Game design at Northeastern University
I’m going to start this article with a full disclosure – I am a faculty member at Northeastern University in Boston, with a couple of years of teaching interactive narrative and game design courses under my belt. Don’t scream “OMG Bias!” in panic, though – this is no vapid sales pitch. Instead, consider this a tour through the program, with a guide who just happens to know the ins and outs reasonably well.
Game Design is offered as a core curriculum in the master’s program at Northeastern’s College of Professional studies. The school offers a 12-month certificate program in Game Design and a Master’s of Professional Studies in Digital Media with a concentration in Game Design, if you want the specifics and wordy titles. What this means in plain English is that you can opt for the quicker certificate if you are simply looking to brush up on skills or learn an aspect of development that’s new to you, or you can go for the full degree program for the in-depth educational experience (encompassing core classes, specialty classes, and a thesis component) and the resume-sweetening power of a master’s degree. It’s up to you.
Flexibility and breadth of study are two of the greatest strengths of the course, with classes scheduled to accommodate both full and part time students, international students, and of course, the certificate and Master’s candidates. There are also myriad opportunities to work with students in other specialties, according to Academic Director Cynthia Baron:
“In other Masters programs, game designers are only in classes with other designers. In our program, we have several specializations that take core courses together.”, she says.
“As a result, there is lots of collaboration -- meeting and networking with people with different cultures, backgrounds and skills. We give game designers the opportunity to link up with 3D animators and interactive design students to create new application ideas.”
All degree-seeking students take those core classes, including foundations in programming, storytelling, and visual communications. This way, no one goes into game development coursework without a solid background in the technical, narrative, and artistic elements that they’ll need as building blocks.
Then, you move right into game design fundamentals, followed by game design workshop, game design algorithms and data structures and game design technology lab. Students in the program typically create their thesis project as a game – though some have even gone on to start up their own studios.
Many students also opt to take electives within the 3D Animation and Interactive Design Specialties as well, and many courses are offered in six-week “bootcamp” formats, allowing interested parties to dabble in, say, 3D-modeling while also taking their usual courseload.
“Our program is particularly successful in filling in the gaps for people with one set of skills who lack the entire balanced package for good game design.” Says Baron.
“Good programmers will learn how to leverage their skills to create a meaningful, well-designed game system with addictive play. Game QA people learn programming skills that enable them to take ideas and turn them into prototypes. Game artists have the opportunity to improve their narrative and character-development skills.”
A factor that isn’t advertised as much as it could be is just how proactive the administration is about recruiting (and retaining) faculty who actively work in their fields. Professors in the Digital Media program are never burned-out industry washouts or folks teaching outdated development methods, which you might see at other universities (in any department).
What About Boston?
Boston has an astounding number of colleges and universities within its leafy (and sometimes snowy) metro area. If you come here for school, you’ll be surrounded by a venerable flood of other students, many of them international, who specialize in every field imaginable. It’s one of the best cities in the US to go to school in, considering the friendly size, number of student-centered businesses, and massive amount of culture (digital/game development related and otherwise).
The other best reason to study game design in beantown? The thriving local development scene. Harmonix and Irrational Studios are among the “poster child” AAA’s plying their craft in the area, and there are a healthy number of smaller and indie studios and a vibrant culture of meet-ups and events that are well-attended by local talent.
Just counting the biggies, there’s the massive PAX East each March, GameLoop annually, Boston Post Mortem and Boston Indies approximately monthly, MIT’s gambit GameLab hosts regular events and free-to-the-public play sessions and Boston Game Jams holds regular jams on any variety of themes and production models. The scene is absolutely booming in this town – and it’s at a perfect size for students and indies to get in and get heard.
Check out David Abraham's thesis project, Gate of Redemption
If you’re interested in the program, you can check out all of the particulars on the official site, including test score information and the like. You should also start to get serious about playing games. Lots of games:
“Anyone who is serious about game design should be exploring and playing the widest possible range of games, not just console FPSs.”, says Baron.
“Indie games often explore the most interesting new gaming ideas. Casual gaming platforms, from the Internet sites to the iPhone, show you how to implement game physics, and use them creatively to make addictive gameplay.”
Her final piece of advice is a good one for anyone, whether you’re a future Husky or not: “Attend game conventions! You'll network, explore, and the seminars and lectures give you access to people and concepts you might not get from just playing.”
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja from Boston. You should follow her on twitter for all of the relevant links and details: @danielleri
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