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On course:

Bryn Mawr courses and their reading lists

Computer Science 246: Programming Paradigms: Game Design and Programming, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu.

An introduction to the principles and techniques for electronic game design and programming, this new course also requires students to create a video game.

“A game that you buy off the shelf has usually taken a year or two to develop, by a team of hundreds of professional programmers, designers and artists, and billions of dollars have been invested in it,” said Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu. “In this course, students have only three months to come up with a prototype—not industrial strength but something playable.

“I want them to see how a game comes together from the beginning of an idea to the concept art, development cycles and user testing,” Xu said. “We’ll invite friends and faculty of the department to do an alpha test. They’ll play the game and be surveyed about what they like, hate, want improved. This is the typical process in the industry.”

The eight students in the class are divided into two groups of four. In the first game, “Death of Proprietary,” the player follows a homicide investigation in the mansion of a software tycoon who has been found murdered during a party to launch his latest invention, quantum computing. The game targets users “who value story and game playing over graphics,” according to the group’s proposal. Among other tasks, the player-detective must solve puzzles to activate secret video recordings made in each room of the mansion during the party.

The second game, “VAMPIRES!,” is a twist on the “hack-and-slash” genre. The player works through different levels to help a vampire named Verne overcome his thirst for human blood and learn about the lives of humans. “The game progresses in a non-linear fashion and presents the player with different ways to string together Verne’s journey,” states the proposal. “These levels may include looking for an apartment, eating out, making friends, going shopping in a supermarket, attending night classes, becoming part of an underground art community, and so on.” Verne must not only resist his hunger for humans, but also avoid other vampires from his clan who are hunting him down.

While students work on their games and make interim reports, in class and lab they learn about topics such as computer graphics; social and interfacing issues in multi-user play; game engines; light and animation; puzzles; and schemes for controlling movement and item manipulation. (Reading for the course is the textbook, Gameplay and Design, Kevin Oxland, 2004, Addison Wesley. Students also view the PBS movie, “The Videogame Revolution.”)

“In the beginning of the course, we discussed game genres and target audiences in terms of gender and age, but I asked them to design something they would like to play, for college women like themselves,” said Xu. “This is a lot of work, particularly in the middle, where there’s tedious programming work that can keep you in the lab for hours and hours, so I want them invested in the game itself.”

Xu explains that courses in developing video games are a new trend. “Since the bubble burst, gaming has been the robust industry in computer science,” she said. “The industry is large, making lots of money, and in need of programmers every year.

Xu wants to encourage more group work by students. “At large universities, students are used to this because of the numbers. When there are 300 in the class, it is more time efficient to assign group work, and more ambitious projects may be attempted. At Bryn Mawr, there has been no logistical need because students receive so much individual attention, but this is how they will have to work in the industry if they get a job there. These days software programs are so large that one person could not write even a module by herself. It’s great if you find someone you like and work well with. The problems come when you’re paired with someone whose organizational style is very different, and there can be sentiments about sharing a grade. I’m finding it’s working best in this class, where each student in the group has a distinct role—program designer, storyteller, artist, tester and so on. This is a model I’ll keep trying.”

 

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