The University of Utah continues its computer-science legacy with one of the top video-game programs in the nation.
As kids growing up in Boston, Andrew Witts and his older brother Jason spent hours before a video screen, locked in fierce battle with armies of skeletons and zombies that were wreaking havoc over a virtual Conan the Barbarian-type world. The video game, Golden Axe, paired the brothers as heroes—one in the form of a gnome and the other a muscle-ripped barbarian. They fought against the kingdom’s archenemy, who had captured the royal family and stolen a magic axe. In the end, of course, the brothers always prevailed from their perch on the family couch, their nemesis was vanquished, and peace was restored to the kingdom.
“It was pretty much Lord of the Rings, only with an axe,” says Witts, a self-described “hard-core gamer.” “I really felt like my brother and I were the rulers of this land and we were protecting it from the evil enemy. We played endlessly.”
Now, as a first-year graduate student in the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, Witts is learning to channel his unbridled enthusiasm for game playing into a career. A collaborative, interdisciplinary effort between the School of Computing and the Department of Film and Media Arts, the program teaches graduate and undergraduate students to develop, design, and publish video games. It trains artists and engineers in the creative, analytical, and technical skills required to navigate a wide spectrum of digital mediums and to be leaders in next-generation technologies. Graduates are becoming game designers, filmmakers, special effects experts, animators, and more.
“It’s an extremely broad set of skills and understandings that you have to have in order to make good games,” says Robert Kessler BS’74 MS’77 PhD’81, the program’s co-founder and the associate director of the School of Computing. “It’s very complex, and the technology and graphics being used are really pushing the frontier.”
Launched in 2007, the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program is already making its mark. The program has already been ranked among the top three video game design programs in the nation by The Princeton Review, which began issuing rankings just three years ago. [*In March 2013, the program became ranked number one for its undergraduate degree program and number two for its graduate program. See the Editor's Note below the short author bio at bottom for more.]
Getting Women in the Game
Corrinne Lewis is a gamer. She got hooked as a kid playing alongside her father. By the time she was a young teen, she was hanging out in a Salt Lake City-area bar where she played console games. She also loved Dungeons & Dragons.
“I think I have always been a puzzle solver,” says Lewis BA’03, who is program manager for the University of Utah’s Master Games Studio, the graduate component of the U’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program. Many of the video games she played while she was growing up focused on finding keys to riddles in order to win the game. More often than not, she was playing games with and against boys. Later, when she began working in sales and marketing jobs in the tech industry, she was also often one of only a handful of women. “But the reason I always liked tech is that it never mattered what I looked like; it was what was in my brain,” she says.
Even so, Lewis says she thinks about gender balance a lot when it comes to her students. At the undergraduate level, only about 10 percent of the approximately 200 students in the U Entertainment Arts & Engineering classes are women.
Women also have made up only about 10 percent of each of the program’s three graduate cohorts, Lewis says. The inaugural class in 2010 had 19 students, including three women, all of whom were artists. Class numbers jumped to 30 in 2011, but again that included only three women artists. The 2012 class also has 30 students and three women, although they come from diverse fields: one artist, one producer, and one engineer.
To help promote and support women in the digital entertainment industry, Lewis launched a U-based chapter of Women in Games International (WIGI) in April 2012, along with Laura Warner BFA’10 MFA’12, who was then a graduate student in the U program. Founded in 2005, the national nonprofit group, made up of both female and male professionals, works to promote diversity in all aspects of the video game industry, including game development, publishing, media, education, and workplace environment. Nationally, the number of female video-game designers is small. WIGI wants to change that, and believes that increased equality and camaraderie among genders will improve the industry overall and the quality of games produced. The WIGI chapters hold monthly social activities that double as networking and mentoring opportunities. The group also has an online mentoring service for members.
Graduate student Michelle MacArt BA’11 appreciates the effort. An artist whose true love is sound design, MacArt was one of the first women to enroll in Entertainment Arts & Engineering program classes as an undergraduate and expects to complete her master’s degree this spring. While developing games as class projects, MacArt says, she often advocates for the inclusion of female characters. She also pushes for those characters to look like “real” women, not ultra-skinny girls with unrealistic physical proportions.
“I was the only girl for the longest time,” says MacArt, who was on the student team that developed the Rapunzel’s Fight Knight game. “It’s a growing industry, and we need more women and ideas from women in game companies to balance them out. I’d like to see more in the arts and as programmers so that things are more diverse.”
In 2012, the U’s undergraduate program was ranked third in the nation, just behind the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the graduate level, the U’s program, known as the Master Games Studio, wasn’t among the 10 ranked programs, but was included with the nine other schools that received honorable mentions.
