G4U: SMU's Guildhall Video Game Design Program

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Posted September 13, 2011 - By Dennis Scimeca

Texas has long had a thriving video game development community, from the days of Origin Systems and the early years of id Software, to the modern day where id continues working alongside Gearbox Software and Bioware’s Austin studio. It makes sense that a game design program would eventually have been founded at a Texas university.

In 2002, Dr. Peter Raad, the director of Southern Methodist University’s Linda and Mitch Hart eCenter, was approached by members of the North Texas game development community who were concerned about a lack of local opportunities to train new members of the industry. SMU collaborated with these developers, and in 2003 founded The Guildhall, a master’s degree program in video game development.

I spoke with Ron Jenkins, Deputy Director of Development and External Affairs at The Guildhall, to get the inside scoop on the program for G4 University Week, and the first thing I wanted to know was how they came up with the name. I figured it was a playful video game reference.

“The distinctive nature of [our] interdisciplinary team-centric curriculum needed a name that would be all-encompassing while at the same time, give an indication to the work that is taking place inside of these halls,” Jenkins said. “A guild is defined as an association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards. In order to marry the concept of an apprenticeship within a guild with the university pursuit we had to meld both theory and practice.”

A slew of id Software veterans including John Romero, Tom Hall, Graeme Devine, and Paul Jaquays have been cited as co-developers of The Guildhall’s curriculum, along with Richard Gray, formerly of 3D Realms. “There were a number of individuals who approached us and supported us by helping to develop the curriculum hand-in-hand,” said Jenkins. “The reason that we believe that our students have enjoyed such success is due to the fact that the industry actually drove the development of the curriculum and its objectives.”

Gearbox Software’s CEO Randy Pitchford is an oft-quoted fan of the Guildhall program, and id Software co-founder and Technical Director John Carmack addressed the inaugural class. Commencement speakers have included Valve’s co-founder and Managing Director Gabe Newell, Ultima creator Richard Garriott, and G4’s very own Editor-in-Chief, Adam Sessler. The Guildhall is very much connected to the industry it trains students to join, such that their claimed 95% success rate in placing graduates into game development jobs seems plausible.

Some of their high-profile graduates are Brian Harris of id Software, lead programmer on Doom 4; Drew Murray, Creative Director of Insomniac Games; Jeff Brown of Bethesda Softworks, Lead Level Designer on Elder Scrolls: Skyrim; and Sam Arguez, a Producer at Bungie Studios. “One of our goals for our alumni is for at least 25% of them to be in leadership roles within three years of graduation,” Jenkins told me. “Our most recent alumni survey showed that over 40% are in leadership roles, which goes to solidify the strength of our faculty and curriculum.”

In 2009, Guildhall alums Hunter Woodlee, David Doran Marshall, and Mike Penrod formed Controlled Chaos Media and released Pocketfish for iOS, which had success as a summer entertainment app, and Inertia for Xbox Live Arcade, a Guildhall student production, won Best Non-Professional Game at this year's Indie Game Challenge, as well as the Gamer's Choice Award.

With these kinds of success stories, the hefty $65,000 price tag of the two-year Guildhall program can easily sound like a good investment, but we also live in a time where highly-skilled modders can use homebrewed projects to break into game development. I asked Jenkins what the advantage was of attending The Guildhall versus taking the DIY approach.

“Working as part of a modding community takes away the ability to work within cross-disciplinary teams with artists, designers, producers and programmers in the style and at the pace of the video game industry,” he said. “This method would be equivalent to a student learning medicine in their own home without having the opportunity to practice their skills in a teaching hospital setting under the guidance of accomplished professionals in that field. … It is much more efficient to go through a program that was prepared for the video game industry by the video game industry.”

The Guildhall program is meant to replicate the conditions in a commercial game development studio. Students go through three major team projects. The first is a small-team assignment to build a 2D side-scroller. Next is a mid-size team of 5-7 students working on a MOD, using popular game engines like Source and Unreal. Finally, they work in teams of 12-18 to complete a large, total conversion project.

Guildhall students are encouraged to follow their diverse interests and tastes in games, and develop mobile titles as well as triple-A quality projects. They develop role playing games, rhythm games, sports games and puzzle games, as well as the ubiquitous first person shooter games. The Guildhall is not solely invested in entertainment games, either. They also strive to serve the serious games community.

The undergraduate degrees and academic backgrounds that prepare students for success at The Guildhall depends on the major they intend to pursue. “[For Art Creation majors], because we look for artists who are traditionally trained, we like to see transcripts filled with drawing, painting and sculpting courses as well as any other courses that fall under the “studio-art” umbrella,” Jenkins said.

“Level Designers come into the program with the broadest variety of undergraduate majors: the host of liberal arts (literature, languages, philosophy, and history), mathematics, science, architecture, business and communications. We like to see that our designers come into the program with a broad undergraduate background in order for each of them to bring something unique to the development process.

“Our Production track is a unique offering because of the collaborative nature of the degree. A student will begin the program in one of the three sub-specializations (Art Creation, Level Design or Software Development), and then once the student has completed term 1 (16 weeks into the 22 month program), he/she will begin taking production courses. These students will enter the program with a broad variety of undergraduate degrees based on their sub-specialization.

“Software Development students will typically join our program with an undergraduate degree in computer science, mathematics, or physics. We expect our programmers to be fairly advanced with their coding ability (preferably in C++), so a strong computer science background with an emphasis on programming languages and a foundation in high level mathematics is ideal.”

In my research for this story, I came across student accounts of putting in between 50-100 hours a week into their studies. I asked Jenkins whether that was an accurate assessment of the amount of time required by a student at The Guildhall.

“Our graduate program is highly intensive and requires a student to learn, practice and demonstrate through personal and team projects their mastery of game development,” Jenkins said. “Through both a portfolio and master’s thesis, students are able to showcase that mastery by individual and team projects. Our curriculum has been fine-tuned over the past 8 years to provide students with the time and the bandwidth to accomplish all of these things over the course of a two year program. As a result, we believe that our students have ample time within their week to study as much as a master’s student or a professional student in the health sciences or a conservatory has to study.”

I also found student accounts of their time at The Guildhall feeling like what they imagined crunch time at a professional studio to be like. Considering the recent drama around Team Bondi’s working conditions, I questioned Jenkins on and whether the comparison to crunch time was fair.

“We believe that crunch-time, as used by the industry should only be a necessity once in a while, it is not something that should be used all the time, therefore we discourage the notion that our students should be in crunch-time all of the time,” he said. “That theory is both unhealthy and counterproductive in terms of efficiency. At SMU, we teach our students how to be efficient and effective users of time and how to balance their time and work effectively with others so that crunch-time is not necessary.”

The Guildhall always leaves its curriculum open for improvement, in order to meet the needs of the ever-changing games industry. “This discipline of video game development…is really a nascent discipline and therefore requires continual refinement and definition. We believe that this should be done in consultation with the video game industry that actually uses the professionals who graduate from SMU,” Jenkins said. “To that end, we have a board of advisors and a cadre of Guildmasters who have and continue to influence the development of our curriculum and we are open to conversations throughout the year through our faculty and through our leadership in discussions with others in the video game industry to continue to refine our curriculum and to target it to the evolution of the arts and sciences underpinning game development.”

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

Keep your browser tuned to G4 all week as we keep bringing you G4 University, and at the end of the week we'll have a guide for you that rounds up all of the information, and gives you the perfect places to start looking, along with some helpful tips. 

G4U: SMU's Guildhall Video Game Design Program


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