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What I Learned as a Game Design Student

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I didn’t plan on being a Game Design Student.

My story is essentially the one every student doing their final exams is petrified of: Not getting enough points to get into the course you want to do. For many years I had my heart set on doing a course in creative writing. At the age of seventeen I had three publications under my belt, as well as determination and talent. Unfortunately I was never as skilled academically as I was in regard to my writing. On top of that the college I wanted to apply to was extremely expensive and when I got my results, I only got three hundred and fifteen points. The minimum to enter was four hundred and seventy five.

Yikes.

A while before I did the leaving cert my mother suggested I do a different course. This wasn’t a bad idea in case I didn’t get the points to do the course I wanted (which I didn’t) and on top of that, I needed a skill to bring in money since creative writing is a very difficult area to get employed in. Due to this, I decided to apply for a course in Game Design in a nearby college. I had an interest in games and it was something creative and a practical that could get me employed later in life. Game Designers learn a wide variety of skills and games contain elements of creativity and story writing so it was the best I could go for. Now, a lot of people visualize being a game designer as a tired worker hunched over a computer typing in binary code and crying. Well, as a game design student I can tell you with the utmost certainty that being a game designer is…a bit like that. Sometimes.

Game design is difficult. It’s a labor of love as some would say or a labor of ‘oh god I need money please hire me’. Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is that game design is difficult and tedious. My first assignment was to make a game of Pong in an online program named scratch. This was very simplistic but was necessary to teach us the basics as to how game design worked.

Might as well just quit now Nintendo, a new competitor is taking the gaming world by storm.

Ok, so it’s a psychedelic cat themed version of Pong. Got it. So why am I showing you this? Well, for the same reason my tutor made us make it: To get an idea as to what coding is like.

All of the text on the right is code. On the top part, you can see an orange tab with a green flag. This is the starter of your coding, per se. When you start up the game whatever is under the code will take place immediately. Now, this coding is focused on the ball (aka nyancat) since he/she/it is selected in the bottom left sprite panel. All of the code determines what nyancat does during the game.

As you can see the code says different things and has different colors. It’s pretty self-explanatory what different parts do. Near the top for example, a piece of dark blue code says ‘glide 1 secs to x219 y-29’. This code got the ball moving in a certain direction to start the game of Pong. There is also two different strips of pink on the left and right edge of the screen. In addition, there is code which shows how the score will change if the ball touches the color on either side. While this is all very simplistic coding it still shows a bit about how coding works. Each sprite has different code attached to it that makes it do different things. The text runs from top to bottom and forms a linear path of coding in which each segment fulfills a different purpose. They all work in a line and perform various functions that all contribute to the final product.

Anyway, let’s take a break from coding and look into what it’s like to be a game design student:

In game design, you don’t just focus on making games. What? That’s crazy, right? Well, it’s actually very important. Game design doesn’t just consist of gaming: You need a soundtrack, animators, advertising, communication skills, etc. Due to this, we take other modules that aren’t focused on the bare elements of coding but rather dabble in different skill areas to help us be more independent in creating games. Here are some of the classes we do:

Animation: Since I’m obsessed with drawing and cartoons I LOVE this class. Here we learn the basics of animation and how to animate in programs such as CC animate. This may seem a bit irrelevant but for making character animations it goes over the fundamentals of what we need to know. It’s an important class and the skills it teaches us can be utilized not just in game design but in other jobs such as web design or advertising.

Music technology: Here we learn how to use music software so we can compose an original soundtrack for our games. This also stems to sound effects such as gunfire or footsteps. It may not sound that important but having to pay a composer to make a score for your game can cost a lot of cash, and I don’t know of many indie developers that can just casually hire Hans Zimmer to make their game soundtrack.

