GDC: Training to become a game maker at SMU's Guildhall

Southern Methodist University in Plano, Texas is home to a pioneering master’s degree program in video and computer design creation known as The Guildhall at SMU. The Guildhall is not the only university program out there that teaches the fundamentals of game making, but since 2004, the institution has turned out some of the most sought-after game professionals in the industry. Peter E. Raad, Ph.D. is the program’s executive director, and at this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco he offered some insight to the Guildhall’s secret to success.

While SMU may seem at first blush to be an incongruous location for such a proram, Raad explained that it was the game industry itself that came to them to start the program.

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“The idea was first incubated in August of 2002, and within three months we had a plan of action,” Raad told Macworld . “The industry went to us to create it, and fortunately it was the right fit.”

Raad explained that SMU already had a center to innovate and incubate new technology programs. That, combined with an endowment and the cooperation of leaders in the game industry, enabled them to create a working program in a very short time.

“We started in July 7, 2003,” he said. “We went from nothing to having a 50,000 square foot facility, faculty, staff and students in less than a year.”

The 21 month program focuses students on gaining specialization equivalent to on-the-job training that would take a professional in the game industry years to acquire. The focus is not just on the mechanics of game design and development — understanding the technologies and tools used — but also on the leadership and management skills necessary to make it in this highly competitive and highly risky field: the ability to work in and manage teams, and to work in the style and the pace of the industry so graduates can hit the ground running.

“That’s why we call the program the Guildhall,” said Raad.

Historically, Raad said that guilds where where artisans would learn their craft by working with mentors for years until their skills matched that of their teachers. While the timeframe is greatly compressed compared to the guilds of old, Guildhall graduates are ready for the “real world” of video and computer game creation when they leave SMU.

Teaching students how to think

Raad said that he often dissuades undergraduates and high schoolers from specializing in game design or development straight away.

“Kids are particularly excited about getting into gaming because there’s a lure of doing cool stuff. But I tell them to get a foundation education first, in liberal arts or whatever else might interest them,” he said.

Raad said that providing a basis for understanding the cultural context of what makes games important and relevant to today’s audience is vital. “This is the 21st century mode of human expression,” he said.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve taken this approach, because gaming is an extremely powerful means of expression and we need to teach the responsibility of using the medium. The Guildhall comprises a broad spectrum of people who have their own stories they want to tell, and they want to tell their stories differently from the way the industry does as it exists today.”

Raad recognizes that the game industry has largely grown through its own self-selection process. That’s led to what he terms an “inbred” perspective on what should be popular or interesting to the consumer, and it’s generated a conservative picture of what kind of games can succeed.

Students in demand

The Guildhall boasts a staggering 95 percent placement rate for its graduates. Raad said the fifth cohort of Guildhall students graduate this month, and 40 percent of them have already been offered jobs in the game industry. That, he said, is proof that SMU is on the right track.

Graduates from the Guildhall have gone on to accept jobs at well-respected game developers including id Software, Gearbox Software, Neversoft, Sony Online Entertainment and many other companies. In fact, in January, the Guildhall had a Career Days placement event that was successful enough that they had to turn away some companies that wanted to meet students.

Understanding gaming’s cultural context

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, an animation is worth a thousand pictures,” Raad remarked. “And to take that a step further, a game is worth a thousand animations.”

“The ‘how’ of the craft is an important element to what we teach,” Raad said, “but it needs to be a motivation for deeper learning. The focus needs to be on the ‘why’ and the ‘why not’ as well.”

So while students must learn some of the tools and technology that today’s game designers and developers work with, Raad feels that that shouldn’t be the major emphasis on higher learning as it relates to games. “It would be a shame if we made our young people conversant in an obsolete technology. We want to make them conversant in life.”

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