Collaborative Development, Technology Exploration, and Game Distribution: Interview with Educator Tom Corbett

Author: Rashel
2023-07-20
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Bio of Tom Corbett

Tom Corbett is an instructor with the Entertainment Technology Center and teaches courses for Carnegie Mellon's Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology (IDeATe) Network - a cross disciplinary curriculum program for undergraduate students. Tom teaches courses in game development, virtual and augmented reality, and related immersive and spatial technology platforms. He is a former Associate Producer for Electronic Arts where he managed project development for emerging platforms, streaming technologies, and prototypes for augmented and virtual reality. He was also the Associate Director for the AT&T AdWorks Lab, and helped found the AT&T Experience Council. His background ranges from video games and interactive exhibits to architecture, distance learning, and medical animation.

Tom Corbett

Below is indienova’s interview with Tom.

  • Interviewer: Rashel

The interview

Rashel: Could you briefly talk about your background?

Tom: Sure, happy to talk about my background. So teaching is like Career Number Seven for me. I started out studying architecture and interning at an architecture firm. And then when I graduated from college in 1999, I was in a band that was doing really well and playing lots of shows. The band broke up that summer, so I spent a few years in a graduate program in architecture. At the same time, I started working for the university in their distance learning department. This was like 99, 2000, when online learning was a new thing. And there were a lot of challenges to be solved with things like how we deliver quality content to people who are at the end of connecting over a modem or a DSL connection, as opposed to people who are connecting with ethernet, as we all have nowadays.

So I did that for a few years, then decided to go back into architecture, and moved back to Pittsburgh, which is where I'm originally from. I worked for an architecture firm for about four years. I got to work on the Children's Hospital, PNC Park, Heinz Field, and a number of landmarks around town, mostly in the design department, doing their 3D modeling and rendering pre-visualization. Then I had been working a lot with a game startup in Pittsburgh. They were called Etcetera Edutainment, now known as Simcoach Games. And I approached the CEO and asked them if they need somebody who can manage clients, projects, and architectural things.

Rashel: What year was it?

Tom: This is probably 2006. And so I jumped ship. Three of their founders were ETC (Carnegie Mellon University - Entertainment Technology Center) graduates. Around the same time, I decided to apply to the ETC. And so from 2009 to 2011, I was a student at Carnegie Mellon and got my second master's degree. From there, I ended up in New York working for AT&T. I helped to run a media lab in their advertising department. I was in that position for about a year and a half, and advertising wasn't really that exciting for me. And so, just by chance, I bumped into a friend of mine in California who was working for EA (Electronic Arts). They were working with Comcast on a product that was streaming games through cable providers. I had experience working with AT&T's cable division called U-verse, so it just became this nice little fit.

After working in California for a few years, I ended up moving back to Pittsburgh. When the IDeATe program at CMU was starting up, they asked EA, would you send companies or people to teach courses and help us build our curriculum? And my boss is a big believer in hiring from CMU, especially the ETC, so he floated the possibility. EA was donating a portion of my time to teach a class per semester. I was getting to interface with a lot of students, and it was a way to do some recruiting while setting up a research lab here. And then about two years into that arrangement, my department closed, so the project was canceled. And I approached CMU and said, I like teaching these courses, but if you want me to continue, you need to bring me on board. So they picked me up, and that's what I've been doing since 2016.

It's been teaching these classes and adding more and more to that curriculum. 3D modeling and rendering, virtual reality, augmented reality, any kinds of real-time graphics, and spatial data applications. And then on top of that, just a production method for creative software. How do we get artists and engineers and other folks to work together effectively? Yeah, that type of collaboration. ETC does this really well. And IDeATe now also gives us the opportunity to do this interdisciplinary course development.

IDeATe connects diverse strengths across Carnegie Mellon University to advance education, research, and creative practice in domains that merge technology and arts expertise. The themes of these areas integrate knowledge in technology and arts: Game Design, Animation & Special Effects, Media Design, Sonic Arts, Design for Learning, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Intelligent Environments, Physical Computing, Soft Technologies, and Immersive Technologies in Arts & Culture

Rashel: Since you have so many different backgrounds, in architecture, advertising, and game production and also teaching. Do you think multiple backgrounds have affected your way of teaching?

Tom: I think so. I would say I don't necessarily feel like I'm the type of person who gets up and just lectures or goes to a reading and come back and write a paper. Most of what we're doing is building things. Students are going to take out of these lessons. As we do weekly reviews, we show the project, we go through feedback, and we talk about this process. The students carry that lesson to understand how the expectations for this are a lot of the time management or the setting expectations with teammates.

I would say a lot of it goes back to architecture. And an architectural education is a design education, first of all. There's communication with the client, the process of design iteration, building things and rebuilding things, and responding to feedback. There is an artistic and aesthetic side. There is a side where we have to consider all the different users of our space and how they might experience it. There is a very technical side we have to consider how this will be built and whether it can be built properly and on a budget and on time. I also did a lot of theater, and it's sort of a similar process. Like there's a goal that everybody's working towards, but there are actors and singers and dancers and musicians and people working on the set and people working on the costumes and all of these people have to come together in the right order in order to put something out. So, a lot of architecture has to do with managing that production, design, and vision. And a lot of the theater side had to do with managing the production and either delivering your part or managing the people who need to deliver their part on the schedule. And I think both of those really help inform my approach, at least to production today.

