Becoming a #Gamedev

Managing the Stress of a College Senior Game Project


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What we have here is a failure to communicate.

 

This quote is featured frequently in Cool Hand Luke, a classic 1967 movie directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring Paul Newman (which, of course, I have not seen yet). My father would use that quote as a joke for whenever something happened due to miscommunication between me and someone else, usually one or both of my parents. Perhaps my use of that quote would have been appropriate in describing some of my experiences with a few game projects in 2015, my final year at Becker College, one of the leading educational institutes in the country with degree programs in game design, development, and production. The stress I was experiencing during those projects warranted the topic of my final project for my stress management class during the remaining weeks of the final semester.

Using my understanding of Senior Game Project (as this thesis-like course was called at Becker) and my own personal experience with it as reference material, I created a PowerPoint presentation describing how a Senior Game Project works as a college course and my stress management plan for students who sign up for it in order to graduate would be experiencing stress. While I could not fully present my plan to the stress management class due to time constraints, I believed that it would be applicable to all Becker students seeking a Bachelor’s Degree in their chosen game curriculum.

In recent months, I’ve gained a bit more insight from my former teammates regarding their own experience with Senior Game Project in order to expand on that plan. Today, I’m convinced that my stress management plan would be applicable to students of all colleges that have video game development curriculums with similar senior final project/thesis programs. That being said, these other colleges would have something like Senior Game Project but structured differently from that of Becker. Nevertheless, my stress management plan should be helpful to any video game design/development/production senior who would be taking something like this as a requirement before graduating. So I will be using the terms ‘Senior Game Project’ to refer to any senior-level course that has students create games as final projects or thesis.

Now, to begin with, my stress management goals consist of the following:

  1.           Briefly go over what Senior Game Project actually is as a course.
  2.           Observe the challenges that come with Senior Game Project which would cause various forms of stress.
  3.           Look at possible methods for preventing, minimizing, and coping with said stress in order to go through the course in a positive and constructive manner.

What is a Senior Game Project?

If you saw a Senior Game Project while looking at the course descriptions, it may or may not have looked something like this:

Senior Game Project I
This senior-level seminar is flexible in both format and content due to the ever advancing technology within the field of game design and represents the culmination of the student’s Bachelor of the Arts in Game Design experience. Working with the professor, students will select an appropriate topic for the design of an original interactive gaming project which will result in a presentation of associated development stages and the final program. The thesis work will allow students to produce an advanced cohesive project based on their accumulated coursework within the major and further focused research and development for this seminar. It is intended to simulate the real-world experience of game project developer/designer.
Senior Game Project II
This semester-long seminar is designed to allow students to concentrate on one or two aspects of game development while working as part of a complete project team. Working under the supervision of the professor, students will be divided into two departments to simulate the real-world environment of game production. Students will work in either narrative and design development or in interactive development and production. The thesis project will require ongoing professional communication between the two departments, while individual team member work will result in a large body of original graphic, video, audio, and programming pieces for integration into a cohesive final project. The students will present their project to a panel of department faculty, accompanied by development presentations and drafts utilized during the semester to represent the process involved. The course is intended to draw on student’s previous coursework and research.

 

Looks confusing, doesn’t it? When I first saw this while first applying to Becker’s video game curriculum in 2012, I assumed they would be just different courses. But by the time I started taking them during my senior year, that assumption was not exactly the case. The reality of Senior Game Project is that it is not a college course in a traditional sense. It is basically a 4-8 month group project that tests students in what they have learned about game development, design, and production and in their abilities in the various fields that are necessary to make a game including but not limited to programming and level design.

Forming up Teams

The first two weeks of the Senior Game Project are bound to be the most challenging as students must come together in groups and come up with a game idea that can be done in around four months or less. I call it the most challenging because the sort of group you’d find yourself in depends on how long you’ve been on campus and who you know there. If students have been living on campus and making friends since their freshman year, forming a group is about as easy as popping in a cartridge in an 8-bit or 16-bit console and turning it on. But for others, the task of forming a group is more daunting than coming up with a game idea.

