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It’s Wednesday evening, and classes have ended for the day. But in the Michelangelo lecture room, the rows of seats are filled with DigiPen students who have come to engage in some extracurricular discourse.

It’s the weekly meeting of the DigiPen Game Design Club, and tonight’s main topic of discussion is the game Firefall, an upcoming online shooter still in its beta stage of development. While some students have come to the meeting with some firsthand experience with the game, other attendees are seeing Firefall for the first time, projected on a large screen at the front of the classroom.

It just gives us a good starting point, because we’re looking at, ‘Why do players play this game?’”

As a club member demonstrates the character creation screen, the group immediately sets upon analyzing and critiquing the first minutes of the user experience — everything from the text descriptions and visual style to the in-game interface. Helping to guide the group discussion is James Portnow, a DigiPen lecturer in Game Software Design and Production, who chimes in periodically to pose some open-ended questions.

“What do you think the core engagement of this game is?” he asks about 45 minutes into the meeting, and later, “What are the core aesthetics?”

Screenshot of a man looking out over the mountains in Firefall, a game by Red 5 Studios
Firefall screenshot

For Kate Reinhard, a sophomore in the Bachelor of Arts in Game Design program and the club’s president, these questions are central to what game design is all about.

“It just gives us a good starting point, because we’re looking at, ‘Why do players play this game?’” Reinhard says. “And then from there we say, ‘What did the developers do to get those aesthetics? What are ways they could improve upon fleshing out those aesthetics?’”

As Portnow describes it, the Game Design Club offers a space for students to explore many of the things that don’t fit nicely into the semester-based undergraduate design curriculum.

Screenshot of a man running from the destruction of his city in Canabalt, a game by developer Semi Secret Software
Canabalt screenshot

“A designer is the person who crafts the experience. They’re not the programmer. They don’t write the code. They’re not the artist,” Portnow says. “A designer’s principle concern is not what’s on the screen, but rather how the human sitting in front of that screen experiences it.”

For the club, that means looking at different types of games and genres that convey different experiences.

During one fall-semester meeting, Reinhard says, the club engaged in a side-by-side comparison of Monster Dash and Cannabalt, two well-known mobile games that conveyed wildly different feelings and emotions while using the same basic mechanics of running and jumping.

A designer’s principle concern is not what’s on the screen, but rather how the human sitting in front of that screen experiences it.”

But it also means occasionally looking outside of traditional games altogether, such as one October meeting when students analyzed a recording of the presidential debates.

Screenshot of a man wearing a machine gun jetpack in Monster Dash, a game by developer Halfbrick Studios
Monster Dash screenshot

“Everything about that — from the setup to the stage to the way they dress to the words they say — is a designed experience,” Portnow says. “And as a designer, it doesn’t matter if it’s an amusement park, a rock concert, or a presidential debate. These moments that are experiences designed for human beings, they are something you should study.”

While the objects up for discussion change from week to week, each Game Design Club adheres to a consistent policy of open-ended dialogue. Even as the club organizers help float plenty of questions and ideas, they encourage input from everyone in the room.

“Here’s a place where I can ask them, ‘Tell me your thoughts,’” Portnow says. “Because, as a designer, one of the things you learn — one of the humilities it forces upon you — is how incorrect your opinion in isolation actually is. And design club is a great place to have those discussions and get a group opinion.”