Utah’s Got Game

Local Schools are Producing Cutting-edge Game Developers

by Dan Sorensen

July 31, 2014

No matter who you are, odds are you’ve played some sort of video game in your life—whether it’s a game of solitaire on your computer, Farmville on Facebook or an intense first-person shooter.

What you may not know is that Utah has had a hand in the video game industry from its inception with Pong in the ‘70s to the latest mobile games. Pong, a bare-bones simulation of table tennis, was created by Nolan Bushnell, a Utah native and University of Utah alumnus who went on to co-found Atari.

Now the state is home to major video game studios like Electronic Arts and Disney Interactive. And local universities are playing their part by educating the next generation of game designers. While video game design programs are fairly new, they have grown exponentially in recent years, propelled by the growth of gaming across the world.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), nearly 60 percent of Americans play video games. While that may seem surprising, it makes sense when you consider how mobile devices have commandeered our lives. These devices follow us everywhere and are turning us all into gamers, whether it’s Candy Crush, Angry Birds or Scrabble.

Indeed, the video game industry is massive—it’s expected to reach $111 billion by next year, according to analyst firm Gartner.

With many games now grossing billions of dollars, and the highest-grossing title, World of Warcraft (WoW), reaching a mind-blowing $10 billion in revenue, it’s no longer only about fun and games, it’s about business. Video games have the capacity to gross more than any other type of entertainment media. As a comparison, WoW quadrupled the revenue of Avatar—the highest grossing movie of all-time.

Cooperative Gameplay

The University of Utah has a long, distinguished involvement in computer imaging—particularly 3D graphics and computer animation. This competency has naturally grown to include video game design, and the U is regularly ranked as having one of the top computer gaming programs in the nation. Most recently, Princeton Review listed the U’s video game design undergraduate program as second in the nation and its graduate program as fourth.

Not too long ago, game designers were simply computer programmers who tweaked their skills to create video games. While this was sufficient in the days of Pong, Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, expectations grew increasingly fierce after titles like Call of Duty, WoW and Grand Theft Auto started selling tens of millions of copies.

“The video game industry is about artists and engineers working very closely together. And in many phases of the company, if you look at the people building the games, they’re always talking to one another,” says Robert Kessler, executive director of entertainment arts and engineering at the University of Utah. “The problem companies were seeing is schools were good at making great artists or engineers but they didn’t know how to work together.”

In this new era of video game design, three major proficiencies are needed: computer programming, design and the ability to work in a team. Utah’s universities created special courses to bring these three skill sets together.

 “There have been computer graphics classes taught for years and years, and typically that blossomed into the game genre. And in various schools it has blossomed into an entire program,” says Parris Egbert, computer science department chair at Brigham Young University.

Most schools now provide a real-world experience for students, where they create games in teams, as they would while working for a major studio.

“The way we made this interdisciplinary work is both artists and engineers take classes together from their freshman year to their senior year. We put them together and, in essence, we force them to learn to work together,” says Kessler. “Often times, there will be this ‘aha experience’ where the engineers say, ‘I know how to make a great game, but it looks good because the artist made it look good,’ and vice-versa.”

Real-time Strategy

Most Utah universities that offer video game design programs provide opportunities to actually create games. This is a unique learning opportunity that also gives students a published game they can share in their portfolio.

“We recently put into place a year-long game program sequence. Students start in the fall and it’s an interdisciplinary program, so we get students from computer science and animation to participate in this,” says Egbert. “During fall semester, they design a game, figure out game play, look and feel; and in winter semester they finish the implementation and publish it.”

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