Communications: This class helps give us practical advice for when we need to talk to people about something in regard to our work. This class covers issues like preparing an appropriate cover letter for getting work experience/an internship or for making a presentation. It’s extremely important since game designers are flighty nocturnal creatures that spend most of their time locked away in the computer lab guzzling energy drinks and watching cat video’s and shows like Voltron– I MEAN WORKING on games ha ha ha… Erm, anyway, since us game designers have little to no social skills (or social life, that one applies to me especially) communications is important so that we can explain our point of view or ask important questions in a situation effectively and professionally.

There are many other classes we do as well such as Design Skills, Web Authoring, Image Processing, etc. I don’t want to turn this into a massive list of everything we do in every single class but I can tell you that the skills we learn all contribute toward making games. I understand that doing all of this on top of making games seems like a lot and yeah, it sort of is, but as you learn it becomes easier to handle. You learn at a gradual pace and over the course of a few months, you learn a variety of skills and techniques that are actually very useful in a number of ways not just relating to game design. I think that’s one of my favorite aspects of game design: there’s just so many possibilities of what you could do as a job. Even just one module from our class can teach you skills to become an animator or a web designer and they’re not even the primary focus of this course. Now, as a first year, I wouldn’t immediately run and try for a job. You’d need to do about 3-4 years of game design before you start applying for positions but the skills you would pick up along the way plus all the opportunities would be well worth the time you put in.

For a while, I’ve talked about coding and classes, but here I’m gonna get into the real meat of this subject: What we did in our first year of game design. Well, actually it should be what we’re doing in our first year of game design since at the time of writing this article I’ve just started making my 3D game, but anyway, let’s get to it. We had three main goals for our first year: Make a 2D side-scroller game, get work experience, and make a 3D game. The 2D game taught us the fundamentals of game design and basic elements of any game. Similar as to how my game Nyan Pong was basically Pong, our 2D side-scroller was basically a copy of Super Mario Bros. We had enemies, health, pick-ups, win screens, death screens, etc. My 2D side-scroller game was called Quill’s Quest. It was a story about a girl who had to escape a dungeon and get past vicious enemies in order to survive. It was quite simplistic and I do plan to revisit it at some point. Ultimately, the game served a basic purpose of teaching me how to code in more detail than “Nyanpong” and also in the functions of how a game is programmed. Here’s the menu screen of my game:

These are some of the sprites I had in my game.

This was the full scale of my level. This game was designed in the software Unreal Engine 4 by the way, a free industry software that is extremely high-tech and versatile. I highly suggest you look into it if you’d like to learn how to make a game by yourself. It’s probably one of the best pieces of software out there. My game isn’t fully functional but it has a lot of the coding in there and will give you an idea as to what a first year’s 2D game is like. Spoiler alert: Not that great. Even still though, I’ll try to upload it to my blogger page so you can play it if you really want to.

That was my 2D game. A lot of work went into it and I wasn’t perfectly happy with the finished product but you need to remember: This is my first time making a proper 2D game. I knew this game wasn’t going to be perfect and it wasn’t made with the intent of making an amazing game. I made it so I could learn how to code and learn the basics of designing a game.

Now we’re moving onto work experience. Work experience is a mandatory module of Game Design and without it you would fail instantly, so it’s not to be taken lightly. My classmates and I needed to get a job working for a company relating to the Games Industry or in some area of the line relevant to the work we’re doing. My work experience was writing articles for Goomba Stomp on gaming. I have skills in writing and at the time of sending my letter of application I had four printed publications, so I attached that information to my cover letter and wrote about it in more detail in my CV. I also showed pictures of an award I had won plus images of the publications in print. In addition to that, I mentioned my interest in gaming and the fact I’m a game design student. This showed I had specific extracurricular skills that would be beneficial for the job I was applying for and that, as a game design student, I could have a better insight into games as opposed to an ordinary player. When applying for work experience try to show your skills and give the employer basic elements of who you are and what you can do that would be valuable to their company. You can never underestimate just how important work experience is.