“Those rankings are amazingly useful,” says Kessler. “Now we’ve got kids calling us from all over—kids who never thought about Utah before. This year, we had 12 or 13 international students apply. The first year, we had none.”
Another source of bragging rights is that Entertainment Arts & Engineering students get jobs. Good jobs. Six-figure jobs, sometimes even before they finish the program. In 2012, each of the 16 graduating students in the first Master Games Studio graduate-program class had jobs in hand, Kessler says.
One thing that sets the program’s graduates apart is that they enter the workforce having already published a video game.
That puts them way ahead of the competition, Kessler says. “Industry says it’s like our students have had their first year of working out of the way, so that they can come in and really be productive. We really have tried to make this like a studio simulation.”
The U faculty members are also making technology advancements and developing new areas of academic research and design, particularly in the so-called “serious games” arena. That opens doors to commercial opportunities for the University and provides students with additional hands-on projects for learning.
A Panoply of Games
Got game? The students of the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program do. A driving purpose of the program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is making sure students have the opportunity to produce and publish video games—valuable experience that gives them an advantage as they head to jobs in the entertainment arts industry. So far, most of the student-produced games are getting to market through small student-run companies—an experience that introduces them to careers as entrepreneurs. A handful of projects are being published through Utah Game Forge, a University-run company formed last year.
Here’s a year-by-year look at games students have created:
- Rapunzel’s Fight Knight became the first published game by the student-created company Axull. About 500 copies have been sold through Xbox.
- Urban Space Squirrels was published by DTA Entertainment, a student company. About 2,000 copies have been sold through Xbox Indie Games.
- Mr. Gravity was published by the student-run team Angry Newton and distributed by Xbox. About 750 copies have been sold.
- The Last Pod Fighter was published by the student company Fighter9 Studios and is distributed by Xbox.
- Minions! was released by Turtle Toss Studios, a company composed of 10 students. With nearly 25,000 sold, this is the most financially successful Entertainment Arts & Engineering program game and was ranked by players as one of the 16 best Xbox Live Indie Games.
- Curse of Shadows was published by the student company 1 Block East. Released through Xbox, some 400 copies have been sold.
- Heroes of Hat became the first student-generated game published through Utah Game Forge, a U company created to market student work, and was the first game from students to use multi-player cooperative mode technology, which allows players to work as a team to accomplish the game’s goals. About 400 copies have been sold.
- Tactical Measure was designed by students to work with a U professor’s prototype game controller that allows deaf people to play music-based games. Published by Utah Game Forge and released on Xbox Live Indie Games, it received an honorable mention at Microsoft’s 2012 Imagine Cup competition.
- Robot Pinball Escape was developed by a team of graduate students, published through Utah Game Forge, and distributed by Desura. Downloaded about 13,000 times, PC Gamer mentioned it as a top free download. The game was also published on a disk that was inserted in Computer Bild, a European technology magazine, and distributed to 500,000 subscribers.
- Erie was also released as a free download by Desura, after being published by Utah Game Forge. The virtual horror game has been downloaded by more than 35,500 people. It can also be played though YouTube and has developed a following among players who have posted videos of themselves playing the game. More than 2 million people have seen those videos.
Those kind of credentials are exactly what Witts, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a degree in English and creative writing, was looking for in a graduate school. After considerable research of the 50 or so programs nationwide, Witts says the U’s program was the “intelligent choice,” so he quit his marketing job and moved 2,500 miles west to Utah. “I wanted to make games and release games, and I wanted to be given a forum where I could express myself,” says Witts, a self-taught Web programmer who also worked for an education software company. “What I saw in this program was a program that promised opportunity above all. I knew it would prepare me to get out and get a job doing what I love every day.”
Video games and other forms of digital entertainment media are big business. Economic forecasters project the global market for games—both hardware and software—will grow from about $67 billion in 2012 to more than $82 billion by 2017. In 2011 alone, the industry generated revenues of nearly $25 billion, according to data from the Entertainment Software Association. Consumer demographic data also show that the driving force behind the industry isn’t the stereotypical 17-year-old boy, playing games in his parents’ basement. In fact, more than 47 percent of all game players are women over age 18. Men ages 18 and younger make up only 17 percent of the games market. And the games themselves are also more diverse than stereotypes suggest. More than 40 percent of games played are digital versions of popular board games, puzzles, TV game shows, or trivia games.
In terms of dollars, Utah isn’t yet among the top 20 places where video games are made, but it’s getting close, says Roger Altizer MS’06, co-founder of the U’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program and its director of game design and production. The state is perched on the industry’s cutting edge, and the presence of the U’s program provides an invaluable opportunity for both industry and students, he says.
