It was barely 10 a.m. Thursday and Timothy Gregory was already busy creating worlds.
With a few gestures, he willed the ground into existence, adding texture and flooding his environment with water. Minutes later, he added grim, metallic structures: from complex pillars to blinking machines with unknown functions. Then with a click of his mouse, he created light.
The only thing his virtual world needed now was a back story.
“Really, I just want to sit here and think about what happened in this room,” Gregory said as he gazed at the freshly minted world on the PC monitor in front of him.
He’d love nothing more than to do this all day long. But for only a short time Thursday, the student at Piedmont Community College was just one of dozens of aspiring developers learning the ropes of level design at Unreal University. Part of this week’s East Coast Game Conference, the program allowed participants to learn more about Epic Games’ Unreal Development Kit, a toolbox for creating video games with the Cary-based company’s engine.
Using UDK, available for free online, creators like Gregory can skip some of the complicated programming involved with developing engines, which form the basic structures for games. And by importing a group of developers to help teach the ins and outs of the Unreal Engine, Epic is looking to hook even more game designers on its already popular software, which developers can use for free until their game sales exceed $50,000.
“We felt there was no better teacher than someone who’s taken that path,” John Farnsworth, Epic’s chief operating officer said in a phone interview last week.
It’s just another piece of local gaming technology that’s putting more control in the hands of artists, who can create increasingly more intricate games not just for next-generation consoles and PCs, but the handheld tech we carry with us every day.
Although Gregory said he’s worked with the UDK before, he jumped at the chance to learn from the team behind The Ball, the first commercial release powered by the toolkit.
“It’s really great that we get to learn this stuff,” Gregory said. “We don’t have anyone to teach us.”
Back at PCC, where he studies art and animation, Gregory said his curriculum focuses on 3D modeling with software like Maya, which he can use to create objects and place in UDK. With the extra guidance, he said he’s excited to go back and experiment with what he’s learned.
“It just keeps pushing me further,” he said. “It makes me immerse myself that much more.”
That’s why Gregory and 14 other students from PCC attended the conference, according to Chelsea Abbott, an instructor of digital effects and animation technology. Aside from opportunities connect with professionals, she said the conference is also giving her the opportunity to evaluate new technology that could play a role in her future curriculum.
“This was a big deal to me because I haven’t gotten to mess with UDK that much,” she said. “It’s slightly different, but once you start banging around on the keyboard, you see what buttons match what actions.”
At the helm of this Thursday morning session was James Tan, a 12-year veteran of UDK and a member of Teotl Studios. After taking dozens of developers through the act of creating playable space, elaborate 3D structures, lighting and moving particle effects, Tan demonstrated that it was possible to create an entire complex level with UDK in about an hour.
The goal, he said, is to reduce the work programmers need to do. And that means more power in the hands of artists like Gregory.
“You become your own god,” he said. “You become the creator of your own world.”
‘A SPECIAL EYE’
Suzanne Meiler knows that feeling.
As a child, she used to spend hours drawing new levels and characters for Super Mario Bros. Now as a senior artist with Morrisville-based Vicious Cycle, she’s using the company’s Vicious Engine to create fantastic worlds not possible in real life — even though she said she was never that good at drafting.
“You can build these amazing structures and do so many different styles of architecture,” Meiler said. “It’s a lot more fun and it gives people more environments to play in.”
But there are still some limits to the capability of these tools, especially for Logan Davis, a level designer for Lab Rats Studios in Research Triangle Park. The newly formed company develops software for the iOS using both UDK and the Unity engine.
Davis said although developing for mobile devices does limit what he’s able to do artistically, it can actually help the creative process.
“Restrictions are good in a way, because they give me a good starting point,” he said. “Once I have a starting point, I can do whatever I want.”
Regardless of the technology, Meiler said good games are driven by good artistic vision, which starts with concept art and continues all the way through implementation on the computer screen.
“You have to be a talented artist by hand,” Meiler said. “You have to have that special eye.”
That’s why Gregory is still working through courses at PCC, building his skills until he gets an opportunity to make his way into the industry. In the meantime, he said he’ll keep playing with UDK and examining what makes his favorite games great.
“You kind of have to be a director to create this kind of energy,” he said.
With the help of the networking and skillset they gained at ECGC, Abbott is hoping her students will be more marketable — especially to the more than 30 gaming companies located in the Triangle.
“Many of them are keeping their eyes here,” Abbott said. “All of our students live here locally, and there are so many opportunities to stay in the North Carolina region.”