Creativity in the Classroom: Gibson Puts Emphasis on Collaborative Learning and Quick Prototyping in Games MDE

Dr. Jeremy Gibson has flipped his classroom and revamped his game development course – and it looks promising.

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Many forward thinking educators are flipping their classes and implementing innovative curriculum in order to enhance student experience and stimulate learning. In his EECS 494 Computer Game Design and Development course, instructor Jeremy Gibson has done just that and the results are promising.

EECS 494 is a Major Design Experience course offered to computer science students who have completed EECS 281, Data structures and Algorithms, and it is most often taken in their senior year. The course culminates in a video game showcase where the students demo the games that they have created for their capstone projects. Students are expected to use a thorough knowledge of C#, a general purpose programming language, and Unity, a game development engine that enables students to easily combine code, graphics, sound, animations and effects into a working computer game. With these tools, students are asked to design and develop increasingly complex games throughout the semester.

Focus First on Development

In order to prepare his students for their capstone project, Gibson has structured the class so that the students are not required to learn both development and design techniques at the same time. As he puts it, “Even if the development or implementation of the game idea is great, if the game design is bad, then the game will be bad.”

The students’ first project, therefore, is to work in teams of two to recreate a classic console game, such as Metroid or The Legend of Zelda, that has a tried-and-true brilliant design in order to work on developmental, not design, strategies. In the first two weeks of this project, students re-develop an existing game, and in the third week, they design a new level to play within the game they have built.

Fast Prototyping – Essential to Game Design

For their second project, students work individually and to each build prototypes of two brand new game concepts. Rather than building a complete game, these prototypes are meant to teach students to focus on quickly implementing a game concept in order to get an idea of whether or not a full game built on that concept will be fun or engaging. Doing so is similar to creating storyboards or an animatic for a film.

The second project has a short time frame that is designed to help students get over the “hemming and hawing planning phase” and simply start coding. Gibson insists that students must learn as they go and that the prototyping project is about realizing that when it comes to video games, they cannot sit and code for fifteen hours, run the game, and hope it will work. Instead, game development is about coding in periods of fifteen minutes or less, running the game, and making iterative revisions based on how it ran.

The Path to the Capstone Project

The final assignment in EECS 494 is a 9-week game development capstone project done by teams of four students. The teams are tasked with developing a new game that is designed to be played by the public at an end-of-semester Games Showcase. Gibson has very few rules limiting these original game ideas, though he does outlaw networked games, real time strategy, tower defense games and zombies – he says he’s seen enough games about zombies.

In order to help them to refine and explore their game ideas, Gibson has each student write up a series of analyses about existing games, which are then added to a video game wiki that contains entries on over 800 games that were written by past students. This gives students a library of prior art against which to compare their new game ideas.

Emphasis on Collaboration

Throughout the course, Gibson has structured the curriculum in order to emphasize group work, cooperation, and collaboration in the classroom environment. Transitioning his class time from three short meetings a week to two extended classes, Gibson lectures one day a week and splits the class into small sections on the other. These sections, headed by Gibson and his teaching assistants, are a chance for student teams to playtest their games, discuss the challenges they are facing, and to receive honest, individualized critiques from their classmates and instructors. According to Gibson, “Design critique is something engineering students do not have a lot of experience with; this split classroom model allows the time for each student to get specific and personal attention for their work.”

Each week Gibson and his teaching assistants rotate between sections in order to meet with different student groups; Gibson says that this sometimes gives the students differing and even directly opposing feedback than they may have received the previous week. This classroom model challenges students to listen to and problem solve when they encounter various and sometimes conflicting information, as they often will in the professional world.

In addition to in-class critique, he has also developed an online critique system that allows every student in the class to play each other’s games and submit online critiques. This system had over 2,000 critiques submitted in the last semester alone.

Time Management – and Playability – are Key

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Over 150 people attended the Fall 2014 Computer Games Showcase. The event showcased the final projects of computer science seniors in EECS 494, Computer Game Design and Development.

By design, Gibson’s class emphasizes time management, a skill he says many students struggle with. While much of computer science can rely upon many hours of planning before the beginning stages of development, with games, it’s much more about “making it work as quickly as you can.” According to Gibson, students often struggle with developing ideas and implementing them quickly without that significant planning.

Gibson explains to his students that if they have 100 hours to build a game and use 90 hours planning and coding before the game is actually playable, only to discover that the game idea doesn’t work or isn’t fun, there is very little time to recover from that error. However, if they spend only 10 hours planning before they have a playable version, and there are issues with the design, there is still time left to fix whatever problems may have become apparent.

Preparation for a “Consumer” Market

EECS 494 prepares students to design for an audience; very few successful games, Gibson says, are designed with only the designer’s preferences in mind. Rather, the students need to design with a consumer market in mind, and in the case of this course, that “market” is the 150-200 people who attend the showcase at the end of the semester.

In order to prepare the students for the showcase, about six weeks into the final project, Gibson assigns each student to do eight to ten trial runs of another team’s game in order to give the designing team some honest and unbiased audience critique. Much like they would encounter in the professional world of game design, each student team is asked to work creatively and collaboratively, depending upon the feedback of their teammates and peers in order to ultimately present the best possible version of their game idea.

Gibson says he can feel the effect of the changes being made in the EECS 494 curriculum. The students are learning in both traditional lecture and non-traditional small group settings, each offering the students chances to expand upon their academic and professional competencies. This multi-faceted classroom model affords students who take EECS 494 unique skillsets that they can utilize to transition from the academic to the professional world more productively and comfortably.

With the successes of his EECS 494 class, Gibson has ideas for future class offerings, including gaming for mobile devices – which would explore the interactive design of mobile games – or a device-based gaming course that would ask students to learn how an audience is predisposed to interact with certain devices, whether they be tablets, phones, natural user interface devices like Microsoft Kinect, or head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift, and to design games around the tactile affordances given by specific pieces of technology.