The following letter was written by Dr. Paul Gestwicki on the successful launch of the first student-designed video game in the new Game Design and Development concentration in the Department of Computer Science.  

Dr. Gestwicki is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Ball State University. Much of Dr. Gestwicki’s teaching, research, and service center around his interest in game design and development. 

I joined the Computer Science Department at Ball State University as an Assistant Professor in 2005. By 2006, I started a shift in my research toward game design and development. Since then, I have mentored many student game projects in addition to writing research articles in this area and making games of my own. The idea I am most proud of from almost two decades of teaching is a two-semester course sequence that I used to mentor teams in community-engaged, immersive learning game development projects. Students worked with me in the Fall semester to learn fundamentals of game design while also serving as an R&D team for educational games. For the Spring, I would recruit a multidisciplinary production team that would turn the most fruitful idea from the Fall into a real digital game. These projects have won international awards, been the subject of academic and popular articles, and made a positive impact on our community.

The superlative student learning from these projects contributed to the development of a new Concentration in Game Design and Development (GDD) within the Computer Science Department. Students in this concentration are real Computer Science majors, learning the fundamentals that any Computer Scientist should. They do a lot of this in the context of game design and development, and that makes this a distinctive program in the region. The Game Design and Development Concentration culminates in a three-semester capstone project, with one semester spent on preproduction and then a full academic year of game production. This curriculum became the backbone of a multidisciplinary collaboration with the Schools of Art and of Music: the Animation program and the Music Media Production program both have similar concentrations that funnel students into this same three-semester capstone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Paul Gestwicki

As we finalized the GDD curriculum in Fall 2022, I was teaching Introduction to Game Design as part of a two-semester immersive learning collaboration with Minnetrista. This would likely be the last time I would be able to do this two-semester sequence since the new concentration was right around the corner. I was also teaching Advanced Programming–a required second-year course for Computer Science majors. A few students were in both courses, and I recruited students from both to work on the Spring game production course. That top-notch team would go on to make HabiTile, an award-winning two-player game about local ecosystems.

Also in the Spring, I taught our new preproduction course for the first time—the first course in the three-semester GDD capstone. It’s important to know that when a student comes to the university, they get a four-year plan, and they can follow that to graduation; however, if there’s a curriculum revision, students who are “mid-stream” can choose to follow their original plan or switch to one of the new plans. Several of our students courageously took the risk of changing programs, and they joined me in preproduction. Some of these students had come from my Advanced Programming and Game Design teams as well as the HabiTile team! That means that these students have the dubious distinction of having been able to take more courses with me than should normally be possible! (Thank goodness we have hired more faculty in the department who specialize in game design and development, namely Andy Harris and Travis Faas, who will help carry the load!)

At the end of preproduction, the students had developed three game demos that they wanted to move into the yearlong production sequence. However, to do so, they had to pitch these demos to our inaugural Games Advisory Board. This group of professional game developers volunteered their time to help our students and give them industrial-strength critique on their work. This also helped our first batch of GDD students to see that they are not just working in isolation: they have already taken their first step toward being a bona fide member of the game development community.

The demo that moved to our year-long production sequence was a novel little game in which the player controls a long-abandoned planetary rover using keyboard commands. Following a rigorous game development practice—specifically, Richard Lemarchand’s Playful Production Process—this little idea became Mission Rovee, which is now available for $1 on Steam. Making a commercial release like this required the team to form their own company, Sphere Province Games LLC.

The team did not just create a fun and unique piece of entertainment: they did it using rigorous software engineering techniques that are often overlooked in the games industry. I’m not just saying that as a proud faculty mentor: the team wrote an article with the leading expert in game testing automation, Henry Golding, CEO of Lophus Labs. Check out that article if you’re an engineer with an interest in how the team exceeded industry best practices when it comes to automated testing!

This team of students has given me a lot to be proud of. I have tried to teach them everything I could, and in many of their collaborations, they now know more than I do! There is one story that stands out in my memory as the most important one to me.

We started the Fall 2023 semester by planning for the “alpha phase” of game development, which was scheduled to end just before Thanksgiving break. The team made the best production schedule they could based on what they learned in preproduction. However, by a month into the semester, it was clear to them that they were not going to meet their target based on the projection charts we used to determine completion date based on work completed. I was gearing up to break this to them, when one of the team said, “Well, there’s only one thing we can do. We have to cut the lowest priority features.” That is exactly right, and I didn’t have to say it! The team understood that the quality of the work was not negotiable, and they could not get more time–nor would they tolerate crunch. The only option was to cut nearly three-quarters of the planned features. This was a painful decision for the team, but they did it with grace, like pulling off an adhesive bandage: it has to be done, so let’s do it and move on.

As I wrap up the Spring semester with these students, all of whom are graduating, I have also been teaching the next cohort of students in preproduction. In fact, I’m team-teaching it with Antonio Sanders, Assistant Professor of Game Design and Animation, and it has been a great experience to work with our first full-multidisciplinary course. However, it’s also bittersweet, as I find myself missing the Sphere Province Games team even before they are gone. We worked so hard together on so many things that they feel like an essential part of the BSU Gamedev community. I could spin up a new project and hand it off to them tomorrow, and I know they would know exactly what to do. I suppose that means it’s time to let them go, for them to start the next level in the adventure game of their own lives.

Keep your big batteries charged, Sphere Province Games, and come visit us at Ball State any time.