So you want to be a video game designer?
Not so long ago, for anyone in Kentucky that meant getting a degree in computer science, then hightailing it to California.
But Eastern Kentucky University has introduced what could be a game changer: The state’s first Gaming Institute, which has enrolled 100 students who are expected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a concentration in interactive media. Officials held a grand opening this fall, unveiling a $60,000 motion capture studio that has turned a corner of campus into Hollywood-ready animation.
“I can’t think of anything we’re doing at the university that has more application to the here and now and what students want,” EKU President Michael Benson said at the opening.
“We saw a need because no one else has this,” said computer science professor George Landon, who leads the institute. “We kept seeing people who want to play games but don’t understand how to make games.”
The brightly lit studio is lined with 14 cameras that estimate the skeleton as it moves and allow students to turn live people into video figures. For example, students have turned EKU’s iconic Daniel Boone statue into a dancing, marching, moving figure. And that’s just the beginning. Then they have to think of scenarios that would make good games and turn them into actual working videos.
A lot of people want to do this but a lot of them can’t do the math required to get the degree.
EKU Senior Thomas John Botkins
Seniors Olivia Hornbeck and Thomas John Botkins are students in the institute.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to design video games,” Hornbeck said. “It’s more common than you think. When I heard about this I couldn’t wait. Anything that can push our skills as game designers is great.”
Botkins said the institute’s name might be deceiving, because video game design requires the high level math and engineering skills needed for coding.
“A lot of people want to do this, but a lot of them can’t do the math required to get the degree,” he said.
Hornbeck, Botkins and Sean Buckner learned first-hand what a tough industry it can be during one of the school’s Game Jams, which give students 48 hours to develop a working game.
They created Fallen Angel, in which an angel tries to re-ascend into heaven, jumping onto moving clouds while avoiding an enormous demon hand that tries to grab it.
That kind of crash course teaches student many different skills, Buckner said.
“We’re learning how to score our own music, doing audio engineering, and expanding our artistic and technical skills,’ he said.
Students also use the studio for other purposes, Landon said. Members of a dance class, for example, used it to see what their movements look like below the skin.
For anxious parents worried about whether video game addiction really can be turned into a career, Landon is encouraging. He talks about socially responsible games that are emerging, such as Depression Quest, in which players make choices that let them understand what it’s like to suffer from depression.
“People are really trying to make games to get you to see things, to learn about the way you live in the real world,” Landon said.
EKU’s students would like their real world to be game development in Kentucky.
The institute already has one standard-bearer in the professional world. Shea Rembold, a recent EKU graduate, is part of RalphRV, the maker of the increasingly popular Daydream Blue virtual reality game. Rembold teamed with UK graduate Richard Hoagland, and, while they spend a lot of time in California, the company will be based in Lexington.
Developers also are being helped by RunJumpDev, a Lexington nonprofit organization that fosters the local game development scene.
“Fifteen years ago you had to go to L.A.,” Hornbeck said. “That has really changed in past years.”