The Spec Ops – Video Game Development program is often considered a capstone program at Every1Games. Spec Ops offers creative neurodivergent students a place where they can come and learn to create one of the leading forms of art and entertainment in contemporary society – video games.
When taken as a whole, video game development may seem daunting. The idea of making a video game conjures up a highly stressful environment where some mythical renaissance character does everything from art to programming to make their game. In reality, whole teams come together to contribute to one major project at a time.
This means that the video game industry is one in which all sorts of talents can be nurtured and developed. There are 3D artists, who can work on modelling (creating 3D representations of objects for games), rigging (giving a skeletal structure to the models), and animating (making those same representations come to life). 2D artists may work in creating user interface, textures, and concept art, all of which contribute to the user’s in-game experience. There are programmers, who communicate directly with computers to turn the video game into… well, a game. Games aren’t fun when the opponent doesn’t play back, after all. Designers work to develop the premise, balance, and feel of a game, and sound engineers enrich the world with audio feedback and cues.
All of these roles, and many more, work together to create a game.
That was what we did in Spec Ops 4.
The End-Game (Goals)
Since our program development is an iterative process, the facilitators of Spec Ops once more made it a goal to learn from the past. We kept the most fun, most engaging, most skill-developing parts of previous Spec Ops sessions. Everything else was re-examined and re-evaluated before either being approached from a different angle or being dropped from the curriculum entirely.
To ensure this instance of the program ran smoothly, we had two facilitators at any given point: one artist and one programmer (me!). We also had a variety of support staff on hand, including organizational leads and audio engineers, to help cultivate an interest in other skills related to video game production.
We spent a good deal of time considering what was important for participants to get out of the program. With the range of video game development experiences our participants would have in mind, we came up with the following goals:
- Introduce participants to a variety of different roles in the video game industry, including art, programming, audio, and design.
- Create a low-stress environment that encourages participants to develop higher-level social skills by encouraging self-advocacy and positive interaction.
- Make a video game with maximal contribution from participants and minimal contribution from staff.
We decided the best way to do this was to start off with a relatively heavy ‘class’ load at the beginning, with a shift to emphasize game development in later days.
The idea behind this was to equip participants with rudimentary skills they’d need to contribute to the game in the manner of their choosing. It would also help them identify their strengths and weaknesses while sampling the many roles the video game industry has to offer. Essentially, this structure let them decide what they liked and enjoyed while eliminating roles that were just not for them. As staff, it allowed us to shift and change the curriculum to suit the interests of our participants.
Pre-Production (Early Game Design)
The first two days of Spec Ops were spent getting to know each other and determining the type of game we wanted to make.
We started by naming elements and features that make a game appealing to us. Suggestions ranged from first-person shooters to MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games, with everything in between considered as well. By the end of this exercise, we had a massive list of potential options. Obviously we couldn’t do everything suggested, so we started paring down the list, finding common elements and eliminating unrealistic goals.
After a few hours of back and forth discussion, voting, and bringing new ideas to the table, we had a loose concept of what we wanted to develop. We went with an endless, arena-style space shooter with a sort of gritty, hopeless feel. We also ideally wanted to heavily emphasize narrative.
By the end of the second day, we even had a name: The Final Marine.
Main Production (The Classroom Experience)
After we had the game concept settled, we spent the next couple of days doing crash-courses in a number of different tools used by industry game developers to make games. We dabbled in Photoshop, Illustrator, 3dsmax, Maya, HTML/CSS, Unity Engine Editor, TFM Music Maker, C#, and other programs.
This let all participants start learning concepts that were totally new to them without pressuring them to immediately make a game. As we hoped, participants began to explore the fields and roles they were interested in.
The added benefit for facilitators was being able to cater courses more specifically to participant interest. It wasn’t long before modelling was front and center stage, a crowd favourite among our participants. Around the same time, programming was more or less dropped from the curriculum entirely.
We worked in groups at various points, fostering discussions and developing our game further. While participants were happy to keep working on their pet projects, they also began to get excited about working on The Final Marine. Some of them were improving the design, while others had already started to model assets they thought might be useful in our game.
Alpha Production (From the Classroom to the Studio)
Work on The Final Marine began in earnest late into our second week.
Participants were given a list of assets that the game would need and decided for themselves what to work on. At this point, it already became apparent who favoured which role; we had about three or four modellers (one of whom is a budding rigger/animator, the others who are content to remain modelling specialists), two 2D art specialists, two game designers, and one lonely programmer.
Most participants were also eager to experiment with two or three roles. Our modellers also showed interest in 2D art, for example. Everyone also enjoyed the design aspect of a game and was willing to discuss and compromise in various ways. The Final Marine began to take shape, with some place-holder assets and concepts to flesh out in the future.
Beta Production (Studio Environment)
By the end of the third week, we moved almost exclusively into game development. We spent very little time doing crash-courses, instead opting to help participants work on their assets on a one-to-one level.
If a participant did not need any guidance, they continued to develop their assets at their own pace. They submitted assets for addition into the game when they were satisfied with their work. During this time, we received many polished assets for integration, including a sky box, environment assets, and a number of different particle effects for use in the game.
This marked a very industrious but quiet time for Spec Ops. Lunch was no longer a welcome break and refreshing chance to socialize, but rather an interruption into their technical skill and asset development.
Did I mention that The Final Marine was starting to look really good?
Gold Production/Release (The Grand Finale)
In major studios, a game getting released is cause for much excitement. The Final Marine was finished one early afternoon in our fourth week. All assets were integrated, the level had been designed and implemented, and the game worked.
Participants were given the rest of the day to reflect and socialize with the team, before a grand unveiling demonstration in the final few hours.
I will close this section with the words of one of our participants:
“I almost don’t believe it. We made a game. We actually made one. We’re game developers now.“
Spec Ops was a huge success.
The participants were both creative and driven, balancing personal needs and desires with the team’s goals throughout. Students learned that there is room for everybody in game development, regardless of their interests or original skill level.
Skill-wise, they universally improved across the board. Participants went from not necessarily knowing what a model was to modelling full characters, and from knowing a lot about video games to knowing about video game production. They worked with industry standard software to make a game in a small studio environment.
With the help of George Brown College’s facilities and facilitators, who were able to help nurture participant interests, we expect a number of the participants will continue to develop the foundation Spec Ops set out for them. Spec Ops has a proven history of growing with its participants.
It might have been The Final Marine, but it won’t be the final step for the participants. It sure won’t be the final Spec Ops.
Game link: coming soon to a postmortem near you!
Note: That last line was fairly melodramatic, but it wasn’t dishonest. It won’t be the final Spec Ops. The next installment of Spec Ops has tentative start dates in late September/early October. Mosey on over to the Programs page for more information!