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DigiPen Institute: building the game development workforce

This school was created by the owner of a computer animation and simulation company

Creating computer games is a far greater challenge than playing them. DigiPen Institute of Technology (Redmond, WA) grew out of the need for professional game developers. The school now offers baccalaureate and graduate programs in computer science, game design, digital arts and related areas.

“When DigiPen started in 1988, the digital game industry was young. Our founder, Claude Comair, couldn’t find enough qualified people to work at his computer simulation and animation company,” says Angela Kugler, vice president for external affairs.

In 1990 Comair started a training program in 3D computer animation to meet his company’s needs. In 1994, he partnered with Nintendo of America (Redmond, WA) to offer a two-year diploma in 2D and 3D programming.

By 2002, DigiPen programs were accredited, with added humanities courses. The school now offers seven baccalaureate majors to 964 undergraduates, and two masters programs, in computer science and fine arts, to ninety-one graduate students. Branch campuses are open in Singapore and Spain. “By the time students graduate from DigiPen, they have developed a large portfolio of work and accomplishments,” Kugler says.

One student’s story
“We use games because they are interesting and creative, but they are really very complex pieces of software,” says Kugler. “Artificial intelligence, physics, graphics, audio, so many things are tied in. Games happen in real time and can be networked so hundreds or thousands can play simultaneously.”

Mastering that complex technology attracts students with varied backgrounds. Kori Loomis decided to enroll after earning her bachelor of music in vocal performance with a minor in communications from Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, WA) in 2009. She had taught English in Japan for two years. She enjoyed teaching, but loved video games, too. Her older brother had earned a masters degree from DigiPen and currently designs casino games for a company in Reno, NV.

Loomis is passionate about music, but it hadn’t given her the background she wanted for a technology-related career. She decided to get a second bachelors degree, in engineering and sound design, so she enrolled at DigiPen.

“A BS from DigiPen is comparable to a masters degree from other schools,” she says. “It’s a really strong program, well known throughout the industry. Students work hard, but it’s worth it.”

Her original degree made her ineligible for most scholarships, but she found financial assistance from the school and the state to help pay her way. Scholarships for merit, art and need have doubled in recent years, Kugler notes, and that trend is expected to continue. DigiPen has established a foundation and is proceeding with efforts to make scholarships available to more students. Direct corporate support is key, Kugler adds.

Not surprisingly, the focus at DigiPen is on technology, with students declaring a major as freshmen. In addition to required coursework, students work on teams to create projects. The projects range from video games to augmented reality systems to animated films. These projects prepare students to create a wide range of technologies, including educational and training media for medical and military use and a variety of simulators. “Our project instructors come from studios and production environments, and students study as apprentices under the wings of these experienced professionals,” says Kugler.

About half the undergraduate students enter directly from high school. The other half are transfer students or are pursuing second bachelor degrees. Associates degrees and transfer courses are evaluated in terms of how they meet DigiPen program requirements. While additional courses are valuable, they don’t replace required projects.

Students take eighteen to twenty-one units per semester. Transfer students may be able to lighten their course loads and have time for an internship.

Women in gaming
Loomis doesn’t mind being one of the few women students. The number of women interested in game design is growing, and the percentage of women at DigiPen has increased from 4 percent in 2003 to 19 percent in 2013. Kugler hopes to attract more women: DigiPen holds workshops for K-12 girls and works with community groups to encourage girls to apply. A female high school student shadowed Loomis in the fall and “more and more women have been showing interest,” Kugler says.

Loomis observes that computer games are becoming a more mainstream form of recreation. “Nowadays, everyone plays, even my mother,” says Loomis.

Opportunities await grads
DigiPen grads are in demand. Every Friday one or two companies, including industry giants like Blizzard Entertainment, Microsoft and Nintendo, come to campus to talk about available openings and what students need to qualify for them. Software companies like Apple and Amazon have hired DigiPen grads.

Recruiters can review portfolios and accept resumes on campus. At the end of the academic year, the campus holds a career day for graduating students to present themselves to employers. “During the past two years, there were twice as many employers as graduates,” Kugler says.

After a year and a half of programming, Loomis creates complex algorithms and data structures for games’ physics and particle systems, specialized computer graphics techniques that create hard-to-simulate effects. Her team has three women and three men.

“I determine which algorithm will work in our game world, and make sure everything is reacting the way a player would expect it to,” she says. “In a particle system, dust clouds and sparkles are the sugar and spice to enhance the game experience.”

Loomis’s music background gives her an advantage in programming music and sound effects for her team and for other teams. She also does voice recordings and other sound effects. A future class will teach her how to build her own synthesizer. “I’m amazed at the things I’m doing now,” she says with enthusiasm.

Loomis is part of a diverse student body. International students are eager to attend; in 2013, students from more than thirty different countries made up 11 percent of the DigiPen student body.

“There are so many opportunities to apply what we teach,” says Kugler. “By the time students graduate, they are creating games in a professional environment and ready to tackle anything.”

D/C


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