March 9, 2012
By Mike Snider
The number of colleges offering degrees in video game design nearly doubled last year, further cementing games as a vibrant entertainment medium.
Yet the school most recommended for its video game design curricula remains the same: the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC has held the top spots each year in The Princeton Review's lists of top schools for video game design for undergrads and grad students.
More than 100 schools participated in the third-annual survey, up from 50 in 2010. "There certainly is an increase in visibility in game design, and schools are … putting out students that are employable," says David Soto, director of content development at The Princeton Review, known for its annual Best-Value Colleges list.
Game design students are in heavy demand. Employment in the video game industry grew at an annual rate of 8.6% from 2005 to 2009 with more than 120,000 employees, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average starting salary for undergraduates has risen to $54,054 from $51,927 last year, The Princeton Review found. Grad students' annual starting salary rose to $62,862 from $59,539.
USC graduates have gone on to work at top publishers such as Activision and Electronic Arts and to work on blockbusters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Rock Band 3. The school gets hundreds of applicants for 15 to 20 undergraduate slots and 15 graduate slots annually, says Tracy Fullerton, chair of the Interactive Media Division at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, which operates the joint games program with the School of Engineering. Annual tuition is $40,000 for undergraduates; $23,000-up for grad students.
New areas of emphasis include social and mobile games, motion capture and 3-D games, as well as gesture-based control such as Microsoft's Kinect. "Students need to be able to walk into industry five years from now, armed with the type of skills that today are just emerging," Fullerton says.
Other top undergraduate schools for game design include MIT, University of Utah and DigiPen Institute of Technology. Top graduate schools: Rochester Institute of Technology, MIT, University of Central Florida and Southern Methodist University. As students and parents evaluate schools, they should consider programs that foster learning through team-driven interdisciplinary cooperation, says Michael Zyda, director of the GamePipe Laboratory at USC.
"We have programmers, gameplay designers and artists, and they work to collaborate to build a piece of software that entertains and delights players," Zyda says.
Working in teams as large as 20 or more and producing products prepares students for the real world of game publishing, he says. "There is just no end to the demand for that type of person."