Finally, there’s my 3D game. We haven’t actually gotten into programming or making much of the game as of now so there’s not a massive load of work I can show you. However I can talk a bit about the structure. We needed to come up with a plot and a plan for our 3D game. In this we needed to write about what our game was about, the objectives our character had and where it was set. Our tutor even gave us out sheets that asked us questions about our 3D game and made us flesh out the plot more. This may seem pointless but it’s actually very important. While you may not need to write in excessive detail the world-building and back story of a game, you do need to let the players know what their objective is.

As of now, we’ve done models of our main characters. First, we had to write about their back story, skills, and appearance to build up an image in our mind as to what they looked like. My character is a female around the age of 18/19 named Rattalia. She’s a thief who leads a group called ‘The Street Rats’ who steal from the wealthy corrupt and give to the poor in order to balance out the severe poverty in their world. The world they live in has a heavy emphasis on social classes and the game centers around Rattalia breaking into the mansion of a man who wronged her in the past. The objective is to steal a precious gem from his mansion called ‘The Lunar Eye’ to sell and fund her next heist, as well as giving portions of it as anonymous donations to underfunded hospitals and orphanages. It may seem silly to focus so much on the back story of a game but it helps set the scene and gives the player an idea of who they’re playing as and offers a stronger level of immersion into the game.

Since she’s a thief I wanted her to have an outfit relevant to her job. Rattalia’s clothes consist of comfortable and durable clothing that blends in with the background and won’t inhibit her when she runs. I wanted her appearance to mimic certain aspects of her personality. First though, I had to make Rattalia.

First we made a basic body for our character in a program named Fuse. We would then begin to alter the character’s appearance based on the character report we had drawn up of our protagonist. Rattalia has sharp features such as high cheekbones, a jutted chin, and a thin face. I had to alter the slides pictured on the right to get her as close to the image in my head as possible. Initially, her face was very round and so were her eyes so I made them sharper and more angular to give a sly look to her appearance. This was her face at the start (bar the ears):

Here we had more defining of the cheekbones and sharpening of her chin. I also made her noses arch more curved than straight.

Eventually, I ended up with an image like this.

Her expression is cocky so as to show she’s a schemer. I designed her hair in another program named blender so as to give her the specific hairstyle I wanted for her character. The image isn’t fully rendered so it looks a bit weird (eyelashes and skin tone are different due to rendering) but you get the basic idea as to what she’s supposed to look like.

We haven’t gotten much further than that with our 3D game. A lot of the coding is vastly different from a 2D game and since we’ve just begun there isn’t much else I can elaborate on in this specific topic. Well, I’ve talked about a number of topics in this post relating to game design so I should probably explain what my schedule is like.

We typically spend most of our classes using computers to complete the majority of our assignments. As a game design student our marks are assigned to us based off of continuous assessment. We do have exams but they’re not extremely difficult and ask pretty basic questions such as: ‘Why do people play video games’ and ‘List 3 genres of gaming’. Our assignments make up the majority of our marks. We don’t usually get homework and most of our work is done in the computer lab. My days vary in length, Monday being a 9-4 day while the others are significantly shorter, the shortest being 9-12. Our assignments consist of a mixture of doing work and then writing reports about our work. Both are important so you can’t just do one or the other.

In conclusion, game design can be difficult but also very rewarding. Going into this course, I wasn’t sure how I’d come out the other end, or even if I would, but I can say with total certainty that this was a brilliant course to do. Game Design is a useful degree due to its flexibility and the constant ever-growing demand for workers in the games industry. If you’re patient and have an interest in games, I’d definitely suggest game design to you. Not just because of its versatility though but because of how damn rewarding it can be.

Katie Soden is a games design student/author who has a tendency to cry over cartoon characters and watch cat videos as opposed to doing important things, like eating or sleeping or keeping on track with assignments. Despite her tendency to forget how to function as a human being and general laziness she still occasionally updates her blog and makes an attempt at having an online presence.

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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Game Reviews

‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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Games

How Do ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’s’ Max Raid Battles Measure Up?

Max Raid Battles are one of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s premier new features. Do they live up to their full potential? Let’s find out.

