September 29, 2003

Smash! Kabam! Games of the Future

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The enemy fighter explodes in a burst of flames, unable to avoid a player’s barrage of lasers. “Wait, try this,” a student says, tapping in a few lines of code and restarting the game. This time, the enemy fighter dodges out of the player’s way and shoots back. The student starts explaining his artificial intelligence changes when Prof. Mohan Rajagopalan, computer science, decides it’s time to start the day’s lecture.

After a quick introduction, the day’s guest lecturer, Rama Hoetzlein ’01, launches into a discourse on the history of computer games. Except for a few thoughtful questions, the audience is silent, absorbing the illustrated history of games from Pong to Pac-Man, through the video game crash of 1983. After class, a few students linger, asking questions or optimizing those last few lines of code.

“CS 490: The Computer Game Design Project” is obviously not your typical computer science course, but then again, as Rajagopalan explains, it isn’t meant to be. “There really is a lot about computer game design that transcends what you learn in computer science classes. … It is a creative craft,” he said. This “craft” crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries as computer science majors team up with artists and musicians to create a common vision that comes to fruition as a fully-playable, stand-alone game.

Synthesizing ideas and teamwork is half the course’s challenge. “I even had to change my stereotypes,” co-instructor Prof. David Schwartz, computer science, admitted. “The [computer science students] thought they would tell the artists what to draw and the artists thought the engineers would program the game they envisioned.” The right mix is somewhere in between.

Hoetzlein explained the importance of the day’s lecture as part of appreciating this balance between artistic and technical skills. “We use the history of computer games to allow students from both the arts and computer science to work together. … All through its history, making computer games has been a cross-disciplinary collaboration,” he said.

The program started with seven students in fall 2001, growing to 10 students the next spring. The potential and the interest were both clearly there, so Schwartz sat down with Hoetzlein and they came up with a formalized syllabus. They decided to cover as much as possible, an overview of a field that Schwartz concedes truly needs its own curriculum and possibly major. The syllabus hit concrete topics such as artwork, physics, music and networking and even some esoteric ones such as gaming violence and social impact.

“In a technical class, it’s ‘How does this algorithm affect speed?’ But how do you bring up ‘How does this algorithm affect society?'” Schwartz said, emphasizing the nuances inherent in the class that separate it from much of the computer science department.

Hoetzlein developed a lecture series for the topics and wrote the GameX engine. GameX is used to illustrate various concepts to the class and also serves as the base for many of the students’ games. Hoetzlein, who graduated with a dual degree in computer science and fine arts, placed simplicity and ease-of-use as a priority with GameX, so that both programmers and artists could get involved in their project right away.

Each design team is typically made up of four or five students who decide everything from game type to difficulty level. From time to time, outside talent has been brought in, such as students from Prof. Todd McGrain’s Drawing III class and Prof. David Borden’s Digital Music class. Both of them added not only to the quality of the games but gave the teams real-life practice in communicating their ideas clearly to third parties.

Hopes are high for the future of the course. The class is officially an undergraduate research project, but with over 40 students participating, organizers hope to turn the research into an official course. But more pressing, Schwartz, Rajagopalan and Hoetzlein are working hard to secure funding — their General Electric grant runs out at the end of this semester.

Despite their unofficial status and monetary uncertainty, the project team is upbeat. “[Computer game design] is a new frontier here and around the country,” said Rajagopalan.

Schwartz agreed, adding that Cornell is “poised to be a forerunner in this industry. And this year, especially, we have an amazingly skilled group of students.”

With this sort of enthusiasm and commitment, along with a booming $7 billion-a-year computer game industry, there is little question that the project will continue to grow in scope and sophistication.

Archived article by Michael Morisy