Information technology is among seven industries that receive the focused attention of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The state has set aside $5 million to support new information-technology companies and recruit top researchers through the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative, or USTAR. Craig Caldwell, whose experience includes work as a 3-D specialist for Walt Disney Animation Studios and serving as head of the largest film school in Australia, was hired by the U in 2009 as a USTAR professor of digital media.
Video gaming is by far the largest sector of the state’s information-technology effort, says Jeff Edwards, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a private, nonprofit group that works closely with state officials. A 2011 report by that group said Utah had the fourth-highest per capita concentration of multimedia artists and animators in the nation. The industry employs about 2,100 people and added more than $93 million to Utah’s economy in 2009. The state has approximately 5,200 technology companies, of which more than 100 are digital media shops or film studios. Among the notable names are Disney Interactive Studios; Electronic Arts, Inc.; Imagine Learning; Chair Entertainment/Epic Games; Smart Bomb Interactive; and TruGolf, Inc.
To grow, the industry will need a steady stream of skilled workers and creative, innovative thinkers. The U Entertainment Arts & Engineering program’s focus and deep connections to industry set it apart from programs at other Utah schools, says Steve Roy, associate vice president for economic development at Utah Valley University and USTAR’s director of outreach and innovation activities in central Utah. “One of the key elements of economic development is workforce development and talent development,” says Roy. “The University of Utah has been able to access the industry and align themselves with industry needs. I think that’s why that program is such a good, solid program. They’ve spent the time to develop the curriculum.”
It should be no surprise that industry would find Utah’s flagship university offers a breadth of talent and a cutting-edge program, Edwards says. The Entertainment Arts & Engineering program’s roots reach back nearly five decades, to the mid-1960s, when a fledgling Computer Science Department with a deep bench of visionaries began to revolutionize computer technology and graphics. Computer scientist David Evans BA’49 PhD’53 was hired by the U in 1965 to start up the Computer Science Department within the College of Engineering. Evans knew competing with early computer science powerhouses such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be difficult, so he looked for a wide-open field in which a new program could establish itself. That field, he decided, was computer graphics.
Funded by grants from the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), for open-ended research, Evans and his colleague Ivan Sutherland recruited bright graduate students and challenged them to make new discoveries and advances in computer graphics. Those students went on to essentially found the computer graphics industry, developing such concepts as graphical user interface, object-oriented programming, simulation techniques, and computer animation. And after graduating, those students established companies such as Adobe Systems, WordPerfect, Netscape, and Pixar Animation Studios.
U Company Helps Get Student Games to Players
It’s one thing to build video games. It’s another to get them to market and into the hands of gamers, and the University of Utah has taken the unusual step of creating a company, Utah Game Forge, to do just that.
The University’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program and the U’s Technology Commercialization Office started Utah Game Forge in 2012. The company is owned and financed by the U and works to place student games with commercial distributors. Utah Game Forge has also secured about a half-dozen commercial game-development contracts with outside companies and employs students to do the work.
“Few schools publish games, and we have yet to run into another that has a company dedicated to publishing student games and landing contracts for students to work on,” says Roger Altizer MS’06, co-founder of the U’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program and its director of game design and development. “The University of Utah is one of the most entrepreneurial schools in the nation, and Utah Game Forge is both a product of that culture and a service for its business-minded students.”
Utah Game Forge cultivates relationships with game-platform holders such as Microsoft and Apple and offers them student-produced games for distribution consideration. Utah Game Forge then handles the finances and legal obligations of any contracts. Royalties from any game sales are shared equally by the students, Utah Game Forge, and the University. Students surrender some commercial rights to their games when they publish through Utah Game Forge. However, students retain their intellectual property rights to the games they develop and can use elements of them for future projects.
Some students form their own companies and publish their games on their own, but for those students who opt to use Utah Game Forge, the company makes the publishing process a bit easier, says Robert Kessler BS’74 MS’77 PhD’81, Entertainment Arts & Engineering’s co-founder and executive director. Having a published game to their credit gives program graduates a jump start in the highly competitive video games job market, he says.
So far, the company’s games have received more critical acclaim than financial reward. The first published game, Heroes of Hat, debuted in May 2012. About 400 copies have been sold, at a cost of $1 each. Heroes was followed in the fall by two games produced by graduate students: Tactical Measure and Erie.
