Denius-Sams Gaming Academy – Who’s Eligible?

9 Apr

Recently, I’ve been getting questions from people about whether they’re eligible for admission based on their skillset, rather than on the basis of their previous experience. I’ve already gone on ad nauseum about the experience required (i.e., team work garnered as part of a degree, in industry or just through general studliness). I’m not going to rehash that any more than I just did.

No. The questions I’m getting now are different. Basically, they go like this:

“I’m a Producer (or QA person or Audio person). Is there a place for me in the program or do I have to be a programmer, designer or artist, as the application form implies?”

The answer to that isn’t a simple one, though you’d think it would be. Here’s as simple as I can make it:

Everyone in the program has to be able to contribute in a hands-on way to the development of a game, from start to finish. No one is going to play the role of Producer or Game Director from the start of the course to the end of it. Those roles and responsibilities will rotate, so everyone gets a chance to lead at some point.

That means there will be days, probably weeks, when you won’t be leading the team, no matter how good you might be at that. The question you have to answer is, “what will I do on the team when I’m not leading it?”

I don’t have a good answer to that question for people who “only” produce or “only” test or “only” generate sounds and produce music. That isn’t to say answers don’t exist – just that neither I nor anyone else has come up with the answers yet.

To be clear, I’m as annoyed by this as some applicants probably are (or will be). I think it’s a little nuts to turn away people who are Producers or Directors from a program designed to train Producers and Directors! Still, if 20 people are going to learn to lead, they all need the opportunity to lead – we can’t have two people learn to lead while the other 18 do the “real” work of making the game.

So, right now, I’d say if you’re “just” a Producer or master of some other non-hands-on, day-to-day skill, start thinking about what you’ll do on your non-leader days. Convince me that justifies your inclusion in the program. I don’t want to rule anything or anyone out, but someone who can’t contribute on a daily basis is going to have a rough time of it.

Don’t be intimidated by the DSGA!

3 Apr

So I heard (AGAIN!) today that the requirements for admission to the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy are too intimidating and, as a result, a lot of people aren’t applying.

Maybe I overstated but a lot of people are misinformed about what those requirements are. The only REAL requirement for admission is that you have experience working on a game team of some kind and have a skill that will allow you to contribute, hands-on, to the creation of a game.

You can be a programmer or an artist or a designer… You can have team experience gained in school, in industry or in your private life.

That’s it. No huge hurdles to leap. Industry experience is NOT required, as some have thought. The program isn’t restricted only to programmers – far from it. We’ll need people from all disciplines.

So, if you thought you weren’t qualified, think again. You very well may be! And, to address some of these misapprehensions about the program, we’ve extended the application period. So get on it! I look forward to seeing your application.

Games in Education

10 Mar

At SXSW, I participated in a panel about the ways in which games can be used in education, as part of a traditional teaching environment or (dare I say it?) as a replacement for certain aspects of the education process. I’m obviously no expert in this area (though I do have some strong opinions!) but I’m thinking about it a lot as I determine how we’re going to teach the things we need to teach at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to get my thoughts in order.

Here’s basically what I said:

I think it goes without saying at this point that games have a place in education.

Most games have some sort of educational component. That’s true whether the game is played on a board, played at a tabletop by a group of friends roleplaying a player-generated storyline, or played online with virtual friends in a virtual environment.

In these contexts, children AND adults can learn about the world around them, about history, about their place in a social context, about relationships. And they can learn lessons about competition and cooperation, about deferred versus immediate gratification.

Speaking from personal experience, I learned more about Japanese history playing in an Asian-themed D&D campaign than I did in all the classes I ever took or books I ever read. I learned more about the nature of storytelling – its value and structures – collaborating in the telling of stories with friends by rolling dice and making stuff up. Through games, I learned how to make and execute plans and the consequences of success and failure, for myself and for others. I learned, as they say, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

But these are not the things we usually associate with “learning” in the traditional sense, not usually. These are lessons – vital ones, I think – in the humanities, the arts, the cultural world but not in the areas everyone seems to be in an uproar about these days. Where most people see value in games is in the teaching of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In STEM areas, games – or more precisely, game development – can play a critical role.

All games are, at some level, mathematical constructs. Regardless of format, they typically boil down to probabilities and simulations… To design a combat table for a roleplaying game, you have to understand probability… To represent the behavior of an object set in motion by player choice, you have to understand physics… To create a video game, which is, remember, just software, you have to learn to code.

Games are mathematics and engineering and science made real, made practical, removed from the realm of the abstract. And all that STEM stuff is wrapped up in a form students already engage with on their own. They don’t have to be dragged to math, they’re already interacting with it through play. They don’t have to be dragged to coding, they’re already intrigued by its power through play. To return to the arts for a second they don’t even have to be dragged to Aristotle, they’re already interacting with his ideas about narrative through the construction of their own stories as they play.