By the time I started Senior Game Project II (SGP II) in the Spring 2015 semester at Becker College (I’ll explain about that later), I was two years in and well on my way to graduation in December of that year thanks to transferring credits I obtained during my years at Quinsigamond Community College. I didn’t live on campus since it was around twenty minutes away from my hometown by car so I didn’t know a whole lot of people I could work with. I never had much of a social life anyway due in large part to autism, a neurological disorder that impairs my ability to socialize and communicate with other people. By the end the first month of the semester, I was forced to settle with just one guy I happened to know from cartooning class from the previous semester. In effect, we became a two-man team since we couldn’t get anyone else to join us. That guy, whom I’ll refer to as T.G., had taken Senior Game Project before with a team of up to five people.

In the Fall 2015 semester, I found it slightly easier to form a group in Senior Game Project I (SGP I) based on what I’ve learned at that point. I managed to form a group with three people after proposing what I thought was a workable idea (more on that in the next section). When it got rejected and the team which I helped form was about to dissolve, we managed to come up with a new one and bring the team number back up to four. A fifth member would later be joining us when the group he was with had disbanded since their project proposal was not approved.

What I’m saying here is that forming groups is not easy for some students due to various circumstances such as:

  •          Having attended college for only two years as opposed to the traditional four years thanks to transfer credits from another college;
  •          Living at home rather than on campus;
  •          Having social and communication difficulties due to autism and other similar disorders;
  •          Not being comfortable with groups because of a bad experience they’ve had working in groups in another course, at another college, at work, in high school, etc;

So the fewer people you know in your SGP course, the more difficult it will be to form a group and vice versa. The best case scenario would be to have a team of 5 to 8 people. The worst case scenario would leave you either with a two-person team or alone.

Coming up with a Project Idea

Coming up with a unifying project idea is also an important factor in forming a group. In SGP II, T.G. and I found it difficult coming up with an idea that just the two of us could work with when we couldn’t get anyone else to join our team. T.G. came up with the idea of a vertical scrolling mech-based shmup that would allow players to customize their mech build, weapon loadout, and special ability. In his past SGP, T.G.’s five-man team came up with an idea that was a bit complicated but simple: a platformer where the main character uses a shield that would act as offense and defense against projectiles.

In SGP I, I proposed my own idea: a platforming shooter in the vein of the first Duke Nukem games that would use a skill-based reward system similar to the Skill Shot mechanic of the first-person shooter Bulletstorm. The score generated by this mechanic would be used as a form of currency to purchase new weapons, ammo, special abilities, etc. It sounded appealing on paper and I managed to bring three people on board: A.M., D.D., and A.V. But because they had different schedules on and off campus, they could not be with me to present the idea to a classroom with some students and the professor in charge of the SGP in the audience. So I had to do it alone as professionally as humanly possible in the limited time I was given using what I’ve learned from SGP II. I told the audience that the idea I came up with was a simple one that could be done with minimal resources, leaving enough room for experimentation and expansion after building a basic working prototype during the first few weeks (at least, that was what I tried to tell the audience). Of course, the students who were present in the room voiced a couple of legitimate concerns about what I was proposing such as the risk of making a game that is too similar to the games I was taking inspiration from in terms of gameplay among a few other things. A few days later, the professor emailed me saying that my project proposal was not greenlighted by the student majority and that I would have to have my group come together to come up with something else as soon as possible. I was devastated. “How the hell did this happen!? My idea was simple; doable for everyone on my team!” It didn’t get any easier when A.V. said he was leaving the group that I worked so hard to help gather. I was at a loss as to what to do; I ended up not being in the right state of mind to attend my part-time shift at work. I would later realize that my incoherent presentation (I do tend to have difficulty communicating, after all) and not including my group members in the presentation contributed to the student majority’s decision to not greenlight my project proposal.

