UWGB students take to the tracks for real-life gaming experience

top-story-train-JamUniversity of Wisconsin-Green Bay students Alexander Jacob and Dave Sonnier embarked on a ride of a lifetime when they took part in Train Jam, a 52-hour train ride from Chicago to the Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco this spring.

They were accompanied by lecturer Ben Geisler of UWGB’s Computer Science academic unit. The 124 participants met in Chicago and split into groups. The groups were then given the theme “On Track” and tasked with creating a game that incorporated this theme in the time it took to travel to the conference.

Jacob and Sonnier joined forces with Jonathan Evraire, a programmer from Canada, to create their game, “Trivial Track.”

“It’s a top-down, Zelda style, game,” said Jacob, “You’re this hero, you have a sword, and there’s traps and dangers all over the level. You’re on a train trying to get to the front of the train where a mustachioed villain has control of the train and if you don’t stop him it runs over the damsel in distress.”

With a time limit of 52 hours, both Sonnier and Jacob focused on keeping the game simple. They had a working version of the game after 12 hours and a complete game finished after 40 hours.

“We were worried about going over scope because it’s easy to make a game were you have too many ideas and it always takes more time to make a game than you think it will,” said Sonnier, “We actually ended up having a complete game a day early. It didn’t look like much, so we actually had time to polish it up, make it look decent.”

in-story-train-jamThroughout the process, Jacob served as lead programmer, Sonnier was the artist and game designer, and Evraire served as a second programmer. All of the games were displayed at the Game Developer Conference and are now playable online.

“I now have a game that I made,” said Jacob, “Not only that but displaying it at the Game Developer Conference… being able to say that, it just feels amazing.”

Jacob and Sonnier were part of the Student Ambassador program on the Train Jam.

Through this experience, 40 students from universities across the United States were provided free transportation and a free ticket to the conference.

For both Jacob and Sonnier, a love of video games came early in life.

“I’ve always loved video games, but in middle school my cousin showed me this program called RPG maker,” said Jacob, “It wasn’t really programming per say. You just clicked buttons to make things happen. But, it was still making games and I put hours into that. It was so much fun, and ever since then I’ve had a desire to get into video game programming.”

For Sonnier, that love of gaming began with art.

“My dad bought the Super Nintendo when it came out in the early nineties and I kind of grew up with that,” said Sonnier, “I used to do a lot of drawing from video games. I was going to be an art major, but that wasn’t quite working out well for me. I didn’t want to do it as a career. So, I revisited that idea, started teaching myself programming, and now I’m almost done with a computer science degree.”

Both Jacob and Sonnier were able to gain experience at UW-Green Bay from lecturer Ben Geisler.

“He’s just been the greatest resource I’ve ever had in game development,“ said Jacob, “He is such a good guy and so fun to work with.”

With experiences such as these, Sonnier has been able to see an improvement in his programming skills.

“I can definitely tell that I was a terrible programmer before I came to Green Bay, having taught myself,” he said. “I’ve learned how to be better at it and become more readable for other people. I can’t even read the stuff that I used to write before.”

Looking to the future, Jacob, a May 2015 graduate, is hopeful that the experience will provide a solid base of networks to begin his career.

“The whole experience not only looks great on my resume, but you should see the stack of business cards I have,” he said, “I’ve started talking to an artist I met out there to make art for a game I’m currently working on. So, lots of contacts and just really good experience.”

His advice for future students? Get hands-on experience both in and out of the classroom.

“You will need to do side projects and make your own games on the side,” he said, “People are looking for that.”

(Photo at top — from left to right: Curtis Zuehls, Raven Software; Alexander Jacob, UWGB; Dave Sonnier, UWGB; Norm Nazaroff, Human Head; Ben Geisler, UWGB instructor; Mac Diedrich, Anvil Drop.)
Photos submitted by Ben Geisler. Story by Katelyn Staaben.