Video game design gaining momentum in Delaware

 

Chair of the game design and development program at Wilmington University, Scott Shaw, demos a virtual reality game dressed as a “tech wizard”. The magic-themed demonstration last weekend showcased much of the work students do in video game design classes. The game Mr. Shaw is playing is a broom riding simulator. The game was designed and built by student Ngu Nguyen in just two weeks. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

DOVER — Game designer and Wilmington University teacher Matt Sharp is as good a representative of the video game design industry in the state as you’re likely to find. This is because he, like the state’s game design industry itself, is young, homegrown, independent and ambitious.

The 27-year-old Delaware native first took a shine to video games when he was introduced to Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System at the age of 3. Knowing early on that he wanted to pursue game design, he began experimenting with online open source game creation tools that enabled him to design his own games based off the programming blueprints of existing ones.

“I made a ton of horrible, short games that were basically garbage,” said Mr. Sharp, describing his early attempts.

After many experiments with varying levels of success, he said he released his first “full game,” called Lucid Awakening, to a small niche online audience when he was 18 years old. The game had 20 hours of original game play, he said.

Matt Sharp

Shortly afterward, he quit a full-time job and devoted himself to creating a sequel to his game. This process took about two years. During that time, he decided to officially create a game development business, which he dubbed “Momiji Studios.”

National industry growth

The profession of game design has been enjoying some time in the limelight on a national level. According to a 2017 report released by the Entertainment Software Association, the U.S. video game industry has seen rapid increases in revenue and job growth — it now supports 220,000 jobs and creates $30.4 billion in revenue. The ESA is a Washington D.C.-based trade association partnered with top publishers in the video game industry like Disney Interactive Studios, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

The ESA’s report stated that the industry was creating “high-paying jobs” at an annual growth rate of 2.9 percent — more than double the rate of the U.S. job market. It went on to note that employees in the industry were earning an average compensation of $97,000 per year in 2015 which is also nearly double the average U.S. household income.

Other findings in the report include:

•There are 2,858 video game company locations across 84 percent of the congressional districts in America

•95 percent of video game companies were founded in the United States

•The U.S. game company industry’s value added to U.S. gross domestic product was more than $11.7 billion in 2015

Operating on a shoestring

Mr. Sharp’s “studio” is run out of his apartment in Newark.

“My work space is a desk three feet away from my bed,” he said.

Recent game design program graduate Jeremy Stone displays a 3D printed ocarina designed with software used by students in Wilmington University’s programs. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

His business is entirely self-funded and many of his skills were self-taught through online tutorials and “how-to” guides. As far as formal education, Mr. Sharp holds an associate degree in computer information systems from Delaware Technical Community College.

A noteworthy success came for Mr. Sharp when a game distributer picked up one of his completed sequels as part of its new game incubator project.

“It (Lucid Awakening 2) got picked up on the Steam Greenlight program, and I had it on Steam in January 2015,” he said. “Steam is the largest digital distribution platform for games.”

As far as independent game designers are concerned, a “Steam release” is a “big deal”, Mr. Sharp explained. Although, the release didn’t create an enormous amount of revenue, it was well received by the gaming community and provided some funds for equipment upgrades, he said.

“I worked with a terrible laptop for basically my whole career,” Mr. Sharp said. “Last year I used capital built from sales of Lucid Awakening 2 to buy a fairly powerful desktop PC.”

He also recently launched his first game for mobile devices called “Cubey Sphere.” Admittedly, Mr. Sharp says his game design efforts have just about broken even in terms of investment versus revenue, but he’s been able to parlay the experience and credentials into other rewarding pursuits.

“Now I set up at conventions like MAGFest, speak at game development panels and I was brought on to teach game development at Wilmington University in the fall of 2014,” he said.

MAGFest, the Music and Gaming Festival, is an annual event held in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area that celebrates video games and video game music.

Game design education

Much of what’s being done in the state as far as game design is concerned is being done at colleges, specifically Wilmington University, which has the state’s only game design and development major.

According to the Wilmington University Office of Institutional Research, the game design and development Bachelor of Science degree saw 99 enrollees in the 2011-12 academic year when it first started. It has since jumped to 150 enrollees in 2016, a 52 percent increase over five years, said university officials.

The program’s chair, Scott Shaw, said the course of study focuses on offering students a full complement of game design fundamentals in addition to a solid background in the most cutting edge technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality game programming.

“VR and AR are the really hot topics right now,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere really fast at the moment, there are some hurdles with them, but this technology will probably be something like the ‘next’ mobile phone. Just last week our student were able to work with a HoloLens, Microsoft’s VR headset, and there were able to program things into it fairly easily.”

During their program, students also often have the opportunity to get game design experience working on products for real clients, Mr. Shaw said.

“If someone wants some game development done, they contact our co-op department and we set it up for students to work on the project,” he said. “Students can take co-op courses, get credits, get experience and, in some instances, get paid for the work or land future jobs.”

Program alumni are headed in all sorts of directions, said Mr. Shaw.

“We’ve had students graduate and get jobs right out of the gate at Sparkypants Studios in Baltimore and Schell Games in Pittsburgh,” he said.

However, it seems an increasingly popular route, like the one taken by Mr. Sharp, is for students to go independent.

“Lots of students start their own companies, we’ve had several students go on to have games come out on Steam,” said Mr. Shaw. “Right now, indie seems to be the place to be. Folks just want to make their own games.”

The University of Delaware offers both a minor and a concentration in game design. The game design minor goes beyond computer science and includes communications courses whereas the concentration is an option within the computer science major. Although there wasn’t enrollment information easily available, computer science department Associate Professor Terry Harvey says that his class sizes have been gaining in popularity.

“The game design concentration have been around for at least eight years and the minor is newer,” he said. “They’ve been continually growing. My educational game design course is at capacity with 40 students and for the first time it actually has a waiting list.”

The minor is pursued by a number of different majors because Mr. Harvey notes that the courses have a cultural focus.

“People who get this minor are interested in games for what they say about human beings — games as an important part of understanding a culture,” he said.

The concentration offers more in terms of nuts and bolts computer programming. One of Mr. Harvey’s software engineering classes this year is in the middle of designing an educational game for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“They want a game about estuary science they can put in their lobby for people to play when they visit,” he said. “DNREC is going to hire some student interns in the art and computer science department to work on the best games out of the bunch this summer so they can take them from the beta stage to a finished product.”

For younger designers, Delaware Technical Community College offers several summer camps related to coding and computer programming.

“All of the camps range in price depending on the campus location, but they are generally around $95 for a half day camp and can be as much as $189 for a week of full-day camp,” said Delaware Tech spokeswoman Christine Gillan. “There are scholarships available at each location too.”

The camps include “Coding for Kids”, “Minecraft” (which involves coding) and a virtual reality camp. More information on eligible age groups and locations can be found at dtcc.edu/continuing-education/youth-programs.

The game design ‘scene’

Although the commercial landscape in Delaware seems to be limited to independent development studios and education programs, both Mr. Shaw and Mr. Sharp are optimistic that the state’s game design industry will continue to grow — even having potential to become an activity “hub.”

In February, Wilmington University signed a memorandum of understanding with Dub3 LLC, an experiential entertainment company, to help grow and create a broader audience for the university’s East Coast Reboot event. According to a press release, Dub3 will redevelop and produce East Coast Reboot as a multi-day technology competition and event that will showcase emerging gaming technologies, encourage competition by students, amateurs and professionals and shine a spotlight on Delaware’s tech innovation and education.

“Delaware is right smack in the middle of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and each one of those bigger cities has tech hubs,” said Mr. Shaw. “Opportunities are rich here. The Dub3 partnership and East Coast Reboot will help show off what our students can do and we can bring industry leaders in to see that there is a talent pool here that can be tapped. We feel passed over by the West Coast in some respects. With some effort, I think we could be the tech hub of the East Coast.”

Mr. Sharp says that although the game design community in the state is small, it’s an energetic one.

“I was shocked to discover that there really is a game development scene in Delaware,” he said. “It is a decent scene, but it isn’t very exposed to people outside of that circle. I believe we just need to promote the industry more and really reveal that it exists to the public. People have been putting a lot of work into this over the last couple years.”

He also feels that the growing community is being supported by a number of different local resources and various conventions in the area that bring like-minded individuals together.

“Libraries are having conventions or classes frequently and that helps,” said Mr. Sharp. “Hashi-Con in Bridgeville was started by a friend of mine who saw a large geographical gap in the anime and gaming scene in Delaware. Also, 1313 Innovation in Wilmington with Technical.ly have hosted several events such as Delaware Innovation Week. Dover Comic Con is a huge boost, and a lot of fun. Thy Geekdom Con is a great convention in Wilmington as well.”

Game design teachers and game designers in the state, are hopeful for the future of the state’s clout in their industry — but either way, in the independent spirit, they seem intent on continuing with their work regardless. Mr. Sharp has been working on his next game for the past several years, and says it will probably be a few more until it’s complete.

“I will be making games for as long as I live, so my studio is synonymous with me and my life,” he said. “If I ever made a financial hit and built up enough capital, I probably would eventually move up to more of an official game development studio with employees. I want to keep things small and personal though, so going to something large and corporate isn’t something I’d want to do.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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