The Princeton Review recently placed Video Game studies at the University of Utah very high in its annual rankings. The U of U’s undergraduate program received the #2 spot behind the University of Southern California, while the Entertainment Arts and Engineering graduate program took the #6 spot nationwide.
The undergraduate program has more than 150 students enrolled, and the graduate program has 22 and is expected to double in size quickly.
In a recent conversation, Craig Caldwell, USTAR professor of digital media, has some insights as to why the university ranked so high.
The U of U undergraduate program is three years old, and the graduate program is just over a year old. How did the U of U score so high so quickly in the rankings?
It’s a relatively new area of study for most institutions, so longevity is less of a factor. I believe the Princeton Review put the most weight on four factors: design of the program, faculty, infrastructure and career opportunities. We’ve got a good story to tell in each area, at both the undergrad and grad levels.
What do you mean by design of the program?
I think it comes down to the program’s emphasis. There are a lot of private art schools that have terrific graphics programs, but they are light on computer engineering. We’re working to integrate all aspects of game development.
At the U of U, the program accommodates tracks with different focus areas, all of which have a bearing on the creation of video games. We have an arts track, a game development track, and a computer science/programming track, with the students working in multi-disciplinary teams to create new games. This is how it’s done in industry.
The primary course in the fall semester is a game prototyping class. Student teams develop a game every four weeks. Then they start over again. It requires what we call rapid thinking and the ability to work together. The students all work together in the same space, and they are all intermixed whether they are graphic artists or programmers.
The spring semester focuses on taking the most promising games developed in the fall and fully developing them. A panel of industry representatives helped select the final two projects for the 2011 spring semester. Our biggest goal is to get finished games out the door, again replicating the processes industry takes.
So industry involvement is a key aspect.
Absolutely, we’re really blessed by the degree to which industry is involved here. Interaction with industry experts helps the students. Every week we have companies like Disney, SmartBomb, and Chair Entertainment on campus talking to our students. These guest lecturers tell our students how it’s really done.
And we’ve made some adjustments to the program to foster industry connections. A very simple aspect of the program’s structure is night class offerings. This encourages more involvement from industry, and allows some students to intern at companies during the day.
And the companies have reached out as well. We recently took the students on a tour of EA, and heard some great presentations on how they work.
What about infrastructure?
I think the Princeton Review liked what we’re doing in terms of infrastructure. We’ve got a space on campus in old art museum just for the grad students. We’re adding another space in Computer Science next year.
These facilities – which were paid in part by USTAR funding – include dedicated computer workspaces for testing and development, as well as lecture areas. It’s all integrated and emulates industry working spaces that foster team collaboration. You’re probably hearing a theme here.
You mention that the Princeton Review looks at the faculty involved. Who are the key players and what do they bring to the mix?
The faculty most involved with the program come from several disciplines and include Robert Kessler and Mark Van Langevelde from Computer Science, Roger Altizer who is an expert in Communication and Web Design, and myself. I worked at Disney in 3D animation, at Electronic Arts, and in academia, including as Head of the largest film school in Australia.
We not only teach in individual classes, but generally in the game prototyping class, we’re all in there together. Having faculty from both the artistic side of game development working with computer science faculty elevates the entire program. To really develop games in an effective way, you need the hard computer science that you can’t get at the more traditional art schools.
How about the career opportunity component of the ranking?
We have the career opportunities in Utah. The industry is expanding. One digital media company’s local office has 30 openings to fill right now. I think industry involvement benefits everybody - the regular guest lecturers build a fast track for students and helps company recruitment too.
Part of the reason Utah is gaining traction with industry stems from the strength of higher education. You look at BYU, with one of the top animation programs in the country, and you look at the computer science program at the U of U. Utah Valley University has a national reputation in digital sound and USU has strengths in interactive training. The list goes on.
Brent Adams of BYU put it very well. He said we have to graduate enough students to reach critical mass to bring industry here. I think that’s happening. Disney bought Avalanche, EA moved an office here, and Chair moved an office here. All of a sudden things are really coming together in downtown Salt Lake City. The U of U is minutes away, so it’s very easy for industry and the university to work together.
Do the companies fight over the talent pool?
It’s really expensive for companies to raid each other for talent. Here they can get to know our students and can draw from the expanding talent pool.”
And hiring local talent is economical. Companies don’t have to match wage levels that prevail in Los Angeles. Companies can find well-educated talent that likes living in Utah, and who display dedication and work ethic.
What’s equally exciting is that not all students transition to industry. Some want to strike out on their own. We call our studio the ‘Incubator’ because we’ve got some students launching start-up companies to develop and market their games.
What’s USTAR’s role in Utah’s digital media industry?
USTAR was the catalyst to get the Masters program going. That in turn brought the national spotlight on how well the undergraduate program is doing. And USTAR has funded some significant capital expenditures, such as the studio space build-out.
The university is actively recruiting another USTAR digital media faculty member in Computer Science, and it’s probably not a surprise for me to tell you that an industry representative is serving on the USTAR hiring committee. This further strengthens ties between the university and the digital media companies in the state.
What’s the scouting report on Utah?
There’s something fertile at the U of U and in the state. There is a receptiveness to go beyond pure research and to spin out new companies. It’s exciting to be here.
The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) is a long-term, state-funded investment to strengthen Utah's "knowledge economy” and generate high-paying jobs. Funded in March 2006 by the State Legislature, USTAR is based on three program areas. The first area involves funding for strategic investments at the University of Utah and Utah State University to recruit world-class researchers. The second area is to build state-of-the-art interdisciplinary facilities at these institutions for the innovation teams. The third program area involves teams that work with companies and entrepreneurs across the State to promote science, innovation, and commercialization activities. For more information, go to www.innovationutah.com or follow http://twitter.com/Innovationutah.