In a nutshell, a group can only be as unified as a shared game idea in which all members can work on. For any SGP, coming up with an idea at all is essential to forming a group in the first place.  There are several factors to this that need to be taken into consideration when first proposing an idea:

  •           The idea would need to be ‘advertised’ in order to attract interest; something that can ‘hook’ some students into coming on board. To ‘advertise’ the idea, it would have to be written in an online class-based discussion board or some other communication app with an account established by the professor like Slack. To ‘hook’ the students into joining the group, the idea itself would have to sound appealing enough to attract their interest. And in order to attract that interest, you would need to convince potential group members that the idea would be something that they can work with their skill sets. For example, you may be more proficient in art than with programming. Therefore, your proposal needs to be simple enough for other students with their own strengths to come on board with you once they read it. One student may be strong in programming and good with the level design while another may feel more at home with composing sound effects and background music.
  •           Since SGP is a 4-8 month long college course, the idea must not be the next Doom, the next Final Fantasy, the next Metal Gear Solid, the next Call of Duty, or the next “whatever game became a multi-million dollar franchise.” Attempting to do that would be beyond a college student’s abilities to get the best quality work done on time, effectively causing stress and creating a negative sense of disillusionment. The project idea must be something that’s simple; simple enough for everyone on the team, yourself included, to turn that idea into a minimal viable product (a working game) within a 4-month time period. Now in order for that to be possible, it needs to play to each of your individual strengths and work around your limitations in other areas like I just discussed above. The simpler the idea, the easier it will be for a potential team to have a working prototype in the first 2-4 weeks.
  •           Another factor to consider when writing the proposal is to determine which third-party game development software, or game engine for simplicity’s sake, you think would be best suited to making your game once it gets approved. The one that you’d most likely use would probably the one that you are most familiar with; one that you have been learning to use more often than others. Of course, your potential teammates are sure to be more comfortable using their own choice of game engine rather than the one you are comfortable with. For example, one student may be comfortable using Unity while another might feel more accustomed to using GameMaker: Studio. Then again, that’s just assuming everyone on the team would be using the chosen software directly. As long as the art, sound, and level design can be implemented into your game, the game engine of your choosing should work well. But keep one thing in mind: once your team chooses a game engine, I would recommend sticking with it for the duration of the one-to-two semester project. During M.T.’s second SGP, the team he was on as a modeler had switched from GameMaker: Studio to Unity for a 2.5D platformer they were working on in the previous semester. The results of this transition were some small comical physics bugs that would launch the player off the map. M.T. wasn’t sure how long it took the programmer to resolve these issues which, in the end, didn’t impact the whole project. Of course, circumstances can vary between the first and second parts of the SGP. The team could be disbanded by the end of the first part because some members would be graduating from college. If the team still stuck together at the start of the 2nd part of the SGP but needed a replacement member, that new member may not be familiar with using the game engine that was being used in the 1st part. Depending upon the circumstances facing your team and the state of your project if it continues into the 2nd part of the SGP, switching from one game engine to another during the one-to-two-semester-long-SGP may not the best idea.
  •           When writing the proposal on paper to present to an audience, make sure to include the names of those whom you’ve managed to form a group with. Otherwise, it would sound like you’d be the only one working on the project if the only name the audience would see on the proposal is yours. You’d never know what the audience might be thinking when this happens. They might think you’re too ambitious; that your idea is too complicated; that it’s foolhardy to take such a feat solo, etc. Whatever the case, presenting the proposal as if done by you alone would defeat one of the core purposes of SGP: learning to work on a game project with others in a group as opposed to working on it solo.
  •           Be prepared for the proposed idea to be rejected by the student audience. It may come across as complicated, incomplete, and so on depending on how the proposal was written and presented. When that happens, the group is presented with two options: come up with something else or disband to join other groups. Should the group choose the first option, they could exchange new ideas while salvaging some aspects of the original. In my case with SGP I, I discussed options with A.M. and D.D., the two teammates who remained, and we ended up the idea of a platformer that would take cues from the early black and white silent films from the 1920s in terms of limited sound design and color palate. Shortly after bringing the new idea to the professor, our team got back into shape and started to work on our project. The new idea would not need a vote of approval.