So, the biggest course that I teach is “Game Design, Prototyping and Production.” (GDPP) I think it's also the most fun. I patterned a lot of the lessons in this course after the “Building Virtual Worlds” (BVW) course at the ETC, where the students have to present their work every week, and every two or three weeks they shuffle teams and start over again. In my class, you're going to be on the same team all semester, but the idea is still that we have some quick, rapid challenges. I've also incorporated a lot of lessons out of there used to be a game design class that was taught by Jesse Shell, who's one of our faculty members, and he also runs a game company in town. He has a really good book called “The Art of Game Design.”

A lot of BVW is how we build something that people understand. How does the user get through this? How do we deal with a naive guest and guide them through? From the game design side, I've tried to talk about what are games, and what are game mechanics. I've specifically looked to add in terms of things like the motivators or the free-to-play games, the dark patterns, discussing the business aspects of what’s the game industry, what's really going on in the industry, and how these decisions get made. Those are additions that I made from my experience working in the game industry.

GDPP’s Student Work, The Moonlight Machine by Chronofly Studios

Rashel: I know that you're also teaching other different courses.

Tom: The next course I started teaching is “Research Issues in Game Development.” And that has always been XR (Extended Reality) focused, either virtual or augmented reality. In the second half of the class, students get to pitch their own research project and explore some aspects. Sometimes it's designs, and sometimes it's a very technical thing.

Students’ AR Work, Silly Lil Guy by Silly Lil Guy Studio.

And every year the subject matter is a little different. This year we are doing mobile AR Games, the company that makes Pokemon Go has an API out there that you can use their technology to locate things in space with AR. Last year we did Asymmetric games. So the only prompt was it had to be more than one player, and the play balance had to be different. The two years prior to that, we built a buggy game. We were asked to build a virtual reality buggy experience for the hundredth anniversary of buggy races. But that was the year of COVID, so midway through we had to abandon the VR game and just made it an online game instead. But what was novel about that is we had one giant team of like 20 people.

Rashel: It's like a real company.

Tom: It was, yeah. We had students who were programming lead, art lead, and design lead, and then they had their own teams working for them. It was an interesting way to organize the class. Every year the challenge is a little different, but you'll have all semester to develop an idea much more thoroughly than you would otherwise.

Other classes I teach——I teach “Reality Computing,” which is about 3D and spatial, and XR for not fun. So, for non-entertainment purposes. In that class, we cover things like GIS mapping, photogrammetry, and photo capture; I teach another class called “Understanding Game Engines Using Unity.” I use Unity as an example of a game engine, but most game engines operate under similar principles. And so the lessons will talk about how an animation system works, how rendering works, how these systems communicate with one another, how compiled builds go together, and how lighting works, etc. And Unity is the application we use as our hands-on version of exploring how for two reasons. One, Unity is really well documented. And the other big competitor is Unreal Engine, made by Epic. It's a fantastic engine, but it's a little more complex. So Unity has a lower barrier to entry.

Game engine has applications outside of games. If we want to make a VR experience, chances are we're building it on about two-thirds of VR experiences that are going to be built in Unity. The other third is going to be built in Unreal. So game engines have really become these tools to do real-time graphics and interface with a wide number of devices and platforms. Unity and Unreal, are the engines that make the graphics and the interfacing possible. They get that name engine when we start using them again and again. For instance, EA Sports had what they called their game engine, which was IGNITE, but it was really a series of tech libraries that were shared and everybody had their own flavor of it. Unreal was a product made by Epic. And Epic Games said, hey look, we could continue to do this or we could make our own game engine and just sell that. For a long time, if you were playing a console game on an Xbox or a PlayStation, if it was not built on somebody's in-house engine, it was Unreal. To this day, Unreal is still kind of the top for AAA console titles.

Rashel: How do you see the future of AR/VR/XR? After hearing a lot of predictions that the next heating game direction will be Multiple Reality (MR), but we haven't seen any groundbreaking games yet.

Tom: I think that this time around, VR has some staying power. Right? It popped up in the 90s. It popped up in the early 2000s. Each time it popped up it got a little bit of buzz, but it was way too expensive and there was no content for it. Nobody was going to have a system powerful enough to run it unless you had a million-dollar Silicon Graphics machine. Now we have enough power for it in a phone, so we've really seen it in the last ten years. This really rapid evolution where we went from. Systems now for $300 or $400 you get a headset that you can wear and for 2 hours have an immersive experience that is on par with better than what that Oculus DK one could do ten years ago.

So it has evolved very quickly and sales have been good. It's not setting the world on fire. It has not replaced the console, but there are millions of units out there. Are people using it all the time, every day? No. Are people going to use it as a productivity device? I kind of doubt it. But I think, and this is all speculation, where VR goes is it becomes like a console. It is a place that I go to when I want to spend a couple of hours with some content. It's not quick. If you play a game on your phone, you're probably doing it very quickly. But if you play a PC game, a PlayStation game, or an Xbox game, you're sitting down for about a two hour experience. You're expecting to be there for a while. And I think that's where VR is going to land.

