Category: Blog

Getting to Know You: Tim Mrozek, Artist

Tim Mrozek is an artist at Dig-It! Games, bringing environments and characters alive through modeling and animation. Tim grew up in Catonsville, which is just outside of Baltimore, and of course, is a huge Orioles fan. He moved to Silver Spring, MD about right years ago to take a job as a 3D artist and animator at the National Institutes of Health. After that, he worked for four years at Pixeldust Studios as Lead 3D Modeler and 3D animator and worked on around 20-25 projects, including Fabric of the Cosmos, Alien Deep, NOVA: Cracking Your Genetic Code, The Smithsonian’s X3D project. Tim was fortunate enough to be nominated for an Emmy for his work as character artist on a Smithsonian Channel show called Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink. Tim studied Animation Major at UMBC. In the spring, He’ll be back at UMBC to teach ART 484 (advanced animation) in the evenings.

Tim sat down to answer some questions about his average day in the studio , what attracted him to educational games and his go-to karaoke songs.

Tim

 

What’s an average day at Dig-It! Games look like for you?

The flow of my day changes pretty frequently, but there are a few things that remain pretty constant. Every day starts with my bike ride from Silver Spring to Bethesda. This, of course, is immediately followed by obtaining coffee. Then I’ll settle down at my desk where I’ll do a quick visual review of any works in progress posted by the other artists. After that it really varies on a daily basis. Sometimes I get right into zbrush and start sculpting a 3D model for one of our games, or I’ll open Photoshop and get to work designing the UI for one of our games, or menus. Sometimes it’s a team meeting to critique each others work and discuss how we want to move forward on a particular design or game. Each day is exciting when you have a team of artists you really enjoy working with, and the dev team isn’t too bad either.

What got you interested in game design?

I’ve always been incredibly intrigued by video games since the first time I played an NES. As a 32 year old, video games as a whole are only a few years older than me, so I’ve always been incredibly excited to age along with games. The moment that I really knew I wanted to pursue making games was when I first played Riven: The Sequel to Myst. I had never seen CG look so incredible. The mindblowing still renders in that game, combined with the really challenging, naturally integrated puzzles and story took me completely off-guard. I knew that I wanted to learn how to do this, and if I got lucky, make a living making games for the rest of my life. I’ve even joined a team of volunteers, called The Starry Expanse, that are rebuilding this inspirational game for the new generation using the Unreal Engine.

What is your favorite video or digital game from childhood?

Since I already mentioned Riven, I’ll go with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This wasn’t the first 3D game I had played, but it was the first 3D game in my favorite series of games (Legend of Zelda). This game gave me a whole new perspective of what was possible in a video game. I have probably replayed this game about 10 times in my life. While small by today’s standards, the open world felt endless to me at the time. The first time I stepped onto Hyrule Field I felt like I was given complete freedom to explore anywhere I wanted, and I had never experienced this in a video game before.

What drew you to Dig-It! Games?
I’ve always been interested in using animation and CG for education. Before Dig-It! Games I was working at Pixeldust Studios where I was creating animation for Smithsonian Channel, National Geographic, and Discovery. I have always gravitated to games and TV that explore science, archaeology, and education as a whole. This, combined with my interest in making video games made Dig-It! a pretty natural choice. I love the idea of creating games that will inspire creativity and exploration in a new generation of kids.

What song would you sing at karaoke and why?
Funny you should ask, I was just at a karaoke party a week or two ago, and I sang three songs. Bad Romance, by Lady Gaga, Heaven on Their Minds from Jesus Christ, Superstar and In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins.


Getting to Know You: Steve Hunnicutt, Head Developer

Steve Hunnicutt is Dig-It! Games’ Head Developer responsible for bringing the coding to life. Steve’s father was in the Navy, so he grew up in lots of different places, including Honolulu, Hawaii for three years. After his father retired from the Navy, we moved to Jacksonville, Florida. He spent more of my childhood there than anywhere else, so he considers it his hometown. Steve moved to Baltimore in 1990 and has been living there ever since.

Steve sat down for a Q&A to give us more insight into his role at Dig-It! Games, what sparked his love of programming and how aspiring programmers can get started.

steve

What’s an average day at Dig-It! Games look like for you?
I don’t really have an “average” day. One day, we’re working out the design for a new game and doing prototypes. The next day, we may start working on the code architecture. Sometimes, I do concept sketches to communicate ideas to the rest of the team. It’s always something different.

What got you interested in game design?
I love playing games. Board games are favorites, but I’m always playing some sort of video game. Also, I’ve been coding in one language or another for almost thirty years. So when I had the opportunity to work at a game studio, I grabbed it.

