By Douglas Esser
The Digital Future Lab’s showing during a video game convention in Seattle was a milestone for the studio and for the University of Washington Bothell students who demonstrated their work, says DFL executive director Jason Pace.
This was the only university studio at an open house on the Microsoft campus before PAX, the convention that brought tens of thousands of gamers to Seattle over the Labor Day weekend. And, DFL was the only university studio with a commercial title showing at the Seattle Indies Expo.
Students demonstrated their work side-by-side with 50 professional independent studios from around the world at the Microsoft event and alongside 25 local professional studios at the Indies Expo, Pace says.
“The PAX events were excellent validation that the interactive experiences our students are creating can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with work being produced by professional independent studios,” Pace says.
“Our students were able to meet the other developers and designers at the events as industry peers.”
Student interns showcased “Ghostlight Manor,” which has evolved over three years to become a 56-level video game that professionals can appreciate. Inspired by monster movies and arcade strategy classics, the all-ages game challenges players to reclaim a haunted mansion by scaring away monsters.
“We had lines of people waiting to play all day,” says Pace.
The game was popular with cartoon-loving kids and parents who welcomed the family friendly experience.
“Several people would have happily played the entire game in a single sitting had we not gently encouraged them to let other players take a turn!” says Pace.
The convention events also were an opportunity for students to face the public as potential customers.
“Although the products we're making in the studio are video games, the process of making, promoting and supporting the software is applicable to any kind of commercial product,” Pace says.
Under the guidance of Pace and a small professional staff, DFL students design and program games. They create art, graphics and animation. And, they are responsible for product management and marketing. The process is carried forward class by class, quarter by quarter as students are succeeded by newcomers with fresh ideas.
“That’s had a really profound impact on the kind of experience we’ve designed – our ability to iterate over time and refine and improve and evolve it along,” says Pace who also is the lab’s creative director and previously worked at Microsoft.
Few universities operate a student design studio that develops games for commercial release. The DFL is currently developing a computer version of “Ghostlight Manor,” which was originally released for mobile devices. It’s going on the Steam platform for online distribution and being prepared as a Windows 10 app that integrates with Xbox Live.
The lab’s second game, “Corrupted,” is scheduled for release next year. A third game, “Hug the Line,” is beginning production.
“Our amazingly diverse student population coupled with UW Bothell's commitment to interdisciplinary learning is the ideal place for this work to flourish at the undergraduate level,” Pace says. “DFL interns come from many different majors and contribute to our projects in many different ways, but what they all have in common is the opportunity to explore and develop their professional identities in a rigorous environment that treats diversity and difference as our biggest strength.”