My name is Topher and I am a college professor at a couple Toronto-area colleges, teaching game design and game development.
At one of the schools, where I teach character development, I have been trying to find ways of keeping the class fun and relevant to students.
At first, I was assigning characters based on concept art I held onto from a project where I was the character lead. The game was a first person shooter for console, similar in look to Counter Strike. This made sense to me as it was a real-world example of how character work is assigned and completed. I taught the course this way for a couple years and found I always lost the students’ attention about mid-way through the semester. I decided I would try to make the course a little more fun for the students and try to get them to be a little more engaged. The idea I came up with was to design and create characters that would serve as fictitious DLC packs for an existing game.
At the time, Injustice 2 had just been released and I thought it would be the perfect game to get my students more excited about character work. Since Injustice 2 has a wide variety of characters already, including the most popular DC comics heroes, I decided our ‘DLC’ would be Injustice 2, The Marvel Collection. We would be creating characters for Injustice 2, using their design rules and form language, but based on Marvels mightiest heroes.
I had a problem, however. I needed a way to randomly assign characters to the students. Without assigning characters I would end up with a class full of Spider-Man and Deadpool. I wanted every student to get their own character. So, Using UE4, I created a simple game we played in the first week of class to assign character to the students.
I was shocked at how well this went over. The game was simple and built in a weekend. It was playable, but just barely. It had many bugs, but we managed through the first week just fine and everyone got a unique character with whom they would be spending a couple semesters.
Here is a screen shot of that project,
I had a lot of fun building this project and it went over real well with the students. I had a few taking pictures as we played to post on Instagram and it was the talk of the school for a couple weeks. Unfortunately I ran into a little problem with my plan that I didn’t see coming. Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet and many of the students I have come from many other places on earth for their education. When I assigned the characters to the students, I did so with a stipulation. Each student was allowed to take the character they had been assigned and put a cultural spin on that character using their own background as the source culture. This blew up in my face.
Here are a couple examples of how well this could have gone.
The student that was awarded Iron Fist, is of Sikh decent. I thought that would have made for an awesome spin on the character, but, the student decided to do the caucasian version of the character present in the comics.
Another student was awarded the Black Cat. That student’s background is Korean and again I marveled (No pun intended) at the thought of what Felecia Hardy would look like as an Asian character. That student, too, decided to use the original caucasian character.
Of the 50 students I had across my two sections, only a single student took me up on altering the ethnicity of her character. Unfortunately, sigh, that student was awarded Ms. Marvel, Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own book. If you hadn’t guessed, the student that was awarded Kamala Khan, was caucasian.
When the school year ended and I was asked to submit student work for the end of year show, I was embarrassed that all I had to show from this diverse group of young people was a handful of caucasian character meshes.
The next year I decided I was going to head them off at the pass and make the cultural identity of the student work a part of the selection process. I also wanted to get away from the injustice 2 game and get into something else I had been noticing my students play a lot. A game that is full of culturally diverse characters, Overwatch.
I spent a couple weeks over the summer putting together the second iteration of my character selection game. This time, I wanted to be able to reuse the game I was building for future classes. I first thought I would base the randomness of the selection on a gumball machine with the gumballs themselves having the pertinent information printed upon their surfaces. I ended up diverging from this idea once I started playing with the physics in Unreal.
The project ended up being a Plinko board in which student placed a chit onto the board and it would end up triggering one of 5 screens at the bottom of the board where flags from various nations, not currently a part of Overwatch, randomly rotated. The chit would then be shown to have a character class from the game printed on its underside and a screen to the side of the board compiled all the relevant information for the students. IT was a lot of fun to play and students were very engaged. This time students from other sections would be peeking in the class door to get a glimpse of what all the students were talking about. I also added a little more to the game to make it feel more complete. Things like a title screen and audio helped a lot. I also packaged the game up and let student get a copy to show their friends. It was really cool to see them realize what was possible from a single developer.
Here is a copy of that build so you can see what we did in that first week’s class.
I ran into a problem with this project as well. Not real a problem, just an irritation. After a student played the game I needed to write down their name and selection and that slowed the entire process down as I was constantly using Alt-Tab to go from the game to an excel sheet and back again. Nonetheless, I used this game for 4 consecutive character classes.
Enter the mess that has been 2020. Not only are students distracted by the world around them, but the schools are operating remotely. In April this year we starting teaching remotely and I knew September was going to be the same. So, I decided this character selection game was going to need to be something altogether bigger to get the students to engage from outside the class/city/country and in a couple cases, continent. So, I went back to the drawing board and decided to make a whole new project to get the students’ attention.
I dropped the DLC for an existing game idea and decided to make an original idea. I decided to go monster this time around. An asymmetrical battle royale, where one player is chosen at random to be a monster that must take down as many of the humans as they can.
Now to assign the monsters. I based the game on the idea in the film Cabin in the Woods. A bunch of teenagers go to a cabin in the woods and whatever they happen to touch in the basement correlates to the creature they must vanquish. So, that’s easy, make a basement full of **** and some of it will be related to a creature. I didn’t want it to be overly obvious and have the students get to pick for themselves what they are working on, so the totems, as I called them, are a little bit of a puzzle. I wanted to stay away from ‘silver bullets=werewolf’ and be more subtle about the connections.
I built the project on the back of what I had learned with Gumball and started working. A basement contain the totems of 50 unique creatures that when a player takes one, finishes the game and their selection is made. I also realized that this wouldn’t be played in a class, but remotely wherever my students happen to be. The students aren’t going to be given instructions, just the game and told to go.
I built the game in my evenings after work for the studio was over. 8:00 PM to 12:00 AM every night for about 50 days with a couple weekends here and there to make sure I got enough time on the assets.
On Monday, September 14th, 2020, the students will be given access to the game as part of the first week’s class. The game will email students more information on their selection and I get a copy of what they played the first time through.
It has been a heckuva ride and took most of my free time this summer, but in times like this, making sure that students are engaged and focusing on school instead of the mess the world is facing was important to me.
I packaged up the build and have it ready for them to play. It isn’t perfect, but for the amount of time I put into it, I am pretty happy.
Anyone wishing to give it a whirl can get a copy of it here,
Thanks for your time and for checking it out.