Heather Cole, a teaching assistant professor of Game Design and Interactive Media, launches Morgantown’s first video game studio. It’s springtime and Trooper Cooper’s camp- ground is reopening, but he needs your help to clean up the campsite before guests arrive. Your mission is to find a pot, a first aid kit and a log when you move into the campground.
By summer, there are still some items mis- placed in Trooper Cooper’s campground. Find a tent, backpack, axe and fire to help clean up the campsite and move to the next level.
Trooper Cooper’s Campsite Cleanup is just one of the video games students have produced for MonRiverGames as part of Teaching Assistant Professor Heather Cole’s Game Design and Interactive Media (GDIM) capstone course at the WVU Reed College of Media.
MARCH 2021: The idea for a student+community game design studio is born
AUGUST 2021: The first game design course is launched and the public is invited to pitch video game ideas for production.
NOVEMBER 2021: MonRiverGames is officially registered as a voluntary organization with the State of West Virginia.
DECEMBER 2021: The first game prototypes are developed for the public to play and vote for favorites.
JANUARY 2022: The second game design course begins with a public call for game idea pitches
MARCH 2022: GDIM faculty Heather Cole and Jeffrey Moser take a group of students to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.
APRIL 2022: The second round of game prototypes are developed and made available to the public.
MAY 2022: MonRiverGames launches the first community summer session.
JULY 2022: MonRiverGames officially becomes a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization
AUGUST 2022: Community expansion continues and the third student cohort begins.
MonRiverGames started as an idea in March 2021, and with Cole’s leadership, quickly developed into a fully realized game design studio.
Cole has always loved video games. Prior to joining the College of Media in July 2019, she managed the game minor program at Penn State Behrend, where she was an assistant teaching professor of digital arts, and she knew she wanted to continue that same path at WVU.
“I started at WVU a semester before the pandemic,” Cole said. “During that time when everyone was isolating at home, I had a lot of time to think. I came to realize that while our Game Design and Interactive Media program is great and doing great things, opportunities for game design and development in Mon
County within a professional studio setting are scarce. I saw a need to build a community that could provide this and decided to do something about it.”
Dean Diana Martinelli agreed, and the pilot group for MonRiverGames, which consisted of College of Media capstone students, launched in August 2021.
“We’re always looking for ways to expose students to a variety of media, help them understand how to communicate via these methods and connect them with their communities,” Martinelli said. “We have an opportunity to leverage a popular form of media to communicate for the greater good. And, we have an incredible leader in Heather to spearhead this program.”
The GDIM capstone course is the culmination of a cross-disciplinary major between the Reed College of Media and the College of Creative Arts. The students are tasked with creating a video game from the ground up, and the course mimics an actual video game production studio.
“While I think it's necessary to just do something for fun every once in a while, like the arts for art’s sake movement – let’s call it 'game for game’s sake' – my heart very much belongs to meaningful and serious games,” Cole said. “These are games that are not just for fun. They are empathy building interactive experiences that tell a story that is important to the makers. This is because we learn and understand things best through play. What better place to do that than the Reed College of Media? In creating the studio, I wanted to do that whenever we can. We might make some that are just for fun and enjoyable, but we'll also try to get better at creating meaningful experiences.”
Trooper Cooper’s Campsite Cleanup is one such game with memory and matching components to help stroke victims gain back cognitive functions and dexterity.
“Working on a game as meaningful as Trooper Cooper was an inspiring opportunity,” said Thomas Ambrusico (BA, 2022). “It was a reminder of how fortunate we creatives in this field are to be able to help others in such a fun way. I want to eventually direct an art team that focuses on producing meaningful and creative results, and I think Trooper Cooper was one of the first hands-on experiences I've had that gave me a little taste of that goal.”
Joey Vedda (BA, 2022), who was among the students in the MonRiverGames pilot group, credits his teammates with having the greatest impact on him during his experience at the College of Media.
“They helped me find out what I love to do and showed me what was possible when working with others,” said Vedda, who now works as a software developer at 7Signal, a leader in wireless experience monitoring.
“Studios like MonRiverGames serve a critical function in creating ground-breaking gaming experiences. Being involved and working with the local community has provided a level of creative content that, in my opinion, is often not available anywhere else.”
Cole’s goal for the studio is twofold: to produce meaningful games, but also to have a space for like-minded community members to come together.
The community has been involved in MonRiverGames from the very beginning. During the first capstone course, two public “pitch days” were held where the general public was invited to share game ideas, and each student presented a game pitch. Then, the course wrapped up with a public vote on the best game design.
This summer, the studio expanded beyond just the student capstone experience. MonRiverGames held its first summer session, a noncredit course, composed of students as well as members of the local community. The team worked together to produce the studio’s first game that uses 3D modeling and animation — Dawn of Alina. The game follows mage Alina in her quest to unite a kingdom that has been split in two by dark magic.
"Studios like MonRiverGames serve a critical function in creating groundbreaking gaming experiences,” said Ryan Lee Eicheldinger, a game developer from Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, and the community outreach director and interdisciplinary game developer for MonRiverGames. “Being involved and working with the local community has provided a level of creative content that, in my opinion, is often not available anywhere else.”
Cole hopes that one day, the studio, which recently became a 501(c)(3) organization, will be entirely self-sustaining and able to provide funds for anyone who is interested in professional development in the game industry. Last spring, Cole took a step towards this by organizing a trip for students to San Francisco for the Game Development Conference, the nation’s largest event for professionals in the game design industry.
The annual conference provides an opportunity for professionals, students and those interested in gaming-related careers to meet industry leaders, exchange ideas and discuss the industry’s future.
“Conferences are expensive ventures, but show casing and attending these conferences in person is the best way to build a game career,” Cole said. “These events are neither accessible nor affordable for many. As someone who grew up with little means, I recognize the importance of providing opportunities to everyone who has the dedication and passion for the field, and a community of like-minded individuals is necessary for adding fuel and support to that passion.”
"I recognize the importance of providing opportunities to everyone who has the dedication and passion for the field, and a community of like-minded individuals is necessary for adding fuel and support to that passion.” HEATHER COLE
Brian Weers, a GDIM student and president of the WVU X-Reality Club, helped organize the trip, which was funded in part by the WVU Student Government Association, the College of Creative Arts and the College of Media.
“I got the opportunity to meet professionals who work in Los Angeles on AAA games and fellow college students who were feeling the same emotions as I was about nearing the end of our college careers,” said Weers, who interned at Blizzard Entertainment in Los Angeles this past summer. “I hope that the conference provided a pathway for many students who weren't quite sure what direction they wanted to head.”
This academic year, a new group of students are beginning their own journey with MonRiverGames, creating games with meaning and some “games for game's sake.” “I’m excited for this year because between our community and student sessions, we’re learning each cycle how to be more efficient with what we’re doing,” Cole said. “I’m looking forward to the studio growing and seeing the new game ideas from our students and community members.”