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Geologic powers and a moped-riding henchman headline a new crop of University of Utah video games

SALT LAKE CITY — Going to work for a supervillain is a gig that comes with some serious professional challenges.

Particularly when you’re expected to do the job while riding a moped.

Thanks to some video game magic being created by a group of University of Utah Entertainment Arts and Engineering students, players can enter that world by simply donning a pair of virtual reality goggles and doing the bidding of Dr. Bad in the evolving saga of “Henchman for Hire.”

The project’s creative director and U. senior Tasch Ritter said the game, which has been under development since the start of the fall semester, started with a storyline that was going to drag an unsuspecting commuter into Dr. Bad’s evil schemes, but her team eventually evolved the premise, and Henchman was born.

Ritter’s project, along with about 50 others being developed by students in the novel U. program, were on display and available for test drives as part of the “EAE Play” fall open house event Friday afternoon on the University of Utah campus.

U. director of esports A.J. Dimick said the focus of the semi-annual event is to give graduate and undergraduate student developers the opportunity to live test early versions of their projects and use the input to continue refining and modifying the games.

“This is an opportunity for a big play test,” Dimick said. “Students can take what they learn here and course correct, if necessary, or refine concepts.”

Dimick said the decade-old program began as an interdisciplinary effort that melded coursework from the U.’s film and engineering departments, but has since evolved into its own degree track option at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

The evolution of the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program is one that has tracked with a video gaming industry that continues to grow at a breakneck clip, with the proliferation of mobile devices and cutting edge technology like virtual reality goggles continuing to fuel the need for experts to create new content, including some that spans outside the bounds of the gaming world.

Dimick said the skills being developed by program participants, which includes 3D imaging and animation, art direction, design, programming, music technology and more gives graduates the preparation they need to not only engage with the gaming industry, but with numerous other fields like health and scientific collaboration, visualization and edutainment.

Second year graduate student Josh Marchand got a taste of the post-university world when he interned last year with Epic Games, the company behind the wildly popular video game “Fortnite.” Marchand said the experience exposed him to the inner workings of a big, professional game development studio and helped guide him in the work he’s doing on “Geomancer,” a graduate project he’s working on with a team of 14 other students.

“Geomancer” players, Marchand explained, have to manipulate the earth around them, or geomance, to solve puzzles and get through challenges that are blocking their way.

“It’s all about bringing harmony back to the world,” Marchand said. “The world is distorted and out of whack … and the geomancer wants to fix it and put everything back to normal.”

Marchand said his team is split into three microteams each tasked with a different area of focus in the development project. The design, programming and art teams all work together, based on a plan that has a hard deadline coming up in March and the requirement to have their game completed and available to the public by that end point.

It’s a lot of work, but Marchand has a decidedly philosophical approach to getting it all done in time while accomplishing the goals of the project.

“I live under the belief that constraints lead to creativity,” Marchand said. “Knowing what the deadline is, you have to work backwards to make sure you can complete what you want to get done.”

Dimick said the EAE program is constructed to provide students with the technical training that forms the basis of the work, but in an environment that reflects both the process and realities of the professional game development industry. Creating a game from the ground up requires bringing a myriad of skill sets together, and the more complicated the project, the more creative students need to get in corralling those diverse talents.

“We consider all these projects as garage startups,” Dimick said. “Students don’t necessarily have all the resources they need in the program. You need voiceover talent? Go find that guy. Music? Track down a composer. Making the game you want to make requires a lot of resourcefulness.”

Josh Butner, the lead designer and a virtual reality specialist working on the “Henchman for Hire” team said the decision to develop a VR game came with extra challenges, some of which track back to ensuring gameplay does not automatically lead to motion sickness issues for players immersed in the artificial environment. While there are some programming guidelines out there to help avoid the adverse reactions, a lot of it comes down to pure experimentation with the new technology.

“Sometimes we just have to put people in it and see how they feel,” Butner said. “We have a professor that is sensitive to motion sickness, so he’s been a great test subject.”

Henchman narrative designer Bryan Buttars said while he and his team knew they were taking on a bigger challenge in developing a game to work with VR goggles, he believes the potential payoff is also at a different scale.

“Anybody who has a headset right now is dying for more games,” Buttars said. “We have a huge potential audience that’s ready to scoop it up … something we hope will work to our advantage.”


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