Robots have become conscious and threaten to take over a human spaceship. They skulk through the halls and the digital networks, trying to evade human detection in their quest. But there’s a twist to this story.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

With mentorship from their professors, alums and industry professionals, Stanford students design and create video games you can download and play.

You’re the robot.

This is the premise of Access Denied, just one of the 14 computer, video and mobile games created by Stanford undergraduates in the new interdisciplinary course Introduction to Game Design and Development, taught by Doug James, professor of computer science, and Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering. Following enthusiastic participation in a game and interactive media seminar, led in part by Riedel-Kruse, he and James decided to offer a class that would actually have students create their own games.

“The students learn a wide range of lessons about video games and what makes a good product,” James said. “We do that partly by having weekly projects but also by having industry speakers that come in and talk about different parts of game design – everything from artistic aspects to storytelling to good sound design.”

This course is a culmination of years of work, combining the efforts of faculty, students and alumni – with special support from Stanford alumni Tom Wang, BS, MS ’07, now of Riot Games, and Matthew Ventures, BS ’19, an officer of the Stanford Video Game Association. By the end of the class, which is open to any student with some basic programming skills, teams produced a complete game, available for download online, and a trailer for their game (all of which can be watched here). They also displayed their work at a showcase attended by dozens of local industry professionals.

Why games

For years, James, Riedel-Kruse and their colleagues and alumni who helped create this course have seen interest in video games at Stanford as an untapped educational opportunity.

“Games are an important part of our culture,” Riedel-Kruse said. “Similar to literature or film, they are something that really affects our lives and should be valued and explored by the students. Also, it’s an expressive medium, both when you’re creating these games but also when you play them.”

Delving into the design and development of this cultural staple, the students heard from 15 professionals working in video games, multimedia, design and marketing. Representing a dozen companies, these speakers offered their expertise on topics such as lighting, sound, storytelling, art and using the game engine Unity, which is how the students build their games.

“I didn’t really know about how people worked in the industry before this,” said Richard Lin, ’20, a student in the course who co-created Access Denied. “So, it’s really cool to hear about how they come to decide which feature they want to include in their game and how they worked on different parts of the game.”

For Lin, a lecture by Darren Korb of SuperGiant Games on how to create audio from patterns of different sound clips was especially memorable. His partner, Maya Ziv, ’20, was more familiar with the behind-the-scenes of game production, having examined and dabbled in game design in the past, but she was no less enthusiastic about this course.

“I am passionate about games in general,” Ziv said. “I do many games in various forms. I love board games, card games, roleplaying games, live-action roleplaying games – as nerdy as it gets I love it – and I think that video games as a medium for storytelling are really, really powerful.”

Collaboration and celebration

The teams built the basic foundation of their game the first week. Then they spent hours outside class brainstorming, sketching, programming, testing and adding required features to their products, often divvying up tasks to make deadlines.

“There’s a certain magic to it just because I didn’t build the entire game myself,” said Khoi Le, ’20, whose team produced a game called Luminosity, where, in contrast to a traditional stealth game, the player is a ball of light racing to escape detection in the shadows. “Going through the game, I notice, ‘Oh my gosh, Stefon made this level really intense,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, Michael added this amazing set design here.’ Our game has been a really fun culmination of all of our experience and talents.”

Le and his three teammates were especially challenged by the desire to create a sense of suspense without taking away their players’ ability to make meaningful decisions, which for their game came down to meticulous choices in lighting design.

The open-ended format of the course drives diverse projects. This year’s set spanned an impressive range, including an action-adventure game set in a boxy world, an augmented reality “escape the room” smartphone game and a platform game that takes place within a student’s nightmare.

At the final showcase industry professionals tried their hands at the student games, offered feedback and awarded their favorites. Two games, Good Bot and Ink Inc., received multiple awards recognizing the creativity and high quality of their finished products. Several students in the class received interview and internship offers.

James is also a professor, by courtesy, of music and Riedel-Kruse is also a member of Stanford Bio-X.

Media Contacts

Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-7707,