SIP explores role of generative AI – 8/3/23

SIP explores role of generative AI

Students level up to find evolving industry

 Draft – by Jon Cain, WPI

When WPI interactive media and game development major Kerri Thornton found out that she would be expected to consider using generative artificial intelligence (AI) during her on-campus summer internship in video game development, she was skeptical. “Honestly, my first reaction was ‘oh no! I know where this is going,’” the rising senior at WPI says, “and it’s not somewhere I want to be dipping my toe, because I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding AI and the ethics surrounding it.”

Thornton is one of 26 college students from 16 schools spending 11 weeks at WPI as interns in the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDigi) Summer Innovation Program (SIP). MassDigi is a WPI-based center for entrepreneurship, academic cooperation, and economic development across the Massachusetts games ecosystem. SIP interns include students of computer science, game design, art, and music. Each of the four teams in the program spends the summer making a video game, from conceptualizing a prototype to presenting a final product. Along the way, they learn how to work as a team, manage project deadlines, and receive feedback and mentorship.

This year, the program’s leaders asked participants to consider using generative AI in the pre-production stage of brainstorming ideas. The technology uses deep learning to create text, programming code, images, and graphics after a person gives it prompts and parameters. Monty Sharma, Managing Director of MassDigi, asked this cohort to try out AI because companies are using it in game development. “It’s there, and the students ought to be able to use it,” Sharma says. “This is a technology that is immediately useful to a lot of people. We’re in a tech business and you need to spend your life looking forward.”

Despite her concerns about AI, Thornton used generative AI to create a graphic of a gnome as she brainstormed artwork ideas for her team’s game. She says the gnome didn’t look quite right. It was missing an arm, for one thing. Because of the limitations of generative AI, Thornton says “it seems to help with visualizing things in concept more than actual image creation.”

She thinks generative AI will become more capable and, if copyright issues are resolved, could help artists save time with repetitive tasks so they can focus on their most creative work. She hopes to try a new AI tool that starts with a pool of open-source photos and then promises to create a graphic that adjusts for changeable lighting conditions. For example, it could make a character graphic for midday sunlight in a field, and another version of the character for dusk in a forest.

Another SIP participant, James Robinson of Acadia University in Nova Scotia, used generative AI to create new code for his team’s game. He also used it to identify problems in existing code. The rising senior and computer science major says the tool saved him time by using predictive text to generate suggestions for completed code that appears repeatedly in the game. However, he says the AI makes mistakes, so it requires a knowledgeable operator. “One of the misconceptions is that AI is just doing the work of the programmer. But that’s not the case,” Robinson says. “It’s a tool programmers can utilize only if they understand the code they’re trying to make.”

As the program participants try AI, MassDigi and WPI’s IMGD program are eager to learn from the students’ experiences. Leaders with MassDigi will ask the interns for feedback on generative AI after the program ends in August. Josiah Boucher, a PhD student in IMGD who studies the ethics of generative AI, is also interviewing the SIP participants during the program about what is and is not working, and their concerns. “We haven’t fully identified from an academic research perspective the potential harms and benefits,” Boucher says of the technology. “The only thing that is certain is that it is going to change things somehow.”

Gillian Smith, director of IMGD, says faculty will use the feedback from the SIP interns as they consider how to further incorporate generative AI into their curriculum at WPI. The IMGD degree program has courses on the ethics of generative AI and its use in interactive media and games.

Smith says it’s important for WPI students to be “AI ready,” so they’re prepared to enter the workforce and to think critically about the capabilities and limits of the technology. “Being able to understand the role of generative AI requires being able to think about it from a lot of different angles,” Smith says. “What does it mean for future careers? What are the ethical and social implications of adopting these kinds of technologies? I’m excited about WPI’s IMGD program being a place where we can help people think that through.”

Thornton says this summer’s experience has made generative AI seem less scary, and she feels better prepared to interview with or work for an employer that wants someone with AI skills. She wants to work in the games industry developing character art, and she has mixed feelings about how the technology could affect the field.

“One of the great things that humans have been able to do over time is make art. I don’t think generative AI will erase people making art. I do think it’s going to change the way we make art,” Thornton says. “My main concern is that people will come to view art as less process and more product.”

