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DigiPen isn’t your typical college, and our course catalogue reflects that. In our Class Select series, we’ll explore a few of the many interesting and unusual courses we offer our students.

Plenty of video games have great levels, fun mechanics, and engaging stories. But the ones that become our favorites often have a little something else.

“We’ve all played games that are good on the surface but don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi that puts them over the top,” says DigiPen Department of Design Lecturer Eric Cagle. “It’s extremely hard to quantify, and it’s often very subjective. But when it’s not there, you can feel it.” As tricky as that feeling is to quantify, that’s exactly what Cagle helps students do in DigiPen’s DES 365 Game Feel course.

The junior level course is aimed at game design students interested in user experience, but the lessons it aims to teach are universal. “It doesn’t matter what kind of designer you are, the goal should be to make things easier and cooler for the end user,” Cagle says.

Over the course of the semester, students explore the art of good game feel through three main projects, each built in a commercial game engine like Unity or Unreal. The projects are “playable,” but they aren’t standalone games. Rather, each one challenges students to perfect the experience of one small, focused slice of a made-up game of their choice, which can stay the same the whole semester or change with each project. “I have to remind students that we aren’t making game mechanics or designing a whole world. You just need to come up with a game idea, and then you have X number of weeks to make this one very specific part of it feel good,” Cagle says.

Appropriately enough, the first project is creating a boot-up menu, a task that isn’t as simple as getting a button press to open an Options or Credits screen. “That’s just the functionality,” Cagle explains. “The goal is to make the button look cool, make interacting with the button feel fun, and make the transition between screen one and screen two feel like an interesting, organic part of their game concept.” Making something as basic as a start menu fun to use is tricky, but the lessons it teaches in clarity, immersion, and playtesting are vital. “If you can make a menu feel good, you can probably make a game feel good,” Cagle says.

For the second project, students step up the complexity by designing a Heads-Up Display (HUD). “They make everything from the score, the mini-map, the shield meters — whatever their concept calls for,” Cagle says. Students hard code button pushes that demonstrate how in-game state changes would work for each HUD element. That could mean depleting the shield meter by 10 percent, depleting it to zero percent, then healing it back up to 100. “This is about getting away from that macro gameplay mindset and just focusing on giving players good information,” Cagle says. “Does it feel, sound, and look like you’re taking damage? If everything is flashing all the time, nothing feels important. Does this meter need to go down a quarter of a second faster, or is this shade of red visible for people with colorblindness? We dive into these little lessons that go a long way.”

The final project, Cagle’s personal favorite, is also the freest of the three — a challenge to achieve a quality known as “kinesthetic flow.” Using a first-person perspective, students must craft a diegetic, in-game experience that conveys one particular movement, and the corresponding emotions and feelings that go with it. “Students can really do anything. They could choose to do what it feels like to be a caterpillar,” Cagle explains. “How does it feel to push forward on the controller as a caterpillar? Probably not nice and smooth! It’s going to be a lot of REE-ruh-REE-ruh, right?”

Many students choose unusual movements to explore on purpose, allowing them to dive deep into highly specific experiences and flesh them out as much as possible for the player. “One student had just seen a movie about [Philippe Petit], this tightrope walker who went between the Twin Towers in the ’70s, and they chose to recreate that,” Cagle says. “Again, it wasn’t about gameplay. You couldn’t fall off and lose! It was about hearing your heartbeat as you crossed the tightrope, the panicky short breaths, the ambient sound of the wind blowing, the feeling of slowly crossing that distance.”

With no tests or quizzes, the three projects form the core of the Game Feel course. Although the instructor has the final say on grading, the projects are purposefully structured as openly as possible. “You present both your initial ideas and final projects to the entire class each time, and you playtest everything with your peers throughout the semester,” Cagle says. “We do that because that’s what user experience is! It’s based on how a crowd responds, not just one person.”

The crowd response to DES 365 has been life changing according to alumni who have messaged Cagle after graduation. “I’ve had several former students write me and say that projects from the class helped them get their job, even people who weren’t user experience students or had applied for a position in another discipline like systems design,” Cagle says. “They had a really cool portfolio piece that showed they’re good, well-rounded designers who can think creatively!”