They’re already passionate about these things, thanks to games. And what better foundation for learning can there be than that?

Put all that together, apply some pedagogical rigor to game play and game creation and you have an educational framework second to none, one that pushes every kid’s buttons and draws them into learning in a form they already appreciate. There’s no need to poke and prod them in pursuit of a passive, nineteenth century education or to assess their progress by applying old-school methods. We can give them a 21st century education they want, which will set them up for future success.

But what of assessment?

I mean, you don’t necessarily want to grade play! You can certainly grade coding and math prowess – we already do that. But the key assessment in a program built around games is in how the software runs. What does it matter if you’re building an accounting package or a thermostat control simulation or a first-person shooter? Does the code work? Is it optimized appropriately? Is the AI behaving intelligently? Does the physics sim respond as one would expect? Assessment may be a non-problem. We just need some new, more appropriate rubrics (my new fave word, now that I’m in the world of education!).

So, clearly, I see massive benefits to the inclusion of games in a modern curriculum, whether based on STEM or STEAM (the “A” being the Arts, of course). But there’s one more element of a games education I’d like to touch on here:

Games as Moral Teaching Tools.

For all the benefits of multiplayer experiences – across a table or across a virtual world – I’ll go to my grave believing games are the greatest tool we have for emotional learning, for the teaching of empathy, for, in other words, Moral Learning.

Why do I believe this?

Because games are the first, and to date only, medium in the history of humankind to allow me to walk in your shoes and for you to walk in mine. We alone among media can let people – adults OR children – experience, first-hand, what it’s like to be an Egyptian child in the time of the pharaohs or a similar child living through recent events there… we can put players in the shoes of a general about to send soldiers into combat… we can allow them to experience the effects of decisions typically made in the highest levels of government.

Games aren’t about observing, absorbing or interpreting… they’re not about reading or seeing… they’re about doing. And that gives them a power unique in our history. We’d be crazy not to take advantage of that in our schools.

DSGA entrance criteria clarification

10 Mar

I just spent three days at SXSW, staffing a booth at the Gaming Expo.

First, a big shout-out to the fine folks at Austin Community College’s Game Development Institute. Great expo neighbors and some fine students, too.

Second, thanks to everyone who came by the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy booth. it was great talking to potential participants in the program. Sadly, I heard (several times) that people thought they weren’t qualified for the Academy because they didn’t have industry experience AND a degree in game development.

THE EXPERIENCE QUESTION

Allow me to clarify – you do NOT need both experience and a degree to be admitted to the DSGA! You just need one or the other (or you need to convince me to let you into the program even if you meet neither of these criteria).

Notice all the “or’s!”

The primary prerequisite is that you already have some experience working on a team making a game. That might have come in industry or as part of an indie team… that could mean being part of a small mobile game dev team… that could mean working on games as part of a school program.

I just don’t want to have to teach the nuts and bolts of making a game. Come in with some experience in that area and you’re good to go.

Hope that clarifies things. Keep those applications coming.

Free to Play ain’t free

6 Mar

Recently, GamesIndustry.biz ran an article by Kabam’s President, Andrew Sheppard, about the F2P biz model. (You can find it here: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-03-05-f2p-the-most-democratic-form-of-development-kabam?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=us-daily.)

Basically, the story offered some good thoughts and some bad ones.

The good? There are some very smart comments about the desirability of having several workable business models – and the inevitability of multiple models – rather than one winner-take-all model. That was a breath of fresh air, let me tell you! Most F2P guys exhibit a zeal that can, at best, be described as unseemly. Multiple business models? I completely agree.

And I agree completely with the comments about licenses as well. There’s no reason why licensed games can’t rock. And it’s both good business and, often, good fun working with licenses. Developers need to get over not-invented-here syndrome.

But, on the flip side, Sheppard makes some comments about console and triple-A developers being “scared” of F2P, citing the disruption caused by the switch from arcades (25 cents, please… okay, how about another 25 cents?…) to consoles (deposit $60 in our bank accounts, thank you…).

I think the fear factor is non-existent. Sheppard is just wrong about that. And the arcade to console comparison is simply off-base.

I don’t know anyone who “fears” the new business model. I certainly don’t. I just think it’s evil AS IMPLEMENTED by most developers and publishers. And the incremental approach to revenue generation of the arcades is radically different than the approach most F2P folks take today.

Honestly, I think the arcade guys got it right and we could learn some valuable lessons from them. What lessons?

