Copyright 2002

[ April 1st 2002 ]

Somewhere, in a darkened bedroom or a cinderblock basement, a kid is sitting at a computer, dreaming of creating the perfect video game. In the past, that dream probably would have died. But as the market for video games accelerates into a multibillion dollar industry, the need for developers to feed games to the marketplace has grown.

Universities and smaller private institutes are establishing courses - and even degrees - to fill the need. Students who might have signed up for film classes a decade or two ago are increasingly looking at video games as a means of expression. "Students were coming up to me, asking me why we weren't offering game courses," said Andy Phelps, an instructor of information technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. Phelps organized a concentration in game development, which was offered for the first time in the winter quarter. He said the school is planning to offer a degree soon.

One of his students, Zachary Welch, 23, arrived at RIT to major in computer engineering, but wants to make games a career. "It's not going to be that big a jump," said Welch, a Chicago native who heads a campus gaming club that he hopes to expand nationwide. Welch, like many now studying gaming, grew up with games. "When I was a kid, my dad worked and my mom worked off and on, so they pretty much dropped us off at the arcade with $20," he said. "Games are so universal. Everybody plays games."

Other schools are further along. Georgia Tech offers a master's program in game development, and Southern California is starting one this fall. The Art Institutes International at San Francisco began a Game Art & Design program last fall. For David Yost, 21, of Merrimack, N.H., finding the school on the Internet was a dream come true. "I always loved video games, and I wanted to do something I loved for a living," said Yost, one of six students in the fledgling program, where the cost can hit $5,000 a quarter.

For that money, students don't sit around playing Final Fantasy X or Madden NFL 2002. At RIT, for example, students learn about programming two- and three-dimensional graphics. They also take Programming for Digital Media, Writing for Interactive Multimedia and the obscurely titled Multi-User Media Spaces. The payoff, the students hope, is a chance to work on cutting-edge titles at a top game company such as Electronic Arts, Sega or Konami.

One of the best-known sources of development talent is the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., and Vancouver, Canada. DigiPen opened in 1988 as a computer animation and simulation company doing work for architects and engineers. When they were asked to create a season's worth of cartoon shows, they realized they didn't have enough staff, Vice President Jason Chu said. Advertising got them just two or three of the more than 30 people needed. "We realized that without manpower, the industry couldn't grow," he said.

The company began offering classes in animation in conjunction with the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Canada. In 1991, Nintendo came calling, and the idea of offering courses in video game development was born. Under the arrangement, Nintendo provides equipment and technical expertise, while DigiPen provides people.

DigiPen got 1,200 applicants for 30 slots, thanks to an announcement in the magazine Nintendo Power. The first class of 11 students graduated in July 2000, followed by 36 in April 2001 and another 11 in December. There are more than 100 students in the gaming program now, paying about $320 a credit, or close to $13,000 for a 154-credit degree.

The program can be rewarding. Of DigiPen's initial 11 graduates, nine went to such developers as Black Ops, Interplay and Dreamworks. At Sony Computer Entertainment of America in Foster City, 22% of Jim Wallace's 30-person game development team was hired right out of school. Almost half have previous development experience, and the rest come from the film industry.

How good are these new grads? Wallace said graduates aren't necessarily ready right away and require additional training by employers. But within two months, he said, "they are contributing to a game. After six months, they're really hitting it."

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