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College video game program grows into key feeder for industry

May 29, 2012|By Brian Gaar

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin Community College student Richard Moss showed off his group's project: a demo of a submarine video game called Treasures of Atlantis.

It was the end of the semester for a class of about 14 game designers and as many artists enrolled in the community college's Game Development Institute.

As Moss piloted his digital submarine around the treasure-filled depths, he was eventually killed. Except it wasn't quite clear whether the game was over.

"Yeah, I'm dead, but we don't have a 'Game Over' screen," Moss said as the class laughed.

Garry Gaber, who heads the institute, encouraged Moss and suggested adding more aquatic wildlife, such as sea horses and jellyfish.

For Gaber, a veteran of LucasArts Entertainment Co. who runs his own Austin studio, the class is an attempt to re-create a real-life gaming studio.

The Game Development Institute, a two-year program, has about 250 students. About 33 graduated last year, and Gaber said he's had graduates go on to work in almost every major studio in town.

The video game industry in Austin has grown significantly in recent years: Employment in gaming and digital media jumped from 2,848 people in 2005 to 7,274 jobs in 2010, according to a report by Austin economic consulting firm TXP Inc.

Dozens of schools across the country offer gaming programs. The top-ranked one is at USC, according to the Princeton Review. The university's School of Cinematic Arts' interactive media division and its Viterbi School of Engineering's department of computer science have offered an advanced games class since 2007.

Gaber said the Austin program has an advisory committee of representatives from almost every major studio in Austin, as well as some of the smaller ones.

"And the Austin game community is really receptive to these guys," Gaber said. "They love what we're doing; they're involved with the school. I mean that's the thing, they kind of tell us what to do, and so we do what they say to get these guys jobs. It's all about that."

But the students are also learning lessons that they might not immediately grasp, he said.

"It's the teamwork; it's the completion of milestones; it's knowing when to cut bait on things," Gaber said. "That's what the studios want.... They know they're going to have to train them on everything. They want [new employees] to drop in Day One and know how to work on a team, not be obnoxious, know what it's like to be in an office environment, work with artists — that's what they got out of this that's so important."

One of those students, Adam Stockton, showed off his group's tower defense game, "Steam Punk'd," in a recent class. The game, which took Stockton's team of nine students 16 weeks to build, requires the player to defend against all manner of attacking bugs.

Gaber and the class loved it. "I think the art is spectacular," Gaber said, while offering suggestions for improvements. "I think you guys have really pulled something off here."

Stockton, a former gunner's mate in the Navy, said he moved to Austin from Northern California specifically to enroll in the program.

The attraction, he said, was instructors such as Gaber with real-world experience.

"I want people who work in the industry currently, people who are working for the companies that are making fantastic games," Stockton said. "Look at [Austin-based] BioWare: They've made three of the greatest [role-playing games] currently, and they've got a [massively multiplayer online game] currently on market. I'm learning from the people who have done these things."

Mike Malleske, whose team showed off an action game called Chrome Saga, said the program can be demanding — but in a good way.

"This is probably the most fun I've had in a school setting," Malleske said. "I mean, it's a lot of work — more work than I've ever done in college — but the payoff is greater as well."

Gaar writes for the Austin American-Statesman/McClatchy.

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