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A Healthy Cycle: SuAnne Fu on SCAD GamingFest and the Creation of ‘Zoelie’

The interactive design and game development chair discusses the school’s remote collaboration on innovative game project, including interactive design, animation, visual effects, and sound design; virtual event’s ‘Making of Zoelie’ panel set for April 10.

SuAnne Fu is the chair of interactive design and game development, and a professor of immersive reality, at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). In close to two decades at SCAD, Fu has stewarded the university to its industry-leading position as one of the preeminent destinations for students working towards creative careers. Here, Fu reflects on surmounting the challenges of the past year while watching her former students become stars in the industry. She also previews this year’s SCAD GamingFest, taking place this Friday-Saturday, April 9-10. Passes are available at scad.edu/gamingfest.

AWN: What’s your mindset heading into GamingFest?

SuAnne Fu: First and foremost, my students have really been looking forward to GamingFest. They thrive around community events where they can engage with the larger game development world. And it's not just a game development world, it’s AR & VR production and AI machine learning, which means the future that they’re already living in.

For me, it's exciting to see former students come back as alumni speakers at GamingFest. We have incredible professional developers and artists who began their career at SCAD come back for signature events and our students have the chance to engage, network, and connect with them. It is a really beneficial, healthy cycle. We have Seth Smith, who graduated from SCAD in 2010, and is currently senior game designer at Riot Games, returning this year. I still remember where Seth sat in the classroom in Montgomery Hall! He’s going to be giving a talk on player dynamics. And we're bringing back star alumna Jolie Menzel, who graduated from SCAD with honors in 2012, to take part in a talk called “The Narrative Designer’s Toolbox.” Jolie is currently lead narrative designer at The Coalition Studio. Kathryn Hicks, who earned her master’s degree in animation from SCAD in 2017, will be featured on a panel on immersive tech.

In addition to our talented alumni and students, we have incredible guests and panelists from across the industry taking part in the two full days of programming so anyone who is interested in these innovative industries can join the virtual festival by buying a ticket.

AWN: Before we talk about the game SCAD students created that will be featured at GamingFest, can you address one of the challenges of successful game design, which is maintaining equilibrium between interaction points and the explication of the story itself?

SF: Absolutely. The evolution of hardware and software affects the games we design and the games we play. Games have to not only tell really great stories, but also have that immersive element of connectivity. Now, when we put someone in a specific character’s shoes, the player can understand the deeper aspects of that character, and hopefully be able to feel an extra emotional connection. I also see this technique being leveraged, not only for great entertainment purposes, but for telling different types of stories and addressing trials and tribulations, whether that relates to cultural heritage, or aspects of racial exploration, including things that we may not always find ourselves immediately in the position to understand from our social norms. The idea of immersing a user being able to experience a game from another perspective is absolutely fantastic.

AWN: On that note, on to the game. What is the premise of Zoelie?

SF: Zoelie is a coming-of-age tale following the fantastical journey of a little girl confronting her life's changes through her imagination. More than half of Zoelie's production was created remotely during the pandemic. This game was created in collaboration with students in interactive design and game development, animation, visual effects, and sound design. We’re going to devote a full panel during GamingFest to how the game was made, front to back. It’s going to be awesome.

AWN: How did the pandemic and the challenges of remote learning affect the creation of Zoelie?

SF: This is one of the biggest projects that we’ve created. With dozens of students from a number of different degree programs, the key was to create an environment that facilitated a workflow for real-time development. One thing that sort of saved us is that the way that remote office working has actually been explored by the game industry, and by production companies. We used Perforce as a way to version-keep as well as work together. Even in the game development department, there's actually quite a bit of specialization. We have concept artists, and we have technical artists for programming. We have game designers, we have narrative designers, and we have an amazing team of artists who created the beautiful environments and character designs you see in the game, all brought to life with animation. You see a little girl who is trying to cope with her environment, and you can see her imagination in action, like when she walks around in the world; flowers bloom and graffiti pops up. It's just absolutely gorgeous what the students were able to accomplish.

Credit goes to our faculty leads, Jack Mamais and Cyril Guichard, who have worked in the industry and led huge teams before and bring their industry experience and wisdom to SCAD. We go through an agile development methodology within our school and our department, where they teach how to actually work in order to get a project finished and do great work on a deadline. We created as a community on Discord so we could talk to each other, share videos and even hang out. Everyone working on the game could hang out in the virtual space and work together, not always talking, but with the immediacy of being able to click on somebody and say “hey let's talk” or “let me share a video with you.” That's how class time was actually held as well.

We learned a lot through the pandemic not only about limitations, but also what can be carried to the future. It was a good time to explore technology. With Zoelie, I have to say that the students’ grit to persist was very impressive. They were able to adapt and create this amazing end product. I’m excited too that people will get to experience it as part of GamingFest.

You can tune in Saturday, April 10, 11 a.m. ET, for The Making of 'Zoelie': Moderated by SuAnne Fu, SCAD chair of interactive design and game development; and James Mamais, SCAD professor of interactive design and game development. Part of SCAD GamingFest 2021.

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