When the work really begins

Having gotten past the proposal starting line, the real challenge of SGP would begin. In around 4 months, you and your group would have to present a working game (in game production terms, a minimum viable product) that would serve as a demonstration of everything you have learned about game design, development, and production up to that point. But the main goal of SGP is learning to work with others in a typical video game company scenario. So in a nutshell, the main forms of stress you and your team are likely to experience during that time are failures to communicate, not having the right tools for the job or not enough of them, struggles with time management, and being forced to deal with unexpected circumstances that would interrupt the project like a family emergency, overtime work at a job, and problems with getting assignments done for other courses. This might not paint a pretty picture in your mind, but there are ways in which to be prepared to meet, overcome, and work around those challenges as well as being better prepared for the unexpected. These include equal division of labor, effective communication, using various lists and planners to manage various tasks, getting those tasks done effectively, and giving yourself a break afterward.

Division of Labor

One of the most crucial goals in working with a game development team is learning how to do various tasks in a project in ways that are more manageable by each team member. One approach that we were taught at Becker is to have each team member set project goals to get done every two weeks and hold daily meetings in order to keep track of what’s being done, what aspects of the game are working, and where to go from there. This effectively takes a large project and divides it into manageable chunks. In more formal terms of game production, this is known as the agile (aka scrum) development cycle.

To put this in a more technical perspective, this process relies on incremental cycles of planning and implementation with the end goal of a potentially viable product. When applied to video game development, it would enable a team to iterate increasingly better prototype builds until reaching the minimal viable product which would be a fully functional and fun game. I would later learn that this approach would not exactly be viable in real life, but I’ll save that for another time.

While there are other ways of setting up a development cycle, it is important to note that you and your team stick to the roles you have all decided upon. It wouldn’t be good if anyone decides to deviate from their roles for whatever reason. You don’t want to have, for example, two team members working on two different game builds at the same time especially if the responsibility of putting together a build in the first place lies chiefly with the programmer. And it would also be a bad idea to have a level designer do playtests of the game which will especially be made even worse if he/she encountered a bug in the last few days till the final presentation. Simply put, don’t put your teammates into roles they didn’t sign up for in the first place at ANY time during your SGP. It’s just bad for the product you’re aiming to make.

Effective communication

How and when team members communicate with each other determines whether the overall communication succeeds or fails. You might be asking “Why don’t you just use email?” Well, it’s not really that simple. While it is true that email is a popular way of getting in touch with people, it’s not always reliable for every situation. Depending on how often one checks the email inbox, there’s no guarantee that the emails you’d be sending to your teammates will be read and replied to in a timely manner. That being said, there are other ways of keeping in touch besides emails. You can exchange phone numbers so you can talk with one another (either a cell phone or a landline phone will work, by the way). You can also have an online video conversation via Skype assuming you also have a webcam. There’s also text messaging to briefly exchange information and resources via Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype, Google+, and whatever messenger app you normally use on your mobile phone, desktop PC, or laptop. You can also use instant messaging for a bit more complex exchange of information and resources. One app that would be up to such a task would be Discord, designed for the gamer and game developer markets. To put this simply, it’s important that everyone within the team exchange email addresses, phone numbers, Skype IDs, Discord IDs, whatever contact information they can provide. It is also important that team members also use these various online communication methods to schedule face-to-face meetings somewhere around or off campus in order to clarify matters in person or even receive hands-on assistance with a difficult task. The key to effective communication is to establish various lines of communication-based on the methods that each team member is most accustomed to whether it’s on and off campus; online and offline. The more established the communication lines, the better it will be to get up to speed on the various tasks which in turn will get work done faster.

