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Colleges push video-game major

By Alex Pham
Los Angeles Times
The Thukrals wanted their son, Dhruv, to go into nanotechnology. So when he told them he would rather be a video-game developer, he might as well have said he wanted to join the circus.
“Are you serious?” they asked.
He was. The 21-year-old graduate student at the University of Southern California proved it by switching the focus of his computer science doctorate from a field known as distributed systems to video-game programming.
He then launched a campaign to convince his parents back home in New Delhi that helping people have fun was not only a legitimate career but also lucrative. He peppered them with articles about the growth of the video-game industry, which is expected to generate global revenue of nearly $50 billion this year. He also sent them stock charts and annual reports of some of the industry’s top companies.
They relented.
“Awareness is growing, and more students are interested,” said Thukral, who in 2004 became one of the inaugural students in USC’s graduate program for video-game development. “Computer science can be fun.”
Game design has helped rekindle interest in computer science and become a hot new major at more than 200 schools, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group. Because making games crosses several disciplines, the diversity of programs that offer such courses is staggering: Fine arts colleges, engineering schools, film schools, music schools and even drama programs are sending graduates into the industry.
“Some programs throw a drama guy together with a programming guy to see what they come up with,” said Bing Gordon, a venture capitalist and former chief creative officer for industry powerhouse Electronic Arts Inc. “Games is the ultimate interdisciplinary art.”
When video games began to emerge in the late 1970s and early ’80s, their creators tended to be computer hobbyists working out of bedrooms and garages.
Now, game companies recruit armies to work in studios all over the world. They invent characters, write dialogue, compose music, create digital scenes and write the software that rules these fantasy worlds.
A blockbuster game can require more than 100 developers, each working for two or more years, to complete.
“Just like everything else, universities are about following the money,” said Jessie Schell, who teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center in Pittsburgh.Colleges really began to take notice about six years ago, when the game industry’s sales started to rival movie box-office receipts, Schell said.
Since then, he said, there’s been a “great boom” in the number of programs cropping up to train future developers.
One of them is Ex’pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, Calif. Founded in 1999 to teach computer graphics and sound design for the movie industry, the school decided to create a separate course for video-game designers last year after seeing so many of its graduates jump into the profession.Because the field of study is so young, there is little agreement among schools over the proper curriculum. Gordon, the industry veteran, said the better programs tended to emphasize teamwork among students with different skills.
“It’s mind-bending technology, combined with clever game design, combined with glorious artwork, combined with beautiful audio,” Schell said. “There’s no one person on the team who can do it all. We think of it like team inventing.”
USC takes a similar tack. In May, students from the university’s computer science, film, music and art programs gathered to show off their game projects to a standing-room-only crowd of about 60 industry recruiters. One was Matt Coohill, creative director of Digital Domain, a visual effects company in Los Angeles that’s branching into games.
“The skills they teach here fit perfectly with what we’re trying to do,” Coohill said.
USC’s games program has boosted interest in the school’s computer science department, said Mike Zyda, director of the USC GamePipe Lab, which hosted the event.
When Zyda came to the university in 2005 to organize a games curriculum in the engineering school, the computer science department counted 52 students taking three game development courses.
This spring, the department taught 379 students in 18 game development classes. Some of the students come from USC’s other departments, such as the School of Cinematic Arts, which created its own game program for graduate students in 2002.
The surge in interest has led schools to add games to their menu ó but not always to the benefit of its students. Recruiters say they often see “mills” that run around-the-clock sessions to churn out as many students as possible. Other programs teach specific skills but not how games are pulled together.
“It’s a very hot academic growth area,” said Colleen McCreary, who runs EA’s university relations program. “I’m very worried about the number of community colleges and for-profit institutions, as well as four-year programs, that are using game design as a lure for students who are not going to be prepared for the real entry-level positions that the game industry wants.”
About one-third of Carnegie Mellon’s graduates go directly to work at EA, said Cindy Nicola, the company’s vice president of talent acquisition.
The Redwood City, Calif., company soaks up close to 300 graduates each year from various universities.
“You’ve got kids in school who wake up saying, ‘I want to be a game developer when I grow up,’ ” Nicola said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
One of them is Paul Bellezza, 26, who says he thinks of games “as the new dominant form of entertainment.” He was so desperate to enroll in the USC School of Cinema program that he showed up uninvited to many of its events. After months of schmoozing, he got in.
There, Bellezza teamed with another student, Matt Korba, to produce a title called “The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom,” a metaphysical puzzle game that combines the creepy but cute aesthetics of illustrator Edward Gorey with the look of silent film.
Bellezza and Korba graduated from the master’s program in May and formed their own game company, Odd Gentlemen Co., in Los Angeles.
“This is my dream job,” Bellezza said.
Working in the business isn’t always a bed of roses, particularly for the entry-level game testers. Bellezza did that for a year before enrolling at USC.
“Imagine having to play a video game that’s not as good as the ones you get to play at home,” said David S.J. Hodgson, co-author of the book “Video Game Careers.” “None of the textures are in, so everything looks blocky and your characters are doing weird things. Each time they do that, you have to write it down so the developers can fix it.
“Now imagine having to play that same level again and again for nine months,” he added. “You have to do things like pound on every inch of the walls on that level to make sure there are no bugs. It’s mind-numbing.”
Then there are the deadline pressure and the long hours.
“The stress is absolutely phenomenal,” Hodgson said. “People sleep on couches and floors. Their desks are littered with snacks, old games and the detritus of half-eaten meals. There’s a reason why big game studios have showers, laundromats, beverage carts and gyms on site. It’s so you will never leave.”
Rewards await those who stick it out.
The average annual salary last year for game developers ó which includes all workers in the industry ó was $73,600, not including bonuses and stock options that can add several thousand, according to a 2007 survey by Game Developer magazine.
Gordon, the former chief creative officer of EA, had this message for other students: “We’re starved for talent. So hurry up and graduate.”Some don’t even have to graduate. After the USC event, where Thukral presented a cell-phone game designed to get kids to exercise, he received a job offer at EA’s mobile games division. He took it and is now working on his doctorate at night.
His parents, he said, were very pleased.

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