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Play video games for a college degree

Observer Scene | Friday, March 4, 2005

Going to Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s is, without a doubt, a privilege.

But after taking a look inside the DigiPen Institute of Technology, some gamers out there might think they’ve chosen the wrong school.

On a Thursday afternoon in class at the United States’ first interactive entertainment university, students are receiving unique advice.

“This is not something your parents told you,” professor Christopher Ernhardt said in a lecture on game design and production. “Play as many different games as possible.”

Video games are a young industry, and DigiPen is accordingly a young institution. Twenty years ago there was no need for a university like DigiPen, but the world has changed rapidly.

Founder and president of DigiPen Claude Comair first created the DigiPen Applied Computer Graphics School in Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.) in 1988 in response to the growing need for computer programmers and 3-D animators. As the need for a formal source of qualified video game programmers increased, DigiPen began to expand its focus. The school accepted its first class of video game programming students in 1994.

The students in the first classes began receiving job offers even before graduation. The campus in Redmond, Wash., built on land leased from Nintendo, was established in 1998.

DigiPen is still a relatively small institution, with approximately 600 students, teachers and staff but has grown since its creation.

DigiPen offers degrees in Real-Time Interactive Simulation, Computer Engineering and 3-D Computer Animation, training some students in technology and game programming and others in art game creation. The graduate program, which takes applications from outside as well as from DigiPen students, also allows students to earn a masters degree in computer science.

Students in various DigiPen programs take classes in color theory, character animation, robotics and real-time operating systems, but the focus is always on how to produce the best possible games and do it efficiently.

“How are we going to keep them hooked?” Ernhardt said. “You can’t rely on graphics to sell the title. It’s all about pacing. After something exciting, give them a chance to catch their breath. They need to feel satisfaction before moving on.”

In an advanced art class, students are learning how to put together an impressive portfolio that plays to their strengths.

“You have to remember what you’re good at,” professor Abbot Smith said. “If your specialty is cute, stick with cute. If your specialty is vomiting zombies, build a portfolio around that.”

DigiPen students create original games for competitions such as the Game Developers Conference and for their portfolios, although DigiPen retains the rights to ensure that the university does not begin to compete with professional developers.

DigiPen is closely associated with Nintendo – Comair is also a chairman for the Nintendo Software Company. DigiPen graduates, however, do not always stay in-house and often move on to work for independent developing companies.

Chief Operating Officer Jason Chu said graduates from DigiPen often find themselves ready for the job market without any further training, with game programmers starting at $45,000-$60,000 per year and 3-D animators at $45,000-$55,000 per year.

But for some gamers, it might be worth it just for the chance to influence the in-vogue market of video games – and maybe create that next immortal animated character.