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Students train to become video game designers

MassDiGI aims to help train the next generation of video game designers.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

MassDiGI aims to help train the next generation of video game designers.

Chris Gengler traced his finger across the screen of an iPad, guiding a cloud of black particles down a white corridor, evading machine gun bullets.

He was playing a video game called Nanoswarm. Just a few months ago, it was nothing more than a cool idea. Today, it’s nearly finished — an impressive achievement, considering that Gengler and his fellow game designers are not professionals, but undergraduates at Becker College in Worcester.

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They were among 18 students, mostly from Massachusetts colleges, participating in a state-sponsored summer program aimed at developing the next generation of video game designers.

“This summer, we have learned essentially how to be game developers,” said Ali Swei, one of Gengler’s colleagues on the Nanoswarm team.

The program was based at Becker and sponsored by the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, or MassDiGI, an agency created to promote the video game industry. On Thursday, the student designers presented their game projects and networked with industry executives at The Tap Lab, a Cambridge maker of location-based video games.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/ GLOBE STAFF

Cian Rice is on the Energy Team at the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute and working on a game called On Call.

Dave Bisceglia, Tap Lab’s chief executive, said he feels an obligation to help train young game designers. “While we’re heads-down building games every day, we still want to pay it forward,” he said.

Not to mention that Tap Lab is always on the lookout for game developers, and this was a chance to scout for some young talent who, thanks to the MassDiGi program, had actual experience — which Bisceglia seeks when hiring designers. “We look at probably 50 resumes a week,” he said. “I just say, ‘Has this person built a game?’ And if they say no — OK, next person.”

The students also met with Noah Heller, entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture capital firm Atlas Venture in Cambridge and a veteran executive of the California game company Acitivision Blizzard Inc., home of the hugely popular Call of Duty game series. Heller stressed the value of the real-world experience the program offers to student designers.

“It’s one thing to go to college and get a CS [computer science] degree, and it’s another thing to understand what a game development cycle is like and what it’s like to collaborate with other people,” Heller said.

The students came from nine colleges: Becker, Springfield College, Mount Ida College, Northeastern University, Mount Holyoke College, Champlain College, Berklee School of Music, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Charged with completing a game, or at least a playable early-stage prototype, the budding designers formed three teams, each with a different assignment. One was Nanoswarm. The other two projects were what the industry calls “serious games,” educational tools created to impart practical knowledge in a memorable, entertaining way.

MASSACHUSETTS DIGITAL GAMES INSTITUTE

Students conceived Energy Drive, a game that simulates the construction of a city’s electrical engineering system.

Energy Drive, which simulates the construction of a city’s electrical generating system, was originally conceived by students at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Rochester students handed off their idea to MassDiGI, which assigned one of the summer student teams to build a working version. In the game, players use relatively clean technologies like windmills or dirtier methods like coal-fired steam boilers to power a city. Each method has benefits and drawbacks; windmills often don’t produce enough power, for instance. Players must discover the optimum blend of energy sources to keep the city running.

The third project was On Call, a training tool for doctors and nurses. Players share vital information about patients who have arrived at a hospital and work together via networked computers to decide on treatment.

“We’ve created a virtual ER where nursing students and medical students will go into this game and they’ll be able to communicate with one another while solving these virtual cases,” said Alex Harrington, a senior at Springfield College and one of the students working on the project.

Monty Sharma, MassDiGI managing director, said the students were held to the same tight production schedules they would find in a commercial game studio. “They did this the way a real game team operates,” Sharma said. “Every week, they’re reevaluating their product; every day, they build a new version of the game. And every night we play it.”

This disciplined approach has given the students a better appreciation for the complexities of game-building.

“Having the mentors come in from a lot of different places — the programming side, the marketing side, the art side — I found out there’s a lot more to it than making art and putting it out there,” Harrington said.

But putting it out there is the ultimate goal, and the Nanoswarm team is nearly ready. The game will be offered for free on Apple’s online app store, to be followed by a more advanced version the team might sell for 99 cents. “We’re looking to release to iPad in just a couple of weeks,” Gengler said — just like a pro.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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