Time Management

Of course, being good at communication can only get so far as to establish what exactly needs to be done and if it can be done on time. That is where time management comes in. To be more specific, you and your team will have to determine what project tasks can be done quickly enough so as to be able to concentrate more on assignments and projects for other classes and vice versa. Say that you must get the following things done by the end of a week: draw up some art assets for the project, complete a set of problems for a math course, read a textbook chapter for a history course, and fill in a set of short answer questions for an online social studies course. To top it off, you have a two-day 8- hour work week at your part-time job at a local drug store. On a calendar, your work schedule may look like this:

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Work 3-7 PMWork 3-7 PM

 

Taking all of this into account, you might ask yourself, “What tasks should I get done first during the week?” Depending on your strengths, perhaps a better question would be, “Which tasks would I find easier to get done than the others?” To answer this question, I’ll be briefly going over a few tools that I learned in managing my various tasks during my final year at Becker. You could find the following to be useful in a senior game project and beyond:

1) Weekly/monthly planner

One way to manage your time is the use of a weekly/monthly planner booklet. With this, you can keep track of things like assignment deadlines, meeting schedules, which tasks to do today, etc. on a weekly basis. Now let’s say that for this week, your math assignment is due Wednesday morning, the deadline for your online short answer questions is five minutes till midnight on Thursday, and you’d need to have read the history textbook chapter as well as having your art assets ready for a basic prototype in your project by Friday afternoon. In a weekly planner, the deadline schedule would look like this:

Monday

Thursday

  • Social Studies 200: Short answer questions to be completed at 11:55 PM

Tuesday

Friday

  • World History 102: Finish reading chapter 3 of textbook
  • Have art assets ready for [Project name] prototype

Wednesday

Saturday

Sunday

  • Math 101: Chapter 4.2, Practice Exercises 1-40 due

 

Let’s assume that you are on a Saturday and that these deadlines were given to you the day before. That would give you a week to get these assignments done. Having what you have written down on the weekly planner in front of you would have you consider the best course of action to do so. You might spend your Saturday afternoon reading the assigned section of the math textbook before doing the practice exercises and writing paper drafts for the social studies short answer questions. You could also spend your Saturday evening making rough sketches for you project art assets and read your world history textbook before bed. If you managed to get the math and social studies assignments done by the start of Wednesday, you’d check those off indicating that they have been completed. You’d still have enough time to finish reading your world history textbook and have your art assets ready while still being able to check in at your part-time job. Broadly speaking, when you have written down assignments in your weekly planner in terms of deadline, you would be able to zero in on which ones to get done earliest depending on your subject proficiency.

2) To-do list

As you may have guessed, this is basically a list of various tasks that you would like, or rather need, to get done on any given day, with a few more added as it comes to mind. Typically, a to-do list would look something like this:

To-do list

  •            Buy groceries
  •            Walk the dog
  •            Vacuum the floor
  •            Prepare for dinner at around 4
  •            Replace ink cartridges for the printer

 

And when you complete a task, you’d cross it out and move on to the next one until all on the list are completed, which would go like this:

To-do list

  •            Buy groceries
  •            Walk the dog
  •            Vacuum the floor
  •            Prepare for dinner at around 4
  •            Replace ink cartridges for the printer

 

For my example, you might have a lot of other things you would like to get done for the month in addition to the current week. Your list might look like this:

To-do list

  •            Draw art assets for Project Something or Other
  •            Complete math problems
  •            Read Chapter 3 of World History textbook
  •            Fill in paragraph questions for Social Studies course
  •            Ask T.G. about art direction
  •            Watch cartoons for inspiration
  •            Practice drawing portraits
  •            Study for World History quiz on chapters 1-3
  •           Watch a documentary for Social Studies

 

Having a to-do list by itself is all well and good, but which tasks are the most important? Which ones can be easily done in a short amount of time? These questions would bring the next time management method into play.