Among the department’s alumni of note are Nolan Bushnell BS’69, the co-founder of Atari; Ed Catmull BS’69 PhD’74, who launched Lucasfilm’s computer division, later co-founded Pixar, and now heads both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios; Alan Kay MS’68 PhD’69, who helped pioneer the laptop computer; and John Warnock BS’61 MS’64 PhD’69, who was the first to develop desktop publishing systems and co-founded Adobe. “It’s a great story about how Utah took a very early and very prominent place in the development of the computer industry,” says Edwards.
Games studies programs have existed in academe for about a decade. For many people, though, it may still seem counterintuitive to teach video games in a university setting. But technologies and digital media permeate both the modern economy and the cultural conversation, making games “too big to ignore,” says Altizer.
Even with the U’s history of innovation in computer science, the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program’s existence is something of a serendipitous accident. In the mid-2000s, Kessler was pondering a couple of problems. Enrollment in computer science courses was dropping, and the program needed a jump start. Kessler also wanted a better way to teach engineering students how to develop software programs that would last more than a nanosecond.
A video game provided a solution. At a Microsoft conference, Kessler acquired the source code for the game Half-Life 2. Back in Utah, he set students to work rewriting nearly a half-million lines of code, altering the game from its dark and violent, first-person shooting foray into a team-oriented video version of capture the flag. “The students loved it,” he says. “They already loved games, and then this is a game that they got to modify and work on.”
With the seed of an idea now growing, Kessler sought out his industry contacts to get a clearer picture of their needs. When graduates enter the workforce, he asked, what skills are students still missing? The answer: Most have good computer science skills or really good art skills, but they don’t have any idea how to work together. “I talked to a lot of companies—Pixar and Disney and Electronic Arts and Microsoft—and they all said, in essence, the same thing: You have to be really good, and you’ve got to be able to work with the other side,” Kessler says.
Games for Health
Can a virtual superhero have therapeutic powers? He might if his name is Vance B. Strong, star of Sandy Shores, a video game designed to help young cancer patients battle their disease.
The game was designed in 2011 by Roger Altizer MS’06, a professor and co-founder of the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, and a team of five graduate students, in collaboration with Carol Bruggers, a pediatric oncologist at Primary Children’s Medical Center, and Grzegorz Bulaj, a U associate professor of medicinal chemistry. Robert Kessler BS’74 MS’77 PhD’81, a co-founder and executive director of the program, handled the technical issues of working with new technology, and Craig Caldwell, the program’s director of digital technology, worked on the artistic aspects of the game.
Sandy Shores became the first health game created at the U, and more are in the works. For Sandy Shores, Bruggers and Bulaj obtained seed money from the U Department of Pediatrics and approached Entertainment Arts & Engineering for help after talking about ways to incentivize treatment for children in a way that was not just fun, but also contributed to physical and emotional well-being. Young cancer patients often spend weeks quarantined in small hospital rooms and undergo intense treatments that leave them feeling sicker than their disease had. The result can be a loss of physical conditioning and emotional health, which can undermine the children’s ability to recover.
Altizer and the other U researchers set about creating a video game to help incentivize physical exercise for the patients. Then-students Kurt Coppersmith BFA’10 MFA’12, Laura Warner BFA’10 MFA’12, Brandon Davies BS’12, Wade Paterson MS’12, and Jordan Wilcken MS’12 also worked on the game. Each element of the game, from its theme and colors to the type of tasks accomplished and the physical movements the players use, was vetted and tested with patients, physical therapists, and social workers. Altizer was also able to tap his industry contacts to find a motion-control device being developed by Sony with an electronic frequency that does not interfere with sensitive medical equipment.
The resulting game features the cape-clad Vance, who battles a series of obstacles that threaten his relaxing beach vacation. In one scenario, Vance scrambles to clean up after an army of bright red robotic crabs littering the beach, and in another, he uses mortar and bricks to build a wall to stop a tidal wave from flooding a city. With each victory, Vance’s image on the screen gets stronger and healthier, just like the kids who are battling cancer. The children primarily use upper body and arm movements to play the game, which helps raise their heart rate. Best of all, the game isn’t boring. There are no pills, no IV bags, and no negative side effects. And, importantly, no one dies. “The psychological message of that is huge,” Bruggers says.
Kids who have played the prototype love it, and other medical centers are clamoring for a chance to use it. “Our biggest compliment is that one kid played to exhaustion,” says Altizer, though that did lead to an adjustment in the game’s design. Since exhaustion isn’t a desired outcome for kids whose bodies are already stressed, designers added a “cool down” feature, which helps avoid repetitive motion and forces kids to switch to a different part of the game, with different physical activity, or take a two-minute break.
Bruggers and Bulaj plan to conduct a series of clinical trials and hope the FDA will eventually approve the game for therapeutic use. A nonprofit company in development through the University’s Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center and the Technology Commercialization Office will eventually make the game commercially available, Bulaj says.
