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Game Education and the Merging of Industries

Jacquie Kubin reports on how the videogame, educational and software industries are working together to create the next generation of game creators.

It takes more than playing games well to design games. Art schools are offering many serious degrees for serious students.

Sitting at their Xbox battling to reach the next level, eighth graders Tristin and Matthew can be overheard speaking of their future as videogame designers. However for these two intrepid, and totally fictitious young people, the reality is that designing videogames is not the same as playing them.

When I speak to high school students I try to explain that when you make games, yes you play games but that is not the focus of your work, says Eric Kozlowsky, who has his Bachelors in game art and design from the Art Institute of Phoenix, from his New York home. And while it is an exciting career, it is work, a discipline and with that come s a lot of responsibility which does not include a lot of game play at least not in the office.

Kozlowsky is a recent graduate from the Art Institute of Phoenix, where his talents as an artist where enhanced by hours of practical art, drawing, graphics and computer application and humanities course studies designed to make him an in-demand individual on todays videogame job market.

The videogame industry has grown to an $11 billion a year juggernaut, eclipsing all other forms of media entertainment and creating the demand for a significantly large work force.

In 2006, while announcing their new B.S. and M.S. computer science game degrees, the University of Southern California predicted that work force is expected to double by 2007 with those positions being made up of 65% programmers, 30% artists and 5% designers.

According to USC computer science department chair Gérard Medioni of the Information Sciences Institute, Beyond their creative element, videogames offer a major challenge in bringing together numerous core areas of advanced computer science, including artificial intelligence, graphical interfaces, modeling, algorithm design and, of course, programming, he suggests. These programs are good academics.

The Bureau of Labor confirms that computer software engineers, which includes videogame developers for consoles, PC and handhelds, is one of the fastest growing occupations with very good opportunities expected for college graduates with at least a bachelors degree in computer engineering or science and with practical work experience.

Their prediction is 67.9% growth between now and 2012.

And that is the long, and short, truth to entering into the videogame industry an industry where starting jobs have beginning salaries in the high $40-to $50k a year, in comparison to other industries where the average graduate with a bachelors of arts degree will command in the $30k.

Eric Kozlowsky tries to impress on high school students that work, discipline and responsibility are necessary to make it in the gaming design world. Necromorph © 2006 Eric Kozlowsky.

This is good news for Kozlowsky and those who are similarly motivated. However, as in any career, students must begin preparing well before college admission forms are being completed. Not everyone is equipped for the rigors of pursuing an advanced art or computer science degree.

I knew from watching games such as Diablo, WarCraft and Final Fantasy, that if I could learn the cinematics maybe I could get into games, but still lacked some direction on how to achieve that knowledge, adds Kozlowsky. Then I read about the Art Institute of Phoenix and their game art and design courses, a curriculum that would allow me to learn what I needed to work in the gaming industry.

The Art Institute of Phoenix joins hundreds of other universities and institutes in offering Bachelors and Associates in Arts Degrees in videogame design and videogame programming.

Schools range from ITT Technical Institutes and the many Art Institutes located in Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia and elsewhere across the U.S. and Canada. There is also the Digital Media Arts College, Boca Raton, Florida and the Minnesota School of Business. One of the first technical institutes to focus strictly on preparing students for work in interactive media is DigiPen Institute of Technology, Redmond, Washington.

DigiPen, IT offers degrees in mathematics, science and engineering, including a Bachelor of Science in Real-Time interactive simulation, Bachelor of Science in computer engineering and Master of Science in computer science. Art and animation degrees include Associate of Applied Arts in 3D computer animation and Bachelor of Fine Arts in production animation.

At Savannah College of Art and Design, the Interactive Design and Game Development degree program includes courses for a Bachelor in Fine Arts, Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts.

All these school have one thing in common: They offer serious degrees for serious students. Their programs require students be passionate about art and/or computer science and its application in the videogame industry.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) offers the Interactive Design and Game Development degree program. Students are required to be passionate about art, computer science and the videogame industry. Courtesy of SCAD.

The industry demands include a requirement for an industry specific degree, hands on experience and innovative content. It is no longer good enough to be the smart kid with some good ideas, says Masayo Arakawa, marketing and outreach, DigiPen.

The industry is unique in that it seeks talents in two very different, yet intertwined disciplines the art sciences and computer sciences.

