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In a room lit only by the eerie glow of computer screens, a dozen Pittsburgh Technical Institute students are exploring Brent Mackrell's world and trying to stay alive.
Generally, they fail.
"I think the average life span's about 10 seconds," said Mr. Mackrell, a Knoch High School graduate. He purposely created a small, deadly battlefield for maximum action in minimum time.Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Computer programming students at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute fill the dozen gaming stations set up to play the com- puter game Unreal, which they modified in their introduction to game design class. The students modified character performance and landscapes in the a high-tech version of Capture the Flag.
Click photo for larger image.
His world is a moonscape of ridges and valleys, with a waterfall and what looks like an abandoned industrial building. The 12 players are exploring it from their own perspectives, crawling over hills and around blind corners and blasting each other in a futuristic, weapons-heavy game of Capture the Flag.
"It's pretty fun to watch their reactions," Mr. Mackrell said while hanging out with several of his self-professed geek classmates outside the conference-room-turned-gaming-center on the institute's North Fayette campus.
Mr. Mackrell, 21, is part of the institute's first gaming design class, which spent a good chunk of the three-month course using the program Unreal Tournament to build battlefields.
They opened their work for other students Tuesday and Wednesday, a sort of real-time final exam that showed off their skills while helping them assess the quality of what they've built.
"I think it's pretty amazing that they created their own boards," said one of those other students, Robert Cheatle, 19, of Bradford County. "I've tried it, and it's hard."
"They're nice. There are a couple of good maps," agreed Andrew Lynch, 18, of Bedford County, another institute student seeing the class' work for the first time. He said he had tried to build such levels. "Nah. Not gonna work."
Making the created worlds work was an essential of the class, Professor James Madine said.
"There has to be an indoor aspect and an outdoor aspect, and it has to be playable," he said. From there, grades will be developed through a group critique: The class members will sit down together and talk about what worked and didn't work. "They'll be pretty critical of each other," he said.
Grades aside, though, the very existence of the class will get a dramatic reaction from many parents: Do we really need a college class on video games? We fight daily to pry our kids away from the screens to do their homework, go outside, read a book. Does this make sense? And it hardly seems like legitimate job training. The competition for game-making work is insanely fierce.
But creating online buildings and landscapes has obvious direct applications in fields such as architecture, offering virtual tours of buildings and landscapes that don't exist; real estate, offering virtual tours of buildings that do exist; and navigational systems, which could show drivers where to turn instead of telling them.
The course work also offers broad opportunities to teach basic principles. Whether a person is building a game or a business system, to a certain extent, programming is programming. It's all about manipulating information to get the desired results.
"It's kind of like putting a pill in an apple and giving it to a horse," Mr. Madine said. "They're having fun, and we're teaching computer science."
"This has enhanced the educational atmosphere greatly," said Jeff Belsky, computer programming department chairman. "This makes the principles fun, something you want to do, and once you learn the concepts, you can use them out in the field."
Of course, telling the students that they won't end up working as video game designers is like telling high school football players they won't make the NFL. It's not that they don't believe it, but they're not about to quit dreaming.
Brenton Kovash, 19, of Cambria County, the acknowledged game-playing master in the class, said he hoped to be a game designer.
"Part of me would like to design games," Mr. Mackrell agreed.
"I'd do anything. If they just let me put the textures in, I'd be happy," said Cletus Powers, 19, of Crawford County.
"It's like being a movie star," Mr. Madine said. "Everyone would like to be the next Brad Pitt, but there are only 12 of those, 12 movie stars at any one time. That's the world of computer gaming."
The acknowledged programming superstar of the class is Tyler Reed, 19, of McKean County.
"When he puts in a line of code, BAM! It works, while the rest of us are debugging for two hours," Mr. Mackrell said.
Oddly, Mr. Reed is among the few without game design aspirations.
"I like the programming aspects of things," he said. "I see making games more as a hobby."
All of the students said the class had given them an appreciation for the effort that goes into making games, the work involved in details such as creating shadows that look real and making objects that move when a virtual character bumps them.
"The little things make the difference," Mr. Kovash said.
The next step for the next session of the class, launched because of the popularity of the first class, will include manipulating the qualities of the game's characters.
"We decided to change the guns from shooting bullets to shooting marshmallows," Mr. Madine said.
The third and top level will delve into making physical modifications to the characters and weapons. Or, at least, that's Mr. Madine plans. As fast as things change in the world of computer gaming, being flexible is key.
And how does a gray-bearded 55-year-old keep up? "I stay up late reading a lot," Mr. Madine said with a laugh. He also spends a lot of time online reading about new developments and trends.
The field changes too fast for textbooks to keep up, he said. The two years it takes to get a textbook out renders it out of date.
And while he can stay caught up enough on programming to keep leading his bright group of young people, Mr. Madine acknowledged that he lags badly in another key area.
"If I play against them, they destroy me," he said.
First Published October 8, 2006 12:00 am