Game On: Fine Arts students learn how to develop and design games through interdisciplinary program

Friday, August 28, 2015
Jenna Wright demonstrates her game at Digital Demo Day. Photo by Sandy Carson.
Jenna Wright demonstrates her game at Digital Demo Day. Photo by Sandy Carson.

When you think of game developers, you probably imagine someone sitting at a computer writing code. And yes, coding is certainly part of the process. But game development requires many creative skills in art, music, sound design and visual conceptualization, and that’s where the Fine Arts come into the picture.

Enter the UT Game and Mobile Media Applications (GAMMA) Program, a collaboration between the College of Fine Arts and Computer Science Department that teaches undergraduates how to design and build games and playable mobile applications. The interdisciplinary certificate program draws students from Fine Arts, Computer Science and the Radio-Television-Film Department who want to gain the skills needed to break into the booming gaming industry.

The GAMMA Program was launched in response to a question the Austin gaming industry had been asking for years: “Why do we have to go outside of Austin to hire entry-level professionals when we have a world-class university in our backyard?”

Then-UT Provost Steve Leslie agreed to set aside startup funds for a program, and Paul Toprac was hired to lead the Game Development Program in 2012. Toprac worked with multiple departments that were already offering courses in game design and development to build a curriculum that serves students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. The program was renamed in 2014 to reflect the addition of mobile applications in the curriculum.

“To be a good game developer, you have to make games,” said Toprac. “It’s not rocket science. It’s learning about how to interact with people to create a product—with people who don’t necessarily speak in the same technical terms or have the same skillsets that you do.”

Undergraduates take core courses in their departments before taking the capstone course, the culmination of the GAMMA Program. In the capstone course, students work in teams to design and produce a game over the course of a semester; they design 2D games in the fall capstone and 3D games in the spring version. The students choose the concept of the game, create the narrative, design the characters and environment, compose and record the music, create a video trailer for the game and eventually present their game to peers and industry partners to play at Digital Demo Day.

Composition student Jenna Wright (B.A., Music Theory and Composition, 2015) had always been interested in games, but she’d always assumed that she wasn’t eligible for GAMMA because she didn’t have a programming background. But Toprac visited her Entrepreneurial Artist class specifically to recruit music students who could bring more creative skillsets to the teams in the program.

“Now I think I’ve found the exact right path for me,” said Wright, who completed her capstone course last spring. “I love video game design, beyond just music and sound. It’s really complemented my composition degree.”

Wright worked with a team of six in her class to create the game Schism. She worked on the game’s narrative, which was based on a novella written by a teammate, and Wright was responsible for the entire sound design, which included writing and recording music and writing and recording dialog and sound effects that make up the world in the game.

“Who at 22 gets to say I made my own video game?” said Wright, who plans to pursue a graduate program in composition and an M.B.A. in hopes of one day building an audio department at a game design company. “I have a video game that’s published—that’s a pretty cool thing!”

Team Baby Giants with Pricilla Delatorre (Studio Art), Adam Mansfield (Mathematics), Corben Marroquin (Studio Art) and Russell Jahn (Computer Science) with their game at the 24-hour Game Jam event in 2013. Photograph by Michael Baez.
Team Baby Giants with Pricilla Delatorre (Studio Art), Adam Mansfield (Mathematics), Corben Marroquin (Studio Art) and Russell Jahn (Computer Science) with their game at the 24-hour Game Jam event in 2013. Photograph by Michael Baez.

About 65 undergraduates complete the capstone course each year, and the hands-on skills that students gain from the program are proving quite valuable in the job market. Corben Marroquin (B.F.A. Studio Art, 2014) was one of the first students to enroll in the GAMMA Program and is now employed as an artist at Austin-based Everi (formerly Multimedia Games.)

“It was pretty monumental in my education,” said Marroquin. “If I hadn’t gotten into the program or taken those courses, I probably wouldn’t be here because I wouldn’t have the work to show for it. I had a portfolio that showed that I not only wanted to make games, but that I had made games already.”

Students and graduates also point out the value of the industry connections and professional development that the GAMMA program offers. Toprac invites industry professionals and program alumni to the capstone course to playtest the students’ games and offer feedback. The program also offers career fairs, tours of local game studios and even guidance on finances and what to look for in a salary offer for a young professional in the field.

“It wasn’t just about being in the classes, but about making real-world connections and building your resume,” Wright said. “It was so fantastic to be in the class and actually get to meet real people who work in the Austin video game world.”

Though Fine Arts students still comprise the minority of students who complete the program, this fall’s capstone class will have the highest number of Fine Arts students yet, including the first student from the Department of Theatre and Dance.

“It turns out that theatre students have been doing this kind of design of artificial environments for entertainment for a couple of thousand years or so,” Toprac said, with tongue firmly in cheek. “And they can do it digitally as well! I’m looking for theatre design students to come in with their design thinking and help out on the design and worldbuilding of games.”

Digital Demo Day.
Digital Demo Day.

The College of Fine Arts is evolving to make it easier for students in Fine Arts to pursue classes in game development. The college is working to launch a bachelor of science in arts and entertainment technology in fall 2016. Complimenting the GAMMA Program, the AET degree will have a track specifically focused on games and playable apps headed by Toprac.

“The College of Fine Arts is making room in its programs for popular culture and the technologies that drive it forward,” said Dean Doug Dempster. “GAMMA is a training program created by the Fine Arts and the College of Natural Sciences that provides a bridge into the professional world of game development and mobile-media applications for the generations of UT students who grew up with computer games the way earlier generations grew up with movies or record collecting. It's now an industry that exceeds in gross revenues either the music or the film industries. It's also an evolving form of cultural expression that's moving beyond mass entertainment into serious art and social engagement. I'm pleased with its early success and look forward to expanding opportunities for students and interested industry partners."

To learn more about the GAMMA program and the work of students in the program, visit the program’s website or contact Paul Toprac at topcat@cs.utexas.edu.

GAMMA program recognized in rankings

The GAMMA program was recognized as one of the top schools in the country for game design and development. Animation Career Review, an organization for aspiring animation and game design professionals, ranked the GAMMA Program No. 17 in the country. It was also ranked No. 6 in Public Game Design Schools and Colleges in the U.S. and No. 2 in the Southwest.