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SIP Blog: All about switch week – 8/2/23

All about switch week

By Alex Mintz, WPI ‘25

Following the success of the Seaport event in late July, we started the next week with a new challenge, switch week. Unlike previous years where switch week entailed two teams exchanging games for a few days, we had an unprecedented stipulation; everyone had to swap with each other. Therefore, this year switch week lasted three days and every day was a different game. The objective of this is to learn from our peers by considering how different teams navigate challenges. Another goal is to prepare our projects for DigiStudio, where new teams consisting of student volunteers will take over our project and interact together online during the academic year. Switching projects for a few days forces us to prepare our projects to be looked at by an outside group and see where other people may get stuck if they were to pick up our game.

To best simulate DigiStudio’s online working environment in which all the students are not in the same room, we established a period of time after the initial swap in which teams were prohibited from asking the original team for clarification. During this time, we compiled a list of questions regarding our misconceptions  about their documentation so that the groups know what to improve in the future. Though we were worried we would not be able to accomplish much in such a short span of time, I felt we were able to decently contribute to the other team’s project. As most of the remaining features are “juice,” we were able to help with a vast amount  of quick fixes while still learning about their overarching workflow as a whole. It brought us immense joy to watch our small changes brighten up each other’s projects. A bonus for me as a programmer was learning a great deal more about Unity.

On team Caramel Apples’ first day, we got a flavor of Cotton Candy and collaborated on their game, Rock on Raccoon. Since Caramel Apples mainly works on designing obstacle sets for our endless runner game, it was quite interesting to see how they set up their levels. One of my most enjoyable tasks personally was working on changing the color of the spotlight to indicate which band was currently playing. Moving onto the next day, we got a taste of Corn Dog’s game, Milo’s Magical Adventure.  I’d say the highlight  for me was making the framework for their end of game slideshow. I found it very satisfying to play through the slide shows and also make use of the sprite resolver and sprite library, tools for easily changing the sprite or image of a gameobject in unity.  Finally, we took a bite of Fried Dough’s game, Aliens Want to Steal Our Mascot?!  This game was the most rewarding to work on in terms of the knowledge I gained. My task involved tweaking a more niche feature of the game by getting the tiles around an attack’s spawn area for an in-game character, the Chem Kid. This required me to delve deeper into the code and in return taught me numerous new tidbits such as animation override controllers that I ended up applying to our own game at the end of the week. Overall, switch week was a bit chaotic at first, but a worthwhile experience that allowed all of us to grow as developers.

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Summer Studio Blog: Celebrating success and looking forward – 8/1/23

Celebrating success and looking forward

By Ismail Alatise, Clark University ‘23

As the final lines of code are written, the last bug squashed, and the polishing phase ends, it’s time to draw the curtains on our exhilarating game development journey and wrap up this year’s MassDigi Summer Studio program. Working on a game project during the summer is an exciting and immersive journey, where collaboration fuels creativity, and ideas become reality. Congratulations to the entire team for putting in countless hours, creativity, and effort toward bringing Merge Monastery to life. Making a game is no small feat; it involves dedication, creativity, passion, persistence, and innumerable hours of hard work. While we approach the end of this fulfilling adventure, it is good to reflect on the incredible achievements, lessons learned, and memories made and also set the stage for future success.

Team Turkey Leg as we are fondly called, operated in hybrid capability, with half of the group online, the other half being in person, and some switching in between. Despite this composition, the group made the program share semblance with a professional real work environment with effective communication, teamwork, trust, cooperation, and risk-taking support. It has really been a nice experience working as a group with varying work commitments that didn’t prevent us from our usual daily leisure “game time” after the launch break. Although we faced some challenges, as things will never go 100% as planned, our producer Max Xavier, as well as the group leads did fantastic jobs of identifying, planning, strategizing, and developing creative and effective solutions for every situation encountered.

In the programming group where I belong, our scripts are modular. We built our system in such a way that it would be easy to receive feedback and make changes. After the playtesting, when people made their suggestions on what to improve upon, we easily made some changes and noted the ones to adjust in the future. In the frenzy of development, it’s common for some bugs and technical issues to accumulate since we had limited work time compared to the SIP program. Both Porter Overtti, and the group lead, Chenxi Gao worked extensively to tackle these issues, prioritizing, and fixing critical bugs that affect the gameplay and stability.

