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Deconstructing Spelunky: Teaching the next (next) generation of game devs


Creating a video game can be an incredibly daunting task, but with the recent rise in independent development, garage-based game creation is more accessible than ever. The tools are out there to help you create a game no matter your skill level. But how do you learn the tools, especially if you're too young for a college class?

For that, there's Gamebot School.

Founded by former developers at Neversoft, one of the many teams behind the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises, Gamebot School exists to teach the next generation of developers the ins and outs of video game creation. Alan Flores, Allen Freese and Nolan Nelson are using years of game development experience to educate groups of young makers who are full of excitement and creativity. While the "core age" of their students is around ages 9 to 12, they've taught a variety of kids both younger and older. After all, they're offering a service that isn't easily found elsewhere.

"I was getting asked by parents, 'How do you get into making games?'" Flores says. "I remember back on my VIC-20, making stuff when I was 14, doing POKEs and PEEKs to make single pixels turn on," Flores says, referencing a BASIC language of computer programming used with 8-bit systems like the Commodore 64, which would seem downright archaic to young gamers today. "It was a lot more complicated [back then.]"

"But I was messing around with GameMaker a little bit and I thought, 'I wonder if I could teach a kid this, because everyone keeps asking me.' My son was five at the time, and I decided to try to teach him how to make a game, and it actually worked. He made a little game where he drew this dinosaur, and we scanned it into the computer. This dinosaur goes left and right on the screen, and it catches fruit when it falls down ... And I had a couple kids that wanted to do it, then all of the sudden it was five students, then 10 students, then I was like, 'I need to get out of the house and get another place.' So that's how it all started."

At the Gamebot School, there are no grades. Instead, teachers are exploring "gamification" ideas to measure a student's progress - adding game-like rewards for real-life activities. This could manifest as something like a "black belt" for programming, but for now the focus is on keeping lessons as fun as possible.

At the moment, the trio teaches out of a small lab that houses eight computers. There, they offer classes on GameMaker and Unity - which have been used to create games like Gunpoint and Kerbal Space Program, respectively - as well as 3D modelling.

When talking to the three teachers about what sorts of games the kids who come to Gamebot School like to play and what they hope to make, one game in particular came up repeatedly. "We have a lot of students that play Minecraft and those sorts of games, so after they do their initial game that they create, they usually want to start making Minecraft," Flores says. "And they don't really understand how difficult something like that is, and how massive it is, even though it looks very simple to them."

In fact, Minecraft seems to be a common factor in the kids that were drawn to Gamebot School. Though the franchise's soaring sales is certainly a factor in its popularity, its prime mechanic is strikingly similar to the purpose of the Gamebot program. Minecraft is a game about creation: building complex structures and systems out of simplistic materials and creative ideas.

To illustrate how complex even simple-looking games can be, students were introduced to the original version of Spelunky, which developer Derek Yu created in GameMaker. Yu has since released the source code for that original version. "So we have the students play the GameMaker version of the game, and then they open up the source and they just kind of explore that for a while," Flores tells Joystiq. "And it usually just sort of breaks their brain how much stuff goes into a game that looks as simple as Spelunky does. After telling them, 'Look, it took this guy two or more years to make this thing,' then they start to realize that making games is a complex thing."

Over the summer, Gamebot School held its own summer camp, a week-long class where students would create a game from scratch. Over a seven-week period, Gamebot offered seven separate sessions and, because they had so many repeat students coming back for more classes, each session featured a different theme. "It was sort of like a game jam every single week," they say. Students made games inspired by the likes of Jetpack Joyride and Frogger, and their creations are now featured prominently on the Gamebot School website.

While the kids all shared high levels of creativity and excitement, it was interesting to see how each of them went about developing their games.

"Some kids would just make their games super, super hard, where they couldn't even get past the first level, and some would make them really easy," Nelson says. "It was just kind of fun to just kind of watch when they made their game so hard they couldn't finish it, and then they'd make it even harder."

Even though each game on the website only represents about five hours of work, the students found ways to impress their teachers.

"There's a game up on the website called The Body Game," Freese tells Joystiq, when asked about some of their favorite teaching moments. "It was an older student of mine named James, and we were sort of prototyping this game, and he wanted to make this kind of grappling hook thing. So we prototyped this grappling hook at it was working pretty well, and he had this boss that was in there, and you can grapple onto the boss and it takes you up and goes to a different level. And as soon as we did that we were just laughing so hard. It was pretty cool. It kind of blew my mind."

While most of their students are kids, the teachers at Gamebot are not opposed to teaching adults. In fact, some of the parents that come through show as much excitement than their children. "We have this one kid who comes in on Sundays, and his dad will be in the lab while we're teaching him," Nelson says. "He's one of the few parents that will stand up, go see what [his kid] is working on, go back to his desk ... he's almost as excited as his son to do game stuff. And that's really fun, the excitement of the parents and kids that something like this exists."

If you're in the vicinity of Woodland Hills, California, you can sign you or your kid up for a free lesson or a full class at Gamebot School, but obviously that's not feasible for everybody. Gamebot is looking into the possibility of online courses (something they've done once with students in Singapore), but in the meantime they offered up advice for anybody who wants to get into game development today.

"With all these game engines you can get lite versions of for free," Freese says. "The first thing a kid should do is download one of those engines, plug through some tutorials and just start making something. There's tons of resources out there like GameMaker, Unity and Corona, and there are tons of online resources, videos, all kinds of stuff that kids can learn if they want to try to make games. The reason we're here is to help get them started and for if they get stuck. That's why we're here to teach, because there comes a point where you might get stuck. If you're on your own, you have to be very resourceful to get through that, but you just have to get in there and try to make your own game."

"There's a lot of cool movements going on with various game jams that seem to happen every weekend or so now," Flores tells Joystiq. "And so we've been encouraging kids that they should try to participate in it as well and just make games. They don't have to be good games. They don't have to be complete games. Just do it and you'll learn how to make them"

"That's one thing we did during the weeks of camp," Nelson added. "Usually on the last day we would show little 20 minute videos of the Ludum Dare, and we had a lot of kids excited just to see 250 different types of games that were created in 48 hours. It kind of got them excited and saying, 'Oh wow, I really can make games like this.'"

All of that advice really boils down to one thing: If you want to make games, just do it. "There's this book by [film director] Robert Rodriguez," Freese says, "and he talks about how he wanted to be a filmmaker, and Rodriguez said, 'Well, I don't want to be a filmmaker, I am a filmmaker. What do filmmakers do? They make films.' So he grabbed a video camera and just started making his own movies. It's like the same thing. "

Britton Peele is a freelance writer based out of Texas. His work has been featured on GameSpot, GamesRadar and The Dallas Morning News. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrittonPeele.

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