The best thing about talking to students is that you really get a sense of their passion. The worst thing about talking to students is that you constantly have ask them to rewind the conversation because their passion is so strong you can’t keep up with all the technicalities.
“This is the hardest question to answer,” said Nick Johnston, designer of Crystalbound. “It’s always like, ‘Oh, are you the programmer?’ ‘No, I’m the designer.’ ‘Oh, is that the artist?’ ‘No, I’m the designer.’”
When I chatted with DigiPen students at PAX West 2017, one thing became clear: the future of the games industry is in pretty good hands. Not only were their games polished and genuinely innovative to play, but I learned a lot from the conversations we had, including when they had to explain their team roles in layperson’s terms.
“The way I think of it is that it’s like an interior designer,” Johnston said. “I don’t make any of the furniture, I don’t put up the walls. I’m not in charge of the hardware that we program. I am the designer. So I figure out, okay, we have this space, what can we put in this space to evoke certain emotions?”
Evoking emotions is all part of the game. While some of the showcased work was more abstract and focused on the pure fun of gaming, other games were more intent on channeling something specific. Johnston’s Crystalbound aims to capture the fun of truly cooperative two-player gameplay, tying the two main characters together with a magical tether that prevents them from venturing too far away from one another.
“We looked at a lot of co-op games that just weren’t co-op enough for us, so we just tried to make our own. Like the tether system was a lightbulb moment,” Johnston said.
But that innovation isn’t just present in the mechanics; for some of DigiPen’s students, actively challenging the dominant narratives in the games industry is part of their goals as prospective game designers.
Morgan Rowe, a recent art graduate of DigiPen, showcased Elegy, a story-driven puzzle game in the vein of Gone Home or Firewatch at PAX West. The game follows a young woman with one arm exploring a post-post-apocalyptic landscape.
Rowe and other members of the Elegy team, such as design lead Harrison Barton, make expressing the world’s diversities part of their design philosophy. “We want to normalize disabilities and LGBTQ characters,” Rowe said, discussing why she and the rest of the Elegy team are so determined to bring their beliefs and personal investment in diversity to their games.
The importance of making games with characters who stand in contrast to the typical beefcake white male protagonist isn’t just in showing people how anyone can be a hero. By deliberately designing games that go against the grain, developers like Rowe also stand to learn more about acceptance.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about not having an arm or being disabled… [that] I didn’t learn until I met Harrison,” Rowe said. “So … it’s been a learning experience, and we want to educate other people….[Media] has had such a big impact on us as a culture … we have Star Trek to thank for the reason our phones look the way they do.”
That learning experience carries forward into the characters they design, as game developers like Rowe aim to deliberately change the dominant narratives in video games. “Harrison and I have pledged to never make a game with a straight white male character,” Rowe said. “He’s like, I am happy to have my main character be female until the end of times because there’s not enough heroines, which I am delighted by. And this game, we don’t really have a romantic interest for Robin … but there is a throwaway line about her being bisexual, because … we have to have a queer character in our game somewhere.”
DigiPen students also have to grapple with the realities of the game industry, such as finding the right team, brainstorming ideas, and putting those ideas into action to create a fully developed game. Part of that includes handling an intense workload, mirroring long-running problems with crunch in the industry. 65 percent of game developers experience crunch, referring to periods of overtime often late in the development cycle, according to a 2016 International Game Developers Association survey.
“We have to find the time in our own free time to make our game,” said Jeremy McCarty, PAX Producer for DigiPen Arcade Booth and student at DigiPen. “…We have to manage our scope, and we all crunch. It’s part of the deal, but we learn how to hopefully effectively manage our schedules to make it so we can avoid that when we get into the industry… We’re game teams. We’re dealing with all the real-world problems that AAA companies have, and we’re trying to be inclusive and open and making really cool things, and we learn lessons along the way.”
The intensity of the workload, which consists of taking a typical series of classes as well as developing a fully fledged game in free hours, is likely why, according to CollegeFactual.com, some 49 percent of students drop out before completing their program.
But this, too, is something design students are eager to change. “I’d like there to be less crunch,” Rowe said. “I don’t want it to be as draining and demanding. We have to fix that.”
That desire to build on the industry, not just learn about it, was something most DigiPen students I chatted with shared. Their education encourages them to learn the tools of game development and the ins and outs of the industry’s standards, but they’re not beholden to those standards. Armed with information and knowledge, they can start their own studios (Rowe and Barton have gone on to form their own development studio, PRIDE Interactive, where they’re currently working on Burn Ban, a visual novel about a mentally ill queer girl solving a mystery) or work within the industry to make change.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the industry as it is: poor labor practices, burnout, and a lack of diversity behind the scenes as well as on screen, but there’s a new generation working to change that. And if the student showcase at DigiPen’s PAX West arcade is anything to go by, the future is bright.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.