Kaplan: Turning Videogames into a Career

"Nurturing" and "cathartic" are not words the average person associates with videogames. But that's exactly what came to mind when Playstation director of development John Hight sat down a few years ago with University of Southern California M.F.A. students Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago to discuss flOw, an oddly soothing Web game in which aquatic creatures evolve by consuming their rivals. "It's rare for a newly minted designer to understand how to entertain and engage the player without going overboard," Hight says. Not long thereafter, Chen, Santiago and several classmates formed thatgamecompany, signed a three-game deal with Playstation and watched flOw emerge as a key title Sony used to hype the 2006 launch of the Playstation 3.

The medium may change, but the ambition remains the same. In the first half of the last century, many college students aspired to write the Great American Novel. Later, the goal was to break into Hollywood. Now the dream is to create the Next Big Videogame, and as the $42 billion global industry continues to grow, an increasing number of schools have set up programs to train the next Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Wii Fit), Will Wright (The Sims, Spore) or Rob Pardo (World of Warcraft). It's an interesting shift for an industry that started in the 1970s with one-man bands and small groups of garage programmers, and evolved into an apprenticeship model as development-team sizes grew.

Today it's not uncommon to see games that can require hundreds of developers and $100 million budgets like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto IV. And as other markets (China and other Asian countries) and platforms (downloadable console games, mobile phones and the iPhone) become more viable for established video-game publishers, the apprenticeship model alone can't produce the amount of new talent required to satisfy existing needs, let alone take advantage of emerging opportunities. That's part of the reason that in 2004, Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest videogame publishers, endowed two USC programs—one undergraduate and one graduate—and established the school's Game Innovation Lab.

The first wave of graduates from programs like USC's met with skepticism from veterans who were used to people who had come up through the ranks. "When we graduated, no one knew what to do with us," says thatgamecompany's Santiago. "We had good ideas, but no real-world experience." The perception changed in the past couple of years, Santiago adds, a sentiment echoed by her former professor Tracy Fullerton, who says that her students are recruited before they even graduate. "It is a testament to the current interest in design innovation in the game industry," Fullerton says, stressing that the school's students are trained to take risks and seek out unique gameplay possibilities in their student projects. "This is going to become even more important as new and different platforms for games emerge."

One game shop that grasps the innovative potential of college-trained developers is Seattle's Valve Software, creators of such hit franchises as Half-Life and Counter-Strike. Following a job fair at nearby DigiPen—a university founded in 1988 that's dedicated to game design and production—some Valve employees invited the seven students behind a game called Narbacular Drop to give a demonstration to company founder Gabe Newell. He hired the team on the spot. "I really didn't know what it took to make a videogame or how to break into the industry," says Kim Swift. "It seemed like if I wanted to make videogames, going to videogame school was a logical stepping point." With Valve's resources and expertise, Swift and her classmates transformed their student project into Portal, a sinister teleportation game that became one of 2007's most acclaimed titles.

Both Swift and Santiago emphasize that studying interactive entertainment isn't all, er, fun and games, as well as a salary that typically averages about $50,000 for designers. Long hours and sleepless nights are necessary evils, along with multiple simultaneous projects, each one equally demanding. But if you think that your passion for games is meant to be your profession, too, their stories prove that it's a viable career—one in which college can play an invaluable role.