Game Network Newsletter - June 2012

June, 2012 (Back to archive)

In This Issue:



Wei Xu, professor, University of California San Diego Extension -- Digital Arts Center, discusses student misconceptions about game design, the availability of jobs after graduation, and courses that follow industry trends.

Wei Xu
Wei Xu

Q: The University of California San Diego Extension -- Digital Arts Center offers one-year professional certificate programs in graphic and Web design, video production, mobile apps, and game design. There are so many choices for game design students these days. What does UCSD offer that the others don't?

Wei Xu: There are at least three major aspects that make the Digital Arts Center (DAC) stand out from many other colleges or training programs -- practical courses offered, the student body population, and the faculty's backgrounds.

We offer classes based on industry needs to make students skill-ready for today's job markets. Today's multimedia industries are changing fast. All industrial de-facto standard software -- like Maya and Adobe CS products -- keep upgrading frequently. In order to meet such challenges, students at DAC learn the latest techniques and tools. Not every school has the ability to offer such training. Programs such as Casual Gaming also give students a quick one-year, comprehensive education on the core technologies that they want and need to learn. This is much more efficient than a four-year school where many classes are not necessarily related to the key technologies targeted.

Unlike most universities, most of DAC students are working professionals who have already earned bachelor's degrees. They are going back to school either for a change of careers or for continued education on new technologies.

This unique feature greatly helps DAC students to focus on the essential topics and achieve their educational and career goals in our short programs. For example, our Casual Gaming program provides both computer programming classes and CG art courses. Students, no matter if they are originally programmers or artists, will master core skills in both areas and be able to design and implement games independently once they have finished all the courses. Actually, some of them advance way beyond our expectations. One of our Casual Gaming students has gone from a game artist to a game programmer and a book author on the computer language!

Selecting a subject that best benefits students in the long run is not an easy task, even for a professional. Fortunately, DAC consists of a large group of experienced industry professionals who teach classes on a part-time basis. These faculty members team together to identify topics and develop curricula that best equip students with the technologies that industry needs. For instance, we have been offering Unity-iOS game development courses since 2009 due to the rising popularity of the Unity engine in the game industry.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions that students might have when they choose to be game designers?

Xu: Growing up with video games, young generations may easily view the game industry as a cool choice for their careers. But one major misconception is that game design is just thinking about new ideas. An idea without real implementation is basically useless. In this mobile age, it is essential for game designers to have serious art and coding skills to bring their ideas into prototypes.

Q: How easy is it to find jobs in the industry after graduating from your school? Are there parts of the industry where jobs are most plentiful now?

Xu: Our advisory board members work with us to ensure that the curriculum stays current for what is needed in the industry. We are confident that our students are prepared to obtain positions in this industry and, in fact, our advisors hire our students. Furthermore, numerous alumni have gone on to publish their own games in the iTunes app store. The San Diego area supports small startups and large developers such as High Moon, Rock Star, Sony (SOE & SCEA), NimbleBits, and Appy.

Q: Games for smart phones are a relatively new area of the games industry and, as such, I know you teach iOS game programming. Take a look in your crystal ball and tell me what sort of courses you predict students will need to deal with other upcoming developments in the industry.

Xu: Mobile games can be considered extensions of their PC or console versions. Most design principles and development tools are still applicable. Although some cross-platform tools like the Unity game engine have made game production much easier than before, some areas are not well-explored. One of them is artificial intelligence (AI). Most games played today are pretty trivial from an AI point of view. A further mixing of AI into games will significantly broaden the spectrum of game applications and bring more kinds of fun to games. Currently, AI is not in the scope of our curriculum, but it will be desired as game developers advance in their careers and take their game development to the next level.

Q: The forthcoming "Game Career Guide," in which UCSD Extension -- Digital Arts Center is featured prominently, talks about making the right choices in pursuing employment. What is your best advice to students who graduate and want to be as successful as possible as quickly as possible? Can you offer some tips?

Xu: Sure. First, never stop working on games before landing a game job. Most jobs require game credits. It seems to be unreasonable and impossible for new graduates to meet such standards, but the reality is that you can start your own "studio" at home with a PC or Mac. With a small budget, time, and the essential skills, you should be able to show the world that you are able to produce some small/casual games.

Second, learn leading technologies. Compared to experienced game professionals, fresh graduates have the advantage of knowing the newest technologies. Keep learning more to improve your skills.

Third, network with like-minded people. For example, attend IGDA meetings.

And, lastly, don't limit yourself to only the entertaining games. Gaming technology has much wider applications in various industries other than video games. Many traditional tools will be replaced by multimedia technologies. For example, interactive books are becoming increasingly popular as a means of improving learning efficiency. There are surely more opportunities beyond killing zombies!

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Roger Altizer, director of game design and production, University of Utah, Entertainment Arts and Engineering Program, talks about marketing games, opportunities in medical games, and promoting Salt Lake City as a center for digital media.

