University of Utah boasts 3rd best video game design program in nation

Published: Thursday, March 1 2012 4:46 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Most professors would be annoyed to know their students are playing games in class. But that's not the case for the University for Utah's Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, one of the top ranked video game design programs in the nation.

The U.'s video game design program Thursday was ranked third by the Princeton Review, behind the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It's a slip from their second place ranking in 2011, but it's far from game over for the program, still the top ranked public school on the list.

Students tinkered on their laptops with video games they will submit for a capstone project Thursday during class in the Warnock Engineering Building. The games, "Curse of Shadows" and "Heroes of Hats," will be submitted to Xbox Live Indie Games at the end of the semester and go through a rigorous peer review process in hopes of being shipped, or available to the public.

"Everybody thinks I'm in a pretty cool major," said senior Alice Owens. "I get to make games all day. I feel like I hang out on the couch and mess around on my computer all day long. It's hard work, but it's enjoyable for me."

While most students have to buy textbooks for their classes, Owens said the only thing she needed to purchase was an Xbox controller. But it's not all fun and games for the students who put in long hours fixing bugs and perfecting their games.

The Princeton Review's methodology considers a number of factors including the courses offered to students, if the program is team driven and the percentage of the graduating class who worked on a game that shipped.

In 2011, all of graduating seniors worked on a game that shipped, the first time that has happened in the program's five-year existence. The three games that groups of seniors worked on for their capstone course — "Minions!" "The Last Podfighter" and "Mr. Gravity" — were submitted to Xbox Live Indie Games and approved. They are currently available to download for $1.

"Minions!" has sold nearly 20,000 downloads with much of the revenue going back to the students, said Roger Haycock, one of the students who worked on the game.

"I always liked playing (video games) and it's fun to make them the way you want them," he said.

Robert Kessler, executive director of the program, said when the program began in 2007, the staff talked to those in the video game industry to find out how to best prepare students for the workforce.

"When we started, we went and talked to companies and found out what they wanted," Kessler said.

Company officials said they wanted "world class" artists and computer engineers who could work together. The program responded by teaming up students in both disciplines together in a capstone class culminating in a final game. It's an approach other schools are modelling their video game design programs after, said Roger Altizer, director of game design and production.

"Our vision for the future of our program is really that we'd see more and more people out there in the industry making a difference from the University of Utah," Altizer said. "We not only want to prepare students to work in the industry, but to lead the industry."

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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