Monday, November 28, 2005

Got Game? A Look at Game Design Schools

So, being an animation and game development student at Santa Monica College's Academy of Entertainment and Technology (AET), I was wondering what other students have accomplished in the areas of graphic design, interactive media, web design, game design, and 2D and 3D animation. I went to AET's official website and clicked on the little button to the left called "Showcase."

I was a bit shocked when I received a blank page with the following words:

this area is currently under construction

AET has been around since 1997 and it's almost 2006 and this web page is still "under construction"? Is anyone doing anything over at AET to warrant showcasing it to the online world? Or, students are doing some creative and innovative work, yet no one at AET knows how to create a web page to showcase this work? Or, alternatively, it just doesn't matter to the administrators and professors at AET to show off the students' work in computer animation, traditional art, game design, and storyboarding. In any case, it is sad that the students, who the school should represent as its finest asset and source of continued funding, are not being represented on AET's website.

An art school, even if it clothes itself in technology, is first and foremost a place where students concentrate on their portfolios in order to display their wares to prospective employers. Almost any AET student has taken a course in web design and Photoshop. The students are well versed in creating simple web pages to showcase their talents. Why are the students not given ftp access to upload those pages online? If I were a high school student looking for an art school to attend, wouldn't I want to see what other students are doing artistically? Aren't the students' work a reflection of the programs taught and the professors' skills who are behind these courses?

According to an online article in the Ocean Park Gazette, dated January 31, 2005, AET is allegedly meeting the demands of the video game industry by adding game development to its curriculum. I quote from the following:

The new classes -- added to two game courses introduced in the fall -- will lead to three new certificate programs that will officially be launched in fall 2005. The certificate programs are in game development, special effects and post production.

"The game industry is exploding, and we're jumping on this so that we can get students trained and into exciting careers," said William Lancaster, chair of the design technology department at SMC's widely praised Academy of Entertainment & Technology.

"The growth and impact of the game industry are staggering - the film industry grosses $8 billion, compared to $14 billion-plus by the game industry," Lancaster said. "Another example is Sony, which derives 70 percent of its revenues from Play Station products."

But when I did a Google search for Video Game Design Schools, AET didn't even make the final cut in Animation Arena's Schools for Aspiring Game Designers. Could it be the lack of work showcased by students? Or is it lack of computer access to Jeannie's Novak's ET42 Game Development course that holds aspiring game designers like myself from working on my projects? If this program of study is so important, then why is her course not considering a valid one for computer access according to Dean Katharine Muller? As mentioned in previous blog entries, no documentation has been provided to us to justify the lack of computer access or why this new course was downsized.

Or is Bill Lancaster like the two-faced mayor in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, voicing a rosy picture in his press release version of AET's video game industry related future while stating something completely different in SMC's committee meetings. Here's a summary of Lancaster's statements on September 18, 2001 found in the Occupational Committee Meeting:

There is a great need for technology in AET (Academy of Entertainment and Technology). This need is projected to continue if the Academy is to offer state-of-the art equipment to train students. There is also a need to expand the programs offered at AET.

We need to become more active with industry partners. Currently, industry partners do not do more than serve on advisory boards. AET needs a job internship coordinator. AET currently has one, but there is more demand than she can handle. AET through the job internship coordinator needs to work more closely with the Job Center.

Industry partners which do little more than serve on advisory boards? When asked for information about lead game developer Electronic Arts visits to AET under the guise of providing jobs and internships, we also received no documents from Dean Muller or Santa Monica College. Yet, according to Muller, in a press statement made to the Santa Monica Daily Press on or about March 26, 2004, she claims the following:

"We're excited to showcase the incredible work of our students in computer animation, motion graphics and interactive design," said Katharine Muller, dean of the academy. "Because we work so closely with the entertainment industry, we are able train our students in the latest techniques using state-of-the-art technology. Our students go on to high-paying careers in such companies as DreamWorks, Digital Domain, Rhythm & Hues, Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and Warner Bros."

