Serendipity happened earlier this year when I reconnected with an old acquaintance from Purdue University. While I was looking to find out what the prospects were in the Computer Graphics Department at Purdue, I found that I would get much more than I imagined.
Professor David Whittinghill PHD, the heart and soul of the Games Study program at Purdue is forever trying to expand and perfect the program and the level of knowledge of his students. In his pursuit he proposed an environment creation class within the experimental "490" curriculum. While at first glance an environment class seems status quo for a games focused track, but for not so Purdue. Currently the Purdue Games Study curriculum is setup more as an amalgamation of tech art, design and programming; very little in the way of art classes are offered. This has led to a gap in the games studies program; namely while the students in the program are technically savvy, their portfolio's lacked the polished look that would get them noticed. This condition perplexed Dr. Whittinghill and was his purpose for trying out the new courses.
Proposing the course was one thing, but teaching the course was entirely another. Dr. Whittinghill is a programmer by trade and while he is a wealth of knowledge, an environment artist he is not. Dr. Whittinghill was going to have to rely on second hand experience from training courses to put together a curriculum for the class (cue the serendipity). Having over 6 years in building environments professionally the timing of my inquiry seemed divine. In his response to my inquiry, Dr. Whittinghill seemed to jump through his email and try to drag me right into a contract with Purdue!
Eventually we came to terms and I was brought on to help build the class. We started with brainstorming sessions; Doc and I would sit in the game lab with the intention to combine our ideas into a complete 16 week course. During that time the challenges inherent in the overall curriculum came up. It became clear to me that most if not all of the students enrolled in the class needed to be led into complexity slowly. Working with science majors did not mean that there was no artistic knowledge or background present, but it certainly needed to be cultivated.
At some point during the brainstorming it became clear that teaching the components needed to create intricate finished pieces of environment art was not the problem. Many tutorials exist from many accomplished artists on how to put together technically advanced level art. The problem was the barrier to master this kind of work was high, and in some cases insurmountable. From personal experience, time, effort and aptitude are all needed in order to achieve the ability to create masterful environments in the modern world of games. We lacked the time and in most cases the aptitude for the highly polished work we would like to see in our students portfolio's. The challenge lie in the unlocking the inner creativity without being bogged down with so many technical practices.
One day during our brainstorming and curriculum building I started thinking about some of the modern architecture, pieces that seemed so attractive, yet had very simple design elements. In these simple designs it was more about arrangement, lighting, fit and finish that allowed for exquisite aesthetics. "Minimalism in architecture may present a means to the ends we are looking for" I explained to Dr. Whittinghill. I expanded this idea further; "using simple designs with fine materials arranged properly can look beautiful, could be accomplished within the time constraints, and didn't need high level of artistic aptitude. It would be like playing with blocks; one just creates spaces uninhibited and without consequence, and that it could even awaken dormant artistic abilities."
This led to my thesis statement:
Using fundamental geometric modeling, photo source texturing, and simple lighting skills, non art majors in Game Studies can create minimalist environments in Unreal Engine that will improve the aesthetics of their portfolios, therefore raising the appraisal of their portfolios by current industry professionals and giving them confidence to further pursuit a career in game development.