The U has already begun developing more health games. John Hollerbach, a U research professor who directs the robotics track in the School of Computing, is working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to enhance physical therapy for patients with spinal cord injuries. His team’s “treadport” is a giant treadmill inside a cave with three large video screens that transport patients to virtual worlds.
Entertainment Arts & Engineering students are assisting Hollerbach in developing other games and virtual environments to engross and motivate patients to work harder and spend more time on physical therapy. Neuroworx, a Utah physical therapy provider, is a project partner.
Back in the classroom, Kessler was working on a second video-driven experiment: a course in machinima, or 3-D movies that use video-game programming to generate computer animation. Again, the students responded with enthusiasm. “And this is when the serendipity happens,” Kessler says. One of the graduate students in the class at the time was Altizer, who was studying communications and had been working as a video-games journalist. Altizer was also teaching video-game design courses in the film department. They decided to try to create a way for art, film, and engineering students to take classes together.
Selling the idea across the campus to both Film Department and administrative leaders wasn’t hard. “I haven’t had anybody up here at the University who thinks this is a bad idea,” Kessler says. To make the new program a reality, a committee of faculty from both the Film and Computer Science departments met to examine existing electives and knit together the academic requirements of the program. “We didn’t ask for any money, and we didn’t create any new classes; we just kind of moved things around,” Kessler says.
When the program was unveiled in the fall of 2007, students in both disciplines clamored to join it, and the demand has remained strong ever since. The program now has three tracks: design and production, led by Altizer; art, directed by Caldwell; and engineering, directed by Mark van Langeveld PhD’09. For the current academic year, Kessler estimates that of the 800 students collectively enrolled in the Film and Computer Science departments, about 200 are in the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program. The program has remained only an academic course of study, but that may change during the 2013-14 academic year if a proposal to elevate it to a full-fledged degree program is approved this spring by the state Board of Regents.
Success at the undergraduate level helped lay the groundwork for a master’s degree program launched in 2010, under the Master Games Studio name, with just 19 students. The studio provides a study program for artists, engineers, and producers—the key team leaders who in both the classroom and industry manage projects from start to finish. The students from the various disciplines work together throughout most of their two years of academic study.
In the first year of study, students work on prototype games for real-world clients. In 2012, those included a marketing-focused game to drive up sales of the Utah-made Beehive cheese and a game to teach the Shoshone language to Native American teens. Second-year students focus on developing an original video game for publishing. The University in 2012 launched Utah Game Forge, a company that helps students market their games without having to form their own companies. Currently, 60 students are enrolled in the graduate program—a number Kessler hopes to double.
The results of both the graduate and undergraduates tracks have been extraordinary. Students are winning awards for their video games and films. They’re also pushing the boundaries of technology and grasping an academic approach to video games with ease. And the interdisciplinary work helps the students evolve and learn. “In the beginning, I think there’s not a lot of respect between them,” Kessler says. “You have the artists saying, ‘It’s because of me the games are beautiful, and you don’t have any art skills,’ and the engineers are saying, ‘It’s because of me that the game even works.’ ”
Kevin Hanson MFA’84, chair of the Film Department, says the artists and engineers often discover skills they didn’t know they had: “There are some engineers who turn out to be painterly, and some filmmakers who can actually do calculus.” Corrinne Lewis BA’03, who directs the Master Games Studio, says the students grew up playing video games, and the program helps transform their knowledge. “We give all of this practical skill stuff with an academic flavor so that they think more broadly,” she says.
Even after a single semester, Witts says the program has stretched his creativity, and his ideas about games. “Video games go way beyond just sitting there for hours getting to new levels and shooting people,” he says. He now finds himself playing games with a notepad at his side and pausing to write down what he finds interesting about how a game is designed. “It doesn’t ruin the fun of playing,” he says. “I’m still having fantastic fun.”
—Jennifer Dobner is a former longtime Associated Press reporter and editor who now is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City.
*Editor’s Note: On March 12, shortly after this article was published, the Princeton Review released its 2013 rankings, and the U’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering was ranked number one for its undergraduate program and number two for its graduate program. Read more here: http://unews.utah.edu/news_releases/entertainment-arts-engineering-tops-the-charts/
This video trailer showcases Robot Pinball Escape, a game developed by a team of University of Utah graduate students and published in 2012 through Utah Game Forge:
This video trailer gives a preview of Heroes of Hat, which in May 2012 became the first University of Utah student game published through Utah Game Forge:
This video trailer shows scenes from Erie, a virtual horror game by University of Utah students that was published by Utah Game Forge in 2012: