Archive | February, 2014

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.

Advertisements

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.

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy FAQ, part 2: Lab and Coursework

19 Feb

Here’s the second part of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy FAQ. This one about the lab and coursework.

Q: Is the final plan to have 20 people make one game as one group in one year?

A: It might be better to say that the current plan is to have all 20 people in the program work on a single game for nine months. As the website says (and as Warren Spector has reported on his blog), prior to the first year – and even during that year – things could change. However, we’re confident the current plan is the right plan for the program.

Q: The academy seems to be looking for people who are well-versed in all areas of game development, but is focusing on creating a team that would require people with specific talents. Wouldn’t it be better to have several groups?

A: The idea of having several smaller groups working on multiple projects was certainly discussed but we feel the single project affords us the best chance of giving people the experience required to achieve the program’s goals. It’s true that this plan will require people who have specific talents and we will be looking for such people, perhaps moreso than we are for generalists who can wear many hats. The class of 20 will be selected with specific skillsets and the ability to contribute in mind.

Q:  I’ve seen too many student projects fail because of a bloated team size. Some people don’t feel motivated by the project or there’s not enough team communication. 

A: In a sense you’ve identified the key reason for building “one big team.” In a professional setting, lack of motivation, poor team communication and failures driven by team size are cause for termination. In an academic setting, failures are learning situations. Academe is one of the few environments where failure is possible with minimal risk. An experienced teaching staff will be there to provide guidance and input, identifying and leading efforts to address problems as they occur (and they will occur!). However, the success or failure of the program will be measured by the knowledge and skills of the people who complete it, not by the start-to-finish perfection of a development effort.

Q: If everyone is focused on leadership, how will development leads be determined?

A: The current plan is to have teaching staff take the lead in lab, handing off the reins at specific, predetermined moments and/or when challenges arise. In this way, everyone will get multiple chances to apply in lab the lessons learned in class. How and when the predetermined moments come will be determined during the course of each semester of work.

Q: Will each student get a chance to lead the student-team in some capacity?

A: Absolutely. Each student will get hands-on experience of holding the reins. Leadership will be assigned and passed along at specific, key moments in development, and at planned or unexpected challenge points. Teaching staff will also fill leadership roles at various points, to provide role models and to ensure continuity.

Q: Will development be democratic or top-down?

A: There are as many ways to structure a team and coordinate the activities of team members as there are people making games. We will explore several of them in class and apply appropriate methods in lab at each phase of development. The group will experience top-down team structures, flat structures, agile/scrum and waterfall methods at various points. Having said that, democracy doesn’t, typically, work very well in development!

Q: How will the initial ideation-phase work?

A: Experience in handling the early phases of development—ideation and conceptualization—will be handled through a combination of coursework and lab work. In class, each student will conceptualize several potential projects, alone and in small groups. This will involve some documentation, the creation of pitches (in presentations and other forms) as well as scoping and team-building exercises. In lab, all participants in the program will be involved in the conceptualization of the game everyone will work on during the two semesters of the program, working in small teams in a manner that reflects the realities of game conceptualization in the industry.

Q: For which platforms will we be developing?

A: Students will contribute to decisions regarding shipping platforms. Having said that, it is extremely unlikely that we will work on either current gen or next gen console development. With 20 students coming in with no experience of working together, nine months simply isn’t enough time to develop for consoles with any reasonable chance of success.

Denius-Sams Gaming Academy FAQ, part 1: Applications

17 Feb

I’ve been getting a bunch of questions from people interested in the Gaming Academy. Rather than answer them individually, I figured I should put together an FAQ. This, and all subsequent FAQ sections, will eventually get posted on the DSGA website but, for now, here are the answers to the most common queries, starting with the application process:

Q: Where do I apply?

A: Apply at the DSGA website here: http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy/apply

Q: What is the deadline for applications?

A: The current deadline for submission of applications is May 1, 2014. We will begin notifying accepted candidates on June 1, 2014, with notifications being made on a rolling basis after that date. Classes begin on August 27, 2014. Based on the quality and number of applications, these dates are subject to change, but consider them binding at this time – best not to wait until the last minute.

Q: What are you looking for in a letter of intent?

