How UT Austin is modernizing its video game design program

The video game industry changes all of the time, and so universities that are trying to teach video game design have to do that as well. That’s what the University of Texas at Austin is learning as it modernizes its video game program.

Creating relevant classes for game design is hard in part because the field is young and it is driven by technology that changes all of the time. Students have to learn all kinds of disciplines, including game design, game engine programming, art, and sound — particularly if they want to be independent game developers who make their own games in full.

UT Austin started its game design program seven years ago, as a collaboration of the college of communications, computer science, and the college of fine arts. Doreen Lorenzo, a veteran of innovative product design studio Frog Design, joined the school 3.5 years ago to teach design. Then, 2.5 years ago, she helped create the school of Design and Creative Technologies, which she now leads. The school includes arts and entertainment technologies, which houses the game program now.

And now UT Austin is looking for someone to lead that games and immersive art program. I talked with Lorenzo about this, and learned  some things about the way that modern game design is taught.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean for the School of Design and Creative Technologies at UT Austin.

Doreen Lorenzo: The University of Texas, obviously, has been around for a long time. It’s a very big school. Since 1992, they’ve had a design department, which was in the school of art and art history in the college of fine arts. For many years they’ve had a very progressive, visionary dean, Doug Dempster, in the college of fine arts who realized that they had to change the trajectory of fine arts, because they had declining enrollment for 20 years. He started to experiment with different programs.

The city of Austin actually came to him and the computer science chair and said, “UT needs to be doing something in gaming.” They got a games program up and running seven years ago. That was with video, TV, and film, the college of communications, computer science, and the college of fine arts. They got together to form this program, and it eventually became a bachelor of science in arts and entertainment technology. Arts and entertainment technology included gaming and interactivity, animation, these creative technologies. It had these different factions.

Three and a half years ago I was recruited to the university to teach design. I started an undergraduate certificate program called the Center for Integrated Design, which integrated human-centered design, design methodologies, design thinking into the whole undergraduate program at UT. This is in parallel with what was happening in gaming. I came in working part time to get this off the ground, and it took off.

In the meantime I saw all these overlapping things going on in the college of fine arts. We had this arts and entertainment program that had a lot of interest. So many students wanted to take it. We had the design program that wasn’t quite taking off, but we had this Center for Integrated Design that was going gangbusters. The new medical school had opened and they had started something called the Design Institute for Health. They were appointed in the school of design, but nobody was really working with them.

About a year, year and a half after I got there, the dean and the provost said they wanted to form a whole new school. The kind of thing I was talking about was really this whole college to career — how do you take all of these creative skills and creative technologies and give students the skills to be employed? Typically, if you say you’re going into fine arts, it usually means you’re going to live in a dumpster or be a barista. Your parents cry. To have careers where students will be really capable and be in demand to get work was something they wanted to go after.

Two and a half years ago we started the school of Design and Creative Technologies, which is what I now lead. It has these two departments. It has design, and we brought in a new chair of the design department. That’s growing by leaps and bounds. The master’s program is doing really well. Then it has something called arts and entertainment technologies, which houses the game program, but now, as we dive into this, it’s not just about gaming. It’s not just about studying games and working at a game company. As you know, all this technology is being used in so many other areas.

We’re not only working with our students to learn all about game design and development, but also how they can use those skills to perhaps work with an architecture firm, or work in the health industry. All these other areas that are starting to use Unreal and Unity. We’re helping them know that there’s a wider landscape out there for them.

In two and a half years we have become the largest undergraduate school in the college of fine arts, and we’re still growing. The gentleman that was the chair of the department retired, and now I’m looking for the new chair. We’re looking for someone who understands games and immersive design and where the world is moving with all of this stuff.

Above: “Dealing With Gamers Across the Decades” with Raph Koster, Veteran Game Designer, Creative Executive & Author and moderated by Amy Jo Kim, CEO, Startup Coach & Best Selling Author – Details – Hero Stage

GamesBeat: Was there ever a consideration of just calling it something like the school of games, or is that a little too focused?

Lorenzo: Yeah, I think it’s a bit too focused. If you begin to look at the creative technologies and what people are doing with that, it becomes broader. I’m sure you’ve had these conversations with Epic and Unity, about how they’re expanding the horizons of where this is going. It’s more around the creative technologies.

Games are an important part, no doubt. Our students come in here and they want to work in games. We want to give them the opportunity to do that, and they’re getting jobs in that industry. But we also want to expose them to so much more. If you look at The Lion King, it’s a big video game. They’re using the technology to do so much more. We want to expose the students to that and let them explore their options.

GamesBeat: How much does the university have to be concerned about as far as the job placement aspect?

Lorenzo: We’re very concerned, yeah. We have, in our program, a full-time person, Patti Burke. She’s an industry veteran who came out of Imagineering and Lucasfilm and Dreamworks. Her whole thing, with a couple of people, is to go out there and make those connections. Not just to place people, but to understand — this is the difference about our program. I call it a reactive curriculum, which is very different in higher education. We want to understand, where are we going in four or five years? That’s the stuff that we need to be teaching our students. Where is the industry moving?

We’re talking to all these companies out there, learning about where things are moving, and we want to make sure that the students are positioned to understand that. We’re very committed to placement. I want to get 100 percent placement out of my school. I believe that the way we’re teaching our students, whether it’s in design or in the master’s program we’re doing or in arts and entertainment, these students are going to be in high demand.

GamesBeat: What makes sense as far as the proximity of one major for students next to another one and what to group together? My daughter, who’s working in digital arts at USC–when she’s working on the film part, she has to recruit student actors, special effects and lighting people, and make sure she can shoot what she needs to create for a project. It makes sense that these other disciplines are nearby and easily accessible.

Lorenzo: That’s part of the reason we partnered with computer science and the TV and film program. We have a similar program. They’re doing immersive video. They’re learning about what we call gaming for film. It’s becoming really prevalent. A lot of the production companies are using Unreal now. It’s changing, and we need to be — as educators, we need to be on the cutting edge doing that. I don’t believe that, given the industry we’re in, we can sit by and be passive, or teach something from 10 years ago. We need to be forward-thinking in everything we do.

Above: Designing with Magic Leap

GamesBeat: The one thing that’s new to me is that design people are not so far away from the video game people. A Frog Design person isn’t that different from someone who’s designing games.

Lorenzo: No, and they’re becoming — you see all the product placement stuff people are doing games, right? It’s all becoming more and more real. We’re also putting together foundation courses so our design students and our gaming students will be doing their foundation courses together. Color theory, light, all that stuff that you learn, they need to be learning this.

GamesBeat: Do you see students mixing a lot of classes from different disciplines to learn about what they want to do or need to be ready for?

Lorenzo: That’s the important part of — if you want to go more technical, you can go down the computer science path and start taking more classes there. They have a minor you can take, and a lot of our game students take that minor. If you want to go more cinematic, more into storytelling, you can look at what they’re doing in radio, TV, and film and take classes there. We’re carving out pathways for our students.

We just did a giant assessment of all the classes we teach, looking at how we can put them together for outcomes. You take this group of classes — two from computer science, two from radio, TV, and film, two from AET — and this is what you get. It’s interesting, because in general, universities are not supposed to be interdisciplinary. Making that happen is fun.

GamesBeat: How many students are graduating from your program each year now?

Lorenzo: We will have 89 graduates in May from the AET program, and about 50 from design. Those are our first students going out the door. This year we’re taking in about 100 students. We’re keeping the program at its current size, because we’re simply out of room. We’re in the middle of working with the university to build out more spaces for us, but we’re physically out of space. Our applications to the program have grown — they almost doubled this year.

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