Majoring in Video Games


I bought you the sims
Attention Xbox junkies: You might be able to justify spending hours perfecting your gaming techniques instead of pitching in with the household chores. You might even say you're just doing your job. At least that's the case for the many professionals in the high-scoring gaming industry. According to the NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm, video game retail sales reached $9.9 billion in 2004, roughly $0.5 billion more than the movie industry took in during the same year. As a result, increased demand for talented game designers has prompted colleges and universities to add game design majors and coursework to their curricula.

"Video game development is not a one-man project anymore," says Mark Baldwin, who has taught game design development at Westwood College Online [an MSN Encarta advertiser] and the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona. "Now there are huge teams, and all the implications of that," he says, likening game production to the filmmaking industry ("the budgets are similar"). In fact, a glance at a typical game's credits shows that dozens of people are involved in conceiving, creating, producing, and delivering a finished game to the market.

"The game industry is a sexy industry, the same way the movie industry is sexy," Baldwin says. "Because of that, there are a huge number of people trying to get in. You have to do everything you can to compete."

The good news for budding game designers is that being a standout from the competition can pay off career-wise as increased budgets translate into higher salaries. At the 2006 E3 Expo, the world's largest trade show for the computer and video game industry, Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), reported that typical entry-level jobs in the video game industry pay $50,000 or more.

Lowenstein continued to illustrate the industry's growth potential by citing a study, commissioned by the ESA and conducted by J Gregory Sidak and Robert W. Crandall, that states the video game industry supported 144,000 jobs nationwide in 2004, and is projected to grow to 265,000 by the end of 2009.

High-tech theater

So what's a typical day in the life of a gaming professional? Ask Adam Noce, 24, who graduated with a four-year degree from the Art Center College of Design. He now works as a game tester for Buena Vista Games and as a freelance game-design consultant. Noce explains that it helps to take classes such as film design studies because of the strong narrative elements in today's games. "Learning film is essentially learning how to tell a story," he says. "When it comes down to it, the most important thing is to get users involved and make them care about the game." In addition, Noce took some graphic design courses while in college.

Being a game tester is much more than just playing the game. Noce notes that having the ability to view a game objectively and possessing high-score communication skills are vital. "There are two types of testers at a publisher: functional testers and certification testers," he says. "Certification testers make sure the game adheres to a very strict set of standards that each console maker has set up. Functional testers literally play the game hundreds of times through to make sure there is nothing wrong with it. When they find something wrong, they write up a detailed report for the game developer."

In addition to the testers, programmers, sound engineers, and salespeople are also on board. Sound engineers monitor the use of sound effects and voice recordings within a game. Once a game is set for sale to consumers, marketers must map out a strategy for scheduling advertising and promotional events.

Producers oversee the whole process, working with the rest of the staff to keep the project within budget and on schedule.

One constant: change

Because video games are continually evolving, colleges face the challenge of keeping pace by creating new programs of study for those eager to break into the competitive industry.

Michigan State University and Georgia Tech, for instance, have recently pushed the start button on game-based curricula. An interdisciplinary specialization in game design and development was created at Michigan State in 2005 for students majoring in areas such as telecommunication, information studies, computer science, and art. The program consists of four core game design courses taken during a student's junior and senior years.

Brian Winn, an assistant professor in the school's department of telecommunication, information studies, and media, is now overseeing courses that were not available to him and his peers some years ago. "I went to grad school and got into interactive media design, which was the closest thing to game development," Winn says. "This eventually led me full circle, back into creating games. Now, as a college professor, I'm developing the curriculum for game design and development that I wish I could have taken when I was in school."

Within game design programs, such as the one offered on-campus and online at the University of Advancing Technology, courses often focus on present technology, with some historical context included. Core courses feature titles such as "3D Modeling Concepts," "Game Tools and Techniques," and "Evolution of Electronic Games." Many electives are available as well, touching on music, portrait drawing, and other extensions of the field.

Coming full circle

Tom Sloper, a game development consultant and president of Sloperama Productions, has seen both sides of the equation: from the days when simple game concepts such as Pong or Asteroids were in vogue, to the rapid development of massive video game projects (think Zelda, Resident Evil, or even the extremely detailed Madden football series) that took place during the 1990s and beyond.

"I had no clue I would work in electronic games," Sloper says. "I was always interested in entertainment products. I majored in theater in college because I didn't know what else to major in."

Sloper moved to California early on because he wanted to be a model maker for movies. He worked as a toy developer until he pitched an idea for a game program one day to the president of Western Technologies. "The next thing I knew, I was a game designer," says Sloper.

His initial experiences in game design consisted of creating games for LCD watches and calculators. Sloper later secured a job with Atari, the company that created the building blocks for classic home entertainment systems such as the Atari 2600 and the Atari 7800.

During his dozen years working for Activision, Sloper saw game budgets and staff numbers grow exponentially. He now serves as a game development consultant--working more on an individual basis instead of being part of a massive team.

To those who want to find a place in the industry, Sloper cautions that the game arena is a place where actions speak much louder than words. "Saying you're interested in the field is nothing," Sloper says. "Go to college and get a four-year degree if you can. It's possible to get a job without a degree, but it's that much harder because you have to build a portfolio and a body of work that will get you hired."


I wonder if that is why they released that make your own game on the xbox program. Corey do you still have the link?