This week Joel Jonientz, a colleague of mine from the Department of Art and Design, rolled out one of the coolest projects that I’ve seen from our humble little campus here in The Grand Forks. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of Rhythm Planet, his student-developed video game. He is looking for $31,700 to complete the game and all of this money (minus Kickstarter’s fees) will go to paying students to produce the game and contributor rewards. Joel is blogging about the Kickstarter process at his blog. In short, the way it works is that Joel and his students get nothing unless the project meets its goal. That means, you will not get charged unless the project raises $31,700.
The project is cool for many reasons. First, Joel has been a staunch supporter of my little adventures, so there is a kind of reciprocity here. He designed the amazing Punk Archaeology poster and will hopefully accompany my team West to Williston this August as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.
That’s the not the main reason the project is cool, though. I am fascinated with what I call (to myself) “the project-focused classroom” and Joel created a class that developed the first draft of a video game. I am equally fascinated with the idea that a class can begin something that then gets crowd-funded. The comforting classroom environment moves seamlessly into the world of entrepreneurship, marketing, and real deadlines.
We have entered the age of crowd-funded higher education. I keep envisioning a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Class) that is made up of interested students who are also the investors in a project. The scale of some recent MOOCs, which can run to the tens of thousands of participants, would mean that individual investments could be tiny (<$5) for the project director (previously known as the instructor) to raise a significant amount of capital. When the project is complete, participants would become either shareholders or simply receive a copy of the final product. The curriculum of the course would lead the group from conceptualization to completion over a course of 3 months. Imagine a magazine crowdsourced, crowd-funded, and published in this way?
Enough of my indulgent fantasies of egalitarian, crowd-sourced utopias. To support his amazing Kickstarter project, I sat down with Joel (over email, of course) and discussed his Rhythm Planet. This is part one of the interview:
Bill Caraher: Can you explain the origins of this project?
Joel Jonientz: When I first arrived at the University of North Dakota, I was encouraged to remake the Time-Based Media program to better reflect student interests and bring the curriculum forward into the 21st century. Part of that process involved listening and responding to student needs, and one of the things students asked for again and again was a class in game design. This was right around the time I became involved with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. The group had acquired a space on campus and some very specialized equipment that would allow for a diverse group of students and faculty to collaborate on multimodal projects such as a video game.
I approached the students who had shown interest game development and with them began to recruit other students to the project that would become Rhythm Planet. Once we had about a dozen students with the skill sets we were looking for, it was simply a matter of fitting the project into my teaching load by creating a special topics course so that they could earn credits for what would be a semester of experiential learning. At the time we began, I had no idea what we could accomplish, and I did not envision that we would create a game that would still be in development three years later.
BC: How did the Working Group in Digital and New Media serve as a catalyst for this project?
JJ: When we first envisioned the Working Group, it was as a space in which faculty and students could collaborate on research projects that pushed the boundaries of traditional classroom instruction. Because of the interdisciplinary makeup of the Working Group, I was able to reach out to students who I otherwise would not have known and involve them in the development of Rhythm Planet. The Working Group’s Laboratory Space was instrumental in game’s development in the way the team was able to work together. All of the sound and visual assets in the game were created in the lab and the space made it possible for the students to meet, test, and make changes to the game in real time.
BC: So did the physical space of the Working Group lab help the team collaborate to create the first iteration of this game?
JJ: Working collaboratively is always challenging. The key to developing Rhythm Planet was enabling honest dialogue between groups and avoiding distraction. Each week, we would meet as a large group discuss timelines and then split into three separate teams. One group worked on the gaming engine and programming. The second group created visual assets and character animations. The final group created the soundtrack. For the most part, the students in the first cohort were self-starters. There were multiple points in the process where one team’s mission became subservient to another. The programmers could not begin working out the game engine without assets from the artists, who in turn could not build out the zones without the puzzles from the level designers etc. The worst thing that could have happened during the process would have been one group sitting around waiting on another. Down time is the enemy of a good working environment.
BC: It seems like you had a pretty impressive workflow at play from the start. Are there any lessons we can all learn about teaching from the game design process? It seems like this game project illustrates some of the limits of the single class or even course based design model. You needed more time.
JJ: Because I had never created a game before, I was often forced into a position where I had to answer a question with “I don’t know.” As a young professor this sentence had not previously been one I was used to uttering. I am in many ways being paid for my expertise and not knowing was an aspect of teaching I was uncomfortable with. In this particular case, I was wholly unprepared for most of the questions being asked of me and so I was forced to admit my ignorance on the subject. What developed out of this was a transparency in the learning process that I had not encountered before in my own teaching. When confronted with a question I made not knowing a teachable experience. “Let’s learn this together,” and “Here is how I would go about finding the answer,” became phrases I uttered daily and continue to use in my teaching today. There is no shame in not knowing a thing and virtue in making your research process transparent. This is the lesson I took from the process.
BC: What will the Kickstarter fund? How will the final product be better than the existing game? What can players expect in the later levels?
JJ: The Kickstarter campaign will fund the completion of the game. Rhythm Planet as it exists today is a collection assets waiting to be made whole. Throughout its development, we have been able to put enough pieces together to test the concept and play a level or two, but we want to get to the point in which we could send the entire game out for a beta test. This Kickstarter will allow us to put together the first three zones totaling fifteen levels. The number of assets we have created through the three iterations of the gaming class would allow us to double the games size over time, but for now we have set our sites on finishing the work of the original group.