Playmakers

Want to design video games? SMU's Guildhall can show you how, if you're willing to work like a dog.

For Levy, graduating will put him one step closer to creating the game he feels he's destined to make. For Murray, it's simply the work he enjoys: He takes the programmer's code and the artist's drawings and makes a world out of them, putting trees here, villages there, deciding if the main character should, say, jump over a tar pit, and if he should jump over the tar pit, should he use jungle vine to get across or a rope or just hop over the thing.

"I love what I'm doing," Murray says.

But he's ready, as is Levy, to be done with Guildhall. The workloads and deadlines--Murray's schedule kept his and Katy's honeymoon this summer to one day--are causing more stress than his previous career. "This is a lot more work than being a lawyer," he says.

Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest

Sometimes, to feel better, or just feel something else, Murray leaves team meetings, walks to his car, closes the door and screams till he's ready to go back inside.


In the beginning, there were freelancers. That's how you broke into the gaming industry: You programmed or shaded trees or designed levels when you weren't working as a software technician, an engineer or even a lawyer. The problem with some freelancers, though, once gaming studios hired them, was the growing phase. Or, better put, the metamorphosis from freelancer to industry man.

For one, there's the studios' team-approach to game assembly. But even more than that, there's the pace of video game production. More gaming studios means more competition, which means tighter deadlines to put out even more games, which, you hope, will maintain your chunk of the buying market.

One would assume the metamorphosis is complete once the former freelancer works quicker. But that's not quite it. The Guildhall found, after asking around, that many former freelancers have more trouble scaling their ambitions to reality. They want to impress the boss, so they set to work on their wildly imaginative ideas, but when deadline approaches, they're too far behind to care. If they can't learn to scale back, they often quit.

"We've tried to simulate this scoping experience," says Jon Skinner, a level-design lecturer at the Guildhall.

In the second term at the Guildhall--the second six months of the 18-month program--students for the first time make a video game as a team. There's no outside influence over the game's plot, its characters or the different levels it incorporates. There are only the students' wildly imaginative ideas.

And on the second floor of the Guildhall on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Drew Murray's metamorphosis continues.

"We're way behind schedule," he says. There's stubble on his chin and deep shadows beneath his eyes, which remain fixed on the world he's creating on his laptop, a vaguely jungle-esque land in which his game's main character will eventually travel about with a spiked ball and chain and kill the cannibals attempting to eat him.

There's a major presentation this Thursday before Guildhall professors and executive director Raad. With the game as it is, "honestly, I just hope we don't get laughed at," Murray says.

The game's been cut from seven levels to three; actually, it's more like two and a half. Murray became the team producer--delegating tasks, keeping everyone on schedule, troubleshooting--a month ago after the last major presentation, when it became clear the team needed new leadership. "He's done a great job," says Skinner, who's overseeing Murray's portfolio.

But there's so much still to do. The trees on his level need to be placed flush with the jungle floor. The jungle floor needs to be different shades of green and brown. A sword needs to slice through a cannibal without the cannibal's leg flying off. The slave-ship level, from which the main character advances before fighting off cannibals on the jungle island, well, the ship itself isn't, ah, finished yet. And the sea captain's acting weird. And mountains need to be texturized...

Murray left a party last night at midnight to work on the game. He'll work tonight until Katy wants to eat dinner and then work some more. He'll work tomorrow night until 5:30 in the morning.

And to think he and the rest of the 13-man team should have all content added by now and should be testing it for glitches.

Derrick Levy, sitting at his computer one floor below Murray on this Saturday afternoon, smiles. He remembers those days. "We had a hundred different things going on [last term]," he says. "We're a lot better now with how long it takes us to do stuff."

He went out last night and slept in this morning. Got to the Guildhall around noon. The video game his team's making--a kung fu fighter game, also from scratch--will be presented one day after Murray's, but today Levy's working primarily on his individual portfolio. The video game's solid. "Looking better all the time," he says. So good, Levy's leaving tonight around 6.

So good, he's playing video games at home Wednesday night at 11 while Murray and his team "bottleneck everything," Murray says.

But his game looks good. Or, at least, better. At 12:10 Thursday morning, he looks at the 19 items on his to-do list and says, "Done that, done that, done that, done this, I think I'm half done with this." There's a 20-ounce Dr Pepper and a jumbo Snickers next to Murray's laptop in this darkened room on the Guildhall's second floor. Going home tonight depends on checking off all the items on his list. And only eight are checked so far.

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