, had several lectures and completed their first set of assignments. Students in Game Art & Design (GAD) refreshed their memories as to the skills they learned last year, demonstrating their understanding of bitmaps, vectors and 3D modeling. In Advanced Game Art & Design (AGAD), we hit the ground running with career exploration accompanied by some of the best and quickest class presentations I have seen in my 14 years of teaching! And the CTE Advanced Studies students dove right into their independent projects. We are now gearing up for more detailed information in my earlier level classes and I hope all of my students keep their current enthusiasm as the year progresses.
Coming up this week in the GAD classes:
Well, we've reached the end of another school year and what a year it's been! Where do I begin? I've taught six classes a day (instead of the normal five), my students explored the possibilities of virtual reality, my advanced students attended the East Coast Game Conference, both students and myself formed relationships with people in the game industry, I helped create a new curriculum to replace Scientific Visualization for use across the state, I assisted in the selection of finalists for a Department of Education contest, and I presented to other CTE teachers at the annual tech ed conference. And none of this even begins to touch on making sure my students succeeded in my classes...phew!
So, where do I go from here? For starters, I've already started planning for next year. I know it's hard to believe as we have haven't even been out of school for a week, but what can I say? It's what I do! I've already started thinking about how I can improve how I teach my students and update what they need to know to succeed in the game industry, if that is what they pursue after high school. While this is true of all my classes, it is especially important that I start prepping early for my introductory class because it seems the course I worked on this year will indeed be ready for pilot testing next school year and allow us to FINALLY replace Scientific Visualization!
So, I guess I have a pretty busy summer ahead of me. But, for now...it is time for break! I hope all of you have a relaxing and yet, still productive, summer! Watch for an occasional update on here but in general, just have a great summer break and I look forward to seeing everyone in the Fall!
This week, we drew a little closer to the end of the CTE Advanced Studies students' VR Prison Flip Project. Wednesday evening, the students shared their experience this year with family, friends, outside team members and guests from DPS/DSA. They had the opportunity to share a short video about what this year has meant to them as well as explain their roles and individual benefits. But, probably the most important thing they did, if you ask the students, was provide the guests the opportunity to experience the project first hand. This helped family members understand what their students have been doing all year.
However, as a teacher, I believe having this kind of event is important for a very different reason. One of the most important things a student can leave high school with is a good understanding of communicating ideas/accomplishments. While my students present in class on a regular basis, presenting to outside individuals is a very different thing. By holding events like this, students get a chance to share important accomplishments, reflect on the process they went through to meet a goal and lets the larger community know about the important progress they are making and why that progress matters. Being effective with such skills is an important thing to take away from school as they will be using their communication skills throughout college, their career, and life in general.
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.
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!
One of the most important things to realize when working with both students and technology is flexibility. And while I have had moments in the past where I have fought change for the comfort of routine, I almost always realize at some point that I have to eventually give in to the demands of the universe. That experience occurred once again just last week.
In Game Art & Design, the use of Game Maker (a free game engine from YoYo Games) has been firmly embedded into the curriculum for years. Game Maker has a low entry point in terms of learning difficulty but is just advanced enough to give students the experience of using programming logic. It is a graphically-oriented style of learning how to make video games which focuses mainly on 2D design. In short, it is more advanced than using Scratch but there is no need to learn a programming language like C++, which can be overwhelming for many students.
Last week, the universe exerted its force for change just as we were starting to use Game Maker. For some students, the program wouldn't finish installing, for other students it ran fine. After spending a number of days thinking about how to solve this problem and putting in several hours to researching various options, then having our tech specialist give it a shot with no luck, I realized we reached what I considered to be the ultimate fate for Game Maker: time to move to a new game engine! I had considered moving to using the Unity game engine a number of times, but always came back to what I was most comfortable using with this age group. But I could no longer resist that pull. Unity has been used for professional 3D game development for years and with version 4.3, they added support for 2D game development.. Knowing that professionals are more likely to use Unity than Game Maker made the decision to switch an easy one. Besides, my students would need to learn how to use Unity for 3D development next year anyway, so why not start them a little earlier?
Deep down, I knew the answer to that question and to be frank, it frightened me. This change meant that my students, most of whom had zero experience in programming or understanding of simple computer logic, would have to become familiar with writing scripts using a real programming language: C#. And, having years of programming experience myself, I know that attention to detail is critical for success. Unfortunately, many students seem to lack the kind of attention to detail that is important for successfully writing a script or program. And that is exactly what scared me: knowing I had to find a solution to teach the students basic programming logic and syntax without overwhelming them.
I found my solution when I learned about a great Beginning C# with Unity online course from the team at Ray Wenderlich. The course is free and contains 24 brief videos covering the basics of programming. It covers everything from the basics of what a variable is and how to set a variable's type to conditional statements, loops, arrays, inheritances and so forth. In other words, it really is a crash course in basic programming logic and technique. Each video explains an important programming technique, discusses the basic C# syntax, provides a guided example within Unity, and provides a related challenge to reinforce the concept. It also does all of this within the Unity game engine, which helps acquaint budding game designers with the interface and techniques without getting distracted by all the cool bells and whistles that the program contains.
So, how will this all work out in the end? We'll have to wait and see. We just started using the tutorials but I have been very impressed up to this point. My students seem to be picking it up well thus far, though there are a few who are experiencing problems as they want to rush through the tutorials and one cannot simply rush coding when they are new to it.
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.