December 04, 2006

My Final Piece of College Journalism

Developing a Major, Developing a Game
by: Andrew Hayward

Video games have long been maligned as “child’s play,” but that term is neither correct in a literal sense nor particularly indicative of how grand the modern gaming market is.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer today is 33 years old, and has been playing games for 12 years. Perhaps more shocking is that the total combined sales of video game software, hardware, and accessories topped $10.5 billion in 2005, with $7 billion of that coming from software sales alone.

Chicago has never been considered a hot spot for the game development community, but as video games continue to surge in popularity, the area has played host to several development studios in recent years. EA Chicago, Midway Studios, and High Voltage Software are just three of the developers who call the area home; though the numbers are likely to rise as the development community continues to explore locales outside of the west coast.

As the industry expands, who will provide the manpower to help these development teams turn a $50 million project into a critical and commercial success? If Dr. Ray Klump, assistant professor of Computer Science, has his way, it will be Lewis University.

“It is meant to be an interdisciplinary effort between Computer Science, English, Music, and Art,” said Klump, referring to the proposed video game design major. Currently in the early stages of planning, the major would pool the resources of the aforementioned departments to create a total game-design package. At the end of the four-year program, participating students would likely be expected to produce a finished, playable game, which would be developed in a team with other students.

“On the Computer Science side, obviously, you would have to have programming skills,” remarked Klump. Students would make use of the C++ programming language and learn how to program graphics, audio, and network capabilities into a piece of software, as well as use assembly language to optimize the code.

The Art department would likely assist with the visual design areas of the major, such as learning how to create models in both 2D and 3D, develop scenery and backgrounds, and perhaps learn about motion capture technology and its application to the animation of characters and models. On the audio front, the Music department would be tasked with teaching students how to create appropriate sound effects, as well as compose “intriguing background scores” that, according to Klump, would “subtly enhance the action.”

Dr. Buzz Pounds, assistant professor of English, offered some insight as to how his department would contribute to the proposed major: “The English department will assist by offering courses in technical writing, but also by possibly offering courses involving storyboarding [and] flavor text, in addition to possible literature courses in mythology, fantasy, and/or graphic novels.” Klump hoped that such training would allow would-be writers to “create a skeleton of a story that is still very engaging, and provide that to the game designers.”

Klump claims that several Lewis students have already expressed interest in such a major, and that the members of Prometheon, the interdisciplinary computer club, have already attempted to create a game. “Students are always mindful that it is always in your best interests to go ahead and create a game,” said Klump, noting the potential benefits on a resume and with employers. “The reality is that when they’re working 15-to-30 hours a week on the side, and they’ve got the normal class work, they don’t really have the time.”

However, just as students on a standard Computer Science track may have difficulty creating a game in their spare time, Klump and his fellow professors have been unable to fully develop the intended major, due to their other responsibilities at Lewis. Presenting a proposed major to the powers that be requires a significant amount of work, and the day-to-day tasks that come with being a faculty member make it difficult to iron out all of the details, especially since representatives of multiple departments are involved in the process.

Klump said that a “fairly weighty document” is required – one in which all aspects of the proposed major are explored, starting with the courses that would be required. While some new classes would be necessary for (and specific to) the major, Klump believes that many existing courses can “be tweaked a little bit” to address the topic of game design. Additionally, the document must include a fair amount of market research, including target demographics and an estimate of expenditures.

“We haven’t been able to do any of that kind of legwork yet because we’ve been too busy,” Klump said. “It’s disappointing to me because I really want to get this thing going, because I think it could be extremely popular and very beneficial from an academic standpoint, too. But we haven’t been able to move in that direction yet.”

One sticking point in the discussions has been on how to offer the major. “My own personal view is that it would be quite good to have a central major with four separate tracks,” said Klump. “So you share a common core of courses, and then depending on your emphasis, you would specialize in that particular track.” Klump further noted that the faculty members had yet to flesh everything out, and that a game design minor was also a possibility. “There are lots of options,” he said. “It’s still very open.”

When asked for a tentative starting point for the proposed major, Klump thought that the fall 2008 semester was a realistic target. “[It] gives us a year and a half to get everything ready,” he said. “If we could actually get a nice, decent proposal done by next fall, then that would definitely put us in a position to do a fall 2008 launch.”

However, Klump cautioned that nothing is certain at this point in time: “There’s a several step process that you have to go through to get things approved,” he noted. “Who knows whether it would even be approved? That’s an open question too.”

Despite the uncertainty, Klump is excited about the possibility of bringing game design to Lewis University, and believes that such a major would benefit the community and follow the tenets of the Signum Fidei mission values.

“I think that it’s a good opportunity to try to do something interdisciplinary that is also real-world as the same time, and can play to a variety of people’s strengths,” said Klump. “One of our mission values is ‘association,’ and this allows us to do association in the classroom on kind of a grand scale, and celebrate each other’s and use each other’s talents to create something very creative and entertaining.”