3) ACT list

This is basically a to-do list restructured for the purpose of time management. More precisely, it is a list of tasks organized to determine which ones take the highest priority; what needs to be acted upon the most, if you will. An ACT list is organized into 3 groups of activities:

  • A-List Activities: Activities that absolutely must be completed immediately (today, tomorrow, the day after) or else there will be severe consequences.
  • C-List Activities: Activities that you could get done after completing the A-List activities.
  • T-List Activities: Activities that you could try to do after completing a majority of A-List and C-List activities.

Such a list for the example week that I made up might look something like this:

ACT list

A-List

  •            Complete math problems
  •            Draw art assets for Project Something or Other
  •           Fill in paragraph questions for Social Studies course

C-List

  •           Read Chapter 3 of World History textbook
  •            Practice drawing portraits
  •            Study for World History quiz on chapters 1-3
  •           Watch a documentary for Social Studies

T-List

  •            Ask T.G. about art direction
  •            Watch cartoons for inspiration

 

Now assume you completed most of the A-List tasks during the week, your classes gave you new assignments, you gave new tasks, and then you decided to check out a couple of video games for new ideas. The ACT list would then look like this:

ACT list

A-List

  •           Read Chapter 3 of World History textbook
  •            Study for World History quiz on chapters 1-3
  •            Make character sprites for Project Something or Other
  •            Watch a documentary for Social Studies

C-List

  •           Ask T.G. about art direction
  •           Practice drawing portraits
  •           Read Chapter 4 of World History textbook

T-List

  •            Watch cartoons for inspiration
  •           Check out a few shmup games for project ideas

 

By concentrating your efforts on completing the tasks in the A-List, you would be able to commit yourself to a couple of C-List tasks. You might even be able to spend a little bit of time working on a T-List task or two. Keep in mind that you would have to adjust the ACT list on a weekly basis as you complete tasks and add new ones. Since it’s very likely that you’ll end up having to do various other things besides your SGP in your final semester in college, having an ACT list on hand would enable you to get through it a bit more easily.

Effectively Getting Tasks Done…

The weekly planner, to-do list, and the ACT list are just a few of the many tools that can aid you in getting your various tasks for your SGP done effectively. The first thing you’ll need to do is to minimize distractions in order to increase your concentration. If listening to your favorite music makes you feel good when doing your tasks, go for it. If having your air conditioner running makes it easier for you to do them on a hot day, that’s fine too. But you shouldn’t have too many things going on at once as that would cause you to lose focus. Preventing the loss of focus calls for the reduction and/or elimination of the various causes of distractions. You may need to, for example, close any and all doors or windows in the room you would be doing your tasks in. That’s because someone or something may generate noise from adjacent rooms, stairways, in the yard, or on the street. Someone may be watching TV in the room just beneath you with the volume a little high or using a lawn mower to cut grass outside. You might also consider wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones if having the doors and windows closed is not enough.

It would also be advisable to disengage from any regular activities you would normally have with yourself or your friends, online and offline. To increase your focus in the digital landscape, you should avoid signing in to your social media and email accounts for a while. You should also leave your mobile phone off and indicate in your Discord or Skype account that you are busy. Having the phone ring or a notification pop up while working on your tasks for your SGP would most certainly disrupt your workflow.

Depending on how many courses you are taking during your final semester in addition to the SGP, your schedule is bound to be tight. Using your time management tools such as the ones I covered as guides on a weekly basis, you will need to make sure you get some of your other tasks besides the SGP, like assignments for other courses, out of the way (among other things, of course). Based on your strengths in various subjects, you should especially complete the simplest assignments first before taking on the more complex ones. If you put those off, they are bound to pile up as a few more assignments you’re your other courses get added, making your ability to get things done more difficult than necessary. Think about it this way: the most effective way to wipe away a stain from a surface is to do it while it’s still fresh. By applying that mindset to the tasks in your final semester, you should get the easiest assignments done as early as possible so you would be able to spend more time on your SGP project tasks. That should make the development process of your team’s game flow considerably faster.

