Lawrence Technological University prides itself on preparing its graduates for jobs in growing sectors of the economy, and that is especially true of game art in the Department of Art and Design and game software development in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. The game art bachelor’s degree and game software development concentration of the bachelor’s degree in computer science give students a foundation in both sides of the growing video game industry.
|Game art student Josh Briell’s sketches show the traits of a character concept he developed for a class assignment.|
Students in the two programs are required to take nine courses in common – three in computer science and six in art and design. A course called The History of Video Games shows students the role. Students who come to LTU to study game art and software development often want to turn a childhood passion into a career. They have grown up with video games and are steeped in the lore of an entertainment genre that started out with simple games like Pac-Man at the dawn of the digital age and has since grown very sophisticated and complex.
As America and the world become increasingly digitized, video gaming continues to expand and become more influential. Sales in the U.S. entertainment software industry rose almost 10-fold in 16 years to $20.8 billion in 2012, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and DCF Intelligence projects that the global market for video and online games will reach $82 billion by 2017. The video game industry’s techniques and processes have been adopted in other commercial sectors.
Colleges and universities started offering degrees in this field about 10 years ago, but in many cases there has been a disconnect between the artists and designers who create the visual images and the programmers who build the games. LTU is bridging that gap.
Six years ago LTU entered the field with the introduction of the computer science concentration in game software development. Then four years ago, after consulting extensively with an industry advisory board, the College of Architecture and Design introduced its Bachelor of Fine Arts in Game Art.
Game art student Walter Schwall (left) discusses an assignment with David Bindschadler and Peter Beaugard, the chairs of the two departments that host game software development and game art.
“We were asked to educate future leaders who understand both sides, the computer development and the art design, and that’s where we figured we could excel,” said Assistant Professor Peter Beaugard, chair of LTU’s Department of Art and Design. “We’ve taken an aggressive stance in developing thought leadership by really marrying the two programs together. Most other institutions don’t have the ability to do that, so that’s what differentiates us.”
played by game artists and computer programmers in the development of the profession. “Part of the problem in the industry is that artists didn’t know how to talk to computer scientists, and vice versa,”
Beaugard said. “We are getting them together so that they can talk.”
Left and right brains
It is considered unusual for a course of study to bring together both left brain and right brain activity – art and math, creativity and reasoning – and yet that combination in game art is not as unlikely as it initially seems. Many of the LTU students who come to game art primarily because they were “gaming geeks” at a young age also have demonstrated strong math skills in high school.
“We built a program that leverages both sides of the brain and both skills,” Beaugard said.
Associate Professor David Bindschadler, chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, welcomed the new computer science concentration because video games make teaching easier. “I recognized right away the similarity between what a player does in a game and what I want my students to do in class,” he said. “Game design is really education.”
Being able to design video games provides an incentive to pursue computer science at a time when it is hard to attract enough students to a field that most economists consider key to the continued health of the American economy. “Getting students excited about the subject matter and learning is part of what we do. Game development makes computer science fun,” Bindschadler said.
It can be a challenge to get a well-developed art student to think in terms of algorithms, but game art students find the effort worthwhile. “We are giving them a tool to do what they want to accomplish,
but they have to think completely differently,” he said.
Game art students realize that it is good to know something about coding, and they are also exposed to architecture, drawing, and design through a shared curriculum in freshman year across all programs in the College of Architecture and Design.
“I came here because the curriculum was best for me, and they showed it to me in a flow chart,” said game art student Eric Williams. “And getting a laptop with all the tools I needed was a big plus.”
The LTuZone™ program that provides all undergraduates with the hardware and software they need for their courses is especially helpful to students who are involved in both math and art. “Some of that software is really expensive, and a lot of schools just leave you on your own,” Williams said.
For Walter Schwall IV, a sophomore in game art, the requirement to learn more about computer science turned into an opportunity. “Math used to be one of my worst subjects, but here I got added
help for five minutes after class for the first five weeks, and all of a sudden I was getting an A,” Schwall said. “Math is useful, and it’s one of the abilities I need for designing game programs.”
Schwall grew up playing video games, but he also developed a love of history that he hopes to pursue if he fulfills his personal goal of starting his own company that designs video games. “I see an opportunity to bring history into it,” Schwall said.
Schwall’s ambition to build his own business fits in with LTU’s goal of producing graduates who are leaders in their chosen professions. This is particularly important in game art because of the high burnout rate for designers and animators, according to Beaugard.
Studies show that the average animator leaves the studio in three to five years. “Spending 70 hours a week modeling the hair of a monster is not very glamorous,” Beaugard said.
Game art student Rachel Seeger
The average compensation for employees working for companies in this field was $90,000 in 2010, according to Economic Inc., but many of those employees are expected to work 20 hours or more per week in uncompensated overtime. The work is often very repetitive, and workers are often under a great deal of pressure at “crunch time” when companies must meet the deadlines set for the release of new video game products.
The same is true for game software developers. “Generally the time pressure is pretty brutal,” Bindschadler said.
One solution for avoiding the excessive demands placed on designers and developers is to become a manager. “The promising career in this field is as a creative director, and we are preparing our students for leadership because they understand both sides of the process,” Beaugard said.
Graduates of these programs develop a knowledge base that is also becoming increasingly important in other economic sectors that have grown in the digital environment. Interactive designers for web pages now use game mechanics developed for video games. Industrial design planners have to know about game mechanics when considering how consumers interact with products. Rewards programs for online banking borrow techniques from video games, and the evolving field of education technology owes many of its standard techniques to game art.
Computer-generated imagery has started to show up on web channels now that some technical difficulties have been solved. “The future of game design could actually be in interactive marketing,” Beaugard said.
The popularity of video games can be a double-edged sword when it comes to recruiting students. On one hand, it is almost always the first section to fill up at the LTU Exploration Day open houses for potential students. On the other hand, parents are often wary about having their teenagers try to turn a love of video games into a career.
“We talk honestly about the attrition rate in the field and how we have built a program that gives our graduates the latitude to move into other professions,” Beaugard said.
Game art students are well aware that the profession that they would love to be a part of is also very difficult. “We have to realize that it’s time-consuming and labor-intensive,” said game art student Brandon Nowakowski. “Some people find themselves losing the love of gaming that got them into this in the first place, so you have to be committed. This is something that you really want to do at your core.”