For this edition of Ask an Expert we spoke with Robert Mostyn, Digital Game Hub Coordinator for the Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC) Center, a NYSTAR-funded Center of Excellence in Digital Game Development at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Rob is also Co-Founder and Director of ROC Game Dev, a nonprofit organization supporting independent game developers in Rochester.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the roles you play.
I wear two hats. At RIT my title is Digital Game Hub Coordinator, which is through the Digital GameHub grant from NYSTAR. In this position, I am tasked with supporting, promoting and helping to grow the economic impact of digital games in New York; specifically in Rochester but also throughout the state in partnership with the other Hub-designated schools, RPI and NYU. That is achieved through community outreach, organizing and hosting events, talking to local industry and game studios, and collaboration with our community and industry. It is a definite jack-of-all-trades type role. One day, I could be talking at an event and the next day, I’m working with a student team on an outside client project. Even though I am housed at RIT, a lot of my work is public and community/industry facing.
The other hat is the Director of ROC Game Dev. This is a nonprofit group which started as a simple meetup in a coffee shop, but has grown into a larger indie game developer organization. We are focused on fostering a community of game developers here in Rochester. We want to provide not only a space but access and a platform for game creators at all levels and all interests to collaborate and learn and share with one another.
Now give us a brief overview of MAGIC
MAGIC is an acronym for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity. Our motto is “We learn by making things.” You see those words when you walk in the door of the building. It is truly at the heart of everything we do.
MAGIC is actually two houses within one: The MAGIC Center and MAGIC Spell Studios. The MAGIC Center exists to promote the academic mission of RIT. It is the classroom space, the lab space, the access to the facilities, the hardware and software that exists for our students. Primarily game and film students, but it is definitely a sandbox meant for all interested in digital media research, development and production.
MAGIC Spell Studios exists to support the entrepreneurial efforts of our students and faculty. These can be students who want to create, publish and distribute games, films and other digital media. We also are open to outside commercial activity such as film production, design, development. For example, I am currently leading a team of two students who are working for a local startup company. We hire them and then the company hires us to do the work. It is a good opportunity for students, we provide the hardware and software, and it is a win-win for everybody.
The Center is NYSTAR-funded. Why is the digital game industry important to New York’s economy?
Game development is a huge industry that draws young talent and our aim is to keep a lot of our talent here. The last time I checked the stats, I think two-thirds of our game development students were leaving our state for the West Coast. That is where a lot of the game studios are. Keeping more of that talent here is obviously important. This industry draws in not just developers and coders, but you need musicians, all the way up to recording symphonies for games. There are narrative writers. Artists of all types. There is user interface, people who are interested in visual design. Then on top of that you have marketing, promotion, community management. So, games provide this really interesting cross section of industries that would very much benefit us here in New York.
What kind of vitality are you seeing in the industry?
The game industry is young as far as digital media industries go. It is still trying to figure things out. But just since around 2006 or 2007, we have seen more game programs for students developing because there is a need for more students to have this sort of education going into these game studios. Teams in these studios can be 200 to 300 people. A game can take years to develop and have a million-dollar budget. So, colleges are looking to prepare students for this growing and specific industry.
There are a lot of game studios on the West Coast but now, especially with the pandemic, we are seeing more and more remote positions open up and some studios going completely remote. There are a lot of great studios here in New York, spread out across the state, hiring people. It is definitely an interesting time for games in that regard.
The industry is constantly evolving in terms of the tech it uses, and the medium itself. We typically think of games as entertainment but now we are seeing more “serious” games which are focused on health care, mental health, simulations for military, aeronautics etc. We are also seeing more cross over between video games and film. Here at MAGIC it is cool to see some of the film people start asking questions about games. It is that kind of interest and those collaborative collisions that we love to see happen, so I am pretty excited about it.
Are games more important now given the pandemic?
I think games were brought into the spotlight with the pandemic, especially highlighting their social value. The social nature of games has been pretty apparent since multiplayer and online play have been integrated into games and you could play with people all over the world. Through that you find friends. You find people with similar interests. For example, I have friends in Georgia and California, and we made it a habit to play games together for an hour or so a week. It is a chance to “hang out” with friends.
I think there is a lot of importance around games. It is a safe place to experiment and try things. It’s a virtual world. You can be a character you would never be in real life. We are seeing more use of and interest in gaming in the mental health field because of that. How can we use this as a tool for people to try out processes for handling their day-to-day struggles? How can this technology support that? Especially since it is something that has such a high reward value to so many people.
What advice would you give a would-be game developer?
I would say start making games as soon as you can. There are a lot of computer programs out there now aimed at elementary students that start to teach them coding. You are never too young to start and at the same time you are never too old to start. I didn’t start programming games until my early 30s. It is definitely something you can get into at any age.
On top of that I would say don’t spend a lot of time thinking “should I use this tool, should I use that tool, should I make this or that type of game…”. Just jump in and start making something. A tactic a lot of people like is to try to make a game that already exists. Like Pac Man. Try making Pac Man, just to understand the process. Game development takes a long time. There is a lot that goes into it. So, starting with a very small project, remaking something that already exists just for the practice, is very beneficial.
Then I would say definitely start small. A lot of first-time game developers start with their magnum opus. They want to put everything they can think of in the game but those kind of games take huge teams to make. And even then, it takes years to make. Better to start with something pretty small and achievable because it’s easy to get frustrated and dissuaded by doing something too big and you just give up on it and get burned out. I see that happen even with seasoned game developers.
Additionally, I try to find a community like ROC Game Dev. Making games in a vacuum by yourself works for some people but engaging with other game developers, even if it is online, will have a huge return on investment because you get feedback, new ideas. Sometimes, (comma) you are too close to your project to see the glaring issues. Having others look at it is often very beneficial. Plus, you get to do the same for others.
You mentioned your own game development. Tell us more
I have a degree in graphic design and that is what I was doing prior to my work at RIT. I’ve always been a visual creator and a musician as well. I’ve been making music since my teens. I got into electronic music production in my early 20s and that led into an obvious collision with game music. There were some local game developers who were interested in having me write music for them and it opened up my eyes to “oh, this is how I could contribute to a game.” Then in seeing them work on it I thought “I think I could do that. I have a background in visual design and art and music, and I could teach myself programming.” I went online, looked up tutorials, and started to work on my own game. Pretty much the advice I gave was what I did. But just because I have a background in art and music doesn’t mean you have to have that. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have those abilities, who, say, just want to code.
I’ve always been a fan of video games. And the act of making a game kind of brought together all of my creative interests. I had written record albums, made posters and done digital art but this brought all the pieces together. It really attracted me to the medium to do that. I released a game in 2017, called “A Small Robot Story” and since then have released a couple of small games. I am working on one right now. It is an ongoing thing. I always have a project going on.