As expected, fall was intense. It’s a little hard to judge teaching loads, as classes with the same number of units can have wildly different time requirements. I’d guess that my teaching fall load was something like 130%. At least, that’s what it felt like.
This rather large teaching load meant that there was no time for game development. While I’m a bit sad about the lack of progress on Go Extinct! and DROMP, the focus on teaching was clearly the right choice. Students deserve respect and focus. And I confess that even with all of my attention on the teaching, there were days when I faltered, and simply couldn’t do all the things that needed doing. Fortunately, all the mistakes were recoverable, and the semester ended on a positive note.
What, then is the news? I’m glad you asked. You can find it below, prefaced by some bigger picture musings.
The Purpose of Patreon
Patreon is intended for creators that produce episodic media for their patrons - cartoons, podcasts, very small games, etc. That’s never been who I am or what I do. For the most part, I’ve chosen larger projects. Things that take months to years to get to a playable state. Those larger projects are where I see the most potential for satisfying creative work. They are also where I think we can find the greatest opportunity for impact.
These larger-scale projects serve deserving communities, but only indirectly serve patrons on Patreon. For the most part, with Patreon, I’m asking folks to contribute money in the confidence that it will help others. Not us, but others.
Helping others happens.
- Sprout: Is free on Steam, though the process of development and publishing took nearly 200 hours of my time. As of today, it has been played by 68,729 people. All of those people now know a little more botany than when they started. Patreon helps make this possible.
- Teaching: Is rewarding and important, but never fully funded. I regularly spend small bits of money, out-of-pocket, on classroom materials. I also regularly spend moderate bits of time, out-of-pocket, on planning and on support. Sometimes, when I get home, I’m so tired I can’t handle cooking. So I order a pizza. Patreon helps fund classroom materials and pizza, both of which are necessary for teaching.
- Academic things: I wrote a chapter for Learning, Education & Games, Volume 3: 100 Games to Use in the Classroom (free digital download). That book has now been downloaded 100K times. The next volume is just now getting underway, and one of my chapter proposals has been accepted. This means I’ll be writing another short chapter in the next few months. Patreon helps make this work too.
What hasn’t happened is much direct appreciation of Patrons. The original plan of regular updates and physical rewards has stalled. This isn’t in keeping with the spirit of Patreon, but it is a practical necessity. I’ve updated the tiers on Patreon to reflect this new reality.
My hope is that, this summer, I’ll be able to re-engage with game development and the broader world. Perhaps begin mailing physical rewards again, and maybe doing some online Q&A sessions on Patreon. In this way, Patreon will become a little more episodically rewarding. Some months, the focus will be on serving the world - teaching, writing, developing. Some months, there will be time to build community. We shall see. That will be the goal.
Game is Software
The ArtCenter Game Design program has a sequence of five Unity classes. Their purpose is to give students a foundation in computer science and Unity. At the end of the sequence, students should be able to build rough digital prototypes of their ideas, and be able to capably interact with more technical teammates.
The first class in the sequence is called Game is Software. Last summer, the teacher for GiS stepped down, and I volunteered to step in. This is a good thing. He was a good programmer, but not a good curriculum designer, and you need a good curriculum if you want to teach computer science to art students.
Last fall, I redesigned the class from bottom to top and start to finish. I rewrote the official course learning objectives and the formal weekly plan. I created slideshows and lecture notes and demo projects and weekly assignments and exams. I reviewed student work in detail, wrote feedback, and made myself available for tech support via email and Zoom. It was a lot. And I think it turned out reasonably well. I’ll call it GiS vT.1. The “T” stands for Tim. Hopefully, I’m not tempting fate with that arrogance.
The new curriculum takes a Unity-first approach. In the first third of the class, we used the Unity Playground toolkit to create 2D games based on physics, collisions, and simple collision-based interactions. This allowed students to get a feel for the Unity editor, and for foundational Unity concepts (GameObjects, Components, Transforms, Colliders, etc.). Because how can you write code for a system if you don’t understand what the system is? You can’t. So we started by learning the basics of the system, the basics of the Unity game engine.
In the middle third of the class, I helped students through a whirlwind introduction to C# and the Unity API, with a hard focus on variables. When teaching later classes in the sequence, I had found that lots of people struggled with the abstraction required by variables. How fast is that car? It’s not going 10mph or 20 mph, it’s going v mph. The velocity of that car is stored in a digital box named v, and the number in that box is constantly changing. Somehow, your code needs to be able to handle that uncertainty. Your code needs to have rules for how to handle all of the different numbers that could potentially be in the box, whatever they may be. Which can be hard.
The final third of the class was an open-ended 2D game project. Overall, I was impressed with this crew. Their concepts were hugely varied, and most people pulled off solid wins with their development work.
The class was not without flaw, for this was only the first iteration of the new curriculum. The programming section was a little rushed. And the second exam was a little bland. On the positive side of things, the class was usefully informed by my experiences with later classes in the sequence. I know what sophomore students struggled with, and so I made sure that this freshman class spent a lot of time on those issues. In the end, people learned stuff, on Zoom, during covid. This is a win, and a credit to the students. Therefore, I count this time as well-spent.
During the winter holidays, I took a four day camping trip to Death Valley. It was my second time visiting. The weather was wild. There was rain, wind, below-freezing temperatures, and nicely sunny afternoons.
There was also quiet. Time and space for my mind to settle. It was only a short trip, but it helped.
That’s me, in Death Valley, in the photo.
At my lovely little middle school, I taught classes in environmental science, chain mail, and Popsicle Engineering. All were challenging; all required significant prep and planning; and all were worthwhile.
I’m most proud of the Popsicle Engineering class. In the first two weeks, student teams created their own construction sets by drilling holes in popsicle sticks. I then tasked them with a sequence of physical challenges, each of which had some sort of “secret ingredient.” It was like Iron Chef, but with popsicle sticks and stuffed animals and an apocalyptic doom that only we could prevent.
As motivation for the challenges, I constructed a ridiculously unbelievable narrative arc based on Slothapotamous Rex - the ancient jungle god of napping. Having been woken one too many times by humans, he had decided to wipe us from the face of the planet. Horrors! Only we could stop him.
For many of our class meetings, I created a short deck of Powerpoint slides. The images both advanced the plot and offered photos of real-world structures that students could learn from. In the final meeting, the slide deck consisted of a single badly animated slide, on loop. One of my students walked in, laughed at the loop, and said, “That’s some quality CG animation.” Apparently, I succeeded in making something so bad it was good. I’ve rarely felt so proud.
The Near Future
The spring semester will again be more-than-full with teaching responsibilities: class prep, instructional time, tech support, moving furniture, playing games, troubleshooting code, office hours, and generally trying to help people grow forwards during these divisive covid times.
In March, I’ll take a short sidetrip into writing. Spring break should be just long enough for me to write my chapter for LEG 4: 50 Games for Inclusion, Equity, and Justice.
Come June, I plan to take a week or two to recover, then return to work on Go Extinct, the App. I think that one more summer of solid work should get us to a late beta. With some luck, we may even be able to publish 1.0 before summer’s end. But I want to be careful not to count our apps before they hatch. Either way, progress will be made.
The world keeps getting harder. Some days, I think fondly of the year I worked at JPL. My job required only forty hours per week, and yet it paid enough that I could not only do everything I wanted, but also stash a third of my paycheck into savings and retirement funds. These days, I just barely squeak by. But I also feel like I matter more. It’s a strange and swirly mix of feelings.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be positive. Yet the evidence is positive. Squeak happens. Not every day brings forward progress, but on average, forward happens - with the help of friends, family, students, mentors, strangers, and you.