Game-Design Courses Gain Favor


ROCHESTER — When Andrew M. Phelps, an instructor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, explains how to use software to draw people and terrains, it might sound as if he is preparing his students to produce an animated film like "Shrek."

In fact, the two dozen students listening intently to Mr. Phelps want to create the next Lara Croft.

"With `Shrek,' you're just using a computer program as paint," said Zachary Welch, 23, one of the students. "Games are interactive."

They are also a hot growth area. The Rochester Institute, whose department of information technology just started the first master's program in computer game design, estimates that the $20 billion computer game industry will grow to a $100 billion-a-year business within a decade.

Rochester's program takes its place alongside a few others around the nation. In January, the Art Institutes of San Francisco, a commercial art school, began offering classes in game design that lead to an undergraduate degree. And three years ago, Carnegie Mellon University set up the Entertainment Technology Center, which offers classes in computer animation and computer-generated special effects that are applicable to creating games, even though it does not offer a degree in game design.

Because computer game design is so new as an academic field, it is chancy to predict whether graduates will find jobs. On the positive side, the abundance of games on the market makes it ever harder to capture the loyalty of game players. Thus, companies are desperate for those who can come up with the next Doom or Quake.

"We have all these jobs that we can't fill, because we can't find people with the right skills," said Randy J. Hinrichs, a research manager at the learning science and technology unit at Microsoft.

Pay scales do not reflect the shortages. Mr. Hinrichs said Microsoft would pay a designer with a degree $70,000 to start, but Microsoft may be an anomaly. Students, recruiters and other game executives say that entry-level game designers rarely get more than $45,000, and experienced designers rarely earn more than $120,000.

There are exceptions, of course. Will Wright, who created the Sims, and Sid Meier, who designed Civilization, certainly provide wealthy role models. Still, "most of us probably will fail," said David Parks, 20, another of Mr. Phelps's students, "but whoever comes up with the next really big game can make a fortune."

What keeps the students motivated, though, is their love of games, combined with the intellectual challenge of game design. Animated movies have fixed plots, but with a game, each image is predicated on the player's previous move, so the game must be programmed with a form of artificial intelligence.

Skills in creating and maneuvering complex graphics have applications beyond gaming, of course. The Rochester Institute is collaborating with Cornell University to devise methods by which game technology can be used to teach high school biology. Several students said they could use their new skills in business or government work.

"We can work for NASA, for the military, for any place where graphics simulations are in demand," said Konboye Oyake, 25.

The students may in fact receive warmer receptions from the nongame world. Debate is hot among game aficionados and industry executives about whether game design can be taught — and if so, how, by whom and to whom.

"I'm leery about the quality of game education versus experience," said Mark DeLoura, manager of developer relations at Sony Computer Entertainment Americas. "And gaming is interactive storytelling, so a game-design degree would fit in more with a film school."

Others argue about whether students should be drawn from among artists or programmers.

Mr. Phelps, the Rochester instructor, has an artist's eye — his own paintings hang in his office — but he does not mind that few of his students share his predilection. "Game design has become a software engineering problem," he said.

But Mary Clarke-Miller, academic director of the new media program at the Art Institutes of San Francisco, has a different view. "Modern games incorporate more complex artistic elements," she said, "so the industry needs trained artists."

The computer professors at Lehigh University, meanwhile, might agree with both. They say they will not offer game-design courses until Lehigh's arts professors get a complementary design-arts course up and running.

"Programmers can make things appear on screen, but we want them to also know how those things should look," said G. Drew Kessler, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh.

At the University of California at Irvine, Robert F. Nideffer, an assistant professor of studio art, has been lobbying since 2000 for an interdisciplinary game-design program that would draw faculty members from engineering, arts and computer sciences. "So far," he said, "we haven't convinced the committee on academic programs that gaming is a serious line of inquiry."

Only Carnegie Mellon seems to have already bridged the left brain-right brain divide. Its Entertainment Technology Center, which offers courses in many forms of computer animation and computer-generated effects, is jointly run by the College of Fine Arts and the School of Computer Science, which each providing a co-director. The center accepts half its students based on their computer skills, the other half for their visual acumen.

"Some 25 percent of our incoming students want to design games," said Randy F. Pausch, the director from the computer side. "By our mere existence, we show them that the field is about collaboration."

Collegiality, in fact, may yet be the most valuable thing students take from any game design class. After all, the specific technology they learn is quickly obsolete.

"Today's game designer is tomorrow's passé game designer," said Gail Z. Koch, president of Comsearch, the technology recruiting firm. But that does not make game-design courses a waste of time, Ms. Koch said. "These students form a network," she said. "They can keep each other informed about which places have jobs — and which have in-house training."