GDC 2014: AAA Academics: Superstar Designers in Academia

2014-03-17 13.49.46

Academia and game development are at an interesting crossroads. A new trend is emerging, with prominent industry figures making the switch to academia. While formal education programs for game development were nearly non-existent in decades past, they now exist in hundreds of schools across the country today.

Four such luminaries took to the stage on Monday at GDC to discuss the trials and tribulations of their experiences with making the career move, in a room filled with educators and industry hopefuls. When pegged with the question of why he chose to leave his role as Lead Game Designer Naughty Dog, Richard Lemarchand claimed “I’ve always wanted to get back into a higher education program after making games, so I started volunteering at USC, and got involved with IndieCade in 2009. Soon after, a friend got in touch with me and sad that a role at USC was available, so I jumped at it.”

Brenda Romero, one of the most prominent women in the gaming industry for her leadership previous roles in the IGDA, 30+ years of development experience, and a chair on the IGDA Board of Directors, felt “I was at a transition point, saw an ad for a game designer to teach, and accepted the job. Once I got there, working with the students made it irresistible.”

Courtesy of GameSpot

Courtesy of GameSpot

John Romero, whose illustrious career began at id Software, working on landmark titles such as Doom and Quake, taught a cross platform game development course at the University Dallas, Texas for a semester, before they asked him to build a curriculum around it, which then led to the Guild Hall at SMU, perhaps one of the most prominent game development. He now works at UC Santa Cruz, where he helped develop the MS program for game development.

Each member of the panel had their own challenges to overcome as well, which held them back from becoming a teacher sooner. Warren Spector speculated that “so much of my self-worth was around me having the title of ‘game developer.’” Brenda Romero’s mind frequently stirred with the thought of “What if I don’t know anything? A friend, Ian Schreiber, had to talk me off of the edge. I wasn’t sure if I knew enough to teach this.”

All of the panelists shared that common fear though: Are they qualified enough to teach in an academic setting? This is surprising when you consider that their CVs are littered with some of the most high profile titles in gaming history; Deus Ex, Doom, Wizardry, and the Uncharted Series. If they aren’t qualified to teach, then who is?

One reason the panelists cited for this sense of uncertainty was the fact that many, if not most of their friends rising in the industry in the 80s and 90s were completely self-taught, and many of whom hadn’t even completed college themselves.

Becoming an educator comes with its own set of rewards, of which many of us will never have the pleasure of experiencing. Brenda Romero equated building an academic with building a game. “Instead of shipping a game, I’m shipping students. We’re also in our first year of the program – it’s iterative, no matter what. You have to constantly change because the industry changes.” Lemarchand agreed, further emphasizing that his curriculum iterates each semester to maintain pace with the dynamically shifting industry.

Richard Lemarchand

Richard Lemarchand

Transitioning from an active industry role as a veteran to academia also allows these individuals to provide certain rewards to their students as well. John Romero “What we offer is all of the things we’ve tried, and what has failed. We can also deliver the facts about what is common between studios, what doesn’t change, and what is truly important.”

Spector pressed more on the point of the freedom to fail. “In games, if I fail often, I get fired. In academia I have the freedom to fail more often and learn from it. I want to engineer ‘failure’ into the program, as a way for students to learn.” Lemarchand agreed, adding “In some ways, a failure is a better learning experience than a success.” Rounding the topic was Brenda Romero, who reciprocating, “With the freedom to fail comes the freedom to experiment and innovate.”

For those of you looking to add game development to your own institution, these industry vets left the audience with key points of advice to round up the discussion. “UCSC lets students keep their own IP,” John Romero Claimed. “So many of the best developers in the industry don’t have a degree, but they have the knowledge that we want. Academia needs to give them a pathway,” was Brenda Romero’s closing advice.

If you were interest in working for Spector’s program, he was quick to advise that there were three routes: “Graduate from an existing game developer program, have 1-3 years of game development experience, or convince me that you are God’s gift to gaming.” More than anything though, he wanted to encourage institutions to “focus on the culture, quality of life and broad education of developers.”

In the end, these veterans hope to take their joy of gaming and the knowledge they’ve accrued over the years and disperse it to as many students as possible.  It was refreshing to witness the novel views of valued industry veterans as they began to break new ground into an academic setting, and I’m sure that we’ll have more to report on next year as they look back on their adventure.



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Posted on by Dave Voyles in Features

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles