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They've Got Game 

With Ann DeMarle's popular video game courses, Champlain College levels up

Published January 23, 2008 at 7:40 p.m.

On a recent Wednesday evening, four students are giving a Power Point presentation in a basement computer lab at Champlain College. On the pull-down screen hovers the cartoon figure of a kid who looks like Dennis the Menace’s slower cousin, with a propeller hat and a crooked grin.

“Our game,” a male student says, “involves Bobby here getting trapped in this crazy world by demons and trying to find his way home.”

Instructor Ann DeMarle nods. The founder of Champlain College’s Electronic Game and Interactive Development Program and director of its innovative Emergent Media Center, she’s teaching these second-year students how to design video games as a team. The class is only meeting for the second time, but the students have already been divided into four groups, each with a “designer,” “art director,” “programmer” and “producer” — a small-scale version of working groups in the e-gaming industry. Each group has a set of “milestones” to complete, and DeMarle is serious about making them stick to the schedule. She’s brisk and businesslike as she asks the team’s mouthpiece, “What are you thinking about as the ending? What are some of the obstacles? What will he use to fight the demons? Bubble gum?”

The team’s plans seem pretty vague, but DeMarle keeps lobbing the questions: “What’s your reward system? What happens when they fail? What market are you targeting?” After the prof has heard a statement from the group’s artist and a three-week plan from its programmer — who’s just starting to learn Flash, the software he’ll use to engineer the game — she calls the next team up to the lectern.

“We’re gonna call it ‘Fourth Degree,’” a spokesman says of the next game on trial. “Basically, the story is, some girl whose town gets attacked by demons.”

Some sniggering ensues. “Better demons!” someone yells from the back.

Do these kids’ parents know what they’re learning in school? Chances are they do — and approve. Video-game development isn’t just one of the few fields where you can discuss demons and zombies on company time; it’s also one where creative types with technical know-how can make a great living. According to a report released in November by the Entertainment Software Association, to which most U.S. game developers belong, the industry grew by more than 17 percent between 2003 and 2006 — four times the rate of the nation’s whole economy during the same period. In 2006, gaming’s 24,000 full-time employees drew average salaries of about $92,300.

Governor Jim Douglas may have had those stats in mind when he delivered his State of the State address on January 10. “To further inspire investments in technology,” the governor announced, “I’m proposing we invest a quarter-million dollars in two pilot projects.” One of those is “a partnership with Champlain College and the University of Vermont’s Center for Emerging Technologies to provide grants to start-up businesses that are developing cutting-edge software.”

DeMarle was in the Statehouse audience. On her blog, she relates that Douglas “proposed investing in a pilot project to be managed by the Emergent Media Center in collaboration with Champlain’s BYOBiz and Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.” Now, in the classroom, she explains to her second-year Game Production students what this could mean to them. If the state hands over Douglas’ proposed money, the college will help funnel it to recent graduates with start-up business plans, chosen by competition. In other words, if the kids in this room learn their stuff, their future demons could be funded with tax dollars.

The gov’s plan is strong validation for DeMarle, who founded the Electronic Game and Interactive Development program in 2004 and saw it grow from 15 majors to 220 in four years, she says. In January 2007, DeMarle launched the Emergent Media Center, which connects students with industry professionals through guest speakers, conferences and hands-on work for companies. One such project that attracted local media attention was a “serious [i.e., educational] game” about the hazards of mercury that Champlain students designed for Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation in 2005.

Students can also get real-life experience on the college’s Montréal campus, which opened just last fall: A host of game developers have set up shop north of the border, including major players Ubisoft and Electronic Arts. A section of the EMC’s website called “Why Burlington?” suggests that the Boston-to-Montréal corridor is ideally situated for prospective game developers. One of the Center’s stated missions is to “spur . . . local [high-tech] businesses and the Vermont game industry by fostering entrepreneurship and professional skills for Champlain students . . .”

Designing the games people play is serious work, and Champlain’s program seems nothing if not practical. Students apply for one of three specialized tracks, leading to a BS in Game Programming, Art and Animation, or Game Design. Programmers do the technical stuff, while artists handle the graphics. The designer’s role is less easily defined. DeMarle describes designers as “vision keepers, like movie directors, kind of. They’re very creative — know the tech, know the art.” Her sister, who works for the British firm Eidos in Montréal, is a “narrative designer,” creating characters and their backstories. It’s almost “like being a novelist,” DeMarle says.

But in this required sophomore course, right-brained and left-brained folks work together. The Wednesday evening section of Game Production has about 17 students, four-fifths of them male. Its goal: “learn to function as a productive member of a game design team.”

Earlier in the evening, before the teams reported on their progress, DeMarle introduced herself to the students. “Some of you wondered who I am, what kind of games I like to play,” she said, referring to a survey she conducted at their first meeting. She started with game preferences —“Karaoke Revolution,” “Animal Crossing,” “Halo,” if she had more time — and moved on to her credentials. Though DeMarle hasn’t worked in the game industry herself, she turned her MFA in painting into lucrative freelance work creating computer graphics for science and tech companies. In sum, she said, “I’m kind of an art nerd.”

It’s probably a common type in this room — along with just plain nerd. Though the students sometimes dawdle in answering DeMarle’s questions, they seem pretty attentive, and there’s plenty of evidence of that dry, classic software-programmer’s humor in the room.

One table holds Team Two, who are all from New York or New England — though not Vermont. Nineteen-year-old Kerri Donahue says she came to Champlain because “it was almost the only school that wasn’t a community college and had this kind of program. You get a college experience here. Vermont rocks,” she adds.

Jeremy Falat, who’s also 19 and wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’m Really Excited to Be Here,” grins as he confesses, “It was pretty much either this or doing something serious.”

Brenton Woodrow, also 19, recently mingled with students from other game-design programs at a summit in Montréal. Earnest and clean-cut, he agrees with Donahue that Champlain’s program is unusual. Like the other students at the table, Woodrow grew up playing electronic games. But now, he says, “The more I know, the less I play them. I hate when I’m playing and I’m sitting there subconsciously critiquing them.”

Donahue chimes in: “When I play ‘World of Warcraft,’ I notice how crappy the models are.”

Nowadays, Woodrow says, he’d rather watch other people play: “It’s kind of like watching an experiment get worked out.” The other students snicker at his wonky approach, but then Falat says, “I know what you mean. You see them get frustrated and think, The game could really do a lot better.”

The students will have to “do a lot better” if they want their game plans in this class to come to fruition. Later in the semester, after observing their progress, DeMarle will select just two or three of their concepts to become finished games, which the teams will reshuffle to realize. As in business, it’s survival of the fittest.

Each proposed game has to take the form of a maze — but which design teams will make it to the end? Team Two has an ambitious concept involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with a mock-up that looks like a surrealist painting. Unlike Bobby’s confrontation with the demons, this one’s not for kids. “Our monsters are gonna be very scary,” says artist Donahue, who grew up playing “Mortal Kombat,” and is quick to point out that the game’s target demo isn’t limited to males. “It’s gonna be very, very gruesome and bloody.”

Team Three is going for something more psychological: Its game has a comatose protagonist who roams a surreal world of dream and memory, trying to wake up. Team Four’s concept puts players in the role of a futuristic FBI agent who pursues killer robots, only to discover that he himself is the villain he seeks. This team hasn’t made any sketches yet: The setting “has to be a clean place, but a deadly place,” muses the artist. “With killer robots in it.”

One minute, the kids sound like head-trip sci-fi novelists; the next they’re in techie or marketing mode, talking about using an “isometric view” or targeting the game to the Xbox Live Arcade. Do students ever freak out or drop out when they realize Champlain’s program involves a lot more than learning to play for a living? Of course, DeMarle says: “They’re discovering who they are, just like any college student.”

If the class is any indication, though, these young people already have a fan’s eagerness to absorb everything there is to know about their target industry. On the path to graduation, they may have to slay some pretty big demons. And program them.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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