Industrial design MFA alumnus contributes two video game environments to The Strong National Museum of Play exhibit

Pete St. John’s design firm created immersive video game environments for ‘ESL Digital Worlds: Level Up’

St. John Design Group

Beat the Boss is one of two interactives in The Strong National Museum of Play’s permanent exhibition “ESL Digital Worlds: Level Up” that industrial design MFA alumnus Pete St. John created. The game immerses visitors in a musical battle against an animated opponent on the screen.

Industrial design MFA alumnus Pete St. John led the creation of two elements of The Strong National Museum of Play’s permanent exhibition “ESL Digital Worlds: Level Up.” This exhibit immerses visitors in an array of interactive video game environments. In addition to museum exhibitions like this one, St. John Design Group specializes in designing and building for tradeshows, product development, custom interactives that include audio and video, websites, branding, and event management.

The first of St. John’s two interactives in “Level Up” is a rhythm game called Beat the Boss, which transports visitors into a fight against an animated opponent on the screen. Visitors start by choosing a boss to battle, with each boss including a different landscape and unique music. The players then battle their opponent by following the screen’s prompts to press buttons in front of them to the beat of the music, and the player who follows the prompts most accurately wins. The environment includes a stage, stage lights, colored theater lights, and a subwoofer beneath the floor to add to the drama and immersion of the experience. According to St. John, rhythm games are a staple in the history of video games, and some believe they are beneficial to improving hand-eye coordination and attention.

“Our goal was to immerse the player in a stadium rock experience. We want you to feel the sound, see the lights, and lose yourself in the game play,” St. John explained.

Quick Cook, the second of St. John’s interactives, is intended to be inclusive of even the youngest museum guests. The theming mimics the interior of a food truck, with the player situated behind a cooking surface with a pot and replica food items as they look at a large screen. Characters on the screen approach the food truck and place an order that requires a set of ingredients. The player then gathers the ingredients—which have RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, tags—into the empty pot, which has a sensor to scan those tags. Once the pot scans the ingredients, the screen shows those ingredients being prepped and the final dish created. 

The process for creating these two elements of “Level Up” took 18 months, during which the COVID-19 pandemic posed unique challenges. St. John struggled to find computers and other necessary parts for the environments, so resourcefulness became essential. “We got one set of stage lights for Boss Battle donated from a local high school after they had replaced theirs,” St. John said. “They were going to throw them away, but I saw them in the parking lot and asked if I could take them.” Through this and many other opportunities, St. John was able to bring both interactives to completion despite the challenges.

St. John had started developing the skills he would eventually use for these games during his time working in the theater industry after earning his bachelor’s degree in set design. But once St. John decided that he wanted to broaden his horizons, he enrolled in RIT’s industrial design program with an entrepreneurship minor. The program enabled St. John to “focus the creativity into a corporate function,” he explained.

“I’d always known that I was going to start my own company and, in 2006, that’s just what I did,” St. John said. He runs St. John Design Group alongside his wife, Lisa. Together, they work on a wide range of creative materials such as marketing strategies, branding, and product design. And they continue to grow the company, expanding the international tradeshow program and pushing forward both client and in-house product design projects. Their toy called “The Original Tooty Toob,” designed by Pete and Lisa’s other company, 5Saints, is in The Strong’s permanent collection.

“This was one of the most fun projects that we’ve worked on in a long time. Being in a museum environment where we teach kids, it’s a wonderful feeling of giving back.”

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