Friday, August 19, 2011

3 Years Later: Year One

A while back, someone on Twitter (I can't find the original conversation), asked me if I would consider writing up how I learned to program video games. I'm going to split this into several articles (for better or for worse) based around each year, and then one wrapping everything up with a big dump of the tools, articles, and books I've found incredibly helpful along the way. I thought splitting them up would be good because I'm only *a little* busy with moving back to Michigan and getting up to full steam on a project for IGF.

I think very few people will disagree that it's a lot harder to get into the games industry than it used to be, being that there are so many more people interested in getting into the industry these days. I've been happily interning for these past months at Iron Galaxy Studios where I do programming work commercial games, so I'd say that I at least got some important bits right. I think a lot of what I've done can manifest itself in a slightly different way for other prospective game developers, so hopefully these are helpful in some way to them.

Year One

When I started college, I knew I wanted to make video games for a living. However, like most college freshmen, I didn't know how to make video games, but I did know that getting into the games industry was no cakewalk. One of my scholarships paid a stipend in exchange for working 10 hours a week under a professor, essentially a way for the university to get underclassmen involved in research without putting strain on a lab's budget. Due to my interest in game development, I joined the MSU Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab to work under Professor Brian Winn, but I suppose it was not the most opportune time to be a GEL Lab professorial assistant.

There was very little going on in the lab that year other than a small game design conference that we helped organize called Meaningful Play. However, beyond helping prepare for the conference, there was very little concrete game development work to hand me. Besides the lack of projects, I didn't know a whole lot about game development. I can still remember not having a good answer about what part of developing games I actually liked doing when I first started in the lab. All I knew was that I liked programming in general from the few classes I had in High School, although game design still seemed like "the cool thing" at that point, and I thought that I would probably enjoy design more if I was given the chance (spoiler alert: programming is actually way cooler, but this won't be discovered until year 2).

Contrary to what one might think, something very good came out of the lull of activity in the GEL. My commitment to GEL Lab was for 2 years, so Brian had me begin to teach myself how to use Unity with the hope that I'd be able to use it for future projects, being that the department had just adopted into the curriculum as its 3D engine of choice. As a result I had a conscious reason to teach myself game development, putting in at least 10 hours a week towards a small 3D project. I started with the standard tutorials, which are only really helpful for learning the menu flow. As with any first 3D game, the learning curve still felt steep even though I was using a fairly user-friendly engine like Unity. However, if you get a jolt of excitement from getting a cube to move back and forth across the screen for the first time in your life, then you know that game programming might actually be your thing. The project evolved into a small game that I presented at the end of my Spring semester.

It was an action-adventure game about a manatee. It was terrible, and my code base was even worse, but to this day I still love it (and amazingly its poster presentation won an award). What's important here? I did everything, even the art, and I committed to spend at least a minimum amount of time on it each week. I learned so much, and I didn't have things like fears of letting team members down, because I was the whole team.

Speaking of teams, I did get involved with Spartasoft, the student game development club, which was another important step toward being able to program a half-decent game. The club served a few primary purposes at that point, such as hosting a games party occasionally and getting alumni to come back and present to the club about their experiences in the games industry. However, the most important function for me was the 48 hour Game Jams that were hosted every few months. If you're not familiar with the concept of a game jam, we basically split into small teams on a Friday evening, a theme is announced, and then each team makes a game about that theme over the course of 48 hours. It often results in a lot of terrible games, but inevitably there's something new that's learned, new game ideas explored, and a lot of friendships built with game developers that you might not otherwise get to know. I cleared my schedule for these as a Freshman, and participated in every single one.

It's how I got connected with a couple of seniors, and I ended up putting in more than just 10 hours a week on one project in the Spring. I started meeting with them in between game jams to polish some of our better ideas. The fact that upperclassmen like Bert, a programmer that now works with me at Iron Galaxy, and Marie, an amazing artist that's now a grad student at SCAD, wanted to work with some freshman was amazing. I had gotten past the hump for being able to contribute to a game at all. I could help make their games better, and because I was more than ready to step up to the task, I ended up learning a lot back from them.


So what can be learned from my first year making games? First, don't be afraid to go it alone and force yourself to spend at least a minimum amount of time each week working on it. Secondly, game jams are great, especially if you don't know very many people to collaborate with. Between the manatee game and the game jams, I had worked on 6 different games by the time I finished my first year of college. How many games had I worked on for class? Zero, and Michigan State even has a game development curriculum! If you have the opportunity to work on *any* game when you're just starting out, even a game jam game, you'd better have a damn good reason if you pass on it. Failing any opportunities for collaboration, the only person keeping you from making your own game is yourself. Don't be the asshole that's keeping you from learning how to make video games. I got lucky that I didn't do that, it's easy to be lazy when you're an 18 year old college freshman.

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