March 25, 2015

Educational Spotlight: The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University

By Luis Cataldi

The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist University's Guildhall is one of the premier graduate video game education programs in the United States. The program has graduated more than 600 students, and alumni are working at over 200 video game studios around the world.

The Guildhall offers a Master of Interactive Technology in Digital Game Development degree and Professional Certificate in Digital Game Development program. Students also select an area of specialization ­Art Creation, Level Design, Production, or Software Development. Classes are taught by industry veterans, who work as mentors to develop skill and talent in the next generation of game creators. Visit for more information.

Unreal Engine 4: Impressions from SMU Guildhall

Epic Games’ technology has held a spot in SMU Guildhall’s curriculum since 2004. Faculty used Unreal Tournament to introduce multiplayer gameplay to level designers, while the entire student population built game projects with the Unreal Engine. Several faculty-led research projects also selected Unreal technologies to generate content. We spoke with three lecturers at the Plano, Texas-based graduate program for video game development about their experiences with UE4 since its release. They were Nick Heitzman, art creation; Jon Skinner, level design; and Wendy Despain, team game production.

Part I: UE4 in the Classroom - Artists

When did you begin working in UE4? How did you tackle training yourself?

Nick Heitzman, Art Creation lecturer: I jumped into Unreal 4 last August, as soon as we had our licenses available to faculty. My excitement level was high as several students had been even earlier adopters and I was peripherally aware of several of the amazing improvements Epic had made with the new editor and engine.

My standard process for training myself has evolved out of having to change software toolsets and engines multiple times over the last twenty years making games. However it still revolves around taking what I know worked in one tool or engine, and recreating it in the new format using any enhancements that new platform provides.

I grabbed a fairly simple asset I’d integrated previously into UDK; made some minor changes I knew would make the .fbx format mesh export more friendly – reworked the texture set to support the new specular/roughness/metallic split, then brought it all into Unreal 4 and set about recreating the asset using the new toolset.

Once I had some experience with the assets themselves, I moved onto larger scenes, landscape, foliage, sky domes, post-processing – and the push continues as I discover and become better at utilizing all that Unreal 4 puts at my fingertips.

Are there particular features in UE4 that appeal to you and your art students? If so, which ones?

Heitzman: What appeals most to me personally, is the way every aspect of the interface and usability has been streamlined, cleaned, and made easy to digest for art workflow. Scale makes more sense now and is easier to control, blueprints to control skies, lighting, so much is available now to artists to take their work beyond the ‘check-in’, and ensure consistent visual quality across a project.

Simple things, like tools in logical places, working as intended. The new file structure and its flexibility is also a very welcomed change for keeping so many art assets organized. Sharing assets across multiple projects and levels has never been easier, maintaining dependencies with complex hybrid art assets is a reality. Everything is in place, and works, like I would expect it to. This is not always the case with editor/engines, and now I am spoiled by Unreal 4’s functionality and ease of use.

The appeal for my students is the advanced rendering systems, the ability to create assets with a quality and subtle realism that was previously relegated to portfolio rendering software. Physical based rendering is a powerful art tool, one which I am sure will be abused in the near term just like specular was when it was shiny and new (sorry, that was awful). Once the initial learning curve is conquered, and the subtle use of real material properties is mastered by our students, the quality of game art will reach a new level of visual fidelity rivaling out imagination.

What they appreciate, and may not even be aware of, is what I touched on above concerning ease of use and stability of the platform. Our Art students can be focused now on the quality of their work and taking advantage of the upgraded material settings, foliage and landscape tools, time of day and environmental lighting, effects, how this affects their work. With Unreal 4 they will not be aware of the pain earlier, less stable editors have been plagued with, and that is a good thing.

Can you share a trick you’ve learned that makes it easier for your students to work in UE4?

Heitzman: Introducing them to the way textures work together in the material editor is one of the foundational lessons they need to master. 

To help them comprehend the interdependencies, we create a pristine smart phone and texture set. Using the specular and metallic to get the subtle levels of gloss on the screen and body. We work to achieve a chrome on the trim, and some texture in the case back itself. They are able to stretch their creative freedom in the screen; create their own custom icons, wallpaper, color scheme as long as the end result is a clean, new phone in Unreal 4.

Then we take the phone and we create a version of it in use. Fingerprints visible at various levels of oiliness on the screen and buttons. Smudges – dust collecting around the perimeter of the trim. Subtle wear on the case at the points it would normally be held. The goal here to have, at first glance a functional phone that when exposed to lighting reveals logical use.

Finally, we introduce the tearjerker of the ‘dropped phone’. We take the phone and introduce cracked screens, dents, and the expected material changes involved with this change. Now the normal map, roughness play a part in delivering believable damage. Some use of bump offset to sell the deeper screen splits. The phone now appears to the viewer initially as damaged, then the lighting unveils the spider web of light cracks and wear showing the true tragedy of the ruined phone.

After this exercise our students seem to have a much better grasp of how all the texture values, math functions, and variables, work together to make the material bend to their needs.

Classes at The Guildhall

Part II: UE4 in the Classroom - Designers

You’ve taught Guildhall level designers Unreal Engine 2 and UDK (Unreal Engine 3) previously. How does UE4 compare?

Jon Skinner, Level Design lecturer: UE4 is such a big step forward that it feels like a new technology - which of course is wrong, it's an impressive iteration of previous tech. In my opinion, Blueprint is the biggest step forward and is possibly the key feature that separates UE4 from other current-gen technologies. Gameplay ideas can now be implemented extremely easily by anyone on a team, not just the programmers, and rapid prototyping has become a true reality. The Material Editor was a revelation in UE3 and I'm glad it's been updated for UE4 while retaining its ease of use. Persona is a massive improvement over UE3, artists have much more control over their animations and the integration with Blueprint is exciting.

I'm also looking forward to the update to Cascade, which has always (in my opinion) felt the hardest of all the systems to understand. True in-editor play is a huge time-saver, it's surprising how much time can be lost by starting up a separate client window whenever you need to test something in the game. Finally, true source code access, which was available only to licensees in previous versions, is an impressive step by Epic. Combine this with the ability for anyone to submit code patches, updates, and suggestions through their Github is an indication that Epic is customer-focused and committed to giving their user base the best experience possible.

How do your students benefit from using UE4 versus another tech?

Skinner: There is the obvious fact that Unreal Engine is an industry standard technology. This enables us to prepare students for working in a large codebase, with an extensive and comprehensive toolset, all while providing knowledge that is current and immediately applicable for students entering the industry after graduation. While UE4 is a sizeable step forward in terms of technology, there are a lot of concepts and actions that can be carried over from UE3 and UDK - BSP use, static mesh creation, asset import, and basic lighting are some of the steps that almost every project needs, and it was good to see Epic not changing things that didn't need drastic alteration.

Compared to other technologies, UE4 is just... well, *easier*. We use several different tech here and while each is useful, they are niche applications. UE4 provides tools that are so complete that students can make virtually anything they can think of, from 2D games to MMOs to mobile titles. Blueprint lets students perform actual rapid-prototyping. Persona lets artists get far more impact from their animations. Programmers benefit from having access to the source code of both engine and editor. I cannot think of any other technology that allows all parts of a student team to get so deep - and so easily - into implementation, letting everyone feel like they have a stake in making their games as fun as possible.

Designers “think big,” but that’s not always the best path for a student with limited time. Any advice on how not to get lost in UE4? 

Skinner: This depends on what you are trying to do. Focus on the core ideas of your project; if you're making a game, work according to the 80-20 rule (decide 80% of your gameplay up front, implement it, then playtest as much as possible. Lots of games find fun mechanics through playtesting so tweak and iterate the gameplay for a LONG time before moving to the visuals). If you're making a level, make sure you understand the game type first (SinglePlayer, DeathMatch, Team DeathMatch, Capture The Flag etc) before proceeding.

As for the editor and technology, don't learn in a vacuum. Think of something you want to do (start with simple ideas!) and do that. Build new knowledge on previous knowledge. This means that you won't immediately jump into Blueprint, Cascade, Persona and the Material Editor; choose one, decide what you want to do (again start simple!) and try it. You won't break anything by trying. When you have a success, make sure to save a backup of that success so you can return to it later.

Possibly my best advice here would be to work inside an existing game; currently I suggest Unreal Tournament 4 because (in my opinion) deathmatch is the easiest path to familiarity with the technology. Unreal Engine 4 itself is vast and while it comes with game templates, it should be viewed as a "blank canvas". Starting out should be easy and give quick easy wins or you'll become frustrated and give up. Don't give up; UE4 lets you do whatever you want, take it slow and try things out.

Inua UE4 Environment

Part III: UE4 in the Classroom – Team Game Production

What is the Team Game Production aspect of Guildhall?

Wendy Despain, Production lecturer: Students at the Guildhall have intense classes delving into the hardcore details of their specific discipline – art, level design, software development and production – but they also have the chance to work together in multidisciplinary teams of gradually increasing sizes. I teach Team Game Production II where students are in preproduction on four teams making Capture The Flag games in Unreal Engine 4.

The class is coordinated and led by three faculty, all with years of game industry experience. We strive to get our teams out of the frame of mind of students and starting to think like game developers. Professional devs are always having to learn new software and get up to speed on the latest thing ASAP, so switching the class over to UE4 not only provides them with outstanding personal resume material, but also gives them practice with working together as a team to explore a new engine and figure out what they can do with it.

Does that set up make it challenging to use UE4 with students who are only beginning to work together?

Despain: New teams, working on new software… it’s definitely a challenge. We’re starting everyone out with a few days of intense training. The first few days had level designers, artists, programmers and producers all in the same room getting the same overview. We try to make sure everyone on the team is speaking the same language and all on the same page about what the engine can do. After that, we broke out into the various disciplines (producers went with Level Designers as they will be doing more level design than producing at this stage in the curriculum) and we did a deep dive into what they needed to know about UE4 to do their particular part of the job.

While it’s a challenge, it also provides a shared learning/bonding experience for the teams. So although it would be fun to do a game project using an engine they were already familiar with, this lets us start everyone out on the same footing. Nobody is the resident expert. They’re all learning it together, and it has an equalizing effect on egos, which can sometimes get in the way on group projects.

Is there an area of UE4’s use in a team setting that you’re excited to see in practice? 

Despain: We’ve told them that this is like getting your driving learner’s license and then being handed the keys to a brand new Ferrari. I think they know what a great opportunity this is and what kinds of potential this software has. They absolutely cannot wait to get this puppy out onto a flat piece of road and see what she can do. I think they’re a little frustrated that as leads and educators we want to have them to demonstrate their skills with some defensive driving in a quiet neighborhood first.

I can see their eagerness to try out every bell and whistle, and in some ways I feel like I’m crushing their dreams, counseling them to work on fundamentals before they try to fly. But once we know they’ve got those fundamentals down, I have no doubt that they are going to push all the limits just to see what they can do. It’s going to be exciting what they come up with. I can’t wait.

Faculty Biographies

Nick Heitzman has several years of experience in the game industry, and has worked on a number of titles. Jon Skinner joined SMU Guildhall in 2003 and has worked on commercial and academic game projects. Wendy Despain is a video game writer and narrative designer with more than a decade spearheading digital media projects.

Team Game Project: “Inua”

Student team, Betrayal Games, is currently working on "Inua." They are in week three of the sixteen week project and they have fourteen developers made up of artists, level designers, programmers, and producers.

The images show the work of lead artist, Taylor Smith. These were examples of concepts being recreated using new lighting features in Unreal Engine 4.

Inua Environment Concept UE4


Guildhall Cohort 22 Capstone Project

Release: May 2015

Development time: 16 weeks

Team Members:
Producer: Matt Worrell
Game Designer: Jon Clark
Lead Programmer: Trevor Youngblood
Programmers: Brian Rust, Evan Kohn, Hoang Nguyen, Laura Brothers
Lead Artist: Taylor Smith
Artists: David Gautier, Amanda East, Kristy Zeller
Lead Level Designer: Jason Leary
Level Designers: Michael Crawford, Chris McCrimmons