Developing the video game developers of the future

By William Schiffman The Associated Press
Thursday March 28, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Somewhere, in a darkened bedroom or a cinderblock basement, a kid is sitting at a computer, dreaming of creating the perfect video game. 

In the past, that dream probably would have died. 

But as the video game market accelerates into a multi-billion dollar industry, the need for developers to feed games to the marketplace has grown. Universities and smaller private institutes have begun courses to fill the need. 

Students who might have signed up for film classes a decade or two ago are increasingly looking at video games as a means of expression, and schools are lining up to help them get a foot in the cyber door. 

“Students were coming up to me, asking me why we weren’t offering game courses,” said Andy Phelps, an instructor of information technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. 

Phelps organized a concentration in game development, which was offered for the first time in the winter quarter. He said the school is planning to offer a degree soon. 

Zachary Welch, 23, is one of Phelps’ students. The Chicago native said he arrived at RIT to major in computer engineering, but wants to make games a career. 

“It’s not going to be that big a jump,” said Welch, who is president of the Electronic Gaming Society, a campus gaming club, and is already planning to head a nonprofit corporation involved in expanding the club across the country. 

Welch, like many currently getting an education in gaming, grew up with games. 

“When I was a kid, my dad worked and my mom worked off and on, so they pretty much dropped us off at the arcade with $20,” he said. “Games are so universal. Everybody plays games.” 

Other schools are further along than RIT. Georgia Tech offers a master’s program in game development, and Southern California is planning one starting in the fall. 

The private Art Institutes International at San Francisco began offering a Game Art & Design program last fall. For David Yost, 21, of Merrimack, N.H., finding the school on the Internet was a dream come true. 

“I always loved video games, and I wanted to do something I loved for a living,” he said. Yost is one of six students in the fledgling program, where the cost can hit $5,000 a quarter. 

For that money, students don’t sit around playing “Final Fantasy X” or “Madden NFL 2002.” 

At RIT, for example, students take 2D and 3D graphics programming, both of which focus on game images. They also take Programming for Digital Media, Writing for Interactive Multimedia and the obscurely titled Multi-User Media Spaces. 

That class, says Phelps, focuses “on the development of interactive applications that use network connectivity to allow multiple users to interact with each other in real time and in a persistent virtual community.” 

There are several other courses involved, most with equally obscure titles. The result, the students hope, is a chance to work on cutting-edge titles at a top game company such as Electronic Arts, Sega or Konami. 

One of the best-known sources of development talent is the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., and Vancouver, British Columbia. DigiPen opened in 1988 as a computer animation and simulation company doing work for architects and engineers. 

When they were asked to create a season’s worth of cartoon shows, they realized they didn’t have the staff to do the job, said Vice President Jason Chu. Advertising netted them just two or three of the more than 30 people they needed. 

“We realized that without manpower, the industry couldn’t grow,” he said. 

The company began offering classes in animation in conjunction with the British Columbia Institute of Technology. In 1991, Nintendo came calling, and the idea of offering courses in video game development was born. 

“It took about three years to finalize the curriculum,” he said. The school had slots for 30 students. When the fledgling course was announced in the magazine Nintendo Power, they got 1,200 applicants. 

Nintendo provides equipment and technical expertise. DigiPen provides people. 

The first class graduated in July 2000 — 11 then, 36 in April 2001 and another 11 last December. 

The jobs are certainly there. In DigiPen’s first class of 11, nine had accepted jobs along with their sheepskins. They went to such developers as Black Ops, Interplay and Dreamworks. There are more than 100 students in the gaming program now. 

The cost? About $320 a credit, or close to $13,000 for a 154-credit degree. 

At Sony Computer Entertainment of America in Foster City, 22 percent of Jim Wallace’s 30-person game development team was hired right out of school.  

Almost half have previous development experience, and the rest come from the film industry. 

How good are those new grads? 

“In most cases you do have a good amount of work to do,” said Wallace, the associate director for product development. “Normally, within about two months they are contributing to a game. After six months, they’re really hitting it.” 

What about that kid in his bedroom? Does he have a chance? 

“It is possible,” he said. “But the real details of game implementation are way beyond what someone is going to be able to do in his bedroom.” 

RIT’s Phelps agrees — to a point. 

“Is it possible to get a job out of your bedroom? Probably,” he said. “At the end of the day, the industry is going to hire the people who can get it done.” 

END Advance