Well, that initial quarter was very easy to spend. You fed the machine a quarter and you got X minutes of play time. If you were having a good time and wanted more content, you fed more quarters into the machine to keep playing for X additional minutes.

That’s a great model – certainly better than overcharging for our product as we always do in the triple-A space. And it’s a model we can and should adopt.

Charge very little for the first hour of play – or give it away if you want. If I’m having fun, I pay a small fee for more of that experience. You like something, you buy more of it. You don’t like something, you walk away. Track what people do as they play and adjust play appropriately as you introduce new content? Fine. Awesome. I’m in.

But start charging me for power-ups and other things I need to succeed (or, worse, hats and cloaks and such with no game effect)? Take planning and skill out of the equation and charge me for things I need to continue making progress (or to dress myself up)? Nope. I’m not down with that at all. And that’s what most of the F2P folks seem to be doing.

It’d be like a television show giving you 25 minutes of entertainment and then charging for the last five minutes. Or giving you all the talking but charging extra for the action. (Okay, bad analogy but I couldn’t think of a better one.)

In other words, most F2P experiences are built on a model that might be described as “bad entertainment for free; good entertainment for cash.”

That’s what I object to. It’s not fear. It’s not that F2P HAS to be evil. It’s just that it IS evil, as usually implemented. That’s what has to change before you’ll make a convert of me. And just to put my money where my mouth is, here are some personal experiences:

I’m a huge fan of the Tell Tale games – and their business model. I like their free content (their “pilot episodes”) so I always buy subsequent episodes. I like the free stuff so I pay them for the not free stuff – just like the old arcades. They don’t charge for new clothes for Clementine or for shotguns that do double damage to zombies! Good on them!

I love Candy Crush Saga (there, I said it), but I’ve paid for exactly one power-up (and won’t ever pay for another) because I couldn’t make forward progress without said power-up. That’s evil. Sorry. No other word for it. On the other hand I’ve happily paid several times for new levels. Again, I like the free content so I’ll pay for more content. It’s my way of thanking and rewarding the developer for providing an inherently fun experience. Make the experience inherently un-fun (unless I pay) and I’m walking away.

There are similar good things going on elsewhere in the F2P or Cheap 2 Play world – Republique… Kentucky Route Zero… – which I’ll happily support.

Free to Play should really BE free to play (and cheap to play is okay, too – developers have to eat). The ages old model of offering value for money (rather than junk for money) is the right model.

Creating inherently enjoyable experiences that don’t NEED to be enhanced by the purchase of power-ups or add-ons is the right answer. I’m convinced of that and not scared at all. Bring on the change, just make sure it’s a change for the better.

(Oh, yeah, I have to confess, I’ve never played a Kabam game so it’s entirely possible they do everything right. Take this post as a condemnation of the predominant F2P approach, not as a comment on any specific company or game.)

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy FAQ, part 4: General Questions

24 Feb

Here it is – the last part of the DSGA FAQ, at least until I get enough similar (or entertaining) questions to update. This time, it’s questions that didn’t slot into a neat category:

GENERAL QUESTIONS

Q: What happens if a student is hired during their time at the Academy or decides to leave?

A: We expect students to commit to the entire nine-month program. However, we recognize that circumstances may arise where a student must (or chooses to) leave. If that occurs, the student’s stipend will, of course, end and the remaining students will experience one of the unfortunate realities of actual development—the departure of a member of the team. Project rescoping can be a learning opportunity, one we hope not to experience but will be prepared for in the event it arises.

Q: Is it okay to take time off during the school year?

A: The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy will be rigorous enough that taking time off will not be possible. All University holidays will be observed, of course, though students will be able to work through them, if desired and/or necessary.

Q: Terms like “Boot-camp” and “Navy-Seals” are used to describe the program on the website. Does this mean there will be a “barracks” or will team members be responsible for their own housing?

A: Unfortunately, there won’t be any barracks or team housing arrangements (though that’s a great idea!). Each student will have to find a place to live on his or her own. The $10,000 stipend paid to each student on a monthly basis, and the lack of tuition charges, should take some of the sting out of this. Frankly, anyone who can’t find an apartment probably isn’t going to succeed in a leadership position on a game development team!

Q: WIll the team project ship to the public on a real platform?

A: The hope is to reach a genuinely shippable level of completion and quality. However, that depends on the quality of student work, which is unpredictable. Also, bear in mind that a shippable product can be less important than the knowledge gained from challenges and failures. If we can ship, we will ship. At the very least, we will get extensive playtesting from “real people” outside of the program throughout development, with intensive testing as we near completion. 

Q: Does the program plan to send students to any major conferences? (GDC, Blizzcon, Indiecade, D.I.C.E., SXSW, PAX, E3?)

