How UC San Diego Extension supports a growing game design industry

By Tristan Loper

With mobile device use skyrocketing worldwide and a multi-billion dollar economy springing up to support those devices, it’s only natural that tech-savvy people would want to get in on the action.

For casual gamers with the right knowhow, success is just around the corner. Games like Angry Birds, Words With Friends, and zombie shooters -- among others -- have made millions for their makers, often at only a few bucks a pop.  But it’s not just the money that attracts entrepreneurs to this rapidly growing industry: gamers have long dreamed of designing their own products.

Today, this dream has never been more attainable, and UC San Diego Extension’s professional certificate in Casual Game Development has been helping people become bona fide game designers since 2009. In the Digital Arts Center’s comprehensive one year program, students develop a broad range of skills, from game design to interface design, and learn to use art and programming technology to bring a casual game project from concept to completion. Since the program’s inception, certificate grads have gone on to publish games in the iTunes store, written bestselling books, and become industry pros.

In a recent email interview, instructor Dr. Wei Xu explains how the professional certificate in Casual Game Development differs from those offered by other schools, as well as the future of game development, how to start a successful career, and more.

Q: The Digital Arts Center (DAC) at UC San Diego Extension offers a one-year professional certificate in casual game development. These days, there are many choices for game design students. What does DAC offer that the others don't?

Wei Xu: There are at least three major aspects that make the Digital Arts Center certificate stand out from many other programs. The first aspect is its practical curriculum, the second is the student body, and the third is the faculty's backgrounds.

We offer a curriculum based on industry needs that makes students skill-ready for today's job markets. Today's multimedia industries are changing fast. All of the de-facto standard software -- like AutoDesk Maya and the Adobe Creative Suite -- keep upgrading frequently. In order to meet such challenges, students in the Digital Arts Center learn the latest techniques and tools. The professional certificate in casual gaming also gives students a comprehensive education in the core technologies needed to succeed in the field. Not every school has the ability to offer such training, and it’s much more efficient than a four-year school where many classes are not necessarily related to the key technologies targeted.

Unlike most universities, most of DAC students are working professionals who have already earned bachelor's degrees. They are going back to school either for a change of careers or for continued education on new technologies. This unique feature greatly helps our students to focus on the essential topics and achieve their educational and career goals. For example, our program provides both computer programming classes and CG art courses. Students, no matter if they are originally programmers or artists, will master core skills in both areas and be able to design and implement games independently once they have finished all the courses. Actually, some of them advance way beyond our expectations. One of our Casual Gaming students has gone from a game artist to a game programmer and a book author on the computer language!

Selecting a subject that best benefits students in the long run is not an easy task, even for a professional. Fortunately, DAC has partnered with a large group of experienced industry professionals who teach classes on a part-time basis. These faculty members team together to identify topics and develop curricula that best equip students with the technologies that the industry needs. For instance, due to the rising popularity of the Unity game engine in the industry, we have been offering Unity game development courses since 2009.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions that students might have when they choose to be game designers?

Xu: Growing up with video games, young generations may easily view the game industry as a cool choice for their careers. But one major misconception is that game design is just thinking about new ideas. An idea without real implementation is basically useless. In this mobile age, it is essential for game designers to have serious art and coding skills to bring their ideas into prototypes.

Q: How easy is it to find jobs in the industry after graduating from your school? Are there parts of the industry where jobs are most plentiful now?

Xu: Our advisory board members work with us to ensure that the curriculum stays current and reflects the industry’s needs. We are confident that our students are prepared to obtain positions in this industry and, in fact, our advisors have hired our students. Furthermore, numerous alumni have gone on to publish their own games in the iTunes app store. The San Diego area supports small startups and large developers such as Sony Online Entertainment and Sony Computer Entertainment of America, High Moon, Rock Star, NimbleBits, and Appy.

Q: Games for smartphones are a relatively new area of the industry and your program focuses in part on iOS (iPhone operating system) game programming. Take a look in your crystal ball and tell me what sort of courses you predict students will need to deal with future developments in the industry.

Xu: Mobile games can be considered extensions of their PC or console counterparts. Most design principles and development tools are still applicable. Although some cross-platform tools like the Unity game engine have made game production much easier than before, some areas are not well-explored. One of them is artificial intelligence (AI). Most games played today are pretty trivial from an AI point of view. A further mixing of AI into games will significantly broaden the spectrum of game applications and bring more kinds of fun to games. Currently, AI is not in the scope of our curriculum, but it will be desired as game developers advance in their careers and take their game development to the next level.

Q: The Digital Arts Center places an emphasis on making the right choices when pursuing employment in this industry. What is your best advice to students who graduate and want to be as successful as possible as quickly as possible? Can you offer some tips?

Xu: First, never stop working on games before landing a game job. Most jobs require game credits. It might seem unreasonable and impossible for new graduates to meet such standards, but the reality is that you can start your own studio at home with a PC or Mac. With a small budget, time, and the essential skills, you should be able to show the world that you are able to produce some great casual games.

Second, learn the leading technologies. Compared to experienced game professionals, fresh graduates have the advantage of knowing the newest technologies. Keep learning more to improve your skills.

Third, network with like-minded people. For example, attend IGDA meetings.

And, lastly, don't limit yourself to only the entertaining games. Gaming technology has much wider applications in various industries other than video games. Many traditional tools will be replaced by multimedia technologies. For example, interactive books are becoming increasingly popular as a means of improving learning efficiency. There are surely more opportunities beyond killing zombies.

Wei Xu, Ph.D., is a computer scientist, mathematician and artist. In the past 8 years he has taught various classes in game programming, production, design and art at the Art Institute of California, SONY Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), DeVry University and ITT-Tech. Dr. Xu authored book “Drawing in the Digital Age” on how to draw with both sides of brain. He is president and co-founder of video game consulting firm Geomy Entertainment LLC, and a former Lead Engineer at SCEA.

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