Every year since 2004, video game fans from across the country have flocked to the Penny Arcade Expo to celebrate their favorite hobby.
Game companies haven’t been far behind, taking advantage of the chance to get their latest products in the hands of an enthusiastic audience. But for the past few years, DigiPen students have found a different opportunity at the convention: not just to show off their creations to the public, but to use fan feedback to improve their work.
At this year’s PAX, DigiPen students will showcase 12 of their best games, representing the cumulative creativity of nearly 60 student developers. Teams incorporate students from across DigiPen’s degree programs; designers, programmers, and artists collaborate to build wholly unique experiences from the ground up. But these games aren’t finished products: they’re works in progress, with plenty of room for students to hone their gameplay – and their craft.
Gabriel Serra, a 2010 graduate of DigiPen’s Real-Time Interactive Simulation (RTIS) program, is leading the charge. Along with nearly 30 student volunteers, he’s spent the last month making sure his group has accounted for every detail of their booth at PAX. That way, when tens of thousands of gamers flood into the Washington State Convention Center on Friday morning, his group can focus on the important part: getting their games in front of players, and getting those players’ ideas on how to make those games more intuitive, interesting, and fun. “It’s a great opportunity to get a fresh set of eyes on our projects and help us get them ready for competition,” Serra says. That competition is the Independent Games Festival, held at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. DigiPen students have taken home 26 awards since the IGF began recognizing student work in 2004, including winning “Best Student Game” for three of the last four years. The students play-testing their games at PAX are hoping to improve on that record.
Kieran Lampert is one of them. A senior in DigiPen’s BFA program, Lampert is taking two of his team’s games to this year’s PAX: Lumin Lacuna, a third-person hack-and-slash action game set in an ominous cavern, and Starfall, an adventure game where you collect fallen stars and return them to the sky. Like any developer, he wants players to enjoy his games, but he’s not too worried that they won’t. “Junior year at DigiPen is a lot of trial and error, and you get a lot of experience and knowledge from your failures,” he says. One of the key lessons he’s learned is that a game’s scale doesn’t necessarily correlate to its reception by players. “DigiPen games don’t need to be epic to be good,” Lampert says. “It really boils down to an almost poetic experience.”
Dan Rosas, a junior in DigiPen’s RTIS program, may have already taken that lesson to heart. His team’s game, Solace, isn’t just a clever mash-up of top-down shoot-em-up games like Galaga and rhythm games like Rez and AudioSurf – it’s also a meditation on the five stages of grief. If that sounds a little complicated, that’s because it is – “People either get it and really like it, or they don’t get it and they hate it,” Rosas admits. But while the overall concept may be high-brow, the gameplay definitely isn’t. “I always want to make a game that my grandma could play,” Rosas says. That mixture of simple gameplay and complex themes has already turned some heads: In July, Rosas learned that Solace had earned a spot in the PAX 10, a selection of games hand-picked by a group of industry experts for special recognition at this year’s convention. But Rosas and his team aren’t resting on their laurels. “Our entire game is built off of play-testing,” Rosas said, “and this is the perfect place for it.”