“Appalachian Mining Town” might center around an abandoned mining town in eastern Kentucky, but the video game recently developed by a team of Eastern Kentucky University students wasn’t forgotten by the E3 College Competition, which selected the product as just one of five finalists for the national event.
“This is an amazing honor!” EKU Gaming Institute Director Dr. George Landon exclaimed, noting that only one game is submitted for consideration from each of approximately 400 schools. It’s not the first national exposure for EKU’s game design program. Each of the last three years, it has ranked among the top 50 such programs worldwide, according to Princeton Review.
Developed by a team of 15 EKU students during a Spring 2018 course, Environment Design for Games, “Appalachian Mining Town” is a “walking simulator” inspired by the landscape, depot and mines of Blue Heron, Kentucky, in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in McCreary County. Players assume the role of a historical surveyor investigating the mines to determine why it was abandoned in the late 1800s. The player collects old journal entries to eventually learn that Black Lung was becoming a huge problem for the miners.
“The student team did research to ensure that the town and props players see are accurate to the time period, though the town and its layout is primarily fictional,” Landon said. “Of course, black lung has been an issue in mining communities.”
The program’s game art faculty member, Jonathan Hale, worked with Landon to develop the special topics course. Students were then tasked with developing their own game world, filling it with landscape, buildings and props, and developing the game mechanics and code to interact with that world. “Mr. Hale pushed students to develop a game utilizing the Unreal Engine that would be visually striking and engaging. The 15 students worked together to completely design and implement the game. Mr. Hale would help resolve technical issues and served as adviser for the project as well as instructor.”
The result: a “visually appealing game that is also rooted in the culture of Appalachia,” Landon said. “We don’t see many games that give the region a respectful presentation, and it comes across as a very interesting experience. Additionally, the setting makes it unique. You don’t see a lot of games set in Appalachia that explore worker issues such as Black Lung. The protagonist of the game is also a female POC (person of color), so that makes it unique as well.”
The team incorporated the diverse skills of its members. “We were lucky enough to have both coders and visual artists, which allowed us to work on game mechanics and the visual elements,” Landon noted. “We had some students who were very skilled in 3D modeling, programming, audio and level design. There were also students who were just in the process of learning it all. Having all of those different skill sets represented made the game come together effectively, especially on the visual end.”
As a result, Landon said, the final product “speaks to what we can do technically and artistically, but it also speaks to what we can represent. We have the opportunity to shine some light on Appalachia and hopefully show people the issues that affect our communities but also, on a lighter note, we can show how beautiful Appalachia really is.”
The E3 event, to be held in Los Angeles June 12-14, is one of the largest gaming expos in the world, Landon noted. “That our students were chosen out of some 400 schools speaks very highly of our program. The expo passes awarded to our students are worth $6,000 alone.”
Seven students will represent the team in L.A. “These students will get to show off a game that they have poured a lot of time into and watch people play it,” Landon said. “The game exhibition booth will be close to Nintendo and Sony and right beside IGN. Our students will have a chance to network with some of the top production companies in the world. We will have a booth at E3 and, during that time, insiders will have a chance to play the game. Also, the EKU students will be interviewed by major game journalists. Anyone interested in video games and the video game industry can attend or follow media reports on E3. This is a very strong showing for EKU and will put the program and school on the map for a lot of people who may still not be aware of what we have going on here.”
Members of the EKU team are: John Bentley, Jonathan Danaher, Jonathan Greer, Aaron Roark, Charles Tiemeyer, Lexington; Jonathan Baker, Lawrenceburg; Noah Bush, Winchester; Matthew Davisson, London; Lacey Lanshaw, Eubank; Jacob McNulty, Michael Rawlings, Frankfort; Peyton Kyle Nestmann, Charleston, West Virginia; Quentin Rader, Florence; James Roberts-Broaddus, Tyner; and Christian Smith, Sparta.
The Interactive Multimedia option within the baccalaureate degree in computer science at EKU develops students’ expertise in game design, 3-D modeling and animation, graphics programming, and multimedia systems. The Gaming Institute focuses on the design, development and publication of video games within an academic context. Graduates of the program receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a concentration in interactive media.
For more information about the EKU program, visit gaming.eku.edu.