Archive | January, 2014

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy Update #6 – Faculty Requirement

31 Jan

Here’s the latest and greatest about the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. Sadly (or maybe not, depending upon your point of view!) this will be the last weekly update. From now on, I’ll be posting about the program as I have post-worthy information to report, but that might not be weekly. In the meantime, I’m going to get back to semi-regular posts about life, the universe and, of course, gaming. Hope you’ll keep coming back for that.

Even as I go semi-regular, I think that, between the blog posts and the website here, I think I’ve covered a lot of ground, but my next task is to create an FAQ for the website. If you have specific questions about the program that haven’t been covered here or on the website, send them to I need to know what you folks want to learn that hasn’t been covered.

All that having been said, this post will be a little different than earlier ones. Instead of talking specifically about the program itself I want to talk about the people I hope will be teaching with me. So read on.



Remember a few weeks ago when I said things might change before the program gets started this Fall? Well, nowhere is that more true than in the area of the program’s faculty. I know who I want to join me, as well as what I think we should teach and how I think we should teach it. However, right now, the staff of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy consists of… me! Period. Exclamation point.

Until we actually hire the rest of the teaching team, everything I’ve said to date is subject to change. (I don’t expect TOO much revision, but once you bring in new people, with new ideas, anything’s possible – something I learned – the the great benefit of the program – at the recent Development Council meeting!)

Anyway, caveat, caveat, caveat… You get the idea. So here’s what we’re looking for in the way of staffers:

  • Two multi-talented individuals with a rare combination of professional leadership development experience, sharply honed critical faculties and some teaching experience.

That shouldn’t be tough to find, right? Riiight…

What will these folks do?

  • In the short term, they’ll help flesh out the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy curriculum, specific course topics and the details of lab work.
  • They’ll prepare detailed case studies and in-class exercises, based on real-world game development examples.
  • They’ll help review student applications and assist in determining which students will be accepted into the program.
  • Later on, once the school year starts they’ll team-teach the course (with me) and supervise the lab.

What are the qualifications?

These folks should have a minimum five years industry experience in a leadership role(e.g., Producer or Game Director/Creative Director or, at a minimum, large-team discipline leadership).

The two staffers must be experienced in, qualified for and prepared to act as de facto Producer and/or Director of the game developed in the lab, when specific students are not assigned to those roles.

I’m really hoping to find people whose professional experience was gained within the last three years to ensure their knowledge is current and relevant to a rapidly changing business. (By this I mean, knowledge of mobile, social and the various business and development models associated with non-traditional games. Honestly, I’m a pretty traditional-games sort of guy and want people who can help fill in my gaps!)

It should go without saying that some teaching experience is required. At the very least, be able to point to significant lecturing experience at conferences, guest lectures at educational institutions, etc.. It should be obvious that we’d prefer people with full-time, higher education teaching experience – if we can find folks like that who also have recent professional experience.

We want folks with demonstrable excellence in at least one game development discipline (especially production, but also programming, design, art, sound or something). And we want the faculty members to have hands-on knowledge of at least one current game engine (and willingness to learn a new one, if necessary)

We want people with knowledge of games history, theory, criticism, development and business – preferably, with experience I don’t have (e.g., mobile, games as service, the distinction between ludology and narratology… that sort of thing).

And, finally, we want people who are at a point in their career where they want to give something back, to make a difference, to play a part in seeding the industry with people who can make a difference themselves. Need a break from the crunch and grind of development? Want a change of scenery from your current teaching gig? Austin is a great place to live, UT’s a great institution and I think the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy will be something special in the world of games education.

Whew! I can’t help wondering if such people exist or if we’ve set the bar too high, but I’m hopeful. If you know such a person – or you ARE such a person – let us know at

In fact, if you’ll be at D.I.C.E. or GDC (or you live in Austin, Texas) and want to get together to discuss a position at the DSGA, I’m totally open to that. You’ll still have to go through the official University of Texas application process later, once we post the jobs officially – everyone has to do that – but it can’t hurt to get a headstart.

Here’s hoping some of you will help me have an insanely busy D.I.C.E. and GDC! I’ll keep you all posted as we make our staff hires.

And don’t forget to pepper me with questions for the FAQ. Anything you want to know and don’t is fair game.


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.

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy Update #4

17 Jan

Curriculum, Part 1

Sorry I missed a week of updates. Not sure how that happened. Well, I do know – I got distracted preparing for a Development Council meeting. No excuse but that’s the reason. I’m back now with more info about the Gaming Academy.

First, some big news (big to me, anyway): Yesterday (January 16th) we launched a revised and expanded Denius-Sams Gaming Academy website. There’s now plenty more information about the program up there (and, even more exciting, we’re now, finally, taking applications – full instructions on the website, of course).

But here, this week, I want to talk about the curriculum and how it came to be what we think it will be.

I say “think,” because it’s entirely possible – even likely – that elements of the curriculum will change between now and the start of classes. That’s months away and the Development Council, which met for the first time this past Monday, provided a ton of great input that really has me thinking about (and rethinking) some stuff.

But going back to the beginning, my first thought as we were planning the curriculum was to have three core components. We’d start with an hour-long course in the morning about the Art of Games immediately followed by a second hour-long course right after called the Business of Games. Then there’d be a Lab each afternoon in which actual games would be built.

The Lab would be the practical application part and the courses would provide background and theory. The courses would lay out facts about the art and business of games, directly contradicting each other, of course, though both would have been “right” given the unique needs of each approach to the medium. The idea was to expose students to the tension between art and commerce, since that’s where I think the (wait for it…) Commercial Art of video games achieves greatness.

But when we started planning out the courses, the two-course idea didn’t work at all.

For one thing, it had students sitting in class too long each day, instead of working on games. For another, there was a ton of overlap in the material presented in each class. And, finally, neither course was explicitly focused on our leadership mission.

