Spartans are serious players in the video game industry

MSU game development professor leads independent video game studio and talent pipeline. Adapted from a story on MSU Today.

Brian Winn helps aspiring and early-career game designers and developers hone their skills as a professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, which boasts a top-ten ranked program nationally in video and computer game design. He is also co-founder and president of Will Winn Games, an independent game studio based in East Lansing and supported by MSU Technologies, a group that works with faculty and staff to bring technologies and copyrightable materials into the commercial market.

“We noticed a growing number of schools starting commercial studios as pipelines for their students. Once a student graduates, often it’s hard to get that first job, even if they’re very skilled coming out of school,” Winn said. “We wanted to help students and recent graduates get their first professional experience in the gaming industry.”

The studio was founded with the purpose of bringing to life some of the faculty and student passion projects created in the MSU Games for Entertainment and Learning, or GEL, Lab, which Winn directs.

The studio’s first release “Plunder Panic” made its debut at the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival as the centerpiece of an interactive media showcase hosted by the GEL Lab. At that time, “Plunder Panic” was a prototype with a customized physical playing experience: a rum barrel with a mast in the middle and two mounted TVs — one for each team — on either side. 

Winn said the game drummed up a lot of excitement. “People came to the gallery where it was located and kept coming back,” he said. “After the showcase, we were like, ‘Hey, this was a big success, now what do we do with this game?’” 

Winn and his team continued to refine “Plunder Panic” and submitted it to festivals like PAX East, IndieCade, Indie MegaBooth and South by Southwest.

“We won a lot of awards along the way and realized that we had something unique that we and other players wanted to play,” Winn said. “So, we decided to bring it to market through the vehicle of Will Winn Games.”

Tatum Cho, former lead artist at Will Winn Games, said working for an indie company creates more opportunities for collaboration and impact. Cho now works as a digital graphics artist illustrating special edition covers and inlays for books. 

“I really like how interpersonal Will Winn is and how you can offer a hand in or have a say in a lot of things that aren’t your direct, immediate task,” she said. “If I was at a bigger company and on art team of 100 people, I probably wouldn’t have had a lot of say on some of the elements of the game outside of the visual identity. But at Will Winn, I had a say in every aspect of ‘Plunder Panic.’” 

Cho graduated from MSU in 2020 with a major in media and information and minors in game design, graphic design, comic books and graphic novels.

During Cho’s time at MSU, she had Winn as a professor and worked for him in the GEL Lab. She said working for Winn in her first professional job was a natural transition. 

“He’s been doing game development for a long time, so he understands the process. He’s patient and involved. He often wants to give feedback, which I appreciate; I always want to hear feedback on anything I do to know how to be better,” Cho said. “Brian always made us feel appreciated and that what we do is good work. At Will Winn Games, I was part of a team making a fun project together — and he made sure we were able to enjoy and learn from it.” 

Winn said seeing current and former students thrive in the gaming industry inspires him. 

“As a professor at MSU, one of my core jobs is to educate the next generation of game designers and game developers going out in the industry. It’s gratifying for me to see them start as a freshman, flow through our program, graduate and get careers out in the industry – at Will Winn Games or elsewhere – and then be working on the types of games that I’m playing at home with my kids.”

— Alex Tekip and Deon Foster

Read the full article on MSU Today

More Plunder Panic:

2016 Plunder Panic Advances to SXSW Gaming Pitch Competition

2017 The Creative Collaboration Behind Plunder Panic

2022 Plunder Panic Sets Sail Across All Major Platforms