Denius-Sams Gaming Academy Update #5

24 Jan

Before I get to the meat of this update, I have something exciting to talk about. Last week we had the first meeting of the full Denius-Sams Gaming Academy Development Council. (That’s why this update is coming a day later than usual…)

Somewhat to my surprise (and delight!) everyone on the Council was there, most in person, a few via conference call. To my mind, the day was wildly successful.

I was able to present the overall plan for the program, in some detail, to the assembled brain trust and, man, did I get a lot of great feedback. Honestly, some of the stuff I talked about last week – some of the stuff I’ll be talking about THIS week, is likely to change a bit as a result.

But, happily, the room full of alpha dogs gave the nod to the overall plan, so nothing you’ve read so far is flat out wrong (phew!). However, the dev council did point out some things to which I’d given short shrift and some things I’d forgotten entirely. They suggested reordering of some topics during the school year and proposed some new topics. We talked about the balance of development and business issues, the changing business and marketplace (and the ramifications of those changes for students and for the program). We talked about teaching and assessment methodologies (I sure don’t want to have a bunch of tests to assess student learning!). We actually talked about some changes to the lab structure, I’m about to describe, so take this update as “where we are right now” and trust that, if anything changes I’ll let you know!

Anyway, the first result of all that Dev Council input will be an even better, more comprehensive more fully differentiated program than I was planning. The second result is that I have a ton of work to do, integrating all the Council feedback. But it’s going to be a ton of fun toting those barges and lifting those bales!

More info to come. For now, let’s continue the discussion from last week. Let’s talk a bit about the second part of the curriculum – the lab that complements the course we already talked about

Curriculum, Part 2: The Lab

If you look at the other game development programs out there, pretty much all of them focus on interdisciplinary teamwork. That’s great. That’s necessary. Everyone knows how collaborative game developers have to be. Clearly, to make games, you have to understand how to work as part of a team, and you have to understand what other disciplines do, how to communicate with them and so on.

But look again, more closely, and you see that most (not all!) academic game development programs focus on small teams – four people, eight people, maybe 10 or 12 at the high end… A few programs are starting to work with bigger teams, but they’re few and far between. I think that’s a shame. Small teams provide great training if you want to be an indie developer or you want to make Art with a capital “A” or you want a portfolio piece to show a potential employer. A small-team project can help you get a job as a team member somewhere, for sure, and it might set you up for indie success. Both of those are Good Things.

Small teams are immensely useful teaching tools, but the Gaming Academy isn’t just about getting a job or about Art. It’s about game development leadership. And to really dig into issues of leadership, you need people to lead. For that reason, the current plan is to have the entire class work on a single game. One. Twenty people. One game.

(As a note, some members of the Dev Council thought the one-big-team idea might not be ideal, but for now I still like it, so read on…)

Throw in some outsourcing requirements (i.e., finding external resources to augment the internal team) and the Gaming Academy 20-person project should start to feel like a real-world game development effort. Something relevant to folks who want to go indie and to folks who want to work in the mainstream of traditional development.

A 20-person team, working on a single title, can run through all of the phases of development – from initial conceptualization to ship (and the goal is to ship – as in making the game available to a large audience). We’ll hit every major milestone in between. If things go according to plan (and what ever goes wrong in game development, right?) we’ll even take the project post-ship, to reflect the current industry’s need for sustainable “product,” rather than fire and forget, one-shot projects. The timeline’s going to be short – probably too short – but that’s true to actual game development, too, so it’ll be good preparation for the folks in the Gaming Academy trenches.

But why a 20-person team? Well, in addition to simply being a better reflection of the reality of a lot of development teams, a 20-person team (plus external folks) is big enough to start seeing some of the organizational and communication problems that plague larger projects (the kinds of projects you see mainstream developers working on for mainstream publishers, the kinds of problems a lot of indie studios face as they grow beyond their roots). I’m a big believer in failure being a better teacher than success and at the Academy we want to expose students to failure points in development so we can stop, right as problems happen, and say “What just happened? How do we deal with this?”

In the “real world” of development, you almost never have the luxury of stopping and analyzing “what just happened.” And if you fail too often you get fired. That’s not the deal here. We’re going to hit failure points – thanks, in part to our larger than the academic norm team – and learn from our mistakes in real time.

At least that’s my current plan. As with everything, a lot could change between now and the day classes start. But I’m pretty certain that’s how we’re going to roll at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy.

The big challenge with One Big Team? How do you provide all 20 people in the program the opportunity to lead? That’s what the program is all about, right? Well, I have some thoughts on that, some ideas we’ll try out (probably not cycling through a different Producer/Director team each week, tempting though that might be). No, I have some other thoughts in mind, but I’m going to be a little coy about that until those thoughts are more fleshed out, even in my own mind.

So that’s the real work students will do in the program – or as much as I want to talk about right now. What about the faculty? Next week, we’ll talk about bit about who and what the Academy is looking for in the way of teachers.

For now, anyone reading this who’s interested in being a part of the DSGA can apply now. Were looking for all sorts of people, all ages, all disciplines. The requirements are clearly spelled out at the Denius-Sams website. Go there, click on the Apply tab, and see if your right for the program (and the program’s right for you). Hope to hear from some of you soon.

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5 Responses to “Denius-Sams Gaming Academy Update #5”

  1. Terry Vallo January 24, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

    The idea of one team is quite appealing rather than a bunch of smaller teams. Though, since it is about leadership, I am guessing students will rotate leadership rolls on the team while you -or someone else- acts as a Producer?

    • Warren Spector February 17, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

      You are mostly correct, Terry. The leadership roles will rotate so everyone gets some hands-on experience.The staff (two others and me) will play lead at times to ensure continuity and provide some role-modeling.

  2. Josh January 27, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Mr. Spector, I apologize for posting this off-topic comment here, but I could not find a way to direct message or e-mail you. I was just wondering what the premises of your abandoned game projects (Sleeping Giants, Ninja Gold, Necessary Evil) would have been.

    • Warren Spector February 17, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      It’d take too long to go into any detail on the projects that never got made but at the high level they were all going to further the idea of player empowerment and deep, interactive storytelling. Sleeping Giants was going to be an epic fantasy game of elemental magic (and dragons); Ninja Gold was a modern day ninja game with elements of stealth and parkour-style movement; Necessary Evil was a near future SF game designed to explore augmented human tech in ways Deus Ex wasn’t designed to do. They all would have been fun (to make, at least, and to play, I hope!).

      • Josh March 28, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

        Thank you.

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