When UNT learned recently that GamePro and The Princeton Review — known for its annual college "bests" lists — determined UNT is one of the 50 best institutions in the U.S. and Canada to study game design, Ian Parberry was thrilled, but not completely surprised.
Parberry, director of UNT's Laboratory for Recreational Computing and interim chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, credits UNT's early jump into the academic gaming world — along with UNT's distinguished list of alumni working in the gaming industry — with drawing the attention of The Princeton Review, which surveyed 500 schools with game design studies before arriving at its top 50.
One of the first as well as one of the best
From left, Dr. Ian Parberry, Jonathan Doran, Daniel Piers and Mary Yingst in the LARC lab.
In 1993, UNT became one of the first universities in the country to offer courses in game programming and later began offering a certificate program in 2008. Since 1993, more than 500 students have passed through UNT's gaming courses and today many of UNT's graduates are making an impact in the $18-billion gaming industry.
Alumni working in high places
Today, UNT alumni have their hands in the creation of popular games like Call of Duty: World at War, which sold more than 10 million units and had more than 8 million map packs downloaded. They use brand new technology to create iPhone apps and Facebook games and work at some of the hottest computer game companies, including:
Cesar Stastny graduated from UNT in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in computer science. Today he is the director of technology at the game company, Treyarch. He says that, among other concepts, learning game design through UNT's collaborative team approach has been central to his success in the gaming industry.
"The LARC program introduced me to important concepts, let me experience the programmer /artist/designer collaboration," Stastny says. "But most importantly it made me believe that I can actually do this — I can make games for a living."
At Treyarch Stastney's had a hand in developing:
"The Call of Duty: World at War Zombies game for iPhone has been on the top-selling/top grossing list every week since its release," Stastny says. "Almost half a billion matches have been played with over 30 billion kills, worldwide. Call of Duty: World at War has been featured in every major gaming magazine, gaming TV show, and website."
Prior to taking his position at Treyarch, Stastny was technical director at The Collective where he worked on the popular game Silent Hill: Homecoming.
Art Griffith, who in 2002 earned a bachelor's degree in computer science, is now a lead developer at Sony Online Entertainment's Tuscon studio. His latest game, Poxnora, is an online collectable/tradable strategy game that can also be played as an app on Facebook.
Other alumni have started their own gaming companies, written books and are college professors.
Collaborative team approach
Parberry says UNT's program stands out because of the strong collaboration between students in computer science and visual arts.
"It's a truly interdisciplinary program," says Parberry. "This sets us apart from many others."
Students say this interdisciplinary approach prepares them for working in the industry in ways that more traditional programs would not.
"The classes have us work in teams with other programmers and artists to design and produce our games and that's the way the industry works," says Mary Yingst, master of engineering student. "Having to interact and communicate with people with completely different fields of expertise will play a key role in helping me work in a team in the industry."
What students learn
Parberry says students who are planning to enroll in the LARC program need to be prepared to "bone up on their math."
"High school algebra and geometry are required," he says. "They are going to do a lot of math. Many students are surprised by that. And they are going to do a lot of coding, usually several thousand lines of C++ code.
And while they will do a lot of work on teams, they also need to be able to be independent workers as well."
And if students think they are going to spend all their time playing video games, doctoral student Jonathon Doran says think again.
"I think many people imagine that studying gaming or working in the gaming industry consists of playing video games all day," he says. "Presently, I spend a lot less time playing games than when I worked in the non-gaming industry."
Win, lose or draw
Just like with all disciplines, there is something personal that draws a student into the field of game design.
Daniel Piers, engineering student, says the creative process is what attracted him to the process of game design.
"Games are a labor of love for the people who create them," he says. "Every other creative medium is static — music, movies, painting, drawing, books, etc. — but video games are dynamic in that each player's interaction with that world is what defines the experience. It's really exciting stuff."
Yingst says, for her, it is knowing that she contributed to a team effort.
"I get to help design and influence my team's game so at the end of the class, I get to look at a finished product that I can point at and say — that, that part was my idea, that little bit — that was me."