Future game-makers test their skills at Ann Arbor summer camp
By Michael H. Hodges
Remember this: In a world where computers run everything, nerds rule.
So you might think the 31 kids glued to glowing screens last week at the Ann Arborsummer camp run by iD Tech, a company out of California’s Silicon Valley, were just a bunch of campers who prefer computers to campfires. But you would be wrong.
These are future masters of the universe, acquiring sophisticated programming skills in video-game design with Flash and Maya animation and other programs that most adults who design games don’t get under their belts until they hit college or the professional world.
The campers wore their nerdiness with a cheerful swagger.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely a nerd,” said Alex Eichner, 15, a camper from Alexandria, Va. “No doubt about it.”
The week-long program was one of seven iD Tech sponsored this summer at the University of Michigan, as well as at other universities around the country. The last U-M session begins Sunday and winds up Aug. 8. Spots are still available. (See box, 2C.)
Last week, all the campers happened to be boys. Camp officials say most courses generally attract a few girls, at least, though they concede — video games being something of a male province — that they’re outnumbered.
This digital world comes with its own rarefied geek vocabulary — anyone over 30 might want to bring a translator. “Modders” modify existing games to their specifications, “actionscripting” or coding the landscape with “doodads” or “static mesh” — both terms for the physical details like cars, lamps or rocks that make a virtual world look realistic, all of which has to be painstakingly programmed.
For his part, Eichner was mapping the layout and geography for a “Warcraft 3″ video game he’s adapting to loosely resemble Capture the Flag.
“I’m making the heroes,” he said, while two of his teenage colleagues nearby worked on other details.
“It’s a lot of work,” Eichner said. “I have to tell the program how strong the heroes are and define aspects of their power. Are they fast? Do they fight up front with a sword? Do they have magic abilities?
“Then I have to balance them,” he added, “so they’re evenly matched.”
Lead instructor Finn Haverkamp, 23, said he majored in creative writing in college and acquired most of his computer skills on his own.
But he stressed the similarity between game design and the writing process — a lesson he passed along to the campers.
“Writing,” he said, with a nod to Eichner’s labors, “is all about revision. And game design is like that.”
Camp director Micki Woodford, 35, said this year iD Tech leaned on kids to come up with strong plots for their games and characters.
“The writing was really emphasized in our training,” she said. “Every camper has to submit a storyline in writing before we start making characters.”
Eichner was working in a 2-D universe — essentially designing games that bear some resemblance to the old Mario Brothers, where two characters compete or duke it out on screen.
In a nearby room, 13-year-old Adam Alpert from Farmington Hills was busy modifying “Half-Life,” a hugely popular 3-D game that puts the player right in the middle of the action.
It’s a “first-person shooter” game — meaning the player appears to move around just like in real life, seeing the world through his eyes. (That’s what they mean by “3-D.” No funny glasses are involved, and the computer images themselves are not three-dimensional.)
But as in real life, you don’t see your whole body because your eyes can’t take all of it in. Instead, in Alpert’s game, the shooter’s arms and hands are visible at the start, just as they would be when we look down.
It is, as he acknowledged with a grin full of braces, a “blood-and-guts game” where bad guys’ heads explode in a shower of red when you hit them. So it’s no surprise that iD Tech restricts enrollment in 3-D design to 13 years old and older.
In Alpert’s virtual universe, the player starts in a house.
“You want to get out the door,” he said, “but it’s blocked. So you get a crowbar, break the window, and from there you pretty much go into the city, passing downed houses, wrecked cars and burnt-out stuff.
“But, I haven’t got that far.”
He’d have to hurry. He had only three more days before the end of camp.
iD Tech camps
Got a computer whiz who’d like to polish her or his skills? There are still openings for the last week of high-tech computer design camp at the University of Michigan run by iD Tech.
Ages: 7 to 17; 3-D design classes limited to 13 and older
Cost: $779: one-week day camper; $1,249: one-week overnight camper
More information: Call (888) 709-8324 or visit www.internaldrive.com
email@example.com (313) 222-6021
July 27th, 2010