Next Level Education

August 1, 2017

PEORIA — Imagine creating a board game from scratch. You need to invent the narrative of the game, design the layout to exact specifications, weave in a set of gameplay rules along with various shortcuts and then give it some visual sprucing.

Now imagine that this board game must be shrunk to the size of an Altoids mint tin while still maintaining the aforementioned elements. Impossible, right?

Such a project is a staple of the Game Design program at Bradley University, and it’s not even a 400-level course — most students in the program take it first semester of sophomore year.

But Bradley’s Game Design program carries a little more technical heft than most other universities in the country. As of 2017, “The Princeton Review” ranked Bradley’s program as No. 12 in the nation, making it the highest-ranked program at Bradley in that publication’s judgment (Universities.com ranks the Sports Communication program No. 4 in the nation).

“I’m hoping this coming year to get into the top 10,” said Ethan Ham, chair of the Interactive Media Department at Bradley and a Game Design professor. 

Zach Abbott, 21, is heading into his senior year at Bradley, three years in the Game Design program in the rearview mirror with an eye toward the Capstone Project that will consume the upcoming school year. He and his classmates already have about 15 ideas for the project — in elevator pitch format — that they will narrow down once classes start again.

He has a seemingly bright future. In June, Abbott led a summer camp for game design in which he wrote the curriculum, and at the end of that month he started a job at the Jump Trading Center making virtual reality simulations as training for doctors. He’s doing work for NASA through a school grant. He plans to apply at all the Triple-A game studios — the ones that produce the top-flight video games — and if that doesn’t work out, he will start his own company with a group of friends.

But that shimmering future wasn’t guaranteed when he first stepped on campus. The Forest Park native had no appreciable game design experience entering college. He played video games constantly, too much in hindsight, but had never programmed or created digital art.

“I had written up a couple stories, but the story guy doesn’t get the job,” Abbott said.

That’s never a deal-breaker for prospective students, Ham said, as the program doesn’t want to turn away students if they had limited access to computers or design programs before they apply to Bradley. But those who are inexperienced entering the program are swiftly indoctrinated in a battery of “brutal” introductory courses, Abbott said. Ham described it as a boot camp that pushes the students to “have high expectations of themselves.”

To date, one of the intro courses is the only class in which Abbott hasn’t received an A. He almost dropped out of the program, considering a change of major several times. At one point in the semester, from lack of sleep and stress, he ruptured a blood vessel in his eye and had to be admitted to a hospital. He estimated that about 60 percent of his class did decide to drop out, dwindling the overall number of students but strengthening those who persevered like Abbott.

“It pushed me to my limit,” Abbott said. “But I think it made us a whole lot stronger and better designers.”

Surviving those opening courses isn’t the only challenge — sometimes it’s also persuading reticent parents that Game Design is a worthy major. Abbott said his mother is still worried about whether he will get a job out of school, and Ham smiled knowingly at the amount of times he’s discussed a student’s future with parents.

“I spend a lot of time reassuring parents of prospective students that it’s not an insane career path,” Ham said gently.

Once the introductory courses are dealt with, the nuances of game design are then explored in a variety of classes. Ham is a strong proponent of using board games as an entry point for the fledgling game designers. Rather than being swallowed by the broad task of creating the virtual world of a video game, the Bradley students become acclimated with critical aspects of making a game in the physical realm of board games.

“The analogy I use is: trying to learn how to make video games by making video games is like trying to learn how to repair a Maserati while it’s going 100 miles per hour,” Ham said. “It’s hard.”

Abbott and two other students entered a competition where the challenge was to create a board game in the Altoids tin. The idea behind setting the game in a small tin revolves around decimating the resources a designer has to make a game.

“A lot of time in this industry you’re confined by resources, you’re confined by your team,” Abbott said. “This was just another example of a constraint. And it got us thinking how can we work with this constraint rather than complain about it or try to get around it.”

One of the judges in the competition was Kevin Brusky, the CEO and founder of board game company APE Games. Brusky was impressed by the game and told the students he would publish it if they continued to work and perfect it. The publication deal occurred in spring 2016 while Abbott and friends tinkered with it. He just received his first check early in June.

Now Abbott has stepped up a few echelons in his designing work. He enjoys creating empathy video games, such as the one where the main character had schizophrenia. That game received third place in a competition and received tips from a well known game designer that liked the level designs. In another empathy game he created, a few of the users cried at the end.

“Seeing people’s reactions to what I do is awesome,” Abbott said.

Amid the broader wave of increased enrollment occurring at the university currently, the Game Design program is undergoing one of the largest increases from 150 to between 200 and 210, according to Ham. That’s a success for both the university and also the community, which has been a beneficiary from the program in a number of ways, from creating games for the Peoria Riverfront Museum to filling positions in technological departments of local companies and businesses.

One of those creations was an interactive exhibit that is now a permanent installation at the Peoria Playhouse. Abbott and Animation major Sam Concklin also led an inaugural summer camp this June for local grade-schoolers interested in learning the introductory aspects of video games and designs. Each camper emerged from the week having designed their own game with the help of the Bradley students serving as camp counselors.

And Ham hardly had to intervene at all during the weeklong camp as students like Abbott are more than capable instructors at this point.

“I was sort of amazed to watch Zach teach because he was awesome at teaching this stuff,” Ham said. “He knows the tools and he knows the processes. He was able to teach them what they need to do in one week to get a game done, which is not a lot of time. I was in the room, but I mainly just listened and it was great. That was gratifying to see everything he’s learned.”

Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or tbruch@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.

Reprinted with permission PJ Star