But even the most well laid-out plans can be subject to change due to various factors beyond your control. You may find a task to be more difficult than anticipated. A team member may not reply to your email or return your phone call fast enough if you are having an urgent issue with one of your tasks. You or a team member may get an urgent call because of a family emergency. Perhaps you or someone is making upgrades to their PC but forgot to notify the rest of the team. Your computer might experience a technical problem that causes your data to become inaccessible at best and lost at worse. Maybe you might find yourself covering another shift or working overtime in your job. It is also likely that the college may be forced to close campus and cancel regular classes and events due to an emergency. The fact of the matter is that you are likely to find yourself confronted with outside variables that would interfere with your SGP like the scenarios I just described. So you and your team would have to make adjustments and changes to your weekly plans. Depending on those changes, you may be forced to cancel adding some assets and features to your game or even remove them outright. That would result in the final product being different than the original vision for better or for worse. So in order to be prepared for the unexpected, you’ll need to 1) save and backup your work on a regular basis, 2) stay in touch with your teammates at all times, 3) adjust your plans according to the situation, and 4) cut some losses in your project.

There is one more thing to consider when it comes to getting the final working build of your team’s game based on your collective knowledge. You may find yourself faced with a situation in which the knowledge you have gained from the professor’s lecture, the assignments, and the assigned textbooks is not cutting it. Perhaps your player character is not transitioning between levels smoothly. Maybe something doesn’t look quite right with your 2D animated sprite that you drew in, say, a pixel-based art style. In situations such as these, you would need to expand your knowledge in your chosen field outside the college setting. Obviously, the quickest way to do that would be to type “something-something-something tutorial” in your chosen Internet search engine.

There is an ocean of tutorials on a variety of subjects related to game design, development, and production in the form of articles, YouTube videos, and forum posts. Once you find the tutorials relevant to your dilemma, make sure you add them to your schedule and to-do-list. That way, you’ll be able to go over them without losing track of getting your other assignments done. In addition to finding working solutions to your problems, you may end up learning additional software features that would not be covered in the lectures. In my experience, I learned about a feature in GameMaker: Studio in which checking on ‘persistent’ in the room editor can enable data preservation when transitioning between rooms. I learned this feature (largely unknown as far as my whole team was concerned) the night before the final presentation for SGP I when things have gotten desperate upon encountering a last-minute bug. The moral of that story: expand your knowledge outside of college as early as possible. It can reduce the frequency of glitches and bugs in your game as well as save the trouble of looking for solutions at the last minute.

…And Giving Yourself a Break Afterwards

Perhaps the only thing that is just as important as completing your SGP is to not spend every single waking second on it. What I mean by that is to take a few short breaks when you complete your weekly tasks. How you use those breaks to unwind is entirely up to you. You can treat yourself to a refreshing drink, snack, or meal. You could also reward yourself to your favorite activity like reading a book or playing your favorite video game (as long as the former doesn’t contain a frustrating design flaw like an overpowered boss in a fighting game that just basically obliterates you by tossing all of the game’s rules out the window). Then there’s also hanging out with your friends. All of that seems obvious enough to relieve the stress of your SGP labors. But there are more ways of doing so as my time in the stress management class showed me. For example, there’s basic eating and drinking; and there’s mindful eating and drinking. To mindfully eat and drink is to slowly engage in moment-to-moment awareness of how you take your utensil, snack piece, cup, or glass in your hand, bring it up to your mouth, since the aroma with your nose, take in the texture and flavor as you chew and swallow the food and sip the drink, put your hand down, and repeat the process.

