Games pupils playFeatures, Top Reads — June 23, 2010
By Sam Romero
In a two-dimensional world of finite space, Mark Chapman maneuvers the White Hornet spaceship and quickly dispatches a few enemies. He’s earning new weapons, or power spheres, as he goes, including the “laser of doom,” a super-weapon whose path of destruction is as sure as it is wide, and, without suffering much damage or loss of pride, Chapman soon advances to level 2. He’s one of just a few who can play the video game with such ease. But he is the game’s designer, after all.
VectorForce isn’t just another online shooter game and Mark Chapman isn’t your run-of-the-mill gamer with no homework and time to burn. He is a college student. And in the summer of 2007, he got to thinking.
Earlier that summer, Art Concepcion and David Turner, both computer science and engineering professors at Cal State San Bernardino, had introduced into the university’s curriculum a new B.A. major in computer systems. This degree program had a game development option. Students were interested in video games, says Turner, and creating a game is demanding work. So Chapman got to thinking that he could create his own video game. Certainly, it made good use of what he’d been learning as a computer science major at CSUSB, and getting academic credit for such an undertaking wasn’t so bad, either. Last September, two years after he and about a dozen fellow computer science students approached Concepcion and Turner with their idea, VectorForce was launched and shortly after that selected as one of the top 50 Indie Games in the online Xbox Live Marketplace.
VectorForce is a shooter game. Players blast and dodge their way through five levels of enemies using a combination of weapons and three different spacecrafts. They conduct their fierce battles in the “hard mode” or the tougher “challenge mode.” An advanced mode, the challenge arena is strictly designed to build a score and is a small cosmic bow to the classic video game, Space Invaders, which only allowed players to rack up points and then, for bragging rights, listed the names of the best scorers. With VectorForce, “as long as you’re playing,” says Chapman, “enemies are spawning until you die, and the enemies will not relent. They will continue to come after you until you are floating space debris.” In a video game universe fraught with peril, this can be the height of pleasure. Not that you hope to become floating space debris, but rather that you should survive longer than any other and escape early and humiliating annihilation in the face of mighty odds.
Well, it’s true that extending a player’s life in a video game isn’t why people go to college. But the know-how it takes to extend that life is. In other words, creating a fun video game is so much more than fun and games. “It pretty much utilizes every aspect of computer design,” Turner says. “It’s more demanding than, say, Web development or system administration. It’s hard. You have to know physics. There’s a lot more math involved, a very deep level of computer science, a lot of algorithms.”
All the skills students take from the game development program are ones many companies outside the video game industry want and need in an employee. “A lot of the classes overlap into different fields, like graphics programs or bio-informatics,” says Eric Spaan, a CSUSB computer science student who came a year after work on VectorForce began and helped overhaul the game system to make it run smoother on Xbox.
But the video game industry has its own needs. Today, it is demanding — right along with the most serious industries — the services of the nimblest computer science minds. Concepcion knows that as well as he knows that a game development program can prepare a student for a variety of professional positions. Some first-day video game sales go higher than ticket sales for blockbuster movies. Two-and-a-half years ago, Halo 3 posted $170 million in first-day sales. Eight months later, in May 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV, a game considered by many as far too violent, smashed that opening mark with $310 million in sales, largely due to its ability to be played on two different game platforms, Xbox and Playstation 3.
Students in the game development program have shown that they can create a game that is professional and fun. “If students are allowed to choose the project and be involved in the design and decision of what the project will do, they will rise to the challenge of hard work,” says Concepcion. In fact, he adds, during the summers of 2007 and 2008, students often worked from noon to 7 or 8 p.m. four days a week and then between classes during the regular school year. A $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation is now funding work on the next student-produced game, Mythic. The wrinkle here is that this project will bring together CSUSB students and professors and instructors from Rim of the World High School and Riverside Community College.
Game development has definitely become a niche program. But, as it turns out, the program that began with a dozen devoted volunteers working on a video game during the summer of 2007 may well be a boon for new graduates. It’s also preparing students for careers in a competitive universe that, by design, is expanding.