Roger Altizer
Roger Altizer
Q: Roger, I understand the University of Utah has the #2 ranked undergraduate and the #6 ranked graduate games program in the country. Who did the ranking and what differentiates what you offer from other similar schools?

Roger Altizer: We're actually the #3 ranked program in the country this year, according to the Princeton Review -- right behind USC and MIT. It's a great place to be and we're the #1 ranked public school in the nation.

There are a few key elements that really set Utah apart from other schools. First, we have a lot of students go directly into industry after graduation, though some also start their own games studios.

Second, our faculty not only has a lot of industry and academic experience, we also have a lot of contact with industry in the program, from guest lecturers, project advisors, and drop-in visits. Our students not only get to learn from industry, but graduate with a network in place.

Third, our program is truly interdisciplinary. Unlike some schools where you a learn a little art and a little programming, our students focus in tracks, and programmers learn to work with artists and producers learn to work with programmers. They graduate with a deep knowledge in their field and also the ability to work on teams.

Q: You have said many universities do a great job of teaching students how to make games, but not how to market them. What are the most important things a fledgling game maker needs to do or know about making their first game a commercial success?

Altizer: Both startups and students make the same mistake with their first games. They fail to recognize that the business of making a game isn't the same as the business of games. The days of throwing a game on the app store and having a runaway success are over. Even great games require marketing, publishing, PR, and so on. Many early developers tend to try to go it alone, and that sometimes works, but it will work more often if you involve a business person. I know, it hurts to hear, but if you want a successful game, you need a suit on your team.

If you want a game published, you have to understand the market – and the easiest way to do that is to bring in people who do. To some extent we do that in the producers track of our Master Games Studio.

Q: What percentage of your graduates actually get placed right out of school?

Altizer: This is a common question that students and parents ask and it's a difficult one to answer. Lots of schools will rattle off a percentage at this point, but that's unfair, in my opinion. They don't tell you if this reflects full-time employment, contract work, or an internship, or if it's a game job or just employment. The stats also don't reflect things like the students who started an iOS studio and are making money off games, or the ones who are working on a title and have not yet made a dime but are following their dream. It does not account for students, like one of ours, who now is the director of interactive exhibits at a museum. He's not employed in the games industry, but he certainly has a related dream job. I know that some schools do choose to answer questions like this, but we'd rather not.

Instead of using a stat that masks the reality of what graduates are doing, we like to point out that we have students working at large studios, like Time Warner, Zynga, Microsoft, EA, and Disney. We also have students working at smaller studios, like Superbot and Daz 3D. We have students starting successful companies, like Broken Compass Studios. And some are in interesting careers in museums and other institutions. While it is difficult to say how many are placed in industry, I can say the majority are out there making incredible games and interactive entertainment pieces.

Q: You have been focusing more and more on medical games recently. What's the reason for that? Is that where the jobs are -- in serious games?

Altizer: While there are jobs in serious games, that's not why we focus on them. As a university, we have research goals in addition to our teaching goals. The reason we make medical games is we sincerely believe that games can help people heal, and that it needs to be studied. In making medical games, we must study, and prove, that the design and the play have a positive impact on the patients. The PE Game -- the PlayStation Move game we are making for kids fighting cancer -- is based on patient empowerment research as well as grounded game design. We can't just rely on experience and opinions gathered from user testing; we actually have to both work with folks like physical therapists to vet the motions and we have to conduct clinical trials to measure efficacy. We believe making medical games not only gives us a chance to help patients, but to approach game design research in a novel and rigorous manner.

Q: Your school has been promoting Utah as the next Austin in terms of a center for digital media. I'm not so sure developers think of Utah as a place of opportunities. What does Utah have to offer them?

Altizer: Utah, in particular Salt Lake City, is a great place to make games. We have established studios such as EA and Disney here as well as hot smaller studios like Chair (creators of Infinity Blade), Smart Bomb (creators of Nat Geo's Animal Jam), and Ninjabee (creators of World of Kelflings). The combination of games studios, an entrepreneurial climate fostered by several government agencies who offer great incentives, a creative climate as shown by the Sundance Film Festival, and a talented and well-educated work force provided by the University of Utah and other great schools provide the perfect place to grow a great games studio.

Q: Your school is front and center in Game Developer Magazine's soon-to-be-published annual Game Career Guide. What makes that an important venue for promoting your classes?

Altizer: The "Game Career Guide" is where students turn for information they can trust about games education. There some great schools out there where one can study games, so to be featured in a "Game Developer Magazine" publication really is an honor and a validation of the hard work we do in games at the University of Utah.

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Martin Murphy, faculty, Ringling College Of Art & Design, describes what distinguishes his school from others, secrets to job placement, and whether to "go indie" or not.

 Martin Murphy

Martin Murphy

Q: The Ringling College of Art and Design -- which was founded by John Ringling of the famous circus family in 1931 offers a BFA in computer animation and game art and design. When the school made the decision to add curriculum specific to gaming, how did it hope to distinguish itself from the other larger schools that teach game development -- other than the fact that yours is a private, non-profit college?