A: Part of the reason we ask for a statement of purpose is to see what you think the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy can do for you in your current or hoped for career. Part of the reason is to see what you think you can bring to the program. We’re looking for original thoughts, not rote responses, but some of the specifics we’ll be looking for are: Why you’re interested in the DSGA instead of just going out looking for a job. Why you’re interested in leadership and what makes you think you’re well-suited to a leadership position. It probably can’t hurt to provide examples of times in your life when you’ve found yourself in leadership positions (or explain why such opportunities haven’t come your way). Mostly, tell us what you think makes you well suited for admission to our unique program.

Q: Should references be put in the same place as the portfolio?

A: Yes, references should be put in the same place as the portfolio. If, as may be the case, your references are not comfortable providing you with the actual reference we may accept their contact information so we can contact them ourselves. Bear in mind that this should be the exception and may say something about your chances of admission to the program.

Q: What does a QA portfolio look like?

A: The key to a good portfolio is proof of skills. For a QA person, that could mean test plans you’ve created, bugs you’ve written up, process suggestions you’ve made and so on. Provide us with the best evidence you can muster of the skills you bring to the development process and how those skills can be utilized during all phases of a game’s development.

Q: Are mobile games acceptable portfolio pieces?

A: We’re happy to accept mobile games as part of a portfolio. These can be submitted in the form of playable games or, like all portfolio submissions, in the form of reasonably extensive video captures. Regardless of game type, be sure to submit supporting documentation describing your role in the projects you submit.

Q: What would an applicant without the suggested education require in order to be accepted?

A: We are not going to teach people the nuts and bolts of making a game – we expect candidates to come in having already received training and having some experience in this area. The most important thing you can do is show us that you have such experience. After that, we need to see interest in and potential for leadership. Make sure we understand what “leadership” means, in your eyes, and how the Academy can help you accomplish your goals. Finally, don’t embellish your credentials – that’s why we insist on letters of reference!

Q: Is there an acceptable age range for applicants and participants?

A: There is no cut-off age or age bracket. Any adult with appropriate talents and ambitions is eligible for admission.

Q: Must you have programing skills and a portfolio of games to be admitted to the program? Do you have to be a programmer to apply?

A: You do not have to be a programmer. Certainly, technical skills are important for anyone creating software—and games are software. However, we will be looking for people with a range of skills in the areas of programming, design, art, audio, testing and production. Candidates need not be expert specifically in any one of these or in all of them. With regard to the portfolio, it is important that candidates prove their proficiency in some aspect of game development and the best way to do that is to showcase work done on a game. It doesn’t have to be a demonstration from games that have shipped. It can be mods to an existing electronic or (less effectively) something related to a tabletop game.

Q: How do you demonstrate leadership potential in your application?

A: Part of being a leader is being able to think on your feet, think for yourself and self-start. It is our plan not to tell people explicitly how to prove their leadership qualities or leadership potential. This is part of the application process. There is no one answer, no right or wrong—we ask applicants to answer for themselves what it means to be a leader and how they embody those qualities. Communicating that answer to us through their application materials will be an important criterion in the application process.

Q: When I apply for the academy, should I focus on my greatest strength or my balanced skill set?

A: The answer is both. We need to know what you’re best at and what role you want to play in the development process (during your time with the program as well as in the professional world). However, generalists can be particularly valuable on a 20-person team, so providing information and evidence of your overall skillset may increase your chances of being admitted to the program.

Q: Out of the 20 people accepted, what will the composition of the group be?

A: The selection process will be based on two criteria: Leadership potential, as determined by application materials, and the ability to contribute to the development of a game in a specific capacity. In a sense, the selection process will be similar to the process one goes through when assembling a professional game development team – each person must be excellent in some aspect of the craft in order to ensure the success of the development process. In other words, we’ll be looking for programmers, designers, artists, audio personnel, producers – people who can contribute to the process while learning about leadership.

Q: Would applying after the Game Developers Conference put me at a disadvantage? I would really like the opportunity to talk with a staff member before I send in my application.

A: There’s no advantage or disadvantage to applying for the program before or after any specific date or event. Just get your application in before the April 15th deadline. Evaluations of applications will take place on a rolling basis (and may even be extended past April 15th, depending on the number and quality of applicants) but acceptances won’t be communicated until after June 1st.