3D Game Design: What Educators Need to Know

(Image credit: Pixabay)

The future is 3D, says Shaun Foster, director of 3D Digital Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). 

“Computers went from being text-based machines in the 80s, then transitioned to two-dimensional graphical user interfaces,” Foster says. “Then over time, the level and complexity and visual representation of those graphics got deeper and higher resolution.” 

We’re in the midst of the new revolution in graphics as 3D technology is improving rapidly, along with wearable AR and VR technology. “We're going to be ‘Ready Player One,’ pretty soon,” he says. 

This burgeoning field is full of opportunity for educators and their students. Technology convergence is driving the adoption of cutting-edge interactive 3D game technologies into fields such as visual effects, architectural and production visualization, data, GIS, vehicle and transportation optimization, says Foster. 

Foster has received grants from game-maker Epic Games, creators of Unreal Engine and Fortnite. He has also launched an edX course in 3D design. He offers advice for educators interested in learning more about the field and grant opportunities. 

Be Aware of The Field’s Potential  

Former students of Foster’s have worked in 3D design for major film and television productions, including The Mandolorian

But the entertainment industry is just one of many areas in which these skills are applicable. 

“I’m talking to our sister departments in interior design and industrial design at RIT, and we have connections to the game design department,” Foster says. “Students are doing work with professors in the medical field who are doing traditional medical work, but also psychology -- there are avatars that our students have been designing that are working with one of the professors at RIT who got a big grant to do avatar-based psychology.” 

Foster adds, “it's really multiple fields coming together.” 

Utilize Free Resources  

Epic Games’ Unreal Engine game engine is available to download for free and is a great tool for students, Foster says. “Unreal Foundations,” Foster’s course on using this game engine, is also available for free on the EdX platform, though students who pay $537 will have access to course forums and other features and will earn a certificate of completion. “It’s a 16-week course that’s split in three chunks, three smaller classes that give you a really strong foundation and an overview of the Unreal Engine,” Foster says.  

The lessons include learning the program’s interface, learning lighting, camera work, visual effects, coding, sequencing, and more in relation to the program. Educators can utilize aspects of this course in their own courses and Foster’s YouTube channel is another excellent free resource. 

Applying for Grants  

In recent years, Foster received grants for $160,000 and $275,000 from the Epic MegaGrants program. The latter grant was applied for with David Long, director of RIT's Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC). These grants have helped Foster design educational resources for others. 

Foster has learned that the projects that get funding are often the ones in which much of the work has already been done but grant money is necessary to complete it. “They're funding the 20 percent of the work that you haven't done yet,” he says. That doesn't mean they’re only funding 20 percent of the overall work, however. “There's this concept, the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, that you might do 80 percent of the work in 20 percent of the time, but getting that extra 20 percent of quality or depth, it takes potentially 80 percent of the time.” 

“What I found is that a lot of times, for the grants that I've gotten funded, I've done a huge amount of work ahead of time,” he says. “And then I've realized that there's a huge amount that I could do if I had the time to do it, and that's where I tend to go to go looking.” 

While there are specific grants designed to fund early research, decision makers for other types of grants like to see that researchers have done their homework. “People can look at you and say, ‘Hey, you're not just asking for a handout, you spent time in the field and you want to go deeper,’” Foster says. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.