Taking Game Design to Another Level

The curious thing about game design is that it’s anything but a game. As senior Rafik Vardanyan describes game development, it’s more like the result of a conversation between the designer — through his or her creation — and the player, albeit one conducted remotely and decidedly not in real time.

Rafik paired his Game Art & Design major with a minor in Animation with precisely that dialogue in mind. “I ultimately ended up in Game Art & Design because my dream is to design levels,” he says. “I decided to take Animation as a minor so I could gain the skills necessary to draw and animate for my own 2D games. The two fields go hand-in-hand for tons of reasons, but the most important would have to be how video game animation provides feedback to a player.

“As a young kid, my parents didn’t allow me to play video games for long periods of time, so after my 45 minutes of Super Mario Bros 3, I’d take out a sheet of paper and begin designing my own levels for that game,” he recalls. “I did this with other games until I realized how much I enjoyed doing so.”

The designer/player interaction necessarily relies on shared assumptions and anticipated behavior, he suggests, since the game comes into being well before the player arrives. “If there’s one thing I wish video games did better, it would be to feature stronger accessibility,” he says. “That is, I wish more video games had options that allowed players to experience a game better suited to their needs.”

For Rafik, this intuitive sense shows up, as he says, in “certain elements that separate games that feel great from games that feel… not so great.” He’s currently working on his senior project, Blinkbot, a 2D platformer “in which you play as a little robot trying to ascend a tower.” He’s creating every bit of the artwork and animation for the game himself.

On whether he prefers game art or game design, Rafik lines up with the latter. “I’m definitely more drawn to the technical side of game design compared to the narrative side,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan of simple stories: straight to the point and straight to the gameplay.”

He credits Woodbury’s Game Art & Design program with requiring him to master the tough stuff. “I had expected to go straight into designing levels but ended up taking classes that taught me how to program and create 3D models,” he says. “Without being obligated to take courses like “Game Code Fundamentals” and “Environmental Design and Modeling,” I would have never acquired the right skills. As a freshman, I complained about it, but looking back, I’m so grateful to have done so.”

Among his mentors: Professors Justin Patterson (“one of the most helpful people I have ever met”) and Mike Sonksen (“an exemplary professor who makes a great impact on the individual lives of students”). And as an Academic Peer Mentor himself, Rafik understands the power of that role: “I help students with anything they need,” he says. “I love guiding people in the right direction.”

Attending the five-day national Delta Sigma Phi Leadership Institute in Indianapolis last summer was transformative: “I felt like a completely changed person in a matter of only five days, realizing key aspects of what it means to lead a group of people to acquire a common goal,” Rafik says. That summer, he also got a taste of the big leagues, working as a game design intern at Yacht Club Games in Marina del Rey, the studio responsible for the hit indie game “Shovel Knight.”

Following graduation next spring, Rafik plans to complete Blinkbot, enter it into conventions and contests, and release the game on the Steam platform. Then, if all goes well, he’ll secure a position as a level designer. While mega studios like Electronic Arts (EA) or Insomniac might beckon, he says he’d be just as satisfied if he winds up at an indie.

“As long as I’m designing video games that people around the world enjoy, I’ll be happy,” he says.

Want more? Listen to Rafik discuss his path to Woodbury and what it’s like to be a game design student in an interview on Studio 7500
Learn more about the Game Art & Design program
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