So that idea went out the window. What replaced it?

The Course (Singular)

Instead of two classes, the current plan is to have a single class, broken into modules. The class meets for 60-90 minutes a day (still trying to decide on that…) Each module covers a different aspect of game development and games leadership – topics like the role of “Leadership in Early Phase Development” (concepting, pitching, preproduction, etc.) or “Hiring, Team-Building and Culture” (how you build a cohesive team and all the things that can cause problems in that effort). Other modules include things like “Middle Phase Development” (aka the grind that is Production), “Late Phase Development” (testing, tuning, marketing, burnout, etc.). We’ll talk about everything in this class – from art to business… models of creative collaboration… team structures and development models… tools for project management… metrics and analytics (and appropriate use thereof)… what happens after you ship… and more.

Always, we’ll keep our eye – and student minds – focused on how leadership must and does change over time on a project and in a business.

Each of the modules is already broken down into sub-topics, in some cases all the way down to the level of individual lectures. But for now I’m going to play it close to the vest and keep the sub-topics and lecture-level thinking to myself. There’s just too much of a chance that’ll  change before the school year starts. Maybe we’ll get into it later…

But how will we teach this? Will it be all lectures?

There will be some lecturing from the faculty, and we’re planning on bringing in guest speakers to discuss topics of special interest and/or things that none of the staffers are expert in. That means there’ll be some folks coming in to directly contradict what you hear in class every day. (Remember what I said about there not being One Right Way?…)

But the last thing students in this program are going to want to do is listen to me and the rest of the teaching staff wagging our tongues for an hour or more a day! Instead, the plan is to focus on in-class exercises, case-study analyses and discussions, roleplaying scenarios (no – there won’t be any orcs and elves…. maybe a few demons, of the human variety…), that sort of thing. It’ll be – wait for it… – interactive! If you’re uncomfortable with the Socratic method and intense classroom participation, you probably shouldn’t apply.

So that’s a high-level look at the course. Is that all there is? Of course not. See you next week for an overview of the hands-on part of the course, where theory meets practice.

(Now go check out the website and submit your applications!)

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy: Academy Update #3

3 Jan

When you talk about Leadership (see last update), you have to start with one thought firmly in mind:

There is no “right way” to lead.

There are as many ways to lead as there are people doing the job. No matter how much experience the Denius-Sams staffers may have, we come to the educational process with prejudices formed through years of on-the-job training.

We know our “right way,” but simply communicating that, and giving students a taste of it in a hands-on experience, isn’t good enough for a program like the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. We knew we needed a variety of perspectives, a symphony of voices heard, before we could lock down the curriculum and, certainly, before we started classes.

That led directly to step two in the program development process – assembling a diverse team of advisors. We needed a Development Council.

And what a talented and experienced Council we’ve assembled. We didn’t want just an Austin-centered board of advisors – Austin has its own development community with a lot of similar ideas. We needed out-of-towners, from different development cultures, with different views. Our goal was to ensure that we split roughly 50-50 between industry outsiders and Austin insiders.

We came up with a pretty impressive list. There’s certainly a diversity of experience and ideas represented there!

We have indie developers and advocates like Stephanie Barish (founder of IndieCade) and David Bettner (who, with his brother, Paul, created Words with Friends, an obscure little game you may have heard of).

We have industry veterans, Paul Sams (COO of Blizzard), Richard Garriott (of Origin and now Portalarium fame), Richard Hilleman (long-time Electronic Arts Creative Director), Christopher Weaver (founder of Bethesda Softworks), Gordon Walton (currently CEO of a mysterious startup but ex-of Origin, Maxis, Bioware and many more) and, last but definitely not least, Greg Zeschuk (co-founder of Bioware).

We’ve signed up other development vets, Greg LoPicollo (Chief Creative Officer, Harmonix), Max Hoberman (President of developer, Certain Affinity), Erik Bethke (CEO, Bee Cave Games and author of a classic text on game production) as well as Starr Long (Origin vet, Executive Producer for Disney and now with Portalarium) and consultant Brian Sharp (whose talks on leadership are among GDC’s highlights).

And let’s not slight the biz guys and folks from outside the industry. We need their input, too. There, we have Fred Schmidt (founded and GM’ed too many places and done too much to list here!), Ophir Lupu (game agent for United Talent Agency and a master of the deal), Geoff Yetter (the video game rep at the Texas Film Commission), Jim Butler (the City of Austin’s Creative Industries Development Manager), Denius Wofford (you may recognize his name from the name of the program!), Brad Greaber (CEO of ace animation house, Powerhouse, representing the artists), Michele Martell (VP of Kids Entertainment at World Wrestling Entertainment) and Michael Ryder (Cinematics VP at Blizzard – who among us wouldn’t want to learn from people at Blizzard?).

Oh, and of course, let’s not forget the UT folks who made this all possible – Dean Roderick Hart of the College of Communication, Michael Wilson, the College’s Assistant Dean for External Relations, and Sharon Strover, UT professor who was instrumental in getting the Academy off the ground.

With a lineup like that, there’s no chance we’ll be myopically focused on any one person’s way of doing things. We should be able to expose students to a wide range of “right ways” to lead development teams – including some ways that come from outside the world of game development.

But there’s more to the Development Council than just providing input to the folks building and teaching at the Academy. My hope – and we think we can deliver on this with a very little bit of arm-twisting – is to get members of the Council to do some lecturing and to provide guidance and mentoring to individual students in the program.

Talk about an opportunity to build an all-star network, right out of the gate!

Everyone here is totally psyched to be working with these folks and we’re pretty sure students in the program will be, too.

So, that’s Step two – the Development Council – accomplished. See you next week for a few words about the curriculum.