In the fall of 2014, a rare opportunity will be given to 20 of the most promising video game developers in the world. That’s when a chosen few will begin a yearlong program at the University of Texas at Austin, where they will study under some of the gaming industry’s most successful executives.
At the new Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, the goal is not merely to train great video game developers. The idea is to train the next generation of video game development team leaders, ready to succeed in an industry whose business models are undergoing rapid change.
“We’re going to take people through the entire process of conceptualizing a game, and pitching that game,” program leader Warren Spector said in an interview. “Getting up in front of the CEO at Electronic Arts and asking for millions of dollars, or getting up in front of the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the most powerful man in entertainment who runs the largest media company on the planet—you’ve got to be ready for that sort of stuff.”
If you’ve heard the name Warren Spector, it’s because he’s created some extremely well known games; his greatest achievement may be Deus Ex, a role-playing game set in a dystopian future that combines first-person shooter and stealth gameplay.
Spector, who earned a Masters from the University of Texas’s radio, television, and film program in 1980, is busy developing the curriculum of Denius-Sams, which will offer a post-baccalaureate certificate. The program is named after two of its co-founders: Wofford Denius, an entertainment industry attorney who graduated from UT, and Paul Sams, the chief operating officer of Blizzard Entertainment.
Spector and Sams will both serve as part-time instructors, and the faculty will be filled out with additional teachers. While this is nowhere near the first college-level video game development program, the University of Texas claims it will be “the first video game program in the United States led and taught by gaming industry executives.”
Finding the Best, and Putting Them Through a Boot Camp
Students accepted into the program will not have to pay tuition, and they will receive a $10,000 stipend. Ideally, they will already be proficient in game development. “The idea is to get the best of the best of the best, run them through a Navy Seals boot camp of sorts and not force them to worry about ‘how do I pay the rent and buy groceries,’” Spector said. This is possible because of financial support from Sams and Denius. “Fingers crossed, when we start delivering graduates who can contribute in major ways to the development of future games, that philanthropy will continue.”
Spector—who noted that game development is filled with many “gray hairs” such as himself—said age won’t be a factor in admissions. Education level won’t necessarily be a determining factor, either: “A lot of the most successful people I know are high school dropouts, forget about college graduates.”
Spector nearly became a professor after graduating from UT three decades ago, but ended up taking a design and editing job at Steve Jackson Games. He went on to work for TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, and then at Origin, where in the early 1990s he worked on several games in the Ultima series and System Shock.
He went on to Ion Storm, where he designed Deus Ex and its sequel, and in 2005 started Junction Point Studios. Junction Point was acquired by Disney Interactive Studios, and Spector ended up leading development of the Epic Mickey games. Disney shut down Junction Point in January 2013. Along the way, Spector lectured at MIT, UC-Santa Cruz, and taught a master class at the University of Texas in 2007.
The curriculum for Denius-Sams is not close to being final, but will require students to “create a small-scale game from start to finish, working in teams to handle every aspect of the creation,” the university said when it announced the program.
Spector wants to teach students “how games make meaning” in the same sense a radio, television, and film program might for those respective mediums. But more than that, Denius-Sams will teach students how to excel in both the creative and business aspects of the game industry.
These days, not many blockbuster games are made by the equivalent of a garage band. Even for smartphone and tablets, big titles (like, say, Infinity Blade) may require a team of 75 people working for a year, Spector said: “We’re going to show [students] the crazy balance required to meet the needs of the game industry, in terms of balancing art and commerce and leadership… that’s kind of the key.”
When students graduate from Denius-Sams, they will “understand the contradictions inherent in the creation of games,” Spector said. “It’s not pure art, it’s not all commerce.”
The video-game industry is struggling to find appropriate business models for the age of mobile phones and tablets. Whereas the best games for consoles cost $60, a mobile game might cost a buck, or be free and supported through advertising or potentially annoying in-game purchases.
“Frankly, to me it looks like every business model is broken, which is either terrifying or an opportunity depending on how you look at it,” Spector said. The academy will tackle the business models and the possible futures of the gaming industry, of course, but “the realities of leading a team don’t change,” he added. “I think the skills we’ll be teaching will be relevant as long as people are making commercial art.”
The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Number Crunchers
Spector’s views about the business of video games may be unsettling to certain industry executives and data junkies. Specifically, he said he wants to “fire all the focus testers and metrics guys.” Spector thinks executives give too much credence to data, and not enough to the artistic visions of game designers: “You can apply science, metrics, analytics, and data to all sorts of things in this world, but you can’t apply it to art, and if you try you will fail.”
Focus groups, analysis of historical trends, and aggregated game review scores may be comforting to number crunchers, but the majority of game projects still end up as commercial failures. The industry could do no worse by simply trusting game creators, Spector said. Instead, people are “looking backwards and analyzing success trends from the past and saying ‘at this point in a console’s life cycle these were the kinds of games that were selling successfully, so next month we’re going to see a shift based on history.’”
Spector ultimately believes the people who actually make the games are going to make better decisions than the number crunchers. “We’ve got to be looking forward and any time you start bringing data into it, you’re not,” Spector said. “I pitched a Lego construction game in 1989, and guess what: Minecraft is basically a Lego construction game. But at the time I was told ‘no, that won’t work.’ I pitched a western game and the response was ‘westerns don’t sell.’ And then Red Dead Redemption came out. Stuff doesn’t sell until someone makes one that sells, and no amount of data can reveal what new thing is going to sell. The metrics and data guys, and the publishing guys will never come up with the next big thing.”
Despite his views on statistics-heavy development, Spector said it’s important that the business and creative sides of the house remain partners. He acknowledged that “my biases may color the classes I teach,” but he was quick to say that he “won’t let it become a core element of the curriculum. Regardless of what I think, students need to know what all the data munging is about so they can decide for themselves if and how to use it and so they can work productively with people who do believe in the viability of data-driven design and development.”
Ultimately, Spector wants to give aspiring video game creators the best possible shot in an industry where luck can play as large a role as talent, and shift some of the burden of training employees from video game companies to colleges. When video game companies take on the primary responsibility of training developers, they reduce the amount of resources spent actually creating games. Not only is this inefficient for the companies, it means many people who deserve a shot don’t get one.
“If you happen to end up in the right place where you can watch the right people for enough time, someone might give you a chance to make a game of your own and lead a team in the creation of a game,” Spector said. “There are so many ifs and possibilities and places for that to break down, it’s not even funny.”
Spector was in the right place at the right time throughout his career, being lucky enough to learn from luminaries such as Ultima creator Richard Garriott. While students receiving certificates from Denius-Sams won’t find themselves making the next Call of Duty as soon as they graduate, Spector said the academy should at least slightly reduce the amount of luck needed to succeed in video games.
“The future of games shouldn’t depend on luck,” he said. “We believe we can shorten the duration of the dues-paying phase of a career that leads to game leadership positions. We can’t eliminate it—no one can —but if we can knock some years off of it, students benefit, careers can be longer and the medium will benefit as a result.”