Reality check: WNC video game designers face exciting, uncertain prospects

DREAM COME TRUE: UNC Asheville student Michael Kuczkuda’s game “Dream Rush” is now available at the Apple App Store. Photo by Hannah Epperson, UNCA
DREAM COME TRUE: UNC Asheville student Michael Kuczkuda’s game “Dream Rush” is now available at the Apple App Store. Photo by Hannah Epperson, UNCA

In 2005, Miles Tilmann and Richard Grillotti moved to Western North Carolina from Seattle, where they’d worked developing video games for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim website. That same year, they launched their own company, Pixeljam, aiming to create games with a retro look but modern spin. Over the next five years, Pixeljam put out a handful of games, and in 2007 its “Gamma Bros” was nominated for an award at the Independent Games Festival in San Francisco, but the company still wasn’t making any money.

In 2010, Tilmann and Grillotti turned to Kickstarter to get funding for a game they were working on called “Glorkian Warrior.”

“This was before crowdfunding was a really well-known thing,” notes Tilmann. “If you look at our campaign page for the project, it’s almost incredible how short and vague the pitch was.”

Nonetheless, “Glorkian Warrior” became a crowdfunding success story: Pixeljam asked for $10,000 and generated $11,000 in donations. But Tilmann and Grillotti’s troubles weren’t over. “We said the game would be made in two to five months, but it took us more than four years to deliver it,” remembers Tilmann. A subsequent Kickstarter campaign failed, and though an in-house crowdfunding campaign has helped keep the company going, Tilmann says, “It’s feast or famine.” At times, Pixeljam is staying afloat game to game.

Patrick Roeder knows full well how tumultuous the industry can be, and that talent and dedication don’t always equal success. From 2010-13, he was a part of a now-defunct company called Digital Roar Studios. “We never could find funding,” he explains. “It was during the gold rush of indie games, where everyone was asking for money, and we were just one of the ones that didn’t find it.”

To date, the only notable game that’s come out of this area, says Roeder, is “Super Meat Boy,” created by the Asheville-based Team Meat. After “Super Meat Boy” was picked up by major game platforms, including Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Wii U, the company moved to San Francisco.

Following Digital Roar’s collapse, Roeder began teaching at Western Piedmont Community College before ending up at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock. Both schools now offer courses in things like game design and digital animation, and in response to increased student interest, Blue Ridge substantially upgraded its equipment last summer.

“These computers are among the most powerful on campus,” notes Roeder. “It’s been really awesome getting the type of support that I have this year.”

But while technological advances are creating exciting new possibilities, the job market in WNC is still limited, and salaries are much lower than for comparable positions in the Triangle area.

“I do not like my students being limited,” declares Marietta Cameron, who chairs UNC Asheville’s computer science department. She wants them to “understand their value and their worth.”

3-D simulations

From their humble origins as clunky, poorly designed arcade machines, video games now rival blockbuster Hollywood films in both narrative scope and financial success. From phone apps to virtual reality headsets, video games and the programs used to create them are having a growing impact on the world at large. In 2014 alone, the industry sold over 135 million games and generated more than $22 billion in revenues, according to a 2015 study by the Entertainment Software Association. And as simulation and animation technologies improve and the market expands, many in the field are confident that career opportunities will continue to grow.

Increasingly, the focus for students, teachers and designers alike is virtual reality. With the hardware cost dropping sharply and improvements in simulation software, VR technology has begun finding its way into the hands of a new generation of game designers. Although prototypes and clunky VR programs have been around since the 1990s, 2016 was the first year that they were considered a viable technology. And here in WNC, various colleges have found themselves facing an influx of young people eager to experiment with it, hoping to create the next video game phenomenon.

As part of its recent upgrade, for example, Blue Ridge Community College bought an HTC Vive headset. The latest thing in VR technology, it enables users to create 3-D art and fashion, step inside a Van Gogh painting or stand atop a castle tower, shooting arrows at an invading horde below. A pair of goggles projects a 3-D world into the player’s eyes. External cameras follow the headset, enabling the system to track the player’s movements; this gives the impression of moving around within the simulation. Meanwhile, a pair of controllers allows players to interact with the virtual environment.

The college’s old VR simulator, “The Cave,” is a huge device that projects images onto the walls, ceiling and floor of a small, cubical room. Software licensing fees and yearly maintenance tuneups cost the school over $20,000 annually; the HTC Vive has a $1,600 price tag with no annual fees and takes up much less space. This spring, students will get a chance to use the Vive for their projects in a new class titled Serious Games.

