Earlier this month, Anteater basketball came to an end just one win shy of March Madness. So what is UCI’s sophomore player Jeron Artest doing now that he’s no longer hitting three pointers to help his team get to the Big West Tournament championship game, or guarding the defensive player of the year during that game? The computer game science major has returned to his other passion — video game development. His interest in games dates back to his childhood, and by his sophomore year in high school, Artest had already developed his first game, “Jeronimo.”
“Jeron is a talented game designer and thinker,” says Informatics Professor Constance Steinkuehler. “He stands out among his peers in class for his insights into game design, game culture, and the role of games in culture and society broadly.”
So will the 6’3” guard follow in the footsteps of his dad, Metta World Peace, who had a 17-year NBA career? Or might he forge his own trail as a cutting-edge game developer or tech entrepreneur? There’s no telling what his future holds, but before basketball season had even ended, Artest had already turned his attention to “internship season,” lining up work in UCI’s Games+Learning+Society (GLS) center this spring and landing a summer internship. Here, he talks about balancing both athletics and academics while still finding time to program at game jams.
What led you to UCI?
I knew that UCI has a really good computer science program, and they also recruited me for basketball to compete at the championship level, so it was a perfect fit for me where I could pursue both.
How is it managing your athletic schedule while staying on top of academics?
It’s definitely a challenge, especially with a major as rigorous as computer science, so I have to focus on how I manage my time. I’m lucky that a lot of my projects can be done on the road, but that makes time management even more important since I still have to be ready to compete and win. It’s not like engineering or the medical field, where you need in-person labs. Our labs are easy to do over Zoom. I’ve also been juggling academics with athletics for most my life — high school might’ve been even more stressful than this!
What do you like best about UCI, and have you had a favorite class?
Definitely the people — I love the people. Everyone I’ve met has been really cool, and I’ve made a lot of great friends. And one of my favorite classes has been ICS 60: Computer Games and Society taught by Constance Steinkuehler. I never looked at video games from the perspective of a researcher before, but I’ve always wanted to get into analyzing them as more than just a player, so that class definitely resonated with me.
Can you also talk about your involvement with UCI’s Video Game Development Club (VGDC)?
I actually got involved with VGDC late in the fall quarter of my freshman year in 2019. I joined a team as a programmer working on a very cool top-down exploration game inspired by “Sunless Sea,” led by a friend I met in ICS 32A. That same quarter, I ended up working as a soundtrack composer on a 3D puzzle game with anti-gravity mechanics. This year, as a sophomore, I worked on a top-down 3D vampire-hunting game inspired by “Among Us,” which was a great learning experience with multiplayer networking.
I also participated in a few game jams, including the Fall 2020 VGDC Game Jam, which was pretty cool. We made “We Will Cook You,” which I helped program. It’s a single player top-down game where you protect your restaurant’s chefs for as long as you can by closing doors on two rival chef assassins.
Then I also joined a Halloween game jam with a few people from UCI, the University Arizona and Cal Poly Pomona. That was pretty cool too. We made “Lenore,” a narrative horror game, because one of our members was a writer. It was spooky and really uncanny. I was the only programmer in that jam, and solo programming that game was a challenge because I still had to go to basketball practice in the middle of the jam! It was our first time working with a third-person game, so we didn’t get as far as we wanted, but we still built a game in 48 hours.
I then participated in the GitHub Game-Off with the same team as well as adding in one more member from USC to help with design and programming. We ended up coming up with “CyberMonk: Moonkey Mayhem,” a 2D platform rhythm brawler that’s still in development.
Starting this spring, I am going to be an officer for VGDC, and I plan to help push UCI’s game development community to thrive.
How surprised are your classmates when they learn you’re on UCI’s basketball team?
I never tell people I’m on the basketball team because it’s not typically relevant to my skills as a developer, but I don’t have an option when I have to tell someone I have to go to practice! They definitely are surprised, all the time. Then they usually ask, “How can you juggle both?” I think it helps that I’ve been playing and programming for a while now.
What came first — your love for basketball or video games?
I’d say my passion for both was sparked almost at the same time, but my love for video games probably came first. I used to play a lot of VTech and Leap Frog games when I was a kid. And I remember playing “NBA 2K3” specifically on the PS2. My mom also put me in sports camps when I was a little kid, including golf, soccer and basketball.
I read you don’t really like playing “NBA 2K” … is that true?
I’m not much of a sports game person! They’re fun, especially when I get to play with my teammates, but I’m honestly just not good at controlling the players. It takes a lot of practice, and I’ve avoided playing them for so long that I don’t have the same skills as other players. The worst thing that happens way too often for me is that I know where and when I want to pass because I have a lot of experience with the real thing, but I’d misinput and the ball would go to a whole other person or out of bounds, leading to a turnover. Also, I wish there were more modern arcade basketball games similar to “NBA Jam” or “NBA Street.” The closest thing right now I’d say is “NBA Playgrounds.”
And what motivated you to develop your own game in high school?
I love telling this story! My mom took away my gaming privileges and told me that if I want to keep playing video games, I’d have to make my own. So I did exactly that and went onto YouTube to learn how to make a game. The first thing that came up was a Unity tutorial by Brackeys, and he was doing a “how to make a game” series. So I followed the tutorial all the way to the end, but then was like, “I want to add this,” so I’d Google it and figure out how to add something like a time-slowing mechanic or a screen shake to juice up the game. And that’s how I kept accumulating knowledge on how to build games.
So that first game I built was “Jeronimo,” a mobile, 2D platformer survival shooter game. You had to survive against aliens that came from the sky, sort of like “Galaga,” but you could control your player like Mario. I made the art myself and was able to program it all myself! It’s not on the App store anymore, but I’m thinking of remaking it since I’m a much better game developer now.
Do you have any advice for prospective game design and interactive media (GDIM) students? [The computer game science major will be renamed GDIM starting in Fall 2021.]
I’d say don’t get scared by the first classes that you have to take, because it gets easier. With any major, especially one in a STEM field, you are going to run into a lot of hard classes, especially early on. With GDIM, you’re going to have to go through some programming classes, but trust in yourself and you’ll get to the fun stuff. Also, try your best to make friends and network early, whether that’s in class or in a club like VGDC! I feel like game development is best as a collaborative process, and you’ll form amazing relationships.
Another big piece of advice is to not be afraid of doing at least one game jam, even if you feel like you don’t have much experience. I compare them to speedrunning friendships and learning — you’ll feel like you got a year’s worth of experience and have known your team since forever. Game development is a challenging discipline, but the satisfaction of finishing a project — no matter the scale — is worth all the time studying and learning on your own.
What is your future goal — the NBA, a career in game development, or maybe both?
My future is really open for me right now. I might even have the potential to do both at the same time. That sounds crazy, but there are plenty of athletes who express themselves creatively through mediums like music or film. Games are art to me, and it would be my form of creative expression.
The last game of the basketball season was hard to lose, but we’re a young team, so we will come back stronger next year. The funny thing is, now it’s internship season, and it’s a bit ironic that I’m a game developer, but I didn’t try for an internship in the game industry yet. I just accepted my offer for a summer internship at Intuit. I’ll be interning as a full stack engineer for their tech futures org. This spring quarter, I’ll also be part of a research team in the GLS center as an intern researching the benefits of youth esports. My future goals are not set in stone, and I feel that I want to do everything!
— Shani Murray