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max raid battles

One of the most heavily promoted new features of Pokémon Sword and Shield have been their Max Raid Battles. These gargantuan fights are both a key part of the online experience and likely the first taste most players will get of Dynamaxed Pokémon in-game. So, how’d this take on Pokémon Go’s raid system pan out in the series’ first mainline entry on console?

Well, on the plus side, getting into the thick of a raid is super straightforward. After the opening hour or two, players are introduced to the Wild Area and can access Max Raid Battles straight away by walking up to a pillar of red light on the field. From there you can invite others, challenge the raid with NPCs, and choose which Pokémon you want to use.

Real Friends Raid Together

Playing with friends online, though, is a bit more convoluted. There’s no “Invite Friends” option to be seen. Instead, all social features are handled through the Y-comm (literally accessed by pressing the Y button). It’s here that players can Link Trade, Link Battle, exchange player cards, and more.

After actively connecting to the internet–which has to be done each play session and each time the Switch is put into sleep mode–it’s up to the host of the match to find a portal and send an invitation to everyone. A notification will pop for friends on the side of the screen, and then it’s up to everyone to join the match directly through the Y-comm interface.

If players want real people to fill in any remaining slots (all raids are four-person affairs), they’ll need to join before the room fills up. Setting a Link Code avoids this hassle by creating a room but, unlike Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, only computer players can fill remaining spots after friends finish joining this way.

After some experimenting and fudding about, my buddy and I were able to hop into matches fairly quickly without much issue. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that creating friend lobbies is only such a headache because it had to be tied to the Y-comm. Pair this with the fact that battling while waiting for a friend to create a room can cause the notification not to pop, and getting a group together is a bit more painful than it should be.

Max Raid Battle Rundown

The raids themselves are a surprisingly engaging twist on the classic Pokémon battle formula. Groups of four challengers work together to take on a Dynamaxed raid boss. Each raid boss has a different star rating, and even the 1-star battles are no joke the first few times around. These boss Pokémon are merciless, and regularly one-shot lower leveled ‘mons with ease.

To combat these monstrous foes, one random trainer in every group is granted the ability to Dynamax their chosen Pokémon and lead the charge. The Dynamaxed Pokémon gets the benefit of having extra-powerful moves and increased HP, though it’s rather disappointing that there only seems to be one Max Move per move type (one Grass move, one Dark move, and so on). Each of these has a secondary effect on the battlefield; some trigger sandstorms, others trigger a health regeneration field that heals everyone a bit each turn. Regular moves with type advantages deal a significant chunk of damage, but it’s Max Moves that can truly turn the tide of battle.

If one of the group’s Pokémon faints, that trainer has to sit out for a turn before it automatically gets revived (a smart design choice to keep all trainers actively involved). However, the fainting of each Pokémon triggers the storm above to become more and more vicious. After four faints or ten turns, everyone is booted out of the raid sans rewards.

max raid battles

The Fruits of Victory

Two of the easiest ways to better your odds are 1) Choose a Pokémon with a type advantage going into battle, and 2) Manage who Dynamaxes when. Each trainer’s Dynamax meter grows periodically and, though only one trainer can use it at a time, multiple players can activate it over the course of a raid. It also seems like each raid’s star rating is tied directly to the raid boss’ level, so bringing a generally powerful Pokémon to a lower-level raid is another viable strategy for success.

Aside from the chance to capture the raid boss itself (and some Pokémon are Max Raid Battle-exclusive), winning a raid nets players some very worthwhile rewards. These include everything from EXP candies and berries to nuggets and TMs. It’s not so much of a haul that it hurts the overall balance of the game, but there’s enough to make getting a few friends together and grinding raids for a couple of hours worth it.

max raid battles

Though Max Raid Battles are just a small part of the overall Sword and Shield package, they’ve ended up being a rather fun take on Pokémon’s traditional multiplayer offerings. For as unnecessarily complicated as playing with friends is, there are also a few cool ideas here, like being able to join a raid from anywhere on the map as long as the host is at the raid pillar. There’s some good fun to be had here if you prefer to battle alongside your friends instead of against them.

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