January 11, 2017 Student Spotlight: Jared Ettinger
Jared Ettinger
Jared Ettinger

From a very young age, I have been enthralled by storytelling. From repeating Peter Rabbit lines as a toddler to performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school, I’ve always engaged with stories beyond just reading them. For me, the most engaging narrative form has always been video games. No other medium puts me in the shoes of a character, or allows me to explore a unique world, in the same way.

While attending Emerson College in Boston for an undergraduate degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, I started to understand more about the inner workings of a good story in my fiction writing courses. With this new awareness, as I stayed up all hours of the night playing video games like The Last of Us and Ni No Kuni, I could see how successful game companies applied the workings of a good story to their titles. From the engaging characters to the compelling narratives, this critical lens made me realize what made an exciting game.

Beyond what I learned from academics, I was able to engage with gaming culture on another level. Emerson is known for its radio stations, and for three years I had the opportunity to host my own show on one of its channels, WECB. The show, which I called Pixel Pizza, was a 2 hour weekly program where I played music from local chiptune artists and interviewed people involved in the industry– independent developers, composers, journalists, and popular web show hosts. They all brought unique perspectives and garnered me a devoted base of listeners. Hosting the show became the highlight of my week.

I wrote my Senior thesis about game design and storytelling in an NES game called Wurm. Upon graduating from Emerson with a BFA last year, it was time to think seriously about my career path. After a lot of soul searching, I realized what I really wanted to do was carry my writing and storytelling skillset over to the medium that has always been my passion. Last summer after I graduated, my friend tipped me off to the community at Playcrafting NYC. It seemed like an amazing resource and I was excited to get involved. I attended a number of events and got to know some of the regulars. Everyone there was very creative and enthusiastic about their games, and also eager to help people new to the gamedev scene. From there, I took a risk and participated in the 2016 Global Game Jam, where I collaborated with four aspiring developers my age. We made a goofy game about coffee grinding called Caffeine Crisis and it was a very fun, very tiring 48 hours.

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Humble beginnings.

Previously I’d thought that game design required you to be a math genius, but that experience showed me this was not the case. Game development did not have an impossibly high barrier of entry after all! Around the same time, I saw that Playcrafting was starting a series of 8- week courses about starting out with working in Unity. It seemed like the perfect transition into development myself, so with renewed confidence I jumped at the chance to sign up.

I came into these classes with literally zero knowledge of coding. Even with my newfound confidence, going in I was still nail-bitingly nervous I would be the least experienced person there. I was relieved to find, though, that the majority of the people were at the same level as me. The teacher, Sam Eng, made everything understandable and clear, and I had no trouble following along. It felt more like learning a new language than a series of mathematical equations, and as a right-brainer that was fine by me. By the end of the course (which has been well explained in other student posts), I’d made four games and had way more experience under my belt than I’d dreamt I would ever have just two months earlier.

When I learned that Sam and TA Adriano were teaching another multi-week course in the fall, I didn’t hesitate to register. I was thrilled to hear that this particular course was not only meant for those who had completed the introduction class, but also that it centered around turn-based RPGs! The Japanese-style RPG is my favorite game genre, and my dream game to develop has always been a 90’s style sci-fi RPG. I’ve fleshed out my idea a lot in terms of story and gameplay ideas, but was never sure on how I’d learn how to turn those dreams into a reality.

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An early visualization.

Now, while I realized a full-scale RPG was going to be hard to implement for a rookie developer, I was eager to learn how to make the foundation of a good RPG. So for my class project, I set out to create a proof-of- concept, or a representation of how it could work mechanically. In the process, I learned several things about RPGs I had no idea about before.

Something I learned right off the bat was that unlike in an action game, where battles happen through collisions, RPG battles take place behind the scenes– actions and calculations happen in code invisible to the player. All of the character movements and physical interactions are just additional flair. They’re still important, sure, but you can have a game system without them. I had always thought they were connected, but it’s a bit different than that.

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Watch out, Spielberg.

On top of that coding core, I tried to implement as much authenticity as I could. One of the reasons I love the RPG genre as much as I do is because of how cinematic it can be, so I wanted to bring out that element in my work. I went to town with dynamic camera angles, sound effects, and battle animations to make the action exciting and spice up the battles. I also set up a hub world to show what exploring would be like and how transitions in and out of battle sequences should work in a full-fledged game.

This process naturally came with its share of struggles. One of these challenges was trying to make the system as modular as possible. In other words, making it adaptable to whatever situation I wanted to create. I wouldn’t have to write extensive code for every different monster or level transition, all I needed to do was plug in what characters and stages I wanted to appear at a given time and they would show up. Making this happen required a lot of very involved coding techniques like inheritance and instantiation.

By far my worst nemesis, though, was the process of creating what we called “HP Particles”– the numbers you see pop up above a character when they take damage. The amount of coding required to make them look and act properly was very complex, as the character models, UI, and damage calculation all had to be connected at once. If you’ve played BioShock, think of the hacking puzzles and you have a good idea of what it felt like to me. It took me many hours in and out of class to put this all together. As Sam likes to say, “you get out what you put in,” and I took that lesson to heart.

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Particles in action.

Since the projects were individually done and I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, the Unity Asset Store was my savior here. The amount of free stuff you can find that works with your project completely shocked me. While I still had to make many of my own animations, the character models and backgrounds were fitting and easy to use. I hope to work with an artist (hit me up!) eventually, but with this project the free assets helped to visualize what I was going for.

The project I have right now is untitled. I feel what I’ve built here is an ideal base for my dream RPG game, and I’m excited to continue work on it. In the more immediate future, the Unity and C# experience I’ve garnered will definitely help me in creating smaller games. At the moment, I’m applying to graduate schools to continue my studies, and will definitely keep coming to Playcrafting to expand both my knowledge and network. I really can’t recommend Sam and Adriano’s courses enough, he’s an incredible teacher.

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A move I made from scratch called “Analyze” that shows an enemy’s stats & moves. Ultimately, I’d like to create games that will have the same charming, hysterical, somber, introspective, challenging, and hopeful impact on others as the games I loved had on me. I definitely encourage others who want to do the same, but are intimidated by the technical barrier, to give game development a shot too. So stay tuned for more! I’ll update my Twitter and Itch page with the RPG demo and other games down the line.

Quick Questions:

1.) How did you get into games?

I’ve been passionate about games pretty much my whole life. From the N64 to the PS4, experiencing stories and exploring worlds has always meant a lot to me.

2. You’re part of the first manned mission to Mars! You’ll be gone for 5 years and can only bring 3 games to play alone or with your 3 fellow astronauts. What are they?

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and Rock Band 4. I’ve never been good at Rock Band but figure 5 years is plenty of time to learn!

3.) What would be your dream game to build?

My dream game to build is pretty much described above. But if you want the Cliffnotes, think PS1 Final Fantasy meets Godzilla.

4. What do you love best about the game community in NYC?

I really appreciate how open everyone is in the NYC gaming community. For a city that is known for competition, the people here are constantly open to connection and collaboration. It’s just so incredible to me how warm and welcoming everyone is.

5.) Choose 5 words to describe your experience making games so far.

Exciting, Overwhelming, Creative, Social, Rewarding.

 

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