Even though I was the least experienced programmer in this group of three, I contributed and gained immensely from this program, having learned the general art of game development, worked in Unity Virtual Control Stack Platform (Plastic SCM) and written code in C-Sharp for Unity. Within this period, I also completed Unity Essential and Junior Programmer Pathways training sessions, which provided me with the core foundation needed to create a wide range of digital experiences in Unity. Together as a team, we were able to write clean, well-documented, and optimized codes that will make future updates and feature additions more manageable.

On the Art and Design side, they worked tirelessly to polish and optimize the game objects for a memorable gaming experience. They helped with the gameplay balancing, adjusted progression levels, and optimized our game performance to ensure smooth gameplay on both iOS and Android devices. Just as we did in the programming group, they also gave huge attention to small details, such as refining animations, improving sound effects, decorating the scenes and adding visual effects to enhance immersion.

Overall, Merge Monastery is a testament to the dedication and passion invested by the entire team. Throughout the summer, we honed our programming skills and shared bonds as game developers. MassDigi enabled us to collaborate with creative minds, connect with mentors, network with industry leaders and fellow developers, and bring a vision to life. We appreciate Clark University, MassDigi and WPI for this opportunity as it serves as a stepping stone to even greater success in this ever-evolving world of game development.

Finally, a game’s journey doesn’t end with its release. In fact, it’s just the beginning. With one chapter ending, another awaits to begin. We hope to keep the passion for game development alive, make it an ongoing adventure, continue to learn, grow, and create something amazing. As this year’s summer studio comes to an end, we take pride in the experiences gained during this exciting and rewarding adventure. Now that a successful summer studio is behind us, we look forward to the new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in our journey as game developers.

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SIP Blog: Dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s – 7/22/23

Dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s

By Jacob Czerepica, Clark University ’24

This week we took part in the Game Industry Boston demo event at WPI Seaport to show off our games as we begin the final stretch of the program. At the event, we met with industry professionals, local devs, previous SIP teams, and a ton of other people. The games we showcased received a great reception and we also got some advice on them. As we go into the next few weeks, fully aware of the quickly approaching deadline, we have begun to carefully select what targets we want to hit before the project’s conclusion. With that in mind, on the day that followed we began to prepare for switch week, a week where our projects are passed to different teams. All disciplines worked hard to ensure our documentation is clearly understandable so that another group can pick up our project and work on it without too much friction.

The seaport event was an excellent opportunity to meet with people and make some new connections. With a mix of people from previous SIP years, friends of friends, or game developers and game-adjacent workers that just attended their first MassDigi event, it was a great opportunity to show off what we have been working on and the processes we’ve done to get here. Some also offered some great advice for our games but with the limited time we have we have to be careful with anything we add. It was a great night spent talking, sharing our projects, and generally engaging with people.

With only so much time left, we are plotting the final objectives that we hope to hit before Open House and our games officially launch on August 3rd. These mostly relate to finalizing features, making our last adjustments, and occasionally adding a few finishing touches. The end goal is now in sight but we still have a ways to go. Things are starting to finish off and our games are nearing their completion.

In the days to follow, we are going to be engulfed in switch week. During switch week we exchange all of our games with other teams to ensure that our methods aren’t complete madness. This results in us documenting our processes and ensuring that we can clearly convey our methods and reasons. It is important that our project is readable to other people in the discipline during this week so that they can quickly adjust to the new environment. Programmers have been working hard to make appropriate comments with readme files, discussing coding conventions, and other important aspects of their discipline to make our code readable to one another. Artists craft and refine their art bibles and document how they achieved their results. Lastly, design is creating documents to show our processes for designing. We ensure that we show what we made, and why we made it; describing our design intentions, philosophies, and objectives with the various aspects of our game.

Overall, we have achieved some amazing work and we’re not done yet! Everyone is excited to see their hard work pay off and we are beginning to see the pieces fall into place as we approach our end date. It has been an amazing journey so far and as we near the conclusion, I believe every team is going to come out with a fantastic product to share with the world.