A: It is unlikely, though not impossible, that students will have time to attend conferences during the program’s nine month duration. This could change based on project progress. It is possible, even likely, that some teaching staff will attend some of conferences listed to do student outreach for classes seated in years two, three and beyond.

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy FAQ part 3: Deliverables

21 Feb

The questions (and answers) just keep on coming. Here’s a look at the program deliverables. What can you expect from the program and what will you leave with?

Q: What sort of portfolio will I leave DSGA with?

A: You will leave with a game for which you can describe your role clearly – what you did throughout the program as well as the times and areas where you operated in a leadership role. You will also leave with a collection of critical game planning documents – conceptual documents and concept pitch decks, mock (but realistic) budgets, mock (but realistic) project schedules in a variety of formats, go to market plans, even mock performance improvement plans (indicating an ability to work with human resources departments on personnel problems). On a less tangible level, but no less important, you will leave with solid knowledge of the jobs done by producers, directors and discipline leads. You will leave with empathy for them that might not be gained through in-the-trenches work on a development team. And you will have the ability to help them achieve their goals on a project because of that empathy and understanding, perhaps leading to more rapid advancement than could be achieved simply by working as a member of a game team.

Q: The program is set up for candidates with some gaming experience. How does this certificate help those who have most likely already had a job in the industry?

A: First, bear in mind that the “gaming experience” each candidate brings to the table may have come in a professional setting or an academic one. The program doesn’t require or favor professional experience. Those who do come from a professional position should be looking for accelerated career development. There are no guarantees in life, but the ideal professional candidate would be someone who wants to move from, say, Designer to Lead Designer… from Lead Programmer to Game Director… from Assistant Producer to Associate. These are people for whom some extra training and knowledge might justify taking nine months off from an existing career. People already in higher-level leadership positions might, to be frank, might not want to take time off from their everyday jobs.

Q: The list of Development Council members lists higher ups from Bioware, Blizzard, Portalarium, Certain Affinity and Bee Caves Games. Are partnerships with local area gaming companies really going to pan out for graduates?

A: In the game business—in any business, really—there are no guarantees. The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy can’t tell you, categorically, that you will leave the program with a certificate that lands you a job. What we can say is that the experience gained at the Academy will enhance your skillset and expose you to people working at and running the companies you mention, which can’t hurt. One of the key benefits the Gaming Academy can offer is the opportunity to be mentored by members of the Development Council. This can help jumpstart the creation of a personal network that will serve you throughout your career. Just don’t expect to leave the program and become the next triple-A game creative director or full producer. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The Academy is designed as the next step in an educational process and as a potential accelerator for people early in their careers.

Q: What production methodologies and related production software will the program use?

A: Students will be exposed to a variety of production methodologies and software packages as part of their coursework, including scrum, agile, waterfall and more. In the lab, different methods will be applied at different points in the project, to ensure hands-on experience, with students participating in the decision about when, if and how to move from one method or tool to another.

Q: What software do you plan to use?

A: At this time, we anticipate using Unity as our game engine and expect students to familiarize themselves with it before the start of classes on August 27th. Other software tools  for version control and bug-tracking will be used as the need arises.

Q: Will the program cover monetization strategies at big companies and smaller indie studios?

A: Monetization, return on investment, budgeting and other financial issues will be dealt with both in the lab and as part of coursework. In order to lead you have to understand how funding partners think and how to execute plans that will result in success as defined by the team and those partners. This is of obvious benefit to people leading teams or departments in a “big company” setting. Less obviously, such things are critical to smaller indie studios that hope to be sustainable businesses. The DSGA will, at least in part, resemble an MBA  as much as it will a game development program.

Q: Will the curriculum cover development strategies and in-detail differences between big studio and indie studio development?

A: That depends on your definition of “in-detail,” of course. We will definitely cover similarities and differences between big studios and independent developers.

Q: What will the academy offer in terms of creative design, specifically for story people and writers?

A: There will be significant focus on creativity in design and development—games can and must be more than delivery mechanisms for adrenaline rush or time-wasting. The program will reflect that belief. However, the determination of what game will be developed during the nine-month Denius-Sams Gaming Academy program will be made as part of the lab experience. That means there may be a storyline or there may be none at all! Writers, like people from all disciplines, should work to ensure their contributions will be valuable throughout the development process, regardless of what game gets made.

Q: What focus will there be for audio folks?

A: The focus for audio people will be the same as for anyone else – discipline or team leadership. However, audio engineers must have skills that can be applied during all phases of a game’s development, even when audio needs are relatively low. The same is true for all disciplines, however.

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