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Geeks at play 

The art of the rocket-propelled ninja throwing star, and other lessons in computer gaming at NCSU

"Who here likes ninjas?" Hands shoot up all over the auditorium. "Who here likes high-impact explosions in slow-motion?" Again--who doesn't? Michael Freenor, lead engineer of the Angry Lawn Gnomes computer game design team, clearly knows his audience. They are fellow students at NC State University who have packed the house to see the unveiling of five games developed within seven weeks through a unique interdisciplinary course.

Freenor and his teammate explain their game, Karate Explosion, a throwback to the old Nintendo games of the late 1980s, like Super Mario Bros. The main character--a ninja, naturally--makes his way through varied landscapes, fighting little enemies with rocket-propelled ninja throwing stars on his way to the big battle at the end of each level. The '80s flavor is not just in the corny power-rock guitar music that elicits chuckles from the audience; this is a "side-scrolling" game, a more two-dimensional style than most of today's multi-player, multi-perspective games. It's still incredibly complicated, the collaborative work of 10 students in all. Explaining the game's intended appeal, Freenor says, "By now everyone has picked up a Nintendo control no matter what age they are." Whether that's true or not, it's clear that nostalgia is the idea.

Among the other games unveiled is Dodgeball, a version of the childhood playground ordeal. Awakening is a classically militaristic game, with Marines battling aliens while trying to achieve a number of objectives inside a labyrinthine power plant. (In their presentation, its creators sheepishly admit to having designed the most violent game of the class.) Edgewalker is a more character-driven quest, with a benign young necromancer switching between mirrored landscapes of life and death to save the world from drought--but she's still got weapons, namely a crossbow and a bell, which help her to control the dead. Most impressive of all was Wide Asleep, a game that pits a 12-year-old boy against the creatures of his nightmares. Breaking from the coding templates they had to work with, the designers custom-animated the boy, creating an elaborate story and various dreamlike trials such as falling down a well and swimming through a cavern.

Professor Michael Young has offered this course, Computer Game Design and Development, to his computer science students for three years now, but this is the first year he has collaborated with the College of Design. Few schools offer such courses--the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon among them. But Young has been using game design in his classes for many years, and several students have gone on to work for gaming companies. "I think there's a growing understanding that the popularity of games can be used as a teaching tool," Young says. "It's fantastic because they really learn the material. I'm really amazed by how much time they put into it."

For the first few weeks, students familiarized themselves with the scripting language of Unreal, a hugely popular game first launched in 1998, which introduced startlingly realistic, three-dimensional graphics to the online, multi-player, first-person shooter genre that had already taken hold. Epic, the company that makes Unreal, "provides a great deal of support to this community they call the mod-making community," Young says--that is, people who want to get under the hood and modify the game, customizing and building on it. Open-source video games, in essence. The components are complex, including head's-up display (HUD), artificial intelligence, weapon design, modeling of various levels, and so on. Once the teams were formed, students had seven weeks to design the game, customizing it according to how much time they were willing to spend in the studio.

In the adjacent room, some dozen computers are set up with demos of the games, and people are already playing even as the presentation goes on. Erin Morrison, a senior in art and industrial design, stands out of the crowd for a couple of reasons. Her plaid tights and yellow Converse sneakers for one, and also the fact that she's one of the few women in the room.

"It's a predominantly male field," she says. Only two other female designers were in her class of 15; on the computer engineering side, that ratio was much smaller. "I felt like everybody's little sister," she says. "I wonder why more women aren't exploring this. It's something that could be very prosperous and also, it's a great art form with a lot of opportunities."

Primarily experienced with photography, two-dimensional design and sculpture, Morrison says she had never worked in digital arts before, but decided to try it after talking to Professor Tim Buie, who teaches the Real-time Modeling and Animation Studio. "As far as my work ethic goes, I'm extremely hands-on. This was completely devoid of that aside from clicking a mouse," she says. Nor had she played computer games much. But she came away with an appreciation for them, she says. "I think it's an art form that doesn't get as much respect as it should, because most people evaluate it based on the pretext of whether it's violent or not." There are layers upon layers of design involved, she says. Morrison designed "little pizza-cutter type monsters that come at you at a fast speed for Karate Explosion," and worked with her fellow designer on drawings that the engineers used to create the play levels.

"I don't know if I want to stay within video games exclusively, but I would definitely pursue digital animation or illustration in the future," Morrison says. "Even though it's so tedious, it's really rewarding to see everything come together in the end."

Back in the demo room, custom commands for each game are written on the chalkboards that surround dozens of people waiting their turn to play. Among them is Davis Leonard, a wide-eyed 12-year-old with a mop of blond hair and an oversized blue sweatshirt. He came with his father and brother from Hillsborough. "My mom read about it in the paper and she thought it would be a cool thing to check out," he says.

Asked which of the games is his favorite, he says, "I'm not sure. They're all really cool." His preference is for the classic shoot-'em-up, but he's intrigued by the one about the 12-year-old boy.

All games from the class are available online for free. If you have Unreal Tournament on your computer, you can play them. Go to mimesis.csc.ncsu.edu/classes/csc481/showcase.html.

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