Video Game Camp More Fun than Work

By Becky Wright

OGDEN -- Joshua Brown wants a career in video game programming. To make that happen, the 17-year-old is taking programming classes in school, making sure he knows math, and searching for college scholarships — and he signed up for Weber State University’s Summer Game Development Camp.

“I really enjoy working with games,” said Brown, from West Haven. “It’s fun learning about how they work, and trying to make your own.”

Disney animator Thomas Estrada visited with Brown, and other teens at WSU’s game development camp, on Thursday. The senior animator and lead cinematics animator at Avalanche Software for Disney Interactive gave campers a sneak peek of the moves he’s giving Captain America in “Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes (2.0 Edition),” which is due out this fall.

Estrada, of Sandy, wasn’t there just to show teens what he can do, but what they can do. He discussed careers in the world of video game creation, and how to prepare for those jobs. Afterward, he met with camp participants and watched them work on their own games.

Estrada’s presentation was not his first at WSU’s Summer Game Development Camp. Helping young people is his way of paying it forward.

“Growing up as an artist, drawing, it was just such a dream to actually work for a place like Disney — I just didn’t think it would ever come true,” he said. “Finally being able to meet someone who took the time to talk to me, to show me around the studio and give me information on what I needed to do — I was just so thankful for that.”

This year’s camp was the seventh WSU has offered on video game development.

“We see it as a good way to provide students with some idea of what computer science is about, and also capitalize on their interest in computer gaming,” said Brian Rague, chairman of the university’s Computer Science department.

Thirty high school students are accepted into the camp each year. They’re taught by six WSU faculty members, who cover the elements of good game play: mechanics and genres, interactivity and controls, level design, programming and intelligence. The teens demonstrate what they learn by dividing into teams to create their own two-dimensional video games.

“Each faculty member becomes a mentor for a team, and works extensively with the students,” Rague said.

This is the second year Tyler Thorson, from Roy, has signed up for the camp.

“We get to have fun, meet new people, and just experience what it’s like being game-makers,” said the 16-year-old.

He enjoys the friendly competition between teams, and says games are given a fair critique.

“They go through music, game play, does it function well, and the style of it and originality,” he said. “We all get to rate how well it did in each category.”

Games created in camp are available to download and play

This year all of the campers are young men, but most years there are a few young women.

“The department takes very seriously the initiative to try to engage more women in the field,” said Rague, noting that the number of women in WSU’s Computer Science department has risen from 8 percent to 13 percent.

Estrada said there are probably less than 10 women at Avalanche Software in Salt Lake City, out of about 250 employees, but the company is seeing more girls playing its “Disney Infinity” video game.

“The demographic has shifted to where a lot more females are enjoying the game than we even thought,” Estrada said. “So we’ve added a lot more female characters in ‘Infinity 2.’ Now we’ve put in the Black Widow character, who’s the female of ‘Avengers.’ A few months ago she wasn’t even going to be in our game — they didn’t think she would ever sell — but they started seeing Violet from ‘Infinity 1’ was selling through the roof, and the ‘Tangled’ Rapunzel and Anna and Elsa from ‘Frozen’ were just outselling the male characters.”

Whether the players are girls or boys, or the game creators are male or female, the games have to be well thought out and well made, so Estrada shared some of the tricks of the trade with camp attendees. When asked about using “inbetweening” computer programs, which generate images between drawings to save time in animation, Estrada said they’re not usually good enough. For example, if a character is supposed to move its head inbetweening will move it in a straight line.

“Nobody really looks like that unless you’re a robot,” he told the teens. “Rather than going in a straight line, we’ll take that inbetween and we’ll rotate the head down or up ... and there’s always a little eye blink in the middle — I don’t know why, but it makes it looks natural.”

Another trick of the trade, he said, is giving characters visual weight by playing with speed of movement.

“Sulley, on ‘Monsters, Inc.,’ he weighs like a ton. In order to do that they’re playing with the mass of his body, so when he steps up he slows down, and when he comes down he speeds up,” Estrada said. “Now you have a character who, instead of bouncing around like a ping pong ball, now he’s going BAM, BAM.”

Nobody notices good animation, because it looks natural, he said. “It’s the bad animation that stands out.”

Estrada said there are a few differences between film and game animation. If a character is going to hit somebody in a movie, they hold the punch for a while to set up audience anticipation. In video games, the player wants the character to respond to the punch command quickly.

“That’s something I had to learn when I came to games, after being in film so long,” he said. “They had me animate a guy throwing a punch, and I had him doing this big windup, and they were like, ‘Take all of those first 20 frames of your animation and cut them off.’ ”

Being able to take that kind of criticism is one of the keys to success, according to Estrada.

“You want to be able to just absorb that, and take anything that somebody has to offer you, just to get better ... even if that means starting over when someone says, ‘This isn’t looking good,’ ” he said. “You want to have the attitude that you don’t know it all.”

Alex Gatewood, a 16-year-old from South Weber, said Estrada’s presentation provided a lot of good information.

“I play a lot of video games, so I like looking into how they’re made,” he said. “I’m interested in the logic of it.”

If Gatewood learns enough, and works hard, he may wind up with what Estrada thinks is one of the best jobs in the world.

“I worked a lot of horrible jobs that I hated, and so to be able to finally do something that’s my hobby —that I would do for free, that I would do in my spare time — you can’t help but being passionate about that,” Estrada said. “Think of the best thing you would ever want to do for a living, and now you get to do it.”

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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