Q&A: Michael C. Neel, Organizer for the Knoxville Game Design group

Michael C. Neel is the organizer for the Knoxville Game Design group, which encourages kids to get into programing and adults to pursue game development as a hobby. They meet on the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. at the Technology Cooperative (13 Emory Place). The July 13 meetup will feature Oak Ridge National Laboratory alum Christopher Rathgeb, who focuses on mobile apps, and Neel speaking on "Game Development with Unity."

What percentage of your expertise comes from formal education?

All of it is self taught. I've been into computers and programming since I was 10 years old writing BASIC games on a Tandy 1000ex. I grew up playing Atari 2600 and Nintendo games and it was the fascination with artificial intelligence—how a computer "thinks"—in games that got me interested in writing my own.

Does your work relate at all to game design?

My day job is that of the corporate software developer; it is interesting to me but not game related!

Do you have relatives who are also gamers?

My parents were very big into board games, and I was lucky to live in a household that adopted video game consoles and computers before they became mainstream. We're a house of gamers now from my wife and oldest daughter, who's 14, to my youngest, who's 3. We also play several games together, both cooperative and competitive.

What's the purpose of the group for the regulars? For new people?

The main benefit for us all is moral support. The group isn't made up of indie rock stars—most have day jobs, but a good number of us have shipped games on multiple platforms and can offer some veteran advice. Making a video game is very grueling; there is just a lot that needs to been done. The biggest hurdle is not technical or artistic—it's having the wherewithal to place the 1,000th shrub on the map and still care if it is a good placement or not. Having a group to come talk shop and relax with can be the motivation to stick with it to the end.

Would you need to have a work in progress to come around?

Absolutely not required. You can come check out the group and ask some questions to see if this is really something you want to do. Every meeting we do a "show and tell" where members can show off their in progress game and ask feedback, or show off a tool or technique they learned and found helpful.

Is there a work in progress that's a particular favorite?

I'm very much looking forward to Chaosoft's game EvilQuest 2. I really enjoyed the first EvilQuest and it is how I met Josh Ferguson and Forrest McCorkle—I only found out after playing the game they lived in Knoxville! The game is a nod to the game Crystalis for the Nintendo, which tickles my nostalgia feathers, but also has a really cool story arc where you play the villain. I've always loved villains over heroes because villains choose to be evil for some reason while heroes really just "do the right thing" to save the day.

Is game design an expensive proposition for the hobbyist?

If you have a computer, no matter if it is running Windows, OSX, or Linux, there are plenty of free tools for making a game available. When it comes time to ship the game there can be some fees depending on the target platform and device, but these are generally $100 or less.

Are any of the members women or girls?

Yes! But not enough. Women in technology and in gaming is something I am very passionate about. The developer's conference I founded and ran for five years, CodeStock—which is this weekend; I'll be speaking there on game design—I made sure to do what I could to make the conference inclusive, and this has remained a focus for me. I'll be the first to admit, though, my reasons are not altruistic. I have three daughters and I want to make sure to open as many paths for them as I can. This past April I entered a weekend game jam with my two oldest daughters and we created a mini adventure game of jungle animals in a noir setting. We recorded ourselves voicing all the characters and the game placed 5th in Audio and 8th in Humor! (Details on the game can be found here.)

If just you and a few friends were the only ones who would ever play your games, would you still design?

I can answer the first honestly because only my friends ever play my games now and I still do it! It is a hobby for me that I may turn into more one day, perhaps once my three daughters are through college, and something I've loved doing my whole life. I encourage others to get involved because it's a great way improve yourself, as game design involves far more skills than anything I've ever done before. Not just coding and art, but understanding what entertains someone and why requires learning the basics of psychology, an interesting level requires architecture fundamentals, applied math and physics, narrative structure, and so much more. There are so many reasons different people play games that to really understand them requires developing better empathy—which is a skill! Creating games is also something that is great to do with a child. There is a crazy amount of critical thinking involved and the answers are not at the back of a book to be memorized and repeated on a test. You will both have to figure out how to make something, try it out, and learn how to fix it when it fails to do what you want.

For more information: sign up for the mailing list on knoxgamedesign.org or e-mail michael.neel@gmail.com