- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

Today’s video-game players may or may not recall the industry’s infancy in the 1970s, when a pair of paddles and a cube of white light constituted the epoch of gaming.

Even a child could duplicate Pong with a sheaf of blank paper and a pen.

Today’s games, such as Grand Theft Auto and John Madden Football, are realistic enough to tax the talents of the sharpest artists. That’s where Arlington’s Art Institute of Washington hopes to come in.

Its new visual and game programming degree gives would-be game designers a set of tools to help them enter the booming gaming scene.

Let’s face it. The term “starving artist” didn’t arise out of thin air. For artists with technological savvy and a love of gaming, learning the tricks of the trade can mean a softer landing after college.

Jonathan Sachsman, game art and design instructor with the Art Institute of Washington, says the new three-year bachelor’s degree program stems from a similar program begun last year aimed at the video-game industry.

The game art and design program trains artists to help develop games for the market, but it leans heavily on the technical side.

The new program more closely resembles a traditional arts curriculum — with some necessary tweaks. The classes teach students 3-D animation, texture lessons and sound design, says Mr. Sachsman, whose school is a branch of the Art Institute of Atlanta.

“The idea is to train technical artists. People with familiarity with art but who have the ability to do scripting,” Mr. Sachsman says.

Such intense training meets the demands made by the modern video game.

It wasn’t that way a decade or so ago. Older video-game models, such as the fleetingly popular Colecovision, handcuffed designers by giving them just 24 colors with which to work.

“The people working on those games wouldn’t necessarily be artists exclusively,” Mr. Sachsman says.

For freshmen, the institute’s new degree program resembles most other arts programs.

“Most of your first year you’ll spend learning how to be a designer,” he says. “You need some basic drawing skills, a good sense of color, design and layout. The second year, you get more into the specialized, more complicated courses.”

Sally Parsonson, dean of academic affairs with the Art Institute of Atlanta, says the program offers some classes that wouldn’t seem to fall under an arts umbrella. One such course is world mythologies, a necessary sampler because many of today’s games have roots in this genre, she says.

Other courses focus on animation, motion-capture technology and even some rudimentary acting skills. The acting for animators program lets students translate their own expressions onto a potential game character’s face.

“That’s a substantial part of the games as they get more realistic,” Ms. Parsonson says.

Students tend to be enthusiastic about the course work, she adds.

“They’ve grown up with games, unlike those of us who grew up playing Monopoly. This is such a part of their lives,” she says. A typical student “is interested in taking apart the game and learning what components go into the games.”

A school in Redmond, Wash., discovered the growing need for game designers years ago.

The Digipen Institute of Technology began as a way to provide graduates who could program flight simulators and similar video challenges meant to test skill levels and knowledge.

Now, the college’s graduates deal with a variety of potential jobs, from simulations to video games.

Raymond Yan, senior vice president of operations with Digipen, says the school opened with 30 students in 1998 and currently has 630 students studying computer programming.

“Our graduates work on everything from PC-based games to cell phones. All these games fundamentally work the same,” Mr. Yan says.

The simulation concept applies to video games as well because these sophisticated contests demand programmers who understand how the laws of physics apply to gaming scenarios.

A simple racing game, Mr. Yan says, must feature realistic driving patterns and show how speed and winding roads affect the cars in question.

Gregory Grimsby, art manager with Mythic Entertainment in Fairfax, says only a “scattering” of colleges across the country are starting to understand the need for video-game programmers and talent.

“It’s great for students. It gives them a higher chance of getting a job when they get out of college … there’s a lot of demand,” says Mr. Grimsby, whose company produces the Dark Age of Camelot game.

The subject is likely an easy sell for students leaning in this direction, Mr. Grimsby adds.

“A person with the artistic skills interested in a program like that is probably someone who already has an interest in games,” says Mr. Grimsby, who studied drawing and painting at James Madison University.

He didn’t have any specific video-game training during his college days.

Today, programs like that at the art institute and others offer highly specialized courses in what makes video games tick — or beep, as the case may be.

“Game development is a collaborative effort. So many components have to fall into place,” he says. “There are programmers who create the actual software, then there are the artists who make the visuals that go into the game and designers who figure out what the game play is going to be like,” he says.

A video-game career launched by programs like those run at the art institute sounds like a dream come true for every child who ever had to ice down his wrist after too many hours of Pac Man.

It isn’t as easy as it appears, Mr. Grimsby warns.

“They have to have a reality check about it,” he says. “There’s a lot of learning involved to get to the level of skill that you can make great content or write good code.”

Would-be students should focus on their particular talents and expand upon them. A teen who loves to draw can parlay those skills into creating wondrous landscapes for future games.

“There was a lot of work I did on my own time and a lot of personal effort to get in the industry,” he says of his own path.

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