Any advice for kids who want to become programmers?
It’s easier than ever to dip your toe into programming. There are lots of different ways to get started. One of the easiest is to start building web pages; all you need is a text editor and a web browser. There are innumerable tutorials to get you started. Once you have a simple page, you can add interactivity with JavaScript. You can make a lot of simple games very easily, but the platform has the potential for very complex games. The only limit is your imagination and your skill.

What is your favorite video or digital game from childhood?
My family purchased an Apple //e computer about the time I was starting the eighth grade. I took to it immediately, playing games, connecting to bulletin board systems (BBS) and writing my own programs. My favorite game was one that I played with my mother. It was called Starlanes.

The goal of Starlanes was to build the most profitable interstellar company. Each player would place a star base each turn. Adjacent star bases connected into a single company. Companies that were adjacent to a star were more profitable. In addition, each turn the player could buy stock in any of the companies, even your opponent’s. If two companies touched, they merged and you could get a big stock payoff.

Once upon a time, I had the source code to Starlanes. I still hope that someday I’ll find it again and I could bring it back to life on modern computers.

If you were ruler of your own country what would be the first law you would introduce?
This is a tough question. I think I would institute a social welfare system that guaranteed basic income, healthcare, and nutrition to my citizens. Read Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” for a much more detailed vision of a society that I find compelling.


Middle Level Educators + Games = Fun

As many middle school teachers can agree, students in grades 5-9 require a very different approach for instruction compared to upper elementary or high school levels. Middle level educators know that kids at that age need something different in the classroom to keep them engaged and excited about learning.

That’s why game-based learning (GBL) can improve student academic success when incorporated correctly into the classroom. Earlier this month, we headed to Columbus, OH for AMLE 2015, a gathering where middle level educators from all over the country can talk about best practices in the classroom. Suzi led a Speed Learning session with three rotations to talk to teachers about why GBL works, how they can use games in the classroom, and where to find well-built games that keeps the student experience in mind during development.

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Here are five important takeaways from that presentation:

  • Games should have defined learning outcomes in order to create a meaningful learning experience for the student. In other words, teachers should be able to ask, “What is my student working towards in this game?” and get a detailed response. For example, in Loot Pursuit: Pompeii, the goal of the game is to provide review of Common Core-aligned math problems, but also to give exposure to the ancient Roman culture through artifact collection.
  • Electronic games combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning at all times. Through the combination of graphics, audio and movement into a coherent whole, players are encouraged to strengthen weaker skills, while taking advantage of their proficiencies.

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  • Story-based games are immersive and interactive, helping to “hide” the learning. It’s invisible to the students, but they are practicing higher-order thinking and building critical thinking skills during gameplay. These games are valuable because they pull the learner into the game and motivate them to continue to reach the story’s conclusion.
  • Many games that provide built-in, instantaneous feedback offer students progressive learning and require players to master a topic before moving forward. This places an emphasis on character traits like persistence and ownership of the learning material. Because this feedback is not communicated to a student’s peers, it acts as a form of self-assessment and encourages experimentation, trial and error, and failure.
  • Look for educational games on websites like Graphite, which provide detailed reviews and alignment to standards. Teachers are even able to search by standard on these sites and incorporate a short mini-game into their lessons. Alternatively, teachers may find long-form games for use (like Mayan Mysteries), which can stand on their own rather than being supplemental.

We’ll be participating in the Game-Based Learning Summit at FETC 2016 on January 12! Be sure to save the date and stop by in Orlando, or follow along on our Twitter account (@DigItGames) for more tips and tricks involving GBL.

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We’re Video Game Wizards

5 Reasons We Love the BMI Video Game Exhibit

Last week, the Dig-It! Games team took a field trip to the Baltimore Museum of Industry (BMI), which is showcasing an interactive exhibit that lets visitors create their own video game. Open through 2019, Video Game Wizards–Transforming Science and Art into Games features six stations, each pertaining to a particular skillset (i.e. coding and art) and giving guests the chance to customize a game using those various skills. In other words, visitors experience the collaborative process of video game development at every point in the exhibition. At the end, they are able to play their own game and share it on the exhibition’s website with family and friends; and play any of the games developed at the BMI.

But the team wasn’t visiting just to create our own games—Dig-It! Games had the opportunity to join legendary software developer Sid Meier (Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Pirates) and other video game professionals for a discussion about the local game development industry.

Image 1 At Exhibit

Here are our five takeaways from the experience:

  1. Video games in all forms, even for game-based learning, are creating a booming industry with major growth expected in the coming years.

Sometimes our industry feels like it waxes and wanes. Some folks push for game-based learning in the classroom. Others aren’t sure it is worth the effort. From the discussion, it became clear that video games are here to stay—and that the business we are in will continue to grow.

