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Students play games they designed instead of taking finals

By Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - Apr 23rd, 2013 @ 10:16pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — While most college students end the year with research papers, some University of Utah students are playing the games they have spent months developing instead.

As they jump, scream, and manipulate remote control devices, students with the University of Utah Entertainment Arts and Engineering Program (EAE) may look like they're not taking their studies seriously. However, they're showing off months of work creating video games.

In essence, these students are living their dream — a dream that began with their love of playing video games.

"I had the opportunity to make one small game for a company," said EAE graduate student Andrew Witts, "And I just got addicted. That's what I wanted to do."

Witts considers himself an artist, the game program designer. His project partner Jason Thummel is the computer programming engineer. Thummel knew he wanted to develop games for a living when his friends began begging him to buy some of his work.

"I've been buying games and now to have people buying my games was just ‘wow,'" Thummel said. "It was totally a new feeling."

Witts and Thummel won a major industry award competition in April 3, 2013 for their video space game Reveal.

In his classroom lectures, Bob Kessler teaches his students about the importance of working in teams because he says that's the way it works in the real world.

I played video games since I was 3 and didn't consider it a career. I started in graphic design first and then saw this program and I was like 'I have to do this.'

–Ashley McMillan

"Whether it's video games, computer animation, or special effects," said Bob Kessler, executive director of the program. "Your day-to-day life really is artists and engineers working together."

That's the kind of real world experience that helps land jobs for students. Kessler said one undergraduate student graduating this year now works with Microsoft in Seattle.

"He said one of the important parts of the (Microsoft) interview was he had to be able to talk about fundamentals of the software development process," said Kessler. "Which he learned in class."

Students with the EAE program haven't even graduated yet but their designs are having a significant contribution to the gaming industry.

Kessler said three games from the undergraduate senior class are already being published with the Xbox 360 and another three from the graduating senior class are being published with other companies.

Several EAE student teams hope to get published too. Tuesday they showed off their projects to industry experts.

One team of students graduate next week and together they developed the game Race of the Zodiac. Players physically jump and move to race to the top of a mountain while transforming between different Chinese zodiac characters.

Josh Lee, a former dance student who segued into digital media and game studies, is now a developer and lead designer for the game. While Race of Zodiac is a short game, Lee wanted to put some of his own flare into the scenes.

"It's about a five minute experience," Lee said. "But within that, players are doing different poses that are high, medium and low. As a person who understands dance, I wanted to have a little bit of that."

Lee has an intense job interview Wednesday with a local game company. He said he feels confident he can find a lucrative job with what he's been learning in school.

"I really understand production and design," said Lee. "What it means to be an advocate for the team and for the player."

Lead graphic artist Ashley McMillan said she is seeing more women in the video game design field.

"I played video games since I was 3 and didn't consider it a career," said McMillan. "I started in graphic design first and then saw this program and I was like ‘I have to do this.'"

McMillan helped design the animals in Zodiac and add a unique look and feel to the game as a whole.

"We decided to make it sort of paper craft, kid friendly, to give it sort of a stylized feel so it doesn't look like all the other games," McMillan said.

And while each teammate focuses on different aspects of the game, Project Manager Brandon Karratti is what the industry dubs the "face" of the project.

"When people need to talk, they bring me out," Karratti said.

He's not just the face of the project, but he has to make sure the collaboration between artists and engineers comes to life with buyers as well. The Zodiac project gave him a taste of that real life responsibility as the group worked hard to take the game to mobile devices.

"I talked to several executives and had meetings with them," said Karratti. "We sat down and I said 'look this is the only way this is going to get published.'"

The 2013 Princeton Review for Video Game Design ranks the University of Utah EAE program at the top; the undergraduate program sits at number one and the graduate program ranks number two. The prestige of the program plays a large part in bringing industry experts to demonstrations for games and projects.

Experts like Richard Reagan said more students than ever can get a foot in the door of the industry which is what he's seeing with University of Utah EAE students.

"Because anyone can go into the Apple store and have their games in iTunes searchable there" said Richard Reagan, creative director of EA.

Reagan said he's not looking for perfection rather potential.

"What are the choices that they made? Why did they make them?" said Reagan. "How are they thinking about the players in the game and what's going to make that fun?"

EAE students understand to some degree their futures depend on selling ideas to big developers. Lane Kiriyama with Wahoo Studios in Orem is looking for the next big idea and games that are fresh ideas and creative. Kiriyama took Zodiac for a test drive and said the game's synchronization with the player the animals on screen could use a few tweaks.

"But as far as the actual idea, I thought it was great," he said.

That's the goal for the program's projects — to teach students how to work in teams like professionals do in the real world and take their games from classroom concept to commercial consumption. This is a curriculum that could lead to lucrative opportunities for some of the country's best game designers.


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