In addition to mindful eating and drinking, there are various stress-relieving exercises involving breathing, meditation, and physical fitness. Sure, anybody can take deep breaths and breathe in through their noses and out through their mouths. But contrary to common knowledge, there are various techniques for breathing. One example is the “count-to-4-inhale-count-to-4-exhale” trick featured in Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot of the famous FPS series by Bethesda. Then there’s diaphragmatic breathing, a deep-breathing technique that uses the diaphragm, a muscular dome that separates the chest from the abdomen, to assist in completely filling the lungs from the bottom up. Another breathing technique comes in the form of pranayama (a Sanskrit word for breath control). Originating from yoga, pranayama comes in many different forms, all of which focuses on breathing in four phases each of which is timed differently: inhalation, holding the breath, exhalation, and pausing after exhalation. Depending on what breathing exercises work best for you, you should be able to ease the tension you may experience when doing a difficult task such as writing up a few blocks of code and looking out for game-breaking bugs.

Originating in the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, meditation is the intentional process of deepening your attention and awareness by focusing on one thing in the present moment resulting in a relaxed state of being and inner peace. The focal point can be anything you choose to pay full attention to. It can be your breath, a word or a phrase, sound, or even walking. Like breathing, there are various forms of meditation, like transcendental meditation, the relaxation response, yoga, and Tai Chi. Whatever focal point or form you choose, the point of meditation is to relax your body and clear your mind. Once you obtain a relaxed body and a clear mind, you can resume your schedule and duties without much hassle.

Sometimes, pure physical exercises can be just as effective as breathing and meditating once you put your mind to it. Push-ups and sit-ups are a start. Other physical exercises consist of stretches, squats, and weight lifting. If you can afford a gym membership or martial arts lessons, go for it. If your household has some exercise equipment lying around like a treadmill or an exercise bike, you can use that, too. How you choose to approach physical fitness largely depends on the resources you have at your disposal. It can also depend on what sort of physical education you went through in your K-12 school years. As long as you don’t push yourself too hard in physical exercises, you can get yourself in shape in addition to getting relieved of stress.

Summary

A Senior Game Project in your college video game curriculum should not be viewed as a course but as a 4-8 month long test of your knowledge of game development, design, and production with the end result being a working game; a sort of thesis which can be played instead of reading. The test itself is structured to simulate a typical workplace environment for when students get a formal job at a video game company. They are challenged to communicate and work with a team, make use of their available resources to solve problems, manage their time efficiently, adapt to various situations, and make plans accordingly. Meeting those challenges, combined with additional courses in the schedule and other various obligations, can be stressful. The sort of stress you may experience can also depend on how many friends you have on campus, whether or not you have a disability that makes social interaction difficult (like the one I have), your habits, your income, and what communication devices and services you use.

There are several tools and methods designed to help manage this stress. Of course, different people do experience stress differently. Therefore, different students enrolled in an SGP-type course are bound to have their own circumstances that cause them stress. This fact, combined with my own experience with the two SGPs at Becker College, is the reason why I’m writing this article in the first place. If you are a college junior planning to enroll in a Senior Game Project next year, then this article may serve as a starting point in preparing to deal with the stress that will come with it. Once you have a stress management plan in place, you can have a solid start in the SGP with a presentable plan and a team. From that point on, the quality of your SGP team’s game lies in everyone’s ability to successfully communicate. After all, one of the worst parts about being on a team is to have a failure to communicate.

Do you have your own ways of dealing with the stress of a video game college course similar to Senior Game Project? Feel free to mention them in the comments below.

 

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Tim Heard

I am an aspiring game designer with a Bachelor's Degree in Game Design who is a gamer at heart. I have Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism which causes me to learn differently than other people and makes social interaction difficult for me. As a gamer for around two decades, I play a variety of genres including but not limited to first-person shooters (FPSs), fighting games, action adventures, platformers, Western and Japanese role-playing games (RPGs), hack-and-slash, and survival horror. I'm also open to playing other genres like point-and-click adventures, visual novels, and multiplayer games. When not playing video games, I engage in other hobbies:1) Watching movies, anime, and old '90s cartoons.2) Reading books such as Japanese manga, Western comic books, classic literature, and non-fiction books concerning science, religion, and history.3) Listening to music such as rock, hip-hop, J-Pop, heavy metal, and video game soundtracks.

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