Art science degrees have students taking classes in animation and 3D computer animation, digital graphics, film studies, acting, scripting, color theory and traditional drawing. Upon graduation, they seek positions as texture artists, character and 3D animators, 3D lighting and camera designers, props, environment, 3D broadcast graphic modelers, animators and level designers.

You cannot be a production artist, if you are not first an artist, insists Raymond Yan, svp of operations, DigiPen. Technology allows us to do wonderful things, but you cannot imagine the levels of artistic skills [game developers] must have.

Those skills begin with the ability to draw, to paint, to be an artist. At DigiPen our students complete at least 50 sketchbook pages per week, and each page has four or five illustrations.

All of which means putting down the controller and picking up the sketch, math and science books during your high-school years to prepare for a future within an exciting and growing industry.

Persons looking for a career in videogame technologies, computer graphics and/or simulation environments design need to purse course work in graphics, artificial intelligence, networking and programming.

Videogame technology degrees require students who are innovators that have studied math, science, physics. It is about learning to understand pure science and how it can be applied to the industry.

The release of the latest next-generation consoles created a hiring frenzy by the videogame companies, leading to salaries that often reached into the high $50,000.

The industry is not about making children laugh, or the cure for cancer, it is about making money, and we make money through innovation, new ideas, new content, and if you are going to innovate you have to have the understanding on how the technology works, Yan says. The computer understands one thing and that is 1 and 0, or how to turn off and on. Those who can use that computer to create a Halo or Metal Gear Solid, those people are the innovators who will become industry leaders.

But before those gamers become students, they need to begin acquiring a proficiency in the general cores of science learning science, math, English, social science and humanities and plan on leaving high school with at least one unit of physics, four units of mathematics and one unit of chemistry.

It all begins in high school.

We tell younger people we meet during outreach sessions with Boys and Girls clubs, schools and other groups that we see very few people hired into the industry on a great idea alone, adds Arakawa. It takes training that goes well beyond being able to play a videogame.

And this is a subject on which the schools and companies agree. If you want to work as an artist in the industry, you need to come to any school with a passion for art, a portfolio of work, classes in sculpting, drawing and art history and some experience in how software works as a tool.

If you want to work on the programming side, you need to come to the school with training at the high school level in math, science and physics all the sciences because they teach quantitative thinking skills that are important.

Add into that mix classes in communication, business skills and a few good gaming ideas and you have a good start toward a career in videogaming which on many levels is just like having a career in computer programming.

For those of us looking from the outside into the videogame industry, one of the most interesting aspects of its growth is they way it is propelling the educational market.

Softimage works with schools to place their software into students hands. According to Mark Schoennagel, Face Robot allows an artist to create a 3D facial model within a day.

Microsoft is investing into the educational future with the Microsoft Research External Research & Programs group (MSR ER&P) investing nearly $800,000 in recent years to help sponsor and promote the development of game-centric education programs through their Reality and Programming Together (RAPT) program.

The programs goal is to reverse the ongoing decline in computer science enrollment by taking advantage of the interest among teens in computer games.

Whether a person is working toward a degree in computer science or developing the next multiplayer videogame and that is that one of the most important skills they can have is strong communication skills, says John Nordlinger, program manager, external research & programs of Microsoft Research As more and more technology classes are being added to class curriculums, the humanities courses are suffering. And the ability to communicate is what changes a persons career.

At the end of the day everyones code is the same, but the ability to communicate an idea will set you apart in college, in an interview or within your company.

According to DigiPen, the release of the latest next-generation consoles the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wiicreated a hiring frenzy by the videogame companies leading to salaries that often reached into the high $50,000.

All of which means the industry, led by Microsoft and other technology groups and videogame developers such as Electronic Arts, need qualified employees with the skills to hit the ground running.

The industry is unique as it seeks talents in two different disciplines  the art sciences and computer sciences. Most schools, like SCAD (above), believe that digital artists must be trained in the fine arts.

Another very important piece of this technological pie is software. Software creators such as Autodesk and Softimage are working with schools not only to put their software in front of the students but also to help develop curriculum and find ways to help encourage new students to declare videogame development as their major.

Over the last several year, we have focused on building relationships with schools and with our commercial users, says David Della-Rocca, education industry manager, Autodesk Inc. But we were not making the connection between the two resulting in a broken relationship between what the commercial wanted and the skill set the students were acquiring.

Working with schools such as Savannah College of Art and Design Savannah, Georgia, Autodesk is determined to continue its reach to young people from grade school to college to insure that they are picking up software skills that will carry with them into their careers.

For me, fundamentally, it begins with the understanding that we develop rich tools that are used to create content for a variety of medium applications, says Della-Rocca. To make a character appear on a screen and walk across that screen requires an enormous amount of math, because you need to understand the complex physics behind it, and while the majority of creators can make the characters walk, the best [creators] truly understand what is going on.

Another extremely important piece of game development is the character facial look. If we peer back into history it was not long ago that a person speaking was text beneath a static face with little more than a small black O for a mouth.

The next-generation consoles allow for increased pixels and polygons to work with, but with that new freedom comes greater demands from the consumer and the need for the industry to be able to spend more time, and money, on the games development.

A realistic facial expression, eyes that sparkle and a mouth that actually changes with the spoken phoneme add realistic eye-candy to a game, but with a time and technology cost.

Another place that the industry converges with great gusto is the Serious Games Initiative conferences. The initiatives focus is on exploring on how games and game development techniques can be used in the public sector.

Softimage works with schools such as the New York Art Institute to place their software SOFTIMAGE|XSI and SOFTIMAGE|FACE ROBOT, the companys 3D and facial animation tools, into students hands.

Their Face Robot software, according to Mark Schoennagel, senior 3D evangelist, Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology Inc., allows an artist to create a 3D model of a human head and within a day have the face achieve lifelike animation.

Within a short period of time, supposedly one to two weeks, a proficient artist will have a good 3D representation of the face complete with wrinkles and expression.

The software understands how the face works, it understands soft tissue, that the skin around your eyes moves when you smile or that the skin around your nose stretches when you yawn, says Schoennagel. If you look at Gollum from Lord of the Rings, it took three years of research and development to create that characters and you cant do that within the budget constraints of most games, and we try to be the tool that allows gamer development tools and artists achieve the results the next evolution of game consoles and gamers will demand.

Another place that the industry converges with great gusto is the Serious Games Initiative conferences. The initiatives focus is on exploring on how games and game development techniques can be used in the public sector.

One way this is achieved is by creating links between the electronic gaming industry and those other groups that can use game development techniques from storytelling to interactivity to create programs for use in education, training, health and public policy arenas.

Josephine Leong of SCAD sees a trend in which tools are becoming more generic and one set of graphic tools can be used for design and yet be deployed on multiple platforms with the same product.

At the Serious Games conferences, students might find themselves in front of a government agency or education company that creates training tools for employees, says Josephine Leong, chair, interactive design and game development, Savannah College of Art and Design. We are finding that students, particularly the graduate students, are realizing that serious game simulations, learning games, educational games - these are all opportunities beyond the traditional videogame environment where good art and computer science graduates are needed.

At Savannah College of Art and Design, they offer students industry standard software, including Maya and 3ds Max.

However, what is emerging is that the tools are becoming more generic, where you can design using one set of graphics tools and yet be able to deploy on multiple platforms with the same product, adds Leong.

Savannah College maintains an opening dialogue with the videogame industry and software providers as to what they need for their students now and in the future, always looking four to six years ahead trying to determine trends.

Looking at the technology, events such as SIGGRAPH, and as the game companies move toward the next-generation consoles, we have to pay attention to changes, insists Leong. For example, in the past we have not been able to push polygons, now we do not have to be as concerned about that. And we can develop in high resolution, which we could not in the past. So things keep changing, and we keep adapting.

In the end, the industry changes quickly, and in order to serve their students and the game companies, the schools need to be prepared for those changes.

SCAD student Dan Nichols from Fenton, Mich. created BrainBot in Photoshop. © SCAD.

The message to students is always to think, learn, adapt and practice. Artists should draw. Programmers need to keep themselves immersed in the latest technology.

Both need to practice their arts and, like Kozlowsky, keep their focus on continuing education classes, attendance at conferences such as SIGGRAPH and Serious Games Initiatives, remembering that schools such as Savannah and DigiPen can only provide a foundation in the field.

However, a strong foundation will make it easier for those graduates to adapt to the challenges of a fluid industry that has a high demand for new talents.

The reason the computer industry is so much more proactive in working with the schools and the end users hiring those graduates, is that the computer scientist is an intellectual vehicle, offers Nordlinger. Microsoft is working with schools because there may not be enough of those folks down the road, and the future of the United States, and the computer industry on all levels, depends on them and we are predicting there may not be enough graduates.

Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about animation, pop culture, electronic and edutainment media as well as music, travel and culinary features. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and winner of the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Assn. of University Women and 2002 HSMAI Golden Bell Award.