Showcase the students' work where? Definitely not on their official AET website. And if she's working so closely in the entertainment industry, why are there no documents from AET to substantiate this allegation? What about all those glowing claims of high-paying careers? According to my handy document entitled, "Santa Monica College Academy of Entertainment & Technology Internships and Job Placements," dated October 2005, here's the breakdown:

Activision = 1 hire
Electronic Arts = 1 hire
DreamWorks = 6 hires
Digital Domain = 4 hires
Rhythm & Hues = 2 hires
Sony Computer Entertainment of America = 2 hires
Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment = 2 hires
Warner Bros. = 1 hire

That's less than 20 students since 1997 and it's unclear what jobs they obtained, much less whether these were in high-paying careers as promised. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the Game Development Certificate at AET is still "pending approval." According to Bill Lancaster, this program was officially launched this semester. Then, why I ask again, was Jeannie Novak's Game Development course cut down to only 1 unit for 8 weeks from 3 units for 16 weeks? Professor Novak herself doesn't have the answer to this important question. So, if AET is not meeting the needs of its students, where else should one turn for an education in the game industry and where one's work gets the respect it deserves? Let's look at some other schools.

In contrast to AET, DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington (considered the Rolls Royce of animation and video game design schools) offers a nice selection of students' work in its Gallery page. You can view 6 years of animation movie clips and production stills of student work. You can also view and download game projects and even play online games. There is also the much-needed link to student web pages. They even have an archive and Hall of Honor. Okay, the Hall of Honor is coming soon... but there's enough here to make any would-be animator or game designer rush to sign up for this school. It's a bit pricey compared to AET's program, but well worth the cost of admission. I guess you get what you pay for.

Let's see what our AET neighbor, the Art Institute of California - Los Angeles has to offer in terms of a digital gallery of its students' work. The page for Student Portfolios states: "Here's a glimpse at some favorite artwork from students and faculty at The Art Institute of California — Los Angeles. From the digital arts to the commercial and fine arts, our community has a wide range of artistic styles." As promised, you can view samples of students' animation, graphic design, or video production. They are lacking in any student work for their Game Art & Design major, but since this is pretty new, I'm sure they will soon have something online for us.

Let's take a peek at Full Sail, another leading school for computer animation, digital media, as well as game design and development. Full Sail is located in Central Florida and is a very intensive program of study, condensing the traditional college education into less semesters. This equals less time in school with an earlier entry into the entertainment industry workforce. And they offer Red Bull, plain old coffee, and Mountain Dew in their vending machines to help you make it through those long nights of "real world education." Their site requires Flash and some pop up authorization, but otherwise has galleries of student work to view.

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California also showcases students' work. You can select galleries from Animation & Visual Effects, Computer Arts: New Media, Motion Pictures & Television, Photography, Illustration, and other areas of interest. Not as much as DigiPen, but at least the students are being represented online. There is currently no work displayed in the video game field, but in all fairness, I don't think they have expanded into this educational arena as of yet.

Let's examine another AET neighbor of ours, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Art Center also has an online gallery which displays students' work, although a little warning button pops up informing us that some of this work is not appropriate for all age levels. This puts a smile on my face as I know they must support freedom of expression in their work. They represent the work in a slideshow format with topics including art, media design, illustration, and digital media to name a few. Their Entertainment Design program offers courses in 3D modeling for games, game concept development, and game worlds & modding. Unfortunately, their Entertainment Design gallery is currently empty. Given the newness of this program and the prestige of Art Center and its talented students, I'm confident that we shall see some nice work in the coming year.

So, you may want to think twice before shelling out your hard-earned tuition money to any school promising high-paying careers in the game industry and state-of-the-art technology. Review the curriculum, the credentials of the professors, the industry connections, and especially the digital galleries of student work. In the end, the work we achieve, either through our schools or through our own efforts, speaks for itself.

-- Des Manttari,
Phoenix Genesis

(c) 2005: Phoenix Genesis/MBS LP

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