REALITY BITES: Writer Timothy Burkhardt tries out a virtual reality game at Blue Ridge Community College. Photo by Patrick Roeder
REALITY BITES: Writer Timothy Burkhardt tries out a virtual reality game at Blue Ridge Community College. Photo by Patrick Roeder

“We teach not only video game development, workflows and tools,” Roeder explains. “That same kind of knowledge can be applied to simulations. Any kind of simulation that’s not related to the entertainment sector — including architectural visualization, safety training for industries like nuclear power plants or manufacturing, and programs like ‘Mario Teaches Typing’ — is what I call a ‘serious game.’”

Beyond entertainment

Kasey Clark moved to Flat Rock from Tulsa, Okla., in 2015, drawn by the school’s simulation and game design program. “The Blue Ridge SGD course was the inspiration for me to move halfway across the country,” he says.

Now in his second year, Clark says he’s learned a lot and found a community of like-minded thinkers and dreamers. Among other things, Clark discovered a love of “rigging” — creating skeletons for 3-D models to help them move realistically. He also enjoyed a design class where students learned the fundamentals by creating board games.

“I had a blast with that,” he recalls. “Being able to see ideas come to life for the first time, understanding game mechanics and how they work; it was fun seeing it come together.”

In the coming months, Clark and some fellow students hope to start a small design studio in WNC. “I’m looking forward to getting something on the market to show what this program is all about,” he says. Clark believes the improvements in simulation technology, including virtual reality, will create new jobs for programmers.

“It goes further than game design. What we’re learning here goes to every aspect of the field: entertainment media, movies, even more applicable processes like advertising,” says Clark. “With VR simulations on the rise, what we do here can have a high education value.” He’s looking forward to the Serious Games class, where he’ll get to practice programming in a virtual reality environment.

Work and play

About 70 miles from Flat Rock, Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton is also seeing increased interest in these fields. The school’s digital effects and animation technology program teaches video production, multimedia and web design; the simulation and game development program covers graphic design, vectors, bitmaps and 3-D modeling.

Initially, Western Piedmont’s classes focused more on the graphic design and advertising applications of digital animations, says Jonathan Crumpler, who coordinates both programs. “Right around 2007, we started seeing this big immigration of people coming into our DEAT program who were doing very well in their 3-D modeling and animation and were looking to go into game design as a career field.” That led the school to launch its SGD program.

Still, Crumpler wants to keep students grounded in reality about what awaits them after graduation. “Being a community college, our goal is to get people jobs,” he says. “We also want to facilitate students who want to be independent game developers, so we really ride a fine line. It’s a two-year associate in applied science degree, so there’s only so much you can do.”

After completing their studies at Western Piedmont, notes Crumpler, many students are eager to get a job with a major game company or start their own venture. But he usually recommends that they pursue further education first. Credits from his courses transfer directly to UNCA’s new media program, which offers more advanced SGD and digital storytelling courses, as well as an undergraduate research program that focuses on turning board games into video games.

“If students want to go on and work for AAA game companies, our best advice is to put together a great portfolio. You’re going to end up with a website that you can market to schools for scholarships,” Crumpler explains.

He also encourages students to consider the technology’s applications beyond video games. One of his favorite student projects was a “serious game” that enabled potential business owners to virtually tour a property and, with just a few mouse clicks, preview changes they might want to make.

Growing interest

Established in 1999, UNCA’s new media program offers a host of interesting opportunities, including classes on the history of digital media and games. And in 2013, the department created an undergraduate research program that focuses on turning board games into video games. “The team has grown from three initial students to as many as 10 at a time,” says lecturer Adam Whitley, who heads the program. “We started out making a video game based on a board game called Castle Panic, a cooperative, turn-based game where the players work together to defend a castle from waves of oncoming monsters. More recently, we’ve been making a video game based on King of Tokyo, a competitive board game where giant monsters battle for supremacy over the city.”

Cameron’s students, meanwhile, created a visualization of a real-life developer’s 1980 proposal to turn a substantial portion of downtown Asheville into a mall, which would have drastically changed the city center’s look and feel. Voters vetoed the idea in a referendum.

