What does it take to make a video game? Let these Undergrads tell you how it's done

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From The Daily Utah Chronicle – April 16, 2013 By Jevan Rivera

For the last 30 years, video gaming has grown in popularity to a hobby millions pursue. It is an industry that pushes entertainment to new creative highs each year.

During this time, there have been dozens of other media forms dissected in the public eye. Most people have a vague understanding of how films are made, how music is recorded or how theater productions are rehearsed. However, if one was to ask most game hobbyists about the process behind creating the digital entertainment marvels they so enjoy, they come up blank.

With the U’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program having just been named the No. 1 game development program in the nation, video game lovers on campus need not look far to see a thriving example of the complex creative process behind their favorite hobby.

Senior Kyle Chittenden is the project lead on “Magnetic by Nature,” a game built from the ground up by a team of student programmers, artists, composers, animators and engineers. The game was made as part of the team’s year long capstone project and was even featured on the expo floor at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

“It’s unbelievable that our team is this cohesive and this driven on creating this final product,” Chittenden said. “It’s crazy. I cannot believe that we have come this far in just a few months. Creating a game we took to GDC [Game Developers Conference], we had industry professionals playing our game and saying it’s amazing.”

“Magnetic by Nature” takes a simple physics concept — magnetism — and provides a series of side-scrolling puzzles in which the player must use magnetic push and pull to fling themselves through increasingly complex puzzle designs.

Although this sounds simple, the reality is that for months Chittenden and his team have been pouring themselves into the art design, programming, music and more, just to make the game a functional, quality title.

Like many media outlets that combine audio and visual elements, video games pull aspects of creativity from many of the arts. Senior Jonathan Humphries is the lead game designer and an artist on the team. He said the creative aspects of game design — despite their complexity — are what draw him to the art field.

“I’ve always pursued art throughout my life in general,” Humphries said. “I had imagined doing animation, but I hadn’t ever done much of it. Once I started learning the programs, I realized that I really enjoyed it and had strengths there. In that way, gaming kind of appeals just to creativity in general. It doesn’t have to be specific just to art, but it also opens up ideas. You’re just always fitting in more creativity into a game. I feel like the art side [of game development] … just feeds every part of that side of my brain.”

Like most art forms, video games have their own set of constraints. Where a painter might find themselves limited by the size of their canvas, a game designer must work around the experience and interactivity associated with their audience.

Senior Becky Pennock is the art lead on the team. For her, these restraints provide a “paradoxical freedom” of expression.

“Other mediums are static, but in video games, for your art piece to be complete, you need an audience and you need a connection that is believable and genuine with that audience in order to have it mean anything,” Pennock said. “It’s basically incomplete unless you do your job right to involve and immerse your audience. They are really the final piece to the puzzle.”

The interaction of the audience is possibly one of the largest distinctions that sets video games apart from many other entertainment media. The need for the audience to interact with games to complete the cycle of the design creates a complex balancing act for game creators.

“For me, the design process starts a little bit selfishly,” Humphries said. “When I first picture a game in my head, I think about what I want to play. Once you come up with some ideas, the brilliance of working with a team is that you take that idea and expand on it with their visions, taking it to the large demographic you want to reach and finding out what they would want to play. Going through that whole process, a game can evolve into something completely new in terms of art, engineering and sound design. Everything can change, and I think it is pretty fun working in a group that way.”

Of course, how those elements all come together can often be just as challenging as trying to fit the design process within the creative constraints of an interactive design form.

Senior David Hurst is both a programmer and composer for “Magnetic by Nature.” He said much of the effort that goes into collaborating on such a complex artistic and technical design revolves around fitting all the building blocks together in order. Certain elements of game design have to be built upon others if the whole thing is going to gel properly.

“I really couldn’t begin creating music until a lot of the art came out and a lot of the gameplay started happening,” Hurst said. “Once that started happening, I realized we needed some music that was really non-intrusive to the player, something that’s very ambient.”

As Pennock pointed out, the music “gently reinforces all the other elements of the game,” an explanation that seems to describe much of the multidimensional aspects of game design in general.

This idea of a carefully balanced design sense was echoed not only by the majority of the design team but by Chittenden as well.

“Everything needs to come together, because if there is one loose role, from art to sound to gameplay, then everything gets out of sync,” Chittenden said. “That’s why you need a very solid game, something that iterates on every concept. Everything needs to come into play at the right moment.”

The complexity behind video game development is both a creative and technical marvel. Senior Paige Ashlynn is the mechanics programmer and writer for “Magnetic by Nature.” He said aside from designing an advanced physics simulation or creating software intended to be embedded for space launch, video games are about as tough as the creative and programming field gets.

“From a programming perspective, developing a video game is just about the most challenging thing you can do as a working software developer,” Ashlynn said. “Compared to any of the other software you use, a video game is much, much more complicated. As a result, it has got so many moving parts inside that it is a real technical feat to make them work together.”

From musical composition to game mechanics and animation, video games provide an art field that expands upon the creative ingenuity of a vast group of artists. The U’s EAE program alone looks to be making greater strides to see this art form expanded upon and pursued by many artists to come.

“Magnetic by Nature” is set to launch on Xbox Live Indie Games in May. The team intends to launch a Kickstarter campaign on April 22 in hopes of porting the game to additional platforms.

Contact Javan Rivera at j.rivera@chronicle.utah.edu