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From shoot-’em-up to serious, video games and designers evolve

Jared Brown sat at his laptop screen, creating a video game. But it wasn’t a game for kids. It was a game designed for a health awareness campaign targeting testicular cancer.

Brown, a Canisius College senior sat shoeless as he programmed controller functions at Buffalo Game Space, a video game development center at Tri-Main on Main Street. He is spending the summer on a work-study project re-creating the health awareness game from scratch, after his first-place finish in a recent serious game design competition sponsored by the City of Buffalo.

“I’m getting it to work in a smart phone format,” Brown said. “Exploring the characters identifies the group at risk. The symptoms will be conveyed through the game.”

Brown, from Lancaster, is among a small local community of video-game developers working with area colleges, art galleries and even the City of Buffalo to churn out independently released video games.

While some games are whimsical, many games are serious, and they can take you to the south of France to meet artist Vincent van Gogh or help you make smart life decisions or choose a career. And yes, video games can even warn you about the risks of testicular cancer.

“Video games are not to be dismissed as playthings. There are some serious subjects to be tackled,” said Przemyslaw Moskal, associate professor and director of the digital arts program at Canisius College. “We’re moving away from the traditional 17-year-old kid locked in a basement playing a first-person shoot-em-up game.”

The popularity of video games is staggering, with American consumers spending $22.41 billion on games last year. The Entertainment Software Association recently released a study based on a survey of 4,000 American households about gaming habits and attitudes.

The survey found the average video game player to be 35 years old. In addition, 26 percent of the gamers are younger than 18, while 27 percent are over 50. Fifty-six percent of players are male.

And Brown’s game addresses a disease that afflicts young men between the ages of 15 and 40. That is roughly same demographic group as the 155 million people in this country who regularly play video games.

And that is where Buffalo Game Space comes in. The game development center was founded in April last year with office space in a golf dome. A Kickstarter campaign raised $40,000, which resulted in a move to its current suite of offices in the Tri-Main building. The non-profit organization provides support and resources for artists, musicians and programmers to collaborate on game projects.

And some of the games are serious, like Brown’s.

The process of creating a video game involves many skills, said John Futscher, founder of Buffalo Game Space said.

“A lot of places don’t necessarily know it’s happening and take it as seriously as they should,” he said.

It takes many different skills to create a video game. You need art, music, sound, game design, user interface (that is placing information and symbols on a computer screen so they make sense).

Game jams are part of the culture for those developing video games. The brain-storming sessions generally occur over a 48-hour span, typically on the weekend. The goal is to leave with a prototype.

“An amazing by-product of the rise in mobile gaming popularity is the emergence of independently released games,” said Big Fish, an online video game data base. “These games are often beautifully illustrated, clever, innovative and fun. The dream of starting a tiny game studio with two or three founders seems more feasible than ever to ambitious dreamers.”

Meet-ups held regularly at Buffalo Game Space allow gamers to share ideas and develop a sense of community.

Audrey Mulhisen is 20 years old. A digital media arts major, Mulhisen would like to pursue web design.

“I do a lot of graphic design, art work, and I work a lot on games, but I kind of wanted to get into web design,” she said. “It’s all very transferable.”

The Colden resident was working in Buffalo Game Space on controller design for “Art Invaders,” a video game created for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Art Invaders played off the popular Space Invaders of the ‘80s. During a recent Albright-Knox event, people were invited to play Art Invaders outdoors using a screen projected on an exterior wall of the gallery.

Russell Davidson works at the gallery as its Innovation Lab director. He reached out to Buffalo Game Space to collaborate on Art Invaders. Davidson described Buffalo’s budding video game development community.

“It’s a very nascent but a growing niche in our area, very much in its infancy,” Davidson said. “You’re surprised by the level of its sophistication and talent here.”

ArtGames 2.0 is the gallery’s recently released serious game that hopes to engage ’tweens in eight of the artworks on display. The two-year development effort involved Daemen College International Center for Excellence in Animation, Empire Visual Effects and All Things Media of Mahwah, N.J.

Artistic manager for the project was Joe Lin-Hill, deputy director of Albright-Knox. ArtGames 2.0 is available for download free at the Apple App store. Thirty people collaborated on ArtGames 2.0, which includes the art of van Gogh, Clyfford Still and Wassily Kandinsky, Davidson said.

“We had to find a way to get the kids interested in artwork by playing games,” Davidson said. “Museum games, as a rule, had always been text heavy, and kids didn’t read it. You need to keep it fresh. Already we are looking to update it.”

Many organizations – commercial, medical, military – use game-based scenarios to show people how to perform jobs in a range of settings.

The second-place game in Buffalo’s design competition offered a virtual career fest that allowed players to complete various job tasks. It was created by Libram Games, an independent game studio established in 2013 by Bill Stewart and Dan Griggs. The studio’s first project – YOFi Delivers – is a puzzle slider game based on the classic jigsaw puzzle.

“Game development is attainable in Buffalo,” Futscher said. Many people may be interested but they don’t know where to begin. They will be the people three or four years down the road running their own companies and launching their own apps or driving a tech sector in Buffalo that’s only just started to spring up.”