Still looking for a video game program at a school that's right for you? There are a lot of reasons to go to college. Parties, anonymous sex, drinking, learning, and of course, anonymous sex. Wait, I mean the learning. But not many people go to college to play video games and even fewer get paid to study video games. At the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program though, students do just that.
Now I want to clarify that I graduated from the University of Utah with degrees in both history and international studies in 2009. But don’t distress fair readers – I’m not on the university payroll. I’m just a proud alumnus and will back up any of my claims with cold hard facts. Nestled in the quiet foothills of Utah’s Wasatch mountain range, the U definitely doesn’t exhibit the vibe of a top ranked game design program. However, with a school of computing that produced a slew of notable alumni including Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari) and Edwin Catmull (President of Disney Animation Studios and Pixar), it’s not too surprising.
The EAE program is divided in a way that caters to any number of career paths. The undergraduate program, ranked #2 in the nation by The Princeton Review, was the brainchild of a few U of U computer science professors in 2007. “We talked to Disney and Pixar and Microsoft and anybody that would talk to us and asked them ‘what is it you want our undergrad graduates to have?’” explained Executive Director Robert Kessler when I dropped by last week, “They said ‘we don’t want some kind of a weird, watered-down degree where you learn a little bit of programming, a little bit of art; we want world class computer scientists. We want world class artists.’” That’s exactly what Kessler and his fellow professors started doing.
So the EAE undergraduate program was born. Separated into design and production, students either major in computer science or film/art. Students take the standard courses for each major, but focus primarily on video games. This doesn’t mean it’s a breeze though; “We make them take all the really hard computer science classes and anything we see as relevant to video games,” said Kessler with a grin. This ensures that students are well versed in computer science before trying to program with the Unreal engine.
Becoming the second rated school in the country in four years is no small feat and was certainly helped by the burgeoning video game industry in Utah, and more specifically, Salt Lake City. Rife with blockbuster studios like EA, Disney Interactive, Chair Entertainment, and Eat Sleep Play; the city is a wealth of resources for a fledgling game program. These studios not only provide welcome opportunities for internships, but also workshops and instruction for students throughout their tenure.
The four-year undergraduate program wraps up with a senior project encompassing students’ knowledge up to that point. Broken up into teams of ten, students take a game from pitch to production on the Xbox Live Arcade. Faculty works with students to whittle down the number of pitches into tenable titles and provide support throughout its development.
“We designed a program so they can learn how to work together,” said Kessler, explaining their effort to create an authentic studio experience. This setup forces design and production students not only to work together, but to work together in the high-stress environment of creating a commercial video game in under a year. It’s not without payoff, however; each team is allowed to keep 70% of the royalties earned by the game. To put that in perspective; the most successful game produced last year, an indie hit called Minions, has sold 13,500 copies to date. As Kessler put it, “they’ve paid off their tuition just by taking the class.”
While some students take their newfound taste for money and myriad industry contacts and strike out after four years, many apply for the two-year, #6 ranked master’s program that functions as a high-intensity continuation of their undergraduate work. Entering only its second year and already hosting a high ranking, the master’s EAE program is already aiming high. “We really tried to drive this idea that it was going to be a studio experience.” Kessler said of the new program. “So students can get in and experience what it’s like working in a studio in a protected environment where failure doesn’t cost you your job.”
Whereas the undergrad program is a focused position-specific curriculum, all master’s students must take game design from the jump. As Mark van Langeveld, director of game engineering explained, “you need to be a game designer” to be competitive in the job market. Kessler continued that “If you understand the fundamentals of game design it doesn’t matter if you’re doing art, engineering or production, you’re going to be better at doing that because you get how that works.”
After establishing a clear understanding of game design, students break off into production, engineering or art. During their second semester students are split into large groups and begin in January to work on a game to submit to the IGF competition in October. In their third semester, students study and develop social games and in their fourth, they begin a final research paper while conducting a final internship. With the U’s deep contacts in the video game industry, students enjoy internships at places like Microsoft, Blizzard, and Sony, just to name a few. After graduation, students are perfectly poised for a position in the industry with a firm grasp of every aspect of making video games, industry experience and a deep network. Most appealing to some students is the flexibility, “it’s still a master’s degree in computer science,” Kessler reminded me. “So they can always change directions.”
When I walked into the decades-old building that hosts the master’s program I thought it certainly didn’t look state of the art or even modern but the inside is damn near indistinguishable from an independent game design studio. “We treat this like a commercial studio,” said Kessler, “[The students] all have their own desks, computers, their war room, whiteboards and that kind of stuff.” Not to mention a huge presentation space, a kitchen and lounge area. The auditorium bustles with the busyness of a studio mid-crunch and after our conversation, Kessler explained he had to go “teach a class” and I had to wonder how the students or the professors consider this experience to be “school.”
For such a young program, the EAE program at the University of Utah is clawing its way up to the top with surprising speed; and the growth is exponential. The #2 ranking is drawing talented students from around the globe, including Mexico, Dubai, and India, not to mention a number of states outside of Utah. This year 25 percent of EAE’s students hail from outside of Utah, a high number considering the cumulative student body is only 16 percent out-of-state.
EAE may well be the next institution in the industry, churning out industry leaders like Harvard churns out “smaht kids.” From building a Sony Move game for children being treated at the Huntsman Cancer Institute to building well-recognized indie games, the U of U’s EAE program is certainly no flash in the pan. The hardest part is convincing your parents to pay for you to go to college to play video games.
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.
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