December 7, 2009
By KRISTIAN LIN AND COLE WILLIAMS
Ashley Eldred was trying to figure out how to make Hell into a cuter place.
The young blonde woman with a confident manner is a student at the Guildhall at SMU - the school that teaches students how to make video games. On a recent morning, she and her colleagues were brainstorming about her idea for a game, which is called Hell's Belle and concerns a heroine who tries to keep Hell from being overtaken by an invasion of cutesiness. Though she, like all the students here, is extremely tech-savvy, the air was popping with creative energy.
Ashley's idea was one of two chosen by the lecturers and fellow students to be turned into working games, as final projects for the class. Ideas came thick and fast - should the main character's enemies be monsters that were failing to be cute (someone suggested a giant scary demon with cat ears) or things that were genuinely cute but lethal (like the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
The class of 28 students is run by lecturers Sandy Petersen and Elizabeth Stringer, who, like the Guildhall's other faculty, have no academic experience but long years of work in the industry that qualifies them to educate students in the game-making process. . .
The Guildhall at SMU is run by Dr. Peter Raad, a cultivated, gray-haired man whose slightly accented speech indicates his Lebanese origins. The school's name doesn't refer to the building that houses it, but to the idea of guilds for artisans and skilled workers that dates back to the medieval period so beloved by gamers. Raad started as the founding director of the Hart eCenter for Interdisciplinary Studies in 2000, which was set up as a think tank to deal with the economic and cultural possibilities of the then-emerging technology of the internet. Two years later, the video game industry came looking for a school with both expertise in interactive technology and experience in teaching students from differing backgrounds.
At that point, the gaming industry was already out-earning Hollywood, and it needed trained professionals to keep up with product demand. "When you have such rapid expansion, the question is, do you have enough team members," said Raad. "You need experts in animation, engine building, character modeling. One person can't make a game anymore."
Raad's interdisciplinary background also shows in his conversation, which is strewn with similes from other kinds of work. In roughly an hour, he compares the teamwork among the gaming industry's different sectors to that of lawyers, basketball players, and orchestra musicians. While video game education at other schools (such as IT University's Center for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen) focuses on the theory and cultural significance of games, the Guildhall is more industry-oriented. "We are like a dental school," said Raad, using another occupational comparison. "You go to dental school to become a dentist. You come here to design video games. We are about specific, channeled, professional preparation."
To that end, the Guildhall offers an 18-month master's program in interactive technology with a professional certificate in digital game development. A bachelor's degree is required to get in, though not of any specific kind. Raad points out that his students have included military veterans, Wall Street brokers, architects, even an opera singer and an oil-rig worker. Students choose from among three specialties: art creation, level design (which involves storytelling and imagining the details of the world within the game), and software development (rendering the concepts from the other two into playable code). Each specialty requires a portfolio that is submitted as part of the application process.
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