Martin Murphy: Ringling College has been preparing artists for the game industry well before I attended Ringling over 20 years ago. As instructors at Ringling College, we are focused on applying the principles and elements of art and design to grab and hold players' attentions. Every mark, pixel, and polygon should be designed with the intention to support the creation of a compelling player experience. From day one as freshmen to their last day as graduating seniors, we are instructing students on the application of these principles and elements to creating art for games.

Q: This is only the second year of your game art and design school, isn't it? And I'm told that 18 graduates are already working at companies like Epic, Hasbro, and Blizzard with a placement rate of around 85%. In an economy when finding jobs in any industry isn't easy, what's the secret to your school's success?

Murphy: Ringling College has had a lot of success graduating students into the game industry. At the time I attended Ringling, it was one of the only colleges in the country offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Computer Graphics.

The network of Ringling alums is very vast. A large number of studios have employed Ringling grads before the creation of the games art and design major, including the studios you listed. This network affords our recent graduates and current students numerous bridges to the game industry. Our department head, Jim McCampbell, started to formulate a specific game art and design curriculum in 2004 with the introduction of the Game Art & Design minor in 2005 and then the major in 2007. The second class to graduate in the major just crossed the stage last week.

Q: What about the decision each grad needs to make -- whether to try for one of those larger publishers or go indie? What is your advice to them?

Murphy: The advice I have been offering students most recently is to focus on what makes you unique and to foster an environment where you are "kept" in a state of lifelong learning. I encourage the students to look for the intersections and overlaps of what they are passionate about doing and what skills they can be world-class at doing.

It seems like very general advice, I know, but after getting to know each student over the course of several years, this advice is then personalized. I suggest to some students that they try to do both (work for a major publisher and work on an independent project on the side), and some I recommend one or the other depending on what they are most intrinsically motivated by in life. So many of my colleagues have had tremendous success going independent in the mobile space that it's hard to ignore, but at the same time it is really exciting to hear about the upcoming consoles and new technology that might be more accessible at a large publisher.

Q: Ringling's curriculum seems to be more of an artistic one than a technical program. Broadly speaking, what are some skills your game students learn?

Murphy: You are correct. Ringling College is an art and design school. We are 100% focused on the artistic and visual design side of games. The majority of the classes students take at Ringling are focused on creating visually sophisticated imagery.

The curriculum does include game design classes that cover theories of game design, game play, and game mechanics from paper games with pencils to platformers created with the Unreal Development Kit (UDK). Students also have programming for artists class were they explore scripting and developing working game prototypes with UDK. In their studio classes they learn how to design, create, and analyze the visual components of games. They learn how to design and create key props and set pieces for environments in Maya and UDK. They learn Zbrush and 3D Coat to create amazingly detailed character models as well as organic assets. We place a high emphasis on the value of preproduction and iterative process in their visual design work. Thinking before doing, pencils before pixels. We are constantly challenging the students to refine their artwork to support their concepts and to create the most visually impactful presentation to the player.

Q: Before teaching at Ringling, you were worldwide director of art at Midway Games and one of your responsibilities was to help shepherd the transition of almost 300 artists to current-generation technologies. That's quite a task. So what's the best way for students entering the field to prepare for an industry that is constantly changing?

Murphy: At Midway Games, that task was low hanging fruit, like shooting fish in a barrel. The hiring practices for art at Midway were stringent and we were blessed with employing some of the best artists in the world. Their work was appealing and clearly supported the game concepts. Midway artists were intrinsically motivated; they couldn't wait to learn how to use the Unreal 3 technology. The biggest difficulty was getting our art staff the most relevant training as fast as possible. Seasoned game artists are typically intelligent, have a strong work ethic, love to problem solve, and are very dedicated to learning their craft. The down side is they don't suffer fools and have little patience for people who waste their time.

This is the same for our students at Ringling College. We have a very selective acceptance process and the college is noted as being the most wired campus in America. As a result, we get very capable and motivated students in our classrooms. They learn the technology very quickly but our biggest challenge is that the students are still developing their design and aesthetic sensibilities. The game art and design student desperately wants to learn more about the technology but after a while they come to realize that just because they can do something doesn't mean the artwork they create is visually appealing or effectively supports a concept.

What we emphasize at Ringling College is learning how to design and communicate with visuals. This understanding will be the foundation with which our graduates build an enduring career across a wide spectrum of media and entertainment, as it has for me in my 20-year career.

Q: Ringling has chosen to participate in the annual Game Career Guide. Why do you believe Ringling thinks that's an important strategy?

Murphy: Come on! The annual Game Career Guide is, as the kids like to say, "mad hyphy!" It is a great resource for veterans as well as for up and coming developers.

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Paul Hyman
By Paul "The Game Master"Hyman

Paul has covered the videogames industry for over 15 years now, currently writes for, and was editor-in-chief of UBM's He can be reached at

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