Kevin Tynan, Executive Director for Marketing and Communications at UIC, Principal, Tynan Consulting, Chicago.
How does a university stand out from the thousands of colleges casting about for prospective students?
More to the point, how can you paint a coat of coolness and relevance on a university better known for meat-and-potatoes education than after-hours frivolity?
Those were the marketing challenges the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) tackled a year ago. For many prospective students, UIC was a well-known but perhaps boring higher education choice. Some still considered it a commuter campus with few after-hours events; less known was the fact 50% of students now live on or around campus and the social environment was vibrant. As a state school, tuition was a big attraction but the quality of the faculty, curriculum and its national rank as a research institution was often overlooked. Clearly, we needed prospects to reconsider UIC.
We started with the premise that teenagers love video games and our goal became to create a fun marketing tool disguised as a video game to showcase the school, campus social life and strong academic curriculum.
We soon discovered a professional game developer was out of the question, but on campus we had Jason Leigh, a computer science professor, Director of UIC’s Engineering Visual Laboratory and a national authority on avatars and game development.
Jason welcomed the partnership and recommended Derek Bolt, an outstanding student who had recently taken his Video Game Design and Development course, as someone who might want to create such a game. Jason offered to supervise Derek’s work and give independent study credit.
Derek jumped at the chance.
The marketing office outlined game parameters:
- Revolve around basketball, UIC’s premier sport, and Sparky D. Dragon, the athletic mascot.
- Use area backdrops to illustrate UIC’s proximity to downtown Chicago’s entertainment and cultural venues
- Prominently display the UIC logo and website address
Next, we recruited animator Pat Bradley, whose whimsical characters and engaging story lines were bringing nature and history to life at museums throughout the country. His brother, Chris contributed the music.
Pat suggested a storyline inviting gamers to put on the magical mantle of Sparky and try their hand at sinking basketballs at locales throughout Chicago.
Derek and Pat got to work, and Jason supervised giving critical suggestions along the way to keep the game fun and challenging. Pat slimmed down the cuddly Sparky to create a younger, more athletic version.
Starting with a basketball hoop on a quiet street, gamers maneuver past pedestrians on busy streets, cars on the Dan Ryan expressway, “L” trains rumbling above ground and boats plying Lake Michigan. Each scene represents a higher level of difficulty. Baskets are totaled.
Admission officers and athletic officials see many options for using the game in their recruitment and social media efforts.
We tried to compress the game development to an academic quarter although planning and graphic treatments started two months prior to Derek’s active involvement. Time constraints didn’t let allow us to include as many locations or features as we originally envisioned but we are in an excellent position to evaluate performance and revise the game in the years ahead.
Bolt graduated in December 2011 and has a full-time job developing interactive kiosks with a local marketing firm utilizing skills learned in the video game class.
Leigh has eyes on establishing EVL Game Studios, a department to promote gaming concepts using emerging technologies invented at UIC. He’s still teaching Video Game Design, an online course conducted in partnership with Louisiana State University using high-definition, high-speed video tele-conferencing.
Kevin Tynan has opened a marketing consulting firm catering to universities and nonprofits.
IMAGE: Opening frame from “Hoops of Fire” smartphone game. Image courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago.