Gamers take centre stage at gala

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta’s Computing Science Centre isn’t always a focal point for red-carpet glamour and excitement. But local paparazzi might want to circle April 20 on their calendars—the date of this year’s CMPUT 250 Award Ceremony.

For the last several years, the computers and games course has celebrated the end of term with a fun, Oscars-style event, showcasing the computer game projects created by student teams during the year.

“We have five categories of awards, such as excellence in writing and dialogue, excellence in art, and so on,” explains Vadim Bulitko, now wrapping up his second year teaching the course. “And the very last award is the best game overall—the game of the year. In every category we present the nominees, and for every nomination we show a little clip from the game. And then we say, ‘And the winner is . . .  .’”

For students like Derek Dowling and his team, who are currently putting the final touches on their own game, the ceremony marks the end of a hectic, stressful journey. “It’s just like we were told,” laughs Dowling. “You think you have a lot of time, but then the deadline starts coming up and all of a sudden you’re spending huge amounts of time getting it ready.

“But it’s fun,” Dowling is quick to add. “We’re building a video game, so you can’t really complain.”

Dowling, a second-year computing science student, says he has particularly enjoyed working with teammates from other disciplines and faculties. “As a guy who’s not very artistic, it was nice. We have two art guys on our team, and some writers—things that I’m not necessarily good at. I was excited to make a better-rounded project, with a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily computing science students.

“Including me, we have six guys on our team. Two computing science students, one industrial design student, one fine arts student and two psychology students.”

The psychological influence shines through in Dowling’s description of the team’s project. “Our game is called Deserted. It’s a story about a young man named Sam Foster. The setting is kind of Western-themed, late-1800s. His father abandons him at a young age. So it’s Sam’s goal to figure out why his father left him—to clear up the story, and make peace with his father.”

The eight teams, four from each term, construct their projects using the game engine from Neverwinter Nights, a classic title from Edmonton-based gaming company BioWare. Personnel from the company also contribute directly to the course. “They come in three times during the term,” Bulitko explains. “They do one lecture on level design, using examples from their commercial games. Then, when the students have their games almost ready, they come in to watch their trailers, listen to their pitches, and give them some feedback. And then they come in at the very end, for an hour-and-a-half question-and-answer session, where any student can ask them any question.”

The BioWare connection is a key part of the course’s success, says Bulitko. “BioWare is one of the top game companies in the world, especially in their area, which is role-playing games or RPGs. Receiving feedback on the games from somebody at such a high level, who’s so recognized in the industry, is very helpful to the students.”

The CMPUT 250 Award Ceremony takes place at 2 p.m. April 20, in CSC B-02. Admission is free, and everyone is welcome. After the ceremony, the audience can stick around for free pizza and an opportunity to play the winning games. For information on the course and the awards, visit http://cmput250.org.