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Leveling up: The future of video game development is emerging at ISU

A member of Game Development Club is at the front of a classroom and shows a game to the club through a projector.
Gian Garnica
A member of Illinois State University's Game Development Club shows a game they worked on to the rest of the club members during a meeting.

Illinois State University (ISU) has cultivated ways for students interested in video game development to work on their craft. Students can major in the new Game Design Sequence of the Creative Technologies (CTK) program, and/or they can join the Game Development Club.

Headshot of Dr. Kristin Carlson.
Kristin Carlson
Kristin Carlson is a professor and graduate coordinator in the Creative Technologies program. She teaches Game Design I and Game Studio Capstone.

Professor Kristin Carlson teaches Game Design I and Game Studio Capstone in the Creative Technologies program.

“The Creative Technologies program is really about: How do you create media? How do you create interaction with media?” said Carlson. “And also, how do you create immersive experiences with media?”

Carlson said the Creative Technologies program had been tinkering with the idea of starting a game design sequence for a few years. Faculty were adding assignments in existing classes focused on games, then taught specific game engines in classes, and eventually the program developed a whole sequence around game design.

Out-of-class experience

For students who want more experience outside of the classroom, ISU offers a club for game development.

Two students in Game Development Club are President Gian Garnica and member Noah Pearson. They're both senior computer science majors.

Pearson said Game Development Club has immensely boosted his resume while interviewing for jobs and internships, and even helped him get his internship this past summer.

“When I applied to Blizzard that was what all of my interviews hinged on. It was a lot of talking about my time in club and working in club,” said Person. “I talked very little about my degree, I talked very little about my prior work, and I talked a ton about ISU Game Development Club. They love hearing about it.”

Unlike Pearson, Garnica said he is not interested in pursuing a career in game development; he is seeking a career in software development.

“I just had my internship over the summer,” said Garnica, “and I think the thing that is really ironic is it was Game Development Club that really made me stand out.”

Game development industry

The technology and software industry “exploded” when they were kids, said Pearson, and now game development is going through something similar.

“The industry is huge. Internships in the industry have absolutely blown up everywhere,” said Pearson. “It's growing at an alarming rate, and I think that if people want to get on board with it, they absolutely should try to.”

U.S. consumers spent $56.6 billion on video games in 2022, mostly on the games themselves, according to the Entertainment Software Association trade group. Illinois is home to 26 companies and over 8,100 jobs in the industry, according to ESA.

Even though the industry is “huge,” Pearson and Garnica warned about the struggle of actually landing a job or internship in the game development industry.

“A lot of people want to get into games,” said Pearson. “But just wanting to work on a game is not a good enough reason. What they're looking for is that you know what you want, you know the specific thing you'd be best at.”

Pearson said companies are also looking for people who know how to create art, develop, or design in their style so the onboarding process is easier.

Gian Garnica is standing with thumbs up at Illinois Game Con. Someone is sitting at his booth playing a game on a small TV. There are many other people in the room looking at other booths.
ISU Game Development Club
Gian Garnica (standing) at Illinois Game Con in summer 2023.

Garnica said it is really hard to break into the game development industry. “It's hard to know what it's like until you really start getting in the trenches of developing your first game," Garnica said.

There are two main types of companies at which developers work: AAA studios and indie game studios. AAA studios typically have vast resources that tackle large and expensive games. Indie studios are typically small, independent businesses, commonly with a low budget and few resources.

“A lot of developers can first start making indie or independent projects, like these little things made by just a single person or by a smaller team, to really get their foot in the door,” said Pearson.

Although students Garnica and Pearson said they think it is easier to get started by working for indie companies, Carlson said she thinks the opposite based on a recent conversation with an alumna of the Creative Technologies program.

“[The alumna] was saying that while we might tend to think of AAA game companies as being the cream of the crop, and they’re harder places to get into, they're actually slightly easier because they're really used to the system,” said Carlson. “Whereas an indie company, you have a much smaller team, you're working much faster, everyone's doing multiple things, and so they really need to find someone that they trust is going to be able to do the job.”

Outside of class, Carlson said students must have tenacity and be able to hone in on their skills and craft in order to land a job in game development.

Garnica added: “I feel like Game Development Club kind of fills that [gap] between trying to learn more out of class — you want a place to do that.”

“In fact, on Itch, when you create your own user profile, you can actually add the games to your profile as portfolio pieces. So you can say, ‘Hey, I participated in the development of this game,’” said Garnica. Itch.io is an open marketplace for independent video game creators to sell the content they have created.

Pearson said companies love to hear about the projects he has worked on in Game Development Club.

Game Development Club

Gian Garnica, down in the front, is with the many members of Game Development Club who worked on the game Fear of Flora. The name of the game is projected behind them.
ISU Game Development Club
Gian Garnica (down in front) and the members of Game Development Club who worked on the game "Fear of Flora."

Every semester in Game Development Club, said Garnica, the club divides into two teams: main project and challenge project.

Garnica, who oversees main project, said it's more of a learning environment for most members of the club. In main project, students can work on whatever their interest is: art, level design, music, or programming, and do not need any experience.

“We always encourage people to come swing by, learn lines of code, learn how to draw, learn how to make or learn how to design mostly well thought out levels,” said Garnica.

Noah Pearson is on the far right and standing with seven other members of Game Development Club who worked on the game Bankruptcy. The title of the game is on a projector behind them.
ISU Game Development Club
Noah Pearson (far right) standing with other members of Game Development Club who worked on the game Bankruptcy.

While Garnica oversees main project, Pearson said he does most of the grunt work for challenge project, which is a much smaller group of students.

“All of the people in this group are people who already are pretty adept in game design itself,” said Pearson.

Pearson said the name of challenge project this year is "Interstellar Valet." The player is the valet at an interstellar hotel, where aliens come to you with their nice luxury cars. The player’s job is to take their cars and go park them in the parking garage to deliver back to them later when they want to pick it up.

“It's a lot of fun getting to mess with moon gravity,” said Pearson. In the game, the player is also trying not to slam into spaceships while managing a very cramped parking garage.

Garnica and Pearson both said that working on these projects in Game Development Club has helped significantly with their communication skills.

“Some people just don't know how to communicate things,” said Pearson. “It's kind of hard, especially if you come from a purely art background, or purely music or sound background, to communicate to programming or more technical teams exactly what you're trying to say.”

Carlson said she noticed one of the biggest struggles among game designers is communication.

“One of the things I find trickiest in this field is the language and the keywords that are used. It’s often different than what you would expect, even if you had a programming background, or you had a different media background,” said Carlson.

Pearson said at the end of the day it is worth communicating upfront with the people around you and receiving feedback rather than explaining yourself later.

The future of game design

Something Pearson, Garnica, and most game developers may want to take into consideration while developing a game is how a streamer would show the game.

“I think Twitch streamers and YouTube commentators have absolutely, completely changed how games are made,” said Pearson, "and what is needed to make a game last long term. It's changed because you need the game to not only be fun to play for a player playing it, you also almost need it to be a watchable experience.”

Garnica said Twitch and YouTube streamers create communities through specific games and bring a whole new level of attraction to games that wouldn’t be there without them. “I know people in the industry appreciate it," Garnica said.

Pearson said he appreciates and loves what streamers do. “They appreciate games as much as we appreciate them even covering them in the first place," Pearson said.

The industry has changed for the better, said Pearson, as streamers continue to help indie game developers by bringing attention to what might otherwise be unknown games.

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Emily Bollinger is a graduate assistant at WGLT, focused on photography, videography and other digital content. They're also a graduate student at Illinois State University's School of Communication.
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