Whitley’s current team consists of six undergraduates. Most plan to pursue other careers after college, but both Michael Parker and Michael Kuczkuda have created video games for their senior projects. “Dream Rush,” Kuczkuda’s side-scrolling video game app, was just bought by Apple.

The company, he says, “emailed me while I was doing a presentation and said they were reviewing it, and then I got an email an hour later that it was accepted.” Players guide a character through a dream landscape, dodging nightmares to avoid waking up.

Kuczkuda says he’d love to stay in the Asheville area if he can, but he wants to work in game design and will leave if he gets hired elsewhere. “I enjoy doing it; it’s fun. I don’t see it as work,” he says.

Ups and downs

That uncertainty, though, continues to cast a pall over the region’s prospects for retaining these new graduates.

“If they wish to stay in this area, we do have some community partners,” notes UNCA’s Cameron. Some local tech companies, she says, “will try to sell the idea that the reason they want to pay lower in this area is because the cost of living is lower here.” Cameron, however, rejects that idea, saying, “Look at the Raleigh/Chapel Hill area: They have a lower cost of living but a higher pay scale for their tech employees.”

Roeder, meanwhile, hopes the success of design studios like Epic Games (in Cary) and the increased availability of technological careers in the Triangle area will spill over into similar opportunities here. But rather than bringing big industry players to WNC, he believes, it’s more important to focus on equipping local residents with the necessary skills.

“More and more students are clamoring not just to learn how to make video games but how to use Photoshop, how to animate digitally, how to illustrate digitally,” Roeder says. “I think that’s more in line with the students’ interests.”

As for what happens once they’ve learned those skills, says Whitley, “I usually advise my students to keep an open mind” about where they’ll end up working.

Although simulation and game design might seem like good prospects for telecommuting, it isn’t really feasible at this point due to the massive size of 3-D files, which have to be redrawn every few seconds to remain consistent within the simulation. “Some SGD work can be done remotely,” notes Tilmann, “but currently the files are too large to be sent back and forth with any frequency.”

That could change, however, says Whitley. “As we move into the future and bandwidth gets better, it might be easier to live in a beautiful place like this, work for a company that’s based in California and get the compensation you deserve.”

Meanwhile, despite all the challenges and uncertainties, many of the people interviewed for this article say it’s a thrilling time to be working in the video game field, whether you’re an aspiring designer, an independent game developer or a teacher of cutting-edge technologies.

Roeder views his students as artisans working in a digital art form. “Video games are a pretty unique medium, in that you have to be technically savvy as well as artistically driven to even make it work,” he says. “If the Renaissance was about creating murals, and all the patrons like the Medici family were paying artists to make amazing paintings, then these days it’s the entertainment industry clamoring for digital entertainment: That’s where art is evolving now.”

Over at Pixeljam, though, “It’s all upswings and downswings; there’s nothing steady for us,” Tilmann reports. “As time goes on, I start to think, ‘Do I really want to live the indie rock star lifestyle with a wife and kids and a mortgage?’ But at the same time, there’s lots of opportunity happening just in the past year, with virtual reality and augmented reality becoming viable technologies: It’s pretty mind-blowing. There’s a lot of people putting time and money into VR. It’s an exciting time.”

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7 thoughts on “Reality check: WNC video game designers face exciting, uncertain prospects

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    ““We said the game would be made in two to five months, but it took us more than four years to deliver it,””

    Yeah I know that painful lesson: 10% of effort required to do 90% of the work, but 90% to do the remaining 10%.

  2. boatrocker

    This far into the 21st century and no Huxley-like flying cars or ‘feelies’.

      • boatrocker

        Well, technically it’s not a car for not having wheels, but nice and thanks for the link.

        I do wish the Mtn X would run a few more pieces about local innovations and a few less about beer/food/crystals, but hey, give the tourists what they want.

        I suppose social media is the closest thing to the feelies as people can live vicariously through others’ posts.

        • Virginia Daffron

          Boatrocker, by pieces about local innovations, do you mean like this one?

          • boatrocker

            I meant local companies like Liquidlogic,, the bike company that makes mountain bikes with laminated bamboo frames that lb. for lb. are stronger and lighter than titanium, Sivalia Violins, Moog (obviously), permaculture folks who have the MacGyver eye for sustainable design, the many urban gardener types…

            But yeah, I suppose I just mean beer/food/yoga. Sigh.

          • boatrocker

            And PS, video games? Really?

            Why not just call it for what it is? Soma.

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