Bradley University’s interdisciplinary game design concentration is fostering the next generation of programmers, simulators, modelers and storytellers.
Beardman is light on his feet at the tap of the space bar. The little man can be made to walk, run, jump and climb ladders to multiple platforms, all to a funky electronic beat. Adorned in a plaid shirt, his face lined with whiskers, the character bears a striking resemblance to creator Rob Braun’s profile image on Twitter. Built for a “Concepting and Storytelling” class at Bradley, The Adventures of Beardman is a platformer, a video game characterized by jumping to and from a series of suspended platforms. And it’s just a glimpse into Braun’s passion for gaming.
Braun grew up in Indiana, “in a little town in the middle of nowhere,” surrounded by farm fields. “At an early age, video games were kind of an escape for me,” he explains. “And over the years, as the technology got better and better, I got more and more fascinated with it.”
Following his passion, Braun chose Bradley for its multi-faceted interactive media degree, and added a concentration in game design when the opportunity arose. This year, The Princeton Review, in its annual list of colleges and rankings, gave an honorable mention to BU—one of more than 150 institutions that now offer a degree in game design. Braun, who completed his degree in May, is among the first graduates of the program.
A Degree Beyond Gaming
Created in the fall of 2010, Bradley’s game design concentration is offered to students in the Interactive Media and Computer Science & Information Systems (CSIS) departments, alongside other concentrations like animation and visual effects, and application design.
This program is unique, touts Dr. Vladimir Uskov. “At Bradley, gaming is part of a fundamental education. I’m not aware of any other university where two different departments—Interactive Media, which is creative, and Computer Science, which is primarily programming and technical—work together and complement each other.”
A professor in the CSIS department, Dr. Uskov co-founded the game design program at Bradley, and he is quite adamant about one thing: Gaming is not just about entertainment. “There are at least two [sectors] where game technology can be used. First, in simulations. We have computer simulations in different areas—medical computer simulation, heavy machinery, and aircrafts or fighter simulation. This is very important. And second, for training. Game technology-based training is more effective than face-to-face or web-based training.”
A Flexible Agenda
The beauty of our program, explains Dr. Alexander Uskov, Vladimir’s son and an assistant professor in the CSIS department, lies in its flexibility to cater to the interests of the student. “There are a lot of electives. A student who's interested in computer science can take programming courses. The technical guys can get skills [in] software development, programming, hardware, algorithms and what not,” he continues. “If the student is more interested in concepts and storytelling, sound design, or texturing—the artistry types—then they can get experience in creating music or visual effects, or skills to become a writer.”
Monica McGill, assistant professor in the Slane College of Communications and another co-founder of the game design program, agrees. “Game design development is a unique field. It’s highly interdisciplinary. You have artists, sound designers, the people creating the games and its rules, and programmers… We really wanted to reflect that here,” she explains, “to be sure students would have exposure to working with other students and learning the lingo of other people’s disciplines.”
Quality and Variety
“All of our classes are cross-listed [between both departments], which is a unique approach,” adds the senior Dr. Uskov. “Back in 2009, we analyzed about 50 other programs and courses. At that time, no one else offered this kind of combination. We’re a small school, but The Princeton Review gave us an honorable mention…[which] emphasizes our quality.”
There’s rhyme to his reason. In fact, it was this very thinking that led Rob Braun to Bradley in the first place. “I ended up choosing Bradley because it was more the size of school that I wanted,” he says. "Bradley has…a wider variety of classes, and I felt more comfortable there than all the other places I looked.”
McGill emphasizes this variety. “Our students take at least two art classes, classes in intellectual property, music integration, how to develop sound… and integrate that into the general design of actual games. We teach, ‘How do you go about designing a good game, how do you test it… and get feedback from users, and how do you evaluate the game…[and] what changes need to be made?’”
A Taste of the Real World
Braun, a self-proclaimed history buff and storyteller, veers toward the creative side of game development. But his favorite course, a capstone class taught by Dr. McGill, taught him “to open his eyes to possibilities beyond his comfort zone.” Students in the class worked closely with the engineering department to create a learning-simulation game for undergraduates. This fall, Dr. McGill’s next capstone class will pick up where Braun and his colleagues left off.
“Over the next year, students will continue working on it,” she explains. “It’s a serious game for mechanical engineering students to learn about the business processes involved in designing devices.”
Striving to provide as much practical experience for her students as possible, Dr. McGill is working to build a network of developer contacts in the field for students to utilize. She also encourages them to attend the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco for a chance at real-world networking.
“There were 20,000 game developers at that conference [this year]. To get the students out there and exposed to the industry and just talking to people is huge,” she explains. Locally, she’s also working to secure internship and mentorship programs for students to get more involved with the local community.
Since graduation, Braun has stayed motivated in his dream of writing games to whisk others away from reality. He contributes to a gaming blog at altdevblogaday.com; marvels over the craft of favorites like Sid Meier’s Civilization series; and hones his own games at home, all while applying for a variety of production, design and sound design positions at companies like the renowned game maker, Blizzard Entertainment.
Despite the inevitable stress that comes with the job hunt, his passion and determination remains. “I want to create awesome stories and experiences that draw in millions of players to play for hours or days at end…and to provide that same escape from the boredom I had to future generations.” iBi