The Guildhall graduate program helped establish Texas’ reputation in the gaming industry
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Aiwen “Emily” Zhang broke into the video game industry by studying the classics, including Latin and ancient Greek, at the University of Washington.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise immerses players in historical moments — such as the French Revolution, Ancient Egypt or the golden age of pirates — and Zhang got tapped to help as one of its narrative designers, a role that plots the way a game’s story progresses.
But she wanted to be more involved in the development of games, so she asked around for guidance. Two people she admired said they’d learned everything they knew in Texas.
“‘Tell me how to get this good, like as good as you are,’” she recalled saying.
Zhang promptly enrolled at Southern Methodist University’s graduate program for video game development, also known as SMU Guildhall.
The fast-paced, intensive program that exposes students to the nitty-gritty intricacies of creating a game celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.
Over the years, students have created games that transport players into ancient alien temples and ruins; immerse them in an unnerving psychological thriller that unravels reality; and entrust creatures with bringing life and light back to a perishing tree at the center of the world.
Seasoned industry veterans serve as faculty at the Guildhall, which offers specializations that prepare students for the industry’s four cornerstones: art creation, level design, production and software development.
The program simulates a real-life studio through its GameLab, where students produce games, get hands-on experience, learn to manage conflict and tackle diverse problems.
The goal is to get them “plug and play ready” by graduation, said Steve Stringer, GameLab director and a professor of production and team game projects.
Students are challenged with projects of increasing complexity in teams of varying sizes.
Most students come with an arsenal of video games that fuel their desire to get into the industry.
Matt Grabowski’s older brother dominated the Xbox in his home growing up, so he mostly got to watch him play. But for nearly a decade, he’s played the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons with his friends.
Grabowski prefers assuming the role of the dungeon master, leading the other players’ characters through unique adventures.
He credits his ability to understand what makes a game fun and how to keep players engaged to the time spent observing his brother play and running Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
Crossing over into developing video game concepts for a screen felt like a natural transition, Grabowski said.
He is now working on Kneedle Knight, a game that features a knight mouse who uses a magic needle as its weapon and can merge itself into fabric.
Several of the games created by students at the Guildhall can be played for free through Steam, a digital distribution service.
The programs’ emphasis on learning by doing has solidified its reputation across the industry.
When the program launched two decades ago, not many people were given the chance to seriously consider gaming as a career, said Elizabeth Stringer, the Guildhall’s director of academics.
Now companies are constantly looking to hire the next generation of SMU graduates because the students know how to work on a team, have a portfolio and skills from their specialization and have been exposed to the latest tools and technologies in the industry.
“Achievement unlocked,” Stringer said. “We’re game changers. We’re changing the game.”
(SMU is a supporter of the Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.)
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.