About seven months ago, my business partner and fellow video game designer, Allen Freese (@allenfreese) and I (@AlanGamebot) decided to quit our day jobs making console games, and basically join the circus. We wanted to focus on Gamebot School (@GamebotSchool) full time, teaching kids how to make their own games from the ground up.
We had been plugging along at the school for a bit doing our regular piano style lessons - one to two students per instructor, focusing on learning how to do a re-creation of a retro game before moving onto making their own game. Then parents started asking us about summer camp. At first we didn't really think we could do it. We got a late start and we were afraid that we wouldn't be ready to run a full fledged summer camp. But then we got to thinking. What if we did a half day camp, just a few hours in the morning. We could start with game exploration, where kids play and explore new games and new ways to play them. Then we could have a lesson for an hour, and then finish up watching a piece of a video game realted movie (Star Wars, Tron, etc.) and some free time to either explore more games or work on customizing and polishing their own game.
Once we started talking about it we all started to get excited. Suddenly this was a camp that we wanted to go to, so it was definitely something that we wanted to try.
Our first week we had seven campers. Among that group were two or three of our regular students so we had a bit of a dilemna. We couldn't use any of our regular games to run the campers through, the regular students would be bored to tears, and we couldn't do anything too advanced since the new students didn't have any experience with making games.
So we decided to make a Jetpack Joyride type of game. Simple controls, and it would be fairly easy to get something up and running quickly, so the campers could get immediate feedback. And the game is "cool" enough so that even the older campers would enjoy making and playing it.
The results were pretty great. We allowed some time for customization and some of the campers really put their own stamp on their game.
The second week was a short week due to the 4th of July. Only three days, and we had five new kids coming in and one regular student. Another dilemna! How do we get something playable and semi-complete with only three hours of work!?!
The answer was Kaboom! I had done a test based on Kaboom! for some of my regular students. The game is fairly straightforward, and fast paced, and fun, and hopefully the campers can get something going in a short period of time.
Even though I was probably most worried about this week, it was another successful project. We had some really bright kids that were focused and eager to work, and this group wanted to spend more time on customization as well. Some of the kids made some crazy artwork and incorporated it into their game.
So this week we had two students returning from the previous week. We didn't have a game planned for them yet and we were wondering what to do. We talked about running them through the Jetpack game again. It was nice to know we had that in our back pocket, but it didn't seem very cool to re-do another project, and once we put the games up on the website it'll seem pretty lame if week one is the same as week three.
It was at this point we decided to go for it, and make a different game for all seven weeks of camp. A bit of a crazy notion. I felt like I was doing a different game jame for seven different weeks.
The process went something like this...
This went on for seven weeks. It was a bit harrowing to be honest, sometimes I was stapling pages of instructions mid-week. But as the weeks went by we got a better handle on what types of projects the campers will understand.
So the project for week three was a Pac-Man type game. There are some subtleties that make this game not 100% straightforward, such as explaining the concept of snapping a character to a grid so he doesn't get stuck in the wall. But then the project went well and we had some great stuff come out of it.
I recommend playing Samuel H's version of the game and heeding his warning about level 2!
No camp this week. Time to regroup and prep artwork and assets for the upcoming camp weeks.
So now committed to the idea of a new game every week I was digging back into my bag of retro games, and out came Frogger. This week was an interesting mix of campers. Some of them had experience with other game making software and were eager to get into some coding/scripting. So we allotted some time at the end of the week to do a quick intro to the GameMaker GML scripting language.
This was a particularly fun project. We let the campers try their own road layouts, and the styles of each game were all so different. Some of the campers made their first levels impossible, and some made them super easy. One project had a very Donkey Kong style pattern at the end where you have to wait for a car to go, slide into harm's way and then use precise timing to get to the goal. These guys are thinking like game designers.
Toward the end of the week I introduced scripting by having the campers make a simple particle type explosion where you can input paramters for the type of particle and the number of particles created. Almost without fail all of the campers boosed the particle numbers up to 10,000 particles and beyond. The games slow down but they didn't care. They just loved the fact that they could create so many particles.
We'd been trying to think of a way to incorporate a project similar to a Galaga project which we've been using to teach. Galaga is good because it's fairly simple, involves shooting aliens, and explosions. It's a good project and we wanted to try and get something similar going. Vertical shooter, explosions, etc. So we came up with a Spy Hunter type game.
This project had some challenges. On the plus side incorporating some great artwork from our art director Nolan Nelson (@nomeansme) really got the kids excited. He even supplied a simple version of the car which allowed the campers to customize their car to their liking. One of the campers even switched out the bad guys to be Justin Bieber. All the other campers seemed to enjoy that.
On the negative side there were some glitches that most of the campers couldn't get past. Because of the quick and simple implementation of the car movement, if you hold down the fire button while moving and let go of the direction buttons the car keeps moving. A fixable bug for sure, but given the amount of time we decided to let it go, and I think it really bothered some of the campers.
Also, this is the first project where I feel we really ran out of time. In the original prototype project I had a helicopter that spawns periodically and drops bombs that have to be avoided. Most of the campers didn't get that far which put a damper on the project a bit.
We decided to go with a 1942 type of game. Pretty similar mechanics to the previous week. One camper who was there the previous week pointed this out :) But a very different setting and a cool game either way.
This group of kids was very different. We had some who were content to work the minimum and then take a break. But there was a small group that wanted to keep going and going. As a result there were a few days where the lessons went up to an hour and a half. So some of the projects were taken much further. In the initial prototype, I had a battle ship with turrets that would shoot at the player that you could destroy after a few hits. Only one particularly motivated camper made it that far.
Whew! Final week. What to do, what to do. We spent a lot of time thinking about a project to do next. We started throwing out ideas of all kinds of retro games to try.
We were at our wits end, and then we started thinking, our first game wasn't a retro game. It was a modern runner type game. So we turned to mobile games to come up with something we thought would be both cool and simple.
I came across this cool game called NeoMech for my iPad which has the player "controlling" a giant mech. In reality the mech automatically walks down the road and you take control of the targetting systems for the weapons.
Spent some time and made a quick mockup that turned out really fun. Talked to Nolan about getting some artwork in there and the project really started to blossom into something special.
Project selected, writeup ready, now time to teach the campers. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there for the first day of camp and Allen Freese and Nolan were the ones to teach the first day of the project, and there were some issues with pieces of background tiling that weren't updated in the writeup. Doh! As a result when I came in on the second day I found out the first was a bit rough. They got something running though so it wasn't a total loss.
An interesting thing to note about this week of camp. We had a full week of eight kids. On the right side of our classroom all the older kids sat. They were all twelve to fourteen, and on the other side of the room the younger kids, nine to eleven, sat. This made an interesting division, both in attitude and speed of typing and understanding. So we had a bit of a balancing act. Go slow enough so all of the students understand, but quick enough so that the more advanced students don't get bored.
So that was our summer at Gamebot School. Taught students ages eight through fourteen how to make seven different games. It's funny that we started off and ended with newer games. It was like a retro game sandwich. Overall, I think it was pretty successful. Given the shortened time, I don't think we were able to fully teach all of the concepts we wanted to the campers, but I think we've given them enough knowledge to get them started on their journey to become game designers and certainly get them excited about learning more.
All of our students games are playable on our website at
Check 'em out. The kids really did some great stuff.