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Ready, Set, Play 

Dev Jana offers sound advice to Vermont's growing game-design community

You go online to play a new game called “Roy G Beats.” Immediately, you hear a rhythmic, industrial clank, and it picks up speed. Syncopated percussion on a muted high-hat adds an almost jazzy kick. A slightly twangy, electronic melody line bubbles up. All this coalesces into a bouncy soundtrack, and you find your toes tapping, head bobbing, your body moving in sync. And this is before “Roy G Beats” even begins.

Click on the game’s introduction, and you hear an even sunnier riff, vaguely reminiscent of an old Allman Brothers tune. But start to play in earnest and the sounds turn edgier, slightly sinister, nudging up the adrenaline level as you try to defend a cute little 3-D robot named Roy against an invading horde of bugs. You become aware that your own moves elicit a variety of tones.

“Roy G Beats” is an online tower-defense game created by Dev Jana, 35, a game designer and assistant professor at Burlington’s Champlain College. A multi-instrumentalist, he also composes the procedural music for his games. Recently, he’s helped to create a new specialty within Champlain’s nationally renowned Game Studio: sonic arts. The way a game sounds, he believes, is at least as important as how it looks.

This weekend at the Vermont Tech Jam, Jana says visitors will be able to hear, and play, “Roy G Beats” on Mac and PC — “It will be about 98 percent done,” he promises. Versions for iPhone, and Android platforms will roll out by early December. After that, the owner of Jana Media will begin production on his next two games.

Jana doesn’t spend much time sitting still. “I’m extraordinarily active,” he declares in between bites of pizza at a recent lunchtime interview. “I hate sleeping.”

Indeed. The speed at which Jana moves is mirrored in the way his words tumble out, as if trying to keep up with his thoughts. Check out his guitar playing on YouTube, and you can see his fingers are equally nimble.

The son of immigrants — Indian father, Filipina mother — Jana was born in Erie, Pa., and earned degrees in computer systems and game animation. Over the decade before he came to Burlington, he taught at several schools around the country, worked for private companies large and small, designed games, created apps for the iPhone, and … apparently didn’t sleep much.

Since arriving here just over a year ago with his wife, Krystal, Jana has fully immersed himself in what he calls a “very welcoming” community — both academic and musical. He plays in several bands — Workingman’s Army, Phil Yates and the Affiliates and his own Dragonfly Physics — and has quickly become a popular instructor at Champlain.

“We were very happy to find him,” says Amanda Crispel, game-program director and manager of the Game Studio, in a phone interview. “He has an incredible skill set. Students are fighting over getting into his production class.” Crispel adds that Jana’s audio course has made Champlain’s game-design curricula “even richer.”

Since it launched in 2004, the college’s Game Studio — which offers design, art and animation, production, and programming in a “cohort,” team-based structure — has grown dramatically. Jana is one of 15 teachers overseeing a cohort of nearly 350 students. “It’s now a fifth of our college population,” Crispel notes.

This year, the Princeton Review ranked it among the top 10 game-design programs in the country. A bonus: Selected Game Studio students get cutting-edge, real-world experience working on outside projects with game-design professionals at the college’s Emergent Media Center. And they have an opportunity to study at Champlain’s Montréal campus; the Québec city is the world’s second-largest game development center, home to Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.

Jana says he finds teaching at Champlain “very fulfilling.” But he’s less effusive about the state of Vermont’s general support for the gaming industry. “I can name 15 rock bands,” he says of the vibrant local music scene. “We should be able to name people who are making games here.”

Jana wants to help change that. “The Tech Jam is kind of a coming-out party for me,” he suggests. He’s eager to demonstrate that Vermont is exactly the kind of place for small, start-up, technology-based business.

“I want to attract part of the billion-dollar gaming industry here,” Jana says. “People get connected here; there’s camaraderie and community. There’s the kind of strong working environment that can help sustain a gaming industry.”

Though he believes games are an important way to reach “young minds,” Jana points out that games aren’t just for kids anymore. “Games are starting to mature,” he says. “It’s a great artistic-experience medium and an enormous industry. There is no reason to approach it as toys.”

Crispel agrees. “Games are becoming mainstream communication media,” she says, noting that some of Champlain’s gaming graduates work in public relations, business, education and other kinds of instruction. “There are lots of arenas and learning environments.” She also agrees that Vermont is “an excellent place for small, independent studios” in the gaming industry. “My one gripe,” Crispel adds, “is the Vermont Department of Labor, which stands in the way of success of small tech studios because of the way they handle contract labor. It drives contract work out of state.”

The growing number of technology businesses — and tech-minded graduates — in Vermont may eventually lobby for changes in that environment. Meanwhile, Dev Jana keeps busy teaching design, making games and composing music. “I’m trying to show people how important sound is,” he says. Studies have shown, he adds, that “those who listen to or play music regularly have less memory loss.”

Remember that when you’re defending Roy against the bugs.

Dev Jana is demonstrating his new game, “Roy G Beats,” at the Vermont Tech Jam on Friday, October 28, and Saturday, October 29, at the Borders building, 29 Church St., in Burlington.

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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