  1. There is a host of very smart, talented, creative people in this industry.

It goes without saying that we believe the Dig-It! Games team has an incredible amount of talent. At this event, however, it was clear that almost everyone in the video game development industry is passionate about their jobs. They’re not phoning it in—they believe in what they are creating. It’s wonderful to see.

  1. Dig-It Games has been and continues to be doing the right thing for students, teachers and game players.

We always believe we’re doing the right thing—but in listening to what others are doing within their companies, we have reaffirmed our work. The creative process and the development process is consistent with the industry. The BMI discussion laid it out step by step, a presentation we could have given word for word. We know that how we produce games is truly effective.

  1. Students value the collaboration and skills that go into developing a video game.

Last year, we had the opportunity to welcome middle school students to the Dig-It! Games studio for our first field trip experience. They had the opportunity to gets hands-on with game design and collaborate to create a final product, a game of their very own. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the exhibit we visited accomplished the same goal through an interactive computer experience. The skills we teach during our field trips and the skills the exhibit teaches are equal. We share the same mission—to show kids how we develop games and interest them in a possible STEAM career—whether that’s programming, art, or even creative writing.

  1. Baltimore is a hub for the technology sector—and it’s continuing to grow.

When you hear technology or video games, you think about a few different places. New York City, maybe. Silicon Valley. A kid fiddling with his or her computer in the basement. You don’t necessarily think of Baltimore, but you should. This summer, EdWeek reported that Baltimore was seeking to become an edtech hub—and the city is proving its worth. Young people with great talent are coming to the area, looking to get involved in something they are passionate about.

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One of the biggest takeaways is that everyone in the industry is playing a guessing game. Sid Meier was discussing the development of Civilization, and he said that at the time, his team was just throwing ideas up against the wall and seeing what stuck. We find ourselves doing the same thing in our meetings occasionally. We ask ourselves, “Will kids think this is fun?” We’re brainstorming new game ideas, trying them out, and seeing what works for kids.

Behind it all is our educational mission, led by founder Suzi Wilczynski. Our goal is not just for a game to be fun, but also for it to be a learning experience—one where kids might not even realize how much they’ve learned in the moment.


Getting to Know You: Natasha Martinez, Developer

Hailing from Portsmouth, NH, Natasha Martinez is the newest member of the development team at Dig-It! Games. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in game design and development, Martinez jumped into the studio to begin working on a brand-new vocabulary game (I Have A Word™ is coming soon!). She is very much credited with the game’s development from start to finish.

Get to know Natasha with a short Q&A below:

What’s your day look like in the studio?

An average day at Dig-It! Games is very relaxed. I come in each morning and check for any new bugs found the day before. After fixing those, I launch right in to a new feature or two and keep progressing on the game. Each day, the game comes closer to a releasable version until it’s ready to go!

How did you first become interested in games—and what’s your favorite game that you’ve ever played (video, board game, app, etc.) and why?

Growing up, I always had a game to play, whether it was for Windows ’98 or the Dreamcast. I really enjoyed playing the games with my little brother. When we finally got Game Boys we were ecstatic! Our first game for it was Pokémon. I spent countless hours playing my first Pokémon game. We always got the newest one as soon as it came out.

Natasha

Why did you want to work at Dig-It! Games?

I’m very interested in educational games. I grew up playing great titles. I’m not sure how much content I remember now, but I do remember enjoying the math and reading. I want to continue making even more fun educational games. Learning doesn’t have to be boring! I want to mix the fun of video games with education.

I’m sure you’ve had a chance to play all of Dig-It! Games’ products. Which one is your favorite and why?

I enjoy 3 Digits the most. In elementary school, we had a unit to learn Mayan culture and their counting system. I was happy to refresh my memory on how to do it!

What’s your favorite snack food?
I love Scooby Doo fruit snacks!

Tell me about a favorite memory you’ve had so far in working with the team.

The other day we had a great time welcoming our newest team member, Tim Nicklas. We played Pictionary and had a great bonding experience.

Can you give me a sneak peek on something you’re working on right now?

We’re currently working on a new title for middle schoolers. I can’t tell you much, but it’s looking great so far!


Ready, Set, Pin: Dig-It! Games is Pin-teresting

It’s the end of August and we know where teachers are. They’re in the classroom, cleaning and organizing, decorating bulletin boards and planning out seating charts; they’re in professional development for the district, talking about standards and assessments and training on the newest technologies; and they’re on Pinterest, pinning ideas for units and activities, rules posters and homework sheet templates.

Pinterest Announcement

Since July, according to Buzzfeed, there have been 72 million back-to-school Pins—from lunchboxes to school supplies to homework stations to ways of fighting fatigue. This week, Dig-It! Games launched our Pinterest page with boards for:

  • Ancient Maya Culture Unit
  • Middle School Math: Common Core Activities
  • Roman History Unit
  • Back to School: Middle School Teacher Tips

Part of our mission at Dig-It! Games is to promote cultural understanding through the study of ancient cultures. Our founder and CEO, Suzi Wilczynski, is a former social studies teacher and archaeologist. We specifically develop our games to meet the needs of middle school students, and we know that middle school is a time when students are discovering who they are and determining how they fit into the world. Students are looking to know where they come from to figure out where they’re going. By studying ancient Rome or the Maya culture, students develop analysis skills to lead them to a better understanding of the world around them.

Our hope is that our Pinterest page will serve as a resource for educators to quickly find exciting activities and tips to help teachers better plan the school year and implement game-based learning in the process.

  • Our two flagship games—Mayan Mysteries and Roman Town—were the inspiration for our ancient culture Boards on Pinterest. Within those, you’ll find teacher-created resources, printables, and engaging videos. Because Roman Town is set in Pompeii, there are volcano-building exercises and diorama activities for students to get hands-on with the content.
  • With a focus on math through our Loot Pursuit series (Tulum and Pompeii) as well as 3 Digits, we wanted to introduce some fun math resources that are Common Core-aligned for middle school teachers. In our Middle School Math board, you’ll find lots of free resources from Teachers Pay Teachers that can be used as games for review or center activities.
  • We also want teachers to feel ready to get back in the classroom. Our Back-to-School Board provides tips and resources to get the year started off on the right foot, with decorating ideas and first-day games to get to know students.

As we develop and produce new games, we’ll be updating the Pinterest page to reflect related resources. Follow us on Pinterest to stay informed! (Psst—we’re looking for vocabulary Pins…)


Getting to Know You: Mimi Wack, Production Intern

This past summer, Mimi Wack joined the Dig-It! Games team as a production intern. Mimi is a University of Chicago junior majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies, a dessert-lover, and gamer. Working daily with Head of Production Dayle Hodge, Mimi was responsible for keeping the whole team organized as they develop new games to be released later this year. Dayle shared:

 “Mimi is a joy to work with.  She’s conscientious, works hard and cares about Dig-It! Games’ mission. She’s a quick study, an excellent organizer and a truly wonderful person.  We’ll miss her when she goes back to school this year, but we hope to see her again next summer.”

Mimi will be heading to Chicago in a few weeks, but in the meantime, get to know her here on the blog:

Mimi Wack

Take us through your average day at the Dig-It! Games studio. What projects do you work on? What meetings do you go to? What’s your favorite part of the day?

Most of my work is keeping track of what needs to get done and by whom. There’s a lot of information that gets passed around the office, especially during design meetings when the team hashes out the plan for our next game, and it takes time to sort through it and organize everybody’s duties. I enjoy it, though–it’s satisfying work.

How did you first become interested in games—and what’s your favorite game that you’ve ever played (video, board game, app, etc.) and why?

I got into video games when I was young, with the very same kind of educational games I’m helping make now! My favorite at the time was Zoombinis, and my favorite game in general (which I still think holds up very well) was Spyro the Dragon: Ripto’s Rage. My very favorite game that I’ve played is Portal 2 because its mechanics are really inventive and it has a great storyline.

Why did you want to intern with Dig-It! Games?

I was mostly interested in game studios around the DC area, and Suzi was kind enough to respond to my application. When I looked at the released games, it brought back nostalgia for the educational games I’d played during elementary and middle school.

I’m sure you’ve had a chance to play all of Dig-It! Games’ products. Which one is your favorite and why?

I play a lot of Can U Dig It! It’s a great quick puzzle game, and I’ve always liked games that involve spatial thinking. I’m working on getting all the achievements now (most of the way done!).

What’s your biggest takeaway from your internship at the studio this summer?

My biggest takeaway is that while it’s easy to look at a finished game and say “oh, that’s easy, it’s just a video game”, actually being a part of producing them is mostly a series of complicated design meetings and organizing notes so that the art & development teams have a record of what they’re supposed to do (at least until the design is changed). And that making even the smallest components of a game, like a sparkly animation, involves some very specific communication and a bunch of intermediary steps. It’s a complicated process, basically. Game developers should get much more credit than they do.

What’s your favorite dessert?

It’s hard to beat the classic deliciousness of a chocolate chip cookie, but I also like brownies. And donuts. Honestly, there’s not a lot of desserts I don’t like.