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Summer Studio Blog: Working remotely, large group, small group – 7/17/23

Working Remotely, Large Group, Small Group

By Jay Lam, Clark University , MFA ‘24

July comes in with blazing, sweltering heat, and a torrent of heavy thunderstorms. Only three weeks remain for Team Turkey Leg to complete our Untitled Zen Garden Merge Game. Working in a large group of thirteen from the same school is a bit different from a small group of seven from different schools.

Summer Studio 2023 is hybrid, with half of the group online, half of the group in person, and some going back and forth in-between. Composed of a producer doubling as a sound designer, three programmers, four 2D artists, four 3D artists, and one game designer, our team is on the more art heavy side — the very reason why we were recommended to do a merge game, an art heavy genre.

Prior to my current studies at Clark, I was once a part of the second iteration of MassDigi’s XP (Experience Program) during the summer of 2021, after I left my first college with a bachelor’s. XP 2 was a fully remote 11-week program, in response to the pandemic disrupting the careers of recent graduates. With three programmers, three artists, and one sound designer, all from different schools, Team Blondie worked on Crustacean Frustration, a seaside brick breaker game.

Despite being online, communication flowed well because we made sure we were all caught up with the information we needed. Each important meeting within the group of seven made sure to include everyone. Miscommunication was minimal. Everyone felt heard as an equal.

Communication becomes even more important in a larger group, such as Team Turkey Leg. Each person has their own interpretation of what each person on the team says. With more people, there are more interpretations. It is up to everyone to reach out to each other to ensure we are on the same page, and keep each task updated. We manage that by the producer making sure the leads get all the information needed, which are then provided to the rest of the team.

Working remotely has many benefits. Meeting on time is easier without the hassle of physically getting from one place to another. It is cost-effective as well without spending a dime on traveling. Online services such as Ryver, Zoom, and Discord are free to use. Sharing files and documents between a large number of people is instant when people can click on the same link on a message at the same time.

All of my colleagues in Summer Studio are from Clark University, a big change from MassDigi’s teams in full-time programs containing students from different schools. Typically, working with various schools — having different professors, different curriculums, and teachings — help see other viewpoints that one might have not considered.

With working with students from the same school, most people are already familiar with each other. We know what each person is skilled in, and assigning tasks go rather quickly. It is easier to communicate with familiar faces from the get-go, as opposed to taking time to know each other. This is a benefit for our shorter-run 10-week program.

We are now past mid-way through Summer Studio, and Team Turkey Leg aims to make the best, most relaxing, Zen garden merge game it can be!

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SIP Blog: Holding steady – 7/14/23

Holding steady

by Henry Cecchini, Vassar College ’25

We’ve come to the point in the summer where production is ramping up, now that the end is in sight. Our challenge is avoiding crunch while staying on track to finish our games. Scope is as important here as it’s ever been; the Corn Dogs had to reckon recently with the realization that we don’t have enough time to implement all our ideas about the setting. Because of this, we made the decision to cut an area of the game from our plans. Scaling down means that we’ll be able to focus our attention better on making the existing levels as polished as they can be.

This week, we’re facing some new and exciting challenges. For one, our builds are out on the Google Play Store, which means they need names, descriptions, and icons. And a trailer. We don’t have much time to work on this, and we also don’t have much time to keep working on our games. Fortunately, the Corn Dogs are done with the first “world” of our game, and well underway implementing the second, which will be the only other full area. Since we’re making a one-button platformer with a very limited number of mechanics, it’s vital for the gameplay to be engaging and well-considered. We’ve been working on level design and art direction lately, trying to ensure that the mechanics and setting reflect the narrative.

Recently, we’ve had plenty of visitors, and there have been lots of events to attend. These lecturers, playtesters, and miscellaneous guests provide excellent opportunities for networking and learning more about the video game industry. And the SIP pool party on Wednesday was a welcome break, as we got to cool off, enjoy some barbecue, and chat with SIP members past and present. (Your unfortunate correspondent also met a number of mosquitoes.)

This summer’s finish line is coming closer, but there’s plenty more to be done in the remaining weeks. With this in mind, we want to make sure that we have a healthy relationship with our work as the big push starts.

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