If you think all video games are violent and mindless, you probably haven’t played one in a while.

That’s what Charles McGregor, game developer and founder of Tribe Games, believes. With so many types of games out there now, panic and negative stereotypes about video games as an entire group is misplaced, he said.

“I think that a lot of people who have a negative stigma toward video games, they played video games when they were younger… and they haven’t touched video games since or very seldom since,” McGregor said. “And when they hear there’s (‘Grand Theft Auto’) or ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and these more mature-rated games, they think, ‘Oh, a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old is playing these games and they’re targeted toward them.’ … Those games do exist but games as a medium has matured.”

Animation from the game Distant Transmission. Video Games pbs rewire
Charles McGregor draws from his love of art and music when he develops video games. This is an animation from his upcoming game “Distant Transmission.”

McGregor, 24, the first black owner of a game development studio in Minnesota, has released 10 games so far and is in the process of launching another: “HyperDot,” an arcade-style game in which you, as a little dot, must dodge all the obstacles that appear on the screen. It’s harder than it sounds. “HyperDot” is being released with support from GLITCH, a St. Paul, Minnesota, organization that signal boosts emerging game designers.

Also an artist and musician, McGregor calls on all his strengths to create games. Not only does he design the visuals in his games, he also writes and records the soundtracks. The gameplay “adds an extra layer of interactivity” to what he believes is an art form in itself.

“There’s a wide variety of different audiences and avenues and ways to access and play games,” he said. “It’s no longer just a thing that you may have played just to pass the time. Now there are communities that are bubbling up out of it. There are educational games, there are games that are experimental and artistic, there are games that are more action movies.”

“Whether or not video games are art or if it’s something you prop your kids in front of” as an electronic babysitter is an ongoing debate, McGregor said. The rich landscape of gaming today and the visual and musical aspects of games place him squarely in the “of course it’s art” camp.

“That’s part of its artistry and that’s part of why it’s something that I really deeply care about,” he said.

The art of video game music

Unless you’re an avid gamer and a music lover, you likely haven’t spent too much time thinking about the scores of video games.

But a soundtrack, if it’s not right, can detract from gameplay, McGregor said. The right soundtrack can make a good game even better.

Charles McGregor works on a game on his tablet. Video Games pbs rewire
Charles McGregor works on a game on his tablet in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Josef Lorenzo.

In a game like 2016’s “Doom,” the background music, dark metal in this case, “drives the whole gameplay and the experience you’re going through,” he said. On the other hand, when he was developing “HyperDot,” McGregor needed to take repetitiveness into consideration.

“HyperDot” is difficult to master. Because a player “might be stuck on this level for a while” or  “they might go back to this level or play this for 30 minutes at a time,” he had to make sure the music didn’t get too annoying, he said.

“You want to make sure the music isn’t super overbearing and detracts from the experience.”

The key to being a game developer

Not even a year old, Tribe Games is still fresh for McGregor. It wasn’t until November 2017 that it officially became a business.

“It is really surreal to think about, to be like ‘I actually have a game development business, I’m making games full time,’” he said.

McGregor was young when he told his parents he wanted to be a game developer. His dad, a computer scientist, “sat me down and taught me how to code in BASIC.”

Fish illustration that appears as a character in the game Fingeance. Video Games pbs rewire
This fish illustration by Charles McGregor appears as a character in his game “Fingeance.”

“My parents were definitely a huge support and a huge influence,” he said. “My dad was the one who introduced me to video games in the first place.”

Today, McGregor often gets asked by aspiring game developers for advice. His No. 1 talking point is fairly simple.

“The biggest thing that I want to tell them when they’re starting to make games is make something fully to completion,” McGregor said. “What I mean by that is fully release the game,” whether you ask your mom or friends to play, you put it on an online forum or you release it on the app store.

Though he’s been working on games for a long time, the first time McGregor fully finished and released a game was four years ago, with “Glitch in the System.”

“Doing that and understanding the process and internalizing that completely changed the game for me,” he said. “I made a quick game in two days and after that I just polished it up and I said ‘I’m going to actually realize this game.’ And ever since I released it, opportunities started popping up.”

Learning by doing is the best way to figure out exactly what goes into making your idea for a game into a reality.

“That’s why I’m totally on the side of, it doesn’t matter how small the game is, replicate ‘Pac-Man’ or make tic-tac-toe,” McGregor said. “And at the end of it you can say, ‘Here’s my game, you wanna play it?’”

This article is part of  “Living for the City,” a Rewire initiative made possible by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Additional funding provided by Full Stack Saint Paul – from Start Up to Scale Up, an initiative by the City of Saint Paul to advance tech and innovation.

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