Capitalizing on Curriculum: Industry Partnerships in Game Education

By Beth A. Dillon [07.31.07]

 The past year has been fruitful in both new game programs and collaborations between industry and academia. Ex'pression College started a Bachelors in Game Art and Design, Michigan State University launched their Serious Game Design Program, University of Bradford expanded with a Masters in Artificial Intelligence for Games, and Rensselaer announced a new major in Games and Simulation, just to name a few.

As academic efforts grow, industry has been called on to participate in the education of potential future games industry employees. The British Minister for Creative Industries and Tourism, and Labour Member of Parliament Shaun Woodward even suggested that games industry should sponsor an academy in the United Kingdom.

So where have these collaborations happened? Certainly industry presence is strong in vocational schools which seek out professionals to hold teaching positions, but several universities have gone a step further to either adapt certain industry technology and its associated curriculum or assist existing software and middleware developers create curriculum for packaged kits.

Directed in its focus, a new class from NVIDIA was offered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concerning parallel processing. The class, co-taught by Dr. David Kirk, chief scientist at graphics-processing industry leader NVIDIA, and Dr. Wen-mei Hwu, the AMD Jerry Sanders Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois, was held to address parallel processing as the emerging computing standard for gaming and other graphics intensive systems.

Most unique in the full program partnerships was Audiokinetic Inc., an audio solution provider
for the video game industry, and the Conservatory of Recording Arts and
Sciences located the United States. The Conservatory created the first
Manufacturer's Certification curriculum for Wwise, Audiokinetic's audio pipeline solution. Similar in its specialized emphasis was the collaboration of the Savannah College of Art and Design and Electronic Arts, which started a SCAD studio pilot program focusing on professional production practices for video game artwork. EA provided production artists and art directors while SCAD's School of Film and Digital Media developed curriculum with faculty.

Wwise's interface.

University of Abertay Dundee, known for its Dare to Be Digital game contest, is currently working on a training program that uses Instinct's virtual games development studio as a package available for licensing by universities and colleges teaching games design. Instinct Studio is a game development suite that provides its users with a variety of WYSIWYG tools, including project-based resource management, fully-integrated run-time editable components, hot loading, and real-time previewing.

However, it's not just universities that are getting into development of course materials. Escape Studios has been commissioned by Pixar Animation Studios to develop a comprehensive set of courseware for Pixar's RenderMan software. Additionally, PlayStation and online game developer TheyerGFX have partnered and created a new 3D learning solution for schools with 3D Model Builder, designed to teach the language of PlayStation.

Instinct Studio's beta version.

With so many options available, what seem to be the most common choices?

 NaturalMotion's Academic Program has been picked up by the University of Portsmouth, Full Sail, and Swansea Institute, among others. In the case of Swansea, the partnership exists in their School of Digital Media courses, including BA and BSc 3D Computer Animation, BA Creative Computer Games Design, BA Interactive Digital Media, BSc Multimedia, and BSc Music Technology. The 3D character animation software developer offers endorphin licenses for all school PCs, early access to new NaturalMotion technology, and technical and supervisory support for select academic projects. The endorphin program is now also offered in the form of a time-restricted free trial with a compendium manual and training tutorials.

Microsoft's XNA has also permeated universities and colleges after promoting their "user-generated content" drive into the next generation of game development. Most notably, the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University has partnered with Microsoft to come up with applicable curriculum and industry-preparing experiences for other educational programs. SMU Guildhall's Innovation Laboratory is tasked with helping improvements in game development academic programs by using XNA Game Studio Express, a software toolset based on Visual C# 2005 Express Edition and Microsoft .NET Compact Framework. The technology is aimed at PC and Xbox 360 homebrew programmers, enthusiasts, and students.

Other colleges are also picking up XNA, not just for full curriculum programs, but also for individual courses, following the lead of PixelBox Academy, an e-learning school that offers online training for animation, VFX, and game development. The course, "XNA Foundation - Game Development with XNA Game Studio Express," introduces students to Visual Studio C# Programming Basics, input control basics, Sound Basics, 2D Sprites and animation, 3D game creation using Torque X and Network Play basics.

GarageGames' Torque X spin on Marble Blast.

Microsoft also offers their own video tutorials and community support for anyone interested in trying their hands at independent or hobbyist game development, which can be incorporated into university or college curriculum.

GarageGames, known for games such as Marble Blast, has also partnered with Microsoft XNA through its game engine Torque X, combined in many of its forms of curriculum. Torque Education, which offers free licenses for instructors and researchers using the technology, has numerous full source C++ licensed schools using its game engines. DeVry University's Game Simulation Programming program, University of Southern California's BA Interactive Entertainment and MFA Interactive Media, and the Savannah College of Art and Design are among the list.

Most recently, Emergent announced a new academic program, the Emergent Research Alliance, for its game development tools and Gamebryo game engine, used for titles such as Sid Meier's Civilization 4 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. By participating in the Alliance, universities will receive free licenses for classroom use and research. However, a limited number of openings are available in each program. Emergent is making an effort to target universities with graduate programs as well as unfunded research projects.

Sample scenes of lighting effects in Emergent's Gamebryo.

Once involved, the university will be able to collaborate with Emergent architects and software engineers for industry views and data as they research. The Alliance offers visits from Emergent professionals for seminars and guest lectures at the school, as well as participation for faculty in the annual Emergent Academic Summit. Finally, Emergent plans to provide internship opportunities for students.

As software and middleware continues to range from platform-specific to open-ended, considering the differences between game engines and art programs, for example, curriculum choices in game education tied to technology must be made carefully to reflect the needs of students. Schools are likely to continue with differing curriculum understanding the unique aspects of each degree as students head into the flourishing and competitive industry of video games.

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