Three months later I began working for 3D Pipeline (few records of their existence remain, except for TreeFX and CloudFX) remotely and for months at a time on site (as I was still completing my undergraduate degree). I developed a cross platform 3D audio sound library, which ran on the Nintendo 64, Playstation, Windows and Mac OS. I ported an XML based custom GUI library from Windows to Mac OS. Near the end of my time at 3D Pipeline I began developing an XML based special effects system for a game that was never released. The only record that remains of the game is an old Gamasutra post.
I spent the next two years as a project manager for a Design Automation firm, Avatech Solutions. We worked primarily as a subcontractor for Autodesk and my time was dominated by working on what many in the game industry would now call “tools,” though that term didn’t exist at the time. I would work with artists, engineers, designers, drafters, managers and other stakeholders in design companies developing tools to speed and simplify work-flows. [It was also during this time that I became an even more active contributor to Open Source Software projects like libCURL and wxWidgets]
In 2003 I returned to graduate school, but as a computer scientist turned social scientist. As a research assistant for Ron Eglash working on the NSF supported CSDT project, I developed several “design tools.” While not games, they exhibited many similar attributes. These audio and graphics heavy programs were implemented in many different environments from Flash, to Java, to C++ for Windows and Mac OS. While I was involved with many of the tools, I was solely responsible for Rhythm Wheels, Yupik Parka Patterns, and Virtual DJ. While Virtual DJ was never released in its final version, it was one of RPI’s first “Change the World Challenge” award winning designs.
Through 2009, I was the Mac OS X lead developer for the G3D “Innovation Engine” project. G3D is an open source set of core game technology that can be used to make games that target most major computer systems.
I spent the next three years doing participant observation, primarily at Vicarious Visions, though I visited a handful of other studios and spoke to nearly every game developer I could get my hands on. I observed the development of more than seven major titles, some of which were canceled. A handful of these included:
- A Licensed Batman Title for the PSP
- A Licensed Ultimate Spiderman Title for the PSP
- A Licensed Call of Duty Title for the PSP
- Transformers for the DS
- Spiderman 3 for the PS3, Wii, and PSP
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for Xbox 360 and PS3
I don’t claim to have made any of these games. Rather, I have had the opportunity to observe and think critically about the process of game development practice. It was this experience that reinvigorated my desire to pursue game development as both a researcher and practitioner. To experiment in practice with the insights gained through my empirical work lie at the core of my creative projects.
As my research in the game industry progressed, I began taking on a larger participant role in my participant observation. While in India, I worked closely with the Red Octane team on a Nintendo DS prototype. The Chennai Red Octane group became part of the Activision network of studios after it was purchased in order to acquire the Guitar Hero franchise. My work at this studio focused on the construction of an asset pipeline so their art team could modify and view art changes in real time via Nintendo’s Ensata emulator. The “pipeline” has since emerged as an important aspect of game development that is under studied.
I have continued to work closely with the Nintendo DS homebrew community after my experiences working with the official Nintendo DS Nitro SDK. To better engage the audience, I have presented conference paper “slides” built with the homebrew tools. I have even gone as far as toting with me several extra DSs to pass around the room. The now yearly Global Game Jams, which began my first year at UGA have served as a productive space for game development experimentation. I have organized two Global Game Jam events and participated in three. SuperMegaTurboX64Box has been one of my favorite Game Jam experiences thus far. We took great pains to ensure that the project was collaborative and were proud that our team was the most gender diverse of the jam.
- SuperMegaTurboX64Box – Unity Game Engine
- Escape from Clown Town – Unity Game Engine
- Escape from Ralph’s Seafoodatorium – SDL Game Engine and Box 2D Physics Engine
SuperMegaTurboX64Box, in particular, is actually a design I am quite proud of. I was interested in the death (“extinction”) of game mechanics and aesthetic styles over time. Despite it’s kitschy venire, there is a real critique of innovation and narrowing design imaginations throughout the game industry.
More recently I have taken on more of a design and production role in game development, though I am still comfortable working with code. I work primarily with the Unity game engine now, precisely because of its powerful asset pipeline.
“Osy,” my first game project since starting at UGA was released in February of 2011. This same team of researchers has worked on what we now refer to as “interactive case studies,” (instead of abusing the word “game”). Though less involved, I still work with the development team on user interface design and player experience design. The more scientific and teacher oriented modules have been more under the guidance of the educators and scientists on the team.
Osy was a first attempt for me to make the case that games can teach scientific concepts, without falling prey to what I now think about as “design literalism” and “content delivery.” Of course, even still, Osy suffers from some aspect of design literalism, but also demonstrates that one need not “quiz” a student to demonstrate their knowledge of a concept. The largest limitation of Osy was that it was too timid. I placed as my goal teaching one scientific concept (osmosis) without triggering student’s edutainment gag reflex. In this we succeeded admirably. I have met young students that when they hear I designed Osy suddenly begin telling me stories about how much fun it was and how they bought it and took it with them to their volunteer work at the Boys and Girls club. So, perhaps Osy was timid, but it did demonstrate that games can teach things beyond those they are most cited for, math, logic, spatial reasoning, etc. Those are all admirable things, but not the only possible ones.
Press coverage for Osy and the case modules can be found here:
- Southern Distinction Magazine
- A UGA Produced Documentary
- The UGA Graduate School Magazine
- The UGA Research Magazine
- UGA Columns Article
I have tried to keep the design process of Osy transparent. The design process is something that is often invisible, a characteristic that I think hurts creativity and expression. Throughout the development of the project, even while it languished un-worked on while we labored to find money to fund its production, I made it a point to keep my design documents available. I have even tried to decode the design in such a way to enable teachers to find the game more meaningful.
You can see in the press coverage, the more traditional educational styles of the case studies. These products are still under development, but will be available once the research surrounding them has been concluded.
My game design classes often serve as opportunities to play with new ideas and keeps my students in close contact with my research, which they find very meaningful. An early news article covering my game design class is available online. I am currently working on three new serious game prototypes, one of which has moved into production with the assistance of a $500k NIH Small Business grant. The company, IS3D, which I am the co-founder and Creative Director of, was formed to commercialize Osy and the case based studies mentioned above.
Of all of my recent game projects, BeeTees is the most exemplary, I have attempted to think deeply and critically about what it means to break away from design literalism and allow players to experience play that critically examines issues (like diabetes), while simultaneously allowing them to experience the game as such. Perhaps, if a player comes to see the issue through experiences like these, rather than being overwhelmed by authorial intent, they may come to have a more meaningful realization of the underlying systems that surround them.