The monster loomed ready over the sprawling metropolis, awaiting the first lesson of the day. His mentor instructed him to unleash a tremendous growl and pump his fists wildly above his head to scare the mass of people gathered below. Taking a deep breath, the monster scattered the crowd and sent the tiny humans fleeing in terror. Further into the lesson, he smashed buildings, swatted down airplanes and, as a final test, battled a skyscraper-sized robot. After receiving his diploma from the Monster Training Center he happily returned to his third row seat beside his parents.
This was just one of a dozen virtual worlds presented at this year’s Building Virtual Worlds (BVW) show at Carnegie Mellon University. Each year graduate students from the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) invite students and industry guests to view a presentation of their work. All of the worlds shown are designed, developed and built during a semester long course at the ETC.
The ETC brings together students from around the world with diverse academic backgrounds, ranging from art and computer science to business and psychology. I entered the program with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. All students, regardless of their undergraduate major, must take the same four courses during their first semester: Improvisational Acting, Fundamentals of Entertainment Technology, the Visual Story and BVW. The “boot camp” semester pushes students to learn new skills, hit deadlines and learn to work together in multidisciplinary teams. BVW is the premier training ground for this knowledge and the most challenging course that most students, myself included, have ever taken.
Dr. Randy Pausch, a co-founder of the ETC, created the course. Dr. Pausch recently received worldwide acclaim after appearing on Good Morning America and Oprah for his “Last Lecture,” where he described how to achieve childhood dreams as he faces his own battle with terminal cancer. In his lecture, Dr. Pausch describes the course “as a way, en masse, to get people turned on to their childhood dreams.” Game designer Jesse Schell, former Creative Director for the Disney Virtual Reality Studio, is currently teaching BVW.
The class immerses students in an environment where we use our individual skills as part of a group to accomplish things that would be impossible on our own. In these groups we get a chance to experience and learn about a variety of different skills. “If you look at the people who excel in the area of entertainment technology, it’s the people who tend to excel in cross-disciplinary work,” Schell says.
BVW engages 50 students split into groups of four and then given two weeks to design, build and test their worlds. Over the course of the semester the students go through five project rounds, producing 60 worlds as a class. At the end of the semester students present their work to a jury, which then selects the best worlds for the BVW show.
The term “virtual world” encompasses a variety of computer generated environments and games, and in BVW, these “worlds” span a massive range of topics and interactions. Some of the worlds seen in this year’s show included a jungle race between Tarzan and a gorilla, which pits one half of the audience against the other, and a giant collaborative painting world where the audience used laser pointers as brushes. We are given free reign to create whatever we want, the only exception being no pornography or gun violence. These topics are excluded because they are unoriginal and overdone, not because they might be offensive.
We use conventional industry tools to create the assets in each world. We use Autodesk Maya to create models, Photoshop to make textures and Adobe Audition to design sound. We put them all together in the Panda3D game engine (created by Disney and now open source) and code it in Python. Some students enter the course with experience using these software tools, but most students must learn on the fly.
In BVW you will not see any standard game controllers or joysticks, and not a single game console. For the first two rounds students are assigned non-standard platforms like virtual reality Head Mounted Displays (HMD) with Magnetic Trackers, the ETC built Jam-o-Drum, the PlayMotion shadow tracker and the Beyond Question remote system. Afterward students can choose our platform and often create experiences that weave multiple platforms together.
Most students never use the same platform twice. Over my five rounds I used four different platforms, but I tested or tried every platform at one point or another throughout the semester. This typically means that for each project students must learn how to use a new platform and come up with innovative and compelling ways to build on it. This all starts as soon as the groups are assigned.
In the four-person groups, each person has a unique role: programmer, artist, modeler or sound designer. My background was not in any of these disciplines, which is fairly common, but I took on the programmer duties, since I had some coding experience. The groups aren’t supposed to fit square pegs into round holes; they’re put together so each person can play up his strength in one of the roles.
You might notice a distinct lack of a designer or writer in the group dynamic. Many of my groups often wondered about that, as well, but the program demanded those duties be a collaborative effort. It was pretty common for me to write some dialogue or build some models, and the sound person in my group to create a little code. The forced interdependence proved to be a valuable learning experience, because the more we understood the different roles firsthand, the better we were able to perform as an actual team.
One of the most valuable lessons we learned early was how to work fast. Since our time was so limited, we had to focus on our world’s core experience. There was very little time for pre-production, and we had to jump in and get working on a tangible product immediately. “Getting something built and running allows for multiple iterations, which is the key to a strong experience,” says Schell. At the halfway point of each project, students receive feedback from the rest of the class on their world’s state, which gives the teams a chance to regroup and fix anything they may have missed. At the end of the two-week period the groups present their work. Before the end of the same class, we would immediately start working on our next assignment.
We were encouraged to take risks because if we failed we would only lose two weeks. As is so often true, the groups learned more from those failures than they did from their success.
Throughout the class, students write feedback for their fellow classmates, which gets handed out at the end of the semester. It can be very painful to read what your former teammates have to say about you, but everyone agrees it’s the most important part of BVW; it’s a reality check that everyone in the class can use to help make himself a better teammate in an industry based on cross-disciplinary teamwork.
The semester culminates in the BVW Show, where kids can be monsters and students can build their dreams. Schell describes it as “a mix of performance art, videogames, computer animation and audience participation – a virtual reality vaudeville show that has become a Carnegie Mellon tradition.”
We learned countless lessons in the BVW class. We were pushed in every direction and forced to adapt. The course taught many things artistic and technical, but I learned the most when I got feedback from my teammates. It’s a rare thing, in this or any industry, to receive honest feedback not only on your work, but on yourself. BVW is about doing, creating, making and achieving while learning. There’s no better way to grow professionally.
Seth Sivak is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.