I think it's also going to have very industry-specific use cases such as training. We might see some more use cases in the future with various telecontrols, telemedicine surgery. But, the core commercial use of VR strapping a headset to my face and replacing everything around me is going to be an extended-use entertainment. Then there's this other level of augmented reality. And augmented reality means we're either overlaying some digital content onto the real world (Microsoft for a while made us call mixed reality and then they went back on that), or, we're talking about a camera view of the real world and drawing something on top of it. This is kind of like Pokemon Go. We're compositing digital and live feeds together. Augmented reality and the next stage of this is wearable augmented reality, where we have glasses that are doing this for us rather than looking at our phones.

Rashel: I'm trying to imagine how it looks, but all I can see is something similar to virtual reality.

Tom: Well, it's right. So this is where everything gets confusing because the terms augmented, mixed, and virtual have all meant different things at one point or another in time. Generally, when we say virtual reality, what we mean is we're completely replacing our visual field with rendered content that appears to be in an entirely different place. Sometimes we'll talk about pass-through VR, meaning that the cameras are creating a rendered view of the environment and drawing some content over the top of that. But it's very early on in that tech. It's a low-resolution, blurry version of the world around you. That's what we might call augmented reality. Something like the hololens where content is being projected onto clear lenses and bounced, the light is being bounced into your eyes to appear as though it's further out in space. That would be called wearable AR or mixed reality. Whichever you want to call it, I think it has the potential to be the real killer app in terms of like, this is what everybody will have.

In the same way that we all have a smartphone in our pockets. Now we've started to offload some of those functions to our watch, but my watch won't run without a phone, so the watch now becomes an interface. I think that wearable AR when we finally get there in the next ten years, looks like glasses, maybe slightly thick, but not too thick. I don't want to wear a giant, bulky one. It's got to be relatively low power so that it can run throughout the day. The processing has to happen somewhere else that's not even on your person, but rather in a nearby edge computing server set up, and then we transmit the results of that. We stream that game or view to you, and your phone receives it and tells your headset here's what to display. So we're using things like 5G connection, which is a very fast, low latency connection, to render content somewhere else. Or, I can do things like I can embed relevant content. For instance, if I'm a student and trying to find a study room, I could walk through and see labels over which rooms are open, and I can just grab an open one by tapping a little thing in space to reserve this room for me. Boom, it's your room. Or, what if we can connect to everybody's LinkedIn profile? If I'm at a conference and I look at somebody, I can get their little bio: here's who you're talking to. That's kind of the promise of wearable AR.

Apple Vision Pro

Rashel: Do you have any suggestions for indie game developers for monetizing their games?

Tom: Well, that is always the tricky part. If your game is fun, you can make money. Honestly, some of it comes down to just being able to let people know about your game, right? There are plenty of good games that are just sitting there unplayed. And this was one of the problems early on with Steam and the sales that they had on their store because they used to do deep discounts on games and the creators had no control over the sales. And so they might say, hey, this game is 95% off. And so a game that normally would have been $10 is now $0.50, and so somebody will buy it, but then they won't play it. And that's bad for two reasons. One is if it's 95% off, then the developer didn't get much in terms of the sale. The other thing is, if you didn't pay much for that game, then you probably don't ascribe a lot of value to that game and you're probably not as inclined to play it right away. If you're not playing it, then you're not telling your friends. That word of mouth doesn't get through. So this is where you see a lot of indie developers lately, at least within the last few years, really pushing to have big Twitch influencers play their game. We don't really have a good mechanism now to just advertise indie games other than applying for awards, or people just self-promote and put their stuff out there. Sometimes you'll see things as they get involved in various humble bundles and stuff like that.

But when you publish a game, there's the distribution of the game. If I'm doing multiplayer, I have to pay for the services for that game somehow. Usually, that's not something like a service that people continue to pay to play. If I've got to keep the service on, I might be doing things like microtransactions or trying to sell additional content. But again, that means somewhere there has to be a store to accept those transactions and there has to be a mechanism for if somebody has a problem, they need to be supported or this was purchased and it shouldn't have been. People will make beautiful, brilliant indie games, and they just never figure out a way to get them out there. Other people have figured out the publishing game and are just turning out just kind of mediocre stuff, but they figured out how to promote it enough to get people to play it. I think the big thing is that, again, now that we have all these platforms, digital distribution, the path to discovery means that it is a lot easier to find your audience than it used to be. And your game no longer has to sell half a million copies to be successful. You might be able to build it in such a manner that if it's a couple of people or just one person building a game, maybe selling 20,000 copies is enough, right? But the money side of it is where most people tend to fall down because very few people understand it. The process of marketing it and supporting it, even just the idea of putting together a profit and loss sheet with reasonable numbers, is something that exists outside of the realm of most indie developers because that's not the direction they're coming from.

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