Marty the chicken just woke up and realized it’s his day for the chopping block. Not wanting to be that night’s dinner, he’s gotta figure out a way to escape the farm – but first, his creators have to figure out how to animate his way out of the barn.
In another corner of Kasey Smith’s technology education classroom at Gettysburg Area Senior High School, students are working coding dice rolls that correlate to movement on a digital gameboard. The objective for their characters in a Civil War era Monoply-style game is to make it through enemy territory while earning money.
And at a third cluster of desks, a group of students builds the fantasy realm of Aetheria, with its extensive historical lore, main protagonist Maxwell and villains like King Hypno, for a role playing game.
In fun, challenging and often surprising ways, the students in Smith’s video game production class are discovering all the hard work that goes into developing their favorite leisure activity, playing video games.
“It's really actually pretty nice to see all the work going to the game and then actually become what you want it to be,” says Kamari Anderson, a junior in the class.
“It can definitely be very stressful. Especially if you have a deadline that you need to meet and there's so much more you want to get done, but you don't know if you don't have enough time,” adds Josh Fair, another junior.
“But it's nice when you have that satisfaction of ‘I got it done. I can be proud of this. I hope people enjoy it.’”
The students easily rattle off a litany of coding languages and animation programs when talking about building different aspects of the game: Dreamweaver, Stripe, C-Sharp, CoSpaces, even Photoshop.
Some of the students came into the class having already practiced programming skills both in and out of school. Some of them enjoy working with computers in their free time. All of them have grown up playing video games.
Eli Wertzberger, a senior, is responsible for creating all the textures of his team’s game, called “Chicken Vengeance.” He works on coding the background images and character animations using Dreamweaver and C-Sharp. He had used Dreamweaver in a previous class and had dabbled previously with C-Sharp in a different program.
Wertzberger says he likes coding despite how intricate it can be. “It’s really hard, but when it all comes together it can be really rewarding.”
Seth Miller, a senior in the class, is figuring out how to make his character, Maxwell from Aetheria, look like he’s moving across a landscape by using timelines, layers and loop functions in Photoshop.
“I make a layer invisible and then make a new layer visible so it would make it look like it is actually moving,” he says. “And once it gets to the last box of the timeline, it will do a loop so it can be more fluent in animation.”
A surprising aspect of the course for many of the students is how much they use creative skills beyond computer programming in order to develop a well-rounded game.
Artistic animation is an integral part of game development. Each team of three students has at least one member, if not two, tasked with animating characters for the games. Some draw by hand, some use pixel art, some use a hybrid of the two.
Anderson drew characters for his team’s game, “The Realm of Aetheria,” first by hand and then translated them into pixel art. “I’m definitely a drawing type of guy,” he says. “In all my classes, whenever I get the chance, I like to draw.”
Francisco Barrera, a junior, draws his characters for “Chicken Vengeance” by hand on an iPad and then transfers them to a program on his PC to send to Wertzberger. So far he’s drawn Marty the chicken, plus a dachshund, a squirrel and a goose.
Storytelling is also an important aspect of game building. It’s not enough just to have pretty graphics and functional animation. Players need to feel a sense of purpose for an enjoyable experience that will make them want to play the game over and over.
Character dialogue can be a helpful tool in creating this experience. Senior Jake Robinson writes out dialogue for the characters in his group’s game, the board game-like “Take Your Chances,” in a Google Doc, as if he were writing dialogue for a short story.
“I like to storytell in my mind,” he says. “I can come up with something right on the spot, and with some planning … I can progressively get better with it.”
Robinson doesn’t consider himself a writer, but he does consider himself a creative person. And he likes that the class encourages creativity among everyone.
“Everyone can be creative in their own way. And that's what I love about this class and communities in general, because everyone's mindsets are different, everyone wants to do something different. I feel like that just makes us stronger.”
The boys working on “Take Your Chances” are also adding voiceover elements for their characters, using a recording booth found right in the classroom. When asked if that part makes him nervous, Robinson responds with a quick “Definitely.”
While many people might imagine computer programmers to be lone wolves sitting behind a desk, the intensive process of building a video game actually requires a high level of teamwork. This is something the students appreciate and believe benefits both the quality of the game and their teamwork skills.
“I would say it's actually a lot better than working alone. When you're alone, you have to basically do all three things at once. You have to be the coder, you have to be the designer, you have to be the graphics creator,” says Jared Cullen, a junior. “I would say definitely dividing the roles amongst the team is definitely the better way to work.”
Miller adds that the class is helping him “learn how to coordinate with teams and be more verbal with them so they understand what I'm trying to say.”
Smith explains that she assigned the students into teams on purpose so they could learn the different roles that go into creating a video game and how to plan and produce as co-operating teammates.
“The coder needs to understand how the character’s going to work or how the scenery's gonna look. You may build it, but when he gets it he’s gotta know ‘What do I do with it?’,” she says. “So they all plan together and be as specific as possible.”
Smith adds she purposefully assigns roles to students that might put them outside of their comfort zone. When she first assigns roles, she says, students are “super uncomfortable.” But as the process goes on and they begin to master new skills, “it’s fun to watch them develop … to watch them go outside their comfort zone.”
Many of the students have played video games from a young age and that has influenced their interest in taking the class and eventually pursuing a career in the field.
James Hawkins, a sophomore, says he wants to be a video game designer. He took the class because “it seemed really interesting because I've always liked video games. So a class where you make them seemed pretty fun.”
Fair first received a gaming tablet as a child and progressed to Nintendo, his iPhone and eventually his iPad. His lifelong passion for playing video games fed into his goal to build video games as a career, either working for popular companies or starting his own video game company.
“I just like creating things that I know people will like,” he says. “That kind of just goes along with the fact that I enjoy making people laugh. I enjoy making memories for people.”
“There’s endless possibilities,” Smith says about the ways in which the computer skills the students are learning now can translate into future careers.
“When I talk to the students, I tell them even when you open up your phone on Amazon, you can push that little button on the side to see the furniture in your room to see what it looks like – that’s augmented reality. Somebody had to design it and build it and make it work.”
“I think what we offer as far as video game design, bringing in the coding, bringing in the other aspects of communication and design, I think the kids are very fortunate.”