Playmakers

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

That night, with buildings burning and medics carrying out the dead, Levy thought back to six years earlier, when a guest minister at his Atlanta church pointed in his direction and said a young man here today will do the Lord's work in the emerging field of computer technology, and Levy was the only young man seated nearby. He thought back to two years after that, when, angered by video games' stereotypical portrayal of blacks, he found the old sermon from the guest minister on tape in the church's library. Listening to it gave him a resolve he didn't have before. He thought back to the games he'd played recently with friends and how they all wondered why there were no titles with positive black characters.

He thought about the broken glass and burned bodies one block away, and how he could have been in the Sari Club tonight.

"Maybe I should do this," he muttered to himself.

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


The game looks amazing. Well, maybe not amazing, but from that rainy Saturday afternoon to this sunny Thursday morning, what 30 students, faculty members and the Guildhall's executive director see in the game is progress, and certainly the progress is amazing.

Murray is hunched before his laptop, which faces the room, the jungle level he designed displayed on two projection screens on either side of him. His 12 teammates stand behind him, some watching the game, others fighting off sleep. The jungle floor is various shades of brown and green, trees are no longer floating in the pink and red sky and the game play includes a feature that splatters blood on the screen when a cannibal is sufficiently done away with.

"Ooh" and "damn," the crowd says, after the first cannibal meets his gory end. The protagonist, a former slave leveling justice one swing at a time with a ball and chain, laughs as the blood drips off the screen.

"This level looks really good now, you guys," one of the 30 students says moments later.

Murray has a permanent smile on his face, and his eyes, though puffy from two hours of sleep, dart across his monitor. He swings the character over tar pits, takes him up mountains, between rather obvious booby traps that kill the dumbest of the cannibals.

"Dude, you'd think they'd know there are traps," says someone from the crowd.

"Dude, they're cannibals. They're protein-deficient," Murray says.

He smiles.

On occasion, Murray stops by his dad's house to show him the projects and games he's working on at the Guildhall. When Murray talked about Jones Day his face was never animated. Now, Mark Murray says, "there's just this glow about him."

And it's evident this Thursday morning. In the 10 minutes it takes him to present his level, Murray looks as though he's just woke from a 10-hour nap.

But that changes when his professors question Murray and his team. Can you make the closing cinematic shot into an entire level? Why can the protagonist literally walk through an enemy sea captain on the ship level? Why are there still unaligned textures? And where are you for artificial intelligence?

Murray takes a seat in the first row after his presentation. "We definitely need the next two weeks to work," he says. The brightened eyes and grin are gone. It's as though a day's worth of stubble just grew on his chin.

The next team begins its presentation. Murray sits still for a moment, then grabs his notebook, flips past last night's 19-item to-do list and settles on the next blank page.

He starts writing. Within moments, the list is 10 items long. He cracks his neck and keeps adding to it.

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