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Sid Meier - Gaming Genius - Shares his Magic with Students

May 22nd 2012

Sid Meier - gaming genius - by Laura Rudich
Sid Meier (Photo credit: Laura Rudich)

You are navigating the jungles of the city, desperately trying to catch the bus. Dodging traffic, jumping skateboards and avoiding construction zones. But first, you must make a decision: would you rather be a hippo, a man or a mouse?

This is the theme of a video game designed by three engineering students at a two-week-long "boot camp" at the University of Michigan that ended on May 18, when students showcased their projects.

The first-ever "Sid Meier Game Design Boot Camp" was an intensive 11 days of lectures, activities, game design and development at the Ann Arbor-based institution. The camp, sponsored by Microsoft, featured talks from designers at that company, as well as EA Games, Zynga and Binary Creative (founded by U-M alumnus Matt Gilgenbach). But when asked what drew them to the camp, the participants immediately exclaimed, "Sid Meier!"

Meier is a verifiable celebrity in the video game world, designing such popular games as "Sid Meier's Civilization" and "Sid Meier's Pirates!" He is one of the rare game developers who can claim to be a household name. A U-M computer science alumnus, Meier came up with the idea during a visit to the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, where his son, Ryan, attended. Ryan Meier graduated in 2011 and now works for Blizzard Games. "I would drop by every now and then to see how he was doing," says Meier. "It was fun to see how much things have changed. When I started, the computers here were not like they are now!"

Meier returns to campus often to give lectures in the Computer Game Design and Development class taught by John Laird, the John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering. It was during one of those visits that Meier proposed the idea. He says the inspiration came from so-called "game jams." Game-meister Meier added, "'Game jams' are weekends when programmers don't eat and don't sleep for 48 hours. That's fun, but it's limiting in what you can accomplish." Meier said he wanted to create some structure and instruction to the setting, and maybe add a different aspect to it — "like sleeping!"

Twenty-two students from five universities across the country were selected to participate. One game, called "The Bus Chase," was designed by a team comprised of students from three universities: U-M senior John Kendall, Michigan State senior Yue Lu, and Georgia Tech junior Ross Regitsky. "This gave us a lot of insight behind the theory of game design," says Kendall. "We got to take a step away from the code and think about the whole user experience. That's not something we get to do often as engineers."

The students used the Unity game development tool, which would allow it to be adapted for multiple platforms, including the PC, a mobile device or even Facebook. "I found out that for social games like Facebook, the average user is a 43-year-old female. That blew me away!" says Kendall, who was very interested in the lecture on Designing Social Games by Brian Reynolds from Zynga. Kendall says he believes the future of gaming is in the social platform where games can reach a wider audience. Lu agrees. "I think the future is in changing the way you control and interact with the game. There will be more assets and a more social aspect to it."

Many of the games built at the camp were developed with that in mind. Almost half were designed using the Unity platform, including the game "Pantheon Puzzle Platform" designed by Michigan State senior Chris Flynn. In this game, the player is required to appease four gods in various levels, ranging from watering the plants for the god of agriculture to killing bears for the god of death and chaos.

In another, designed by University of North Texas graduate Mary Yingst and Alicia Avril of Full Sail University, the player tries to move a dolphin through the water by creating and then riding on eddies and ripples — but watch out for the rocks! "It (the camp) was fun," says Yingst. "In my classes we would spend an entire semester working on one game. Here, we had to do it in two weeks."

According to Laird, who teaches the second-oldest video game design class in the nation, this workshop was designed to allow students to get a game up and running fast, and give them an opportunity they wouldn't ordinarily get in a classroom. "We asked them to do something a little risky," says Laird. "Something you couldn't do in a class because you might be worried about if you succeeded or failed. Here, if you failed, that was OK."

Students, who were all required to have previous programming experience, were expected to brainstorm, design and then implement a game from the ground up. They also participated in creative exercises, such as designing and playing board games in a group environment. The workshop ended with a showcase where they displayed their work to each other and the public. Meier's mother, Alberdina, attended the showcase. When asked if she plays video games herself, she laughed, "I haven't had the time!


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