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Game design initiative makes digital dreams come true

For Zachary Schecter ’23, it was winning Most Innovative Game at Game Design Showcase in his sophomore year that really clinched it: He would become a professional game developer. He had seen exhibit-goers play his team’s game Sisyphus, where the mythological main character swings his rock through 40 levels, from the underworld to Mount Olympus, and was judged the best by the judges.

“It was a defining moment,” Schecter said. He thought: “I want to do this. I want to do this for a living.”

Schecter, a longtime gamer, had considered game design as a career, but the computer science major didn’t know how to make that happen until he discovered the Game Design Initiative program at Cornell (GDIAC). “It literally changed my life,” he said. “He gave me everything I needed to understand how to make a game and also showed me what the real experience was like.”

Founded in 2001, GDIAC was the first undergraduate game design program at an Ivy League school and one of the first in the country. Students can declare game design as a minor, and the Princeton Review lists it among the top 50 game design programs for college students.

For many GDIAC students, showcase is when a passion for game design crystallizes into a career plan: all that hard work rewarded by the heady excitement of someone fascinated by a game you created.

The GDIAC 2023 showcase featured 21 new PC and mobile games for attendees to try out.

This year, the exhibit was held on May 20 at the Clark Atrium in the Physical Sciences Building, with almost 600 visitors. Based on the vote count, crowd favorites were the desktop game Munchkey, in which a chef monkey defeats a dangerous fruit to make fruit kabobs, and the mobile game Sunk Cost, a multiplayer stealth game in which Players are treasure hunters exploring an underwater shipwreck or spirits trying to thwart them.

“There are a lot of flashy game design programs out there, but we are outweighed by the resources we have,” said Walker White, MS ’98, Ph.D. ’00, director of GDIAC and a tenured professor in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell’s Ann S. Bowers College of Computer Science and Information Sciences, where the initiative is based.

Despite being a highly competitive field, alumni of the program can be found at all levels of the industry, from AAA companies like PlayStation and Oculus VR, to successful indie teams with huge hits.

Level 1: Origin Story

GDIAC originated in the mind of David Schwartz, who was hired as a professor in 1999 and is now the director of the School of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He had a background in civil engineering, but had written two textbooks on engineering software while completing his thesis.

Schwartz admits he didn’t know much about computing when he arrived, but after a discussion by Don Greenberg, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics, where Greenberg used familiar physical terms to discuss his computer graphics work, Schwartz realized that game physics could be a potential area of ​​study. As a faculty advisor to Cornell’s Computer Science Undergraduate Association (ACSU), Schwarz proposed that instead of playing games, students could learn to design their own games.

“I thought the students would find this very motivating,” Schwartz said. “Imagine the passion they would have to do these things.”

While video games were not yet considered an academic subject by the Department of Computer Science, Charlie van Loan, emeritus professor of computer science and chair at the time, agreed that Schwartz could offer independent study, but in your own time.

In 2001, Schwartz recruited Rama Hoetzlein ’01, who had double degrees in computer science and art, and is now an assistant professor of digital media design at Florida Gulf Coast University. He also hired Mohan Rajagopalan MS ’02, who later went into the video game industry, working on Plants vs. Zombies, among other titles.

The trio founded the program and developed the first classes, making connections in the art, music, and communication departments to help students harness those aspects in their games.

Schwartz and Rajagopalan finally got permission to establish game design as a minor in 2007, when only a few schools offered undergraduate game design courses. “Cornell was actually part of the first wave,” Schwartz said. He estimates that nearly a third of computer science majors at the time took his game design course.

Level 2: Training grounds

In 2007, White became the program director when Schwartz left to take a tenure position at RIT in its game design and development program. White had started designing games as part of a club in his bedroom at Dartmouth, and had recently published research on how database technology could be harnessed for advanced game design, enhancing the academic legitimacy of the game. initiative. White envisioned GDIAC as a sophomore applied software engineering course, where the application was simply games.

White runs his introductory and advanced game development courses like studio classes, with students constantly presenting and critiquing each other’s games. Twelve teams of eight, a mix of artists, programmers and a musician, function as an independent game company to produce all or part of a game for the annual showcase. Students not only learn sound design, computer graphics, and software engineering, but also the critical art of project management.

While professional game creation tools have steadily improved in recent years, students still build parts of their games from scratch, a decision that White says sets GDIAC apart from other programs. “I am an educator and I believe in teaching fundamental and portable skills,” White said. “I want them to see how it all fits together.”

In addition to exhibition, students frequently competed at juried festivals, such as the Boston Festival of Indie Games, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show’s biggest hit was the Family Style mobile game, a party game in which players pass ingredients between phones to prepare dishes. In 2019, the game graced the front page of the Apple Store, went viral in Thailand, and reached a peak of 15,000 daily active players, White said.

But despite the preparation that GDIAC provides, game development remains a tough field, with stiff competition for jobs, man hours, and frequent layoffs. “I love supporting my students who want to get into the games industry, but I don’t sugarcoat it,” White said. He sends five or six graduates into the games industry each year, while another 15 to 20 go on to work in game-related technology. “I make sure that people go in with their eyes wide open, because I hope they’re in it for the long haul.”

Level 3: Achievements unlocked

Developing video games may seem like child’s play, but it’s big business. The Entertainment Software Association reports that the US spent $56.6 billion on video games in 2022; worldwide, the market value was estimated to be $214.2 billion. About two-thirds of people in the US play video games at least once a week, and the industry employed more than 400,000 people in 2020.

“It is definitely a challenging industry; the bar is generally very high,” said Rajiv Puvvada ’10, an early graduate of the program and an industry veteran who has worked at major companies including Zynga, Juicebox Games and AWS for Games. Especially for entry-level positions, “there are few of those places that show up,” he said.

Puvvada can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing; there are photos of him reaching for a Nintendo controller from his high chair. He started creating games as a teenager, “doing things completely the wrong way”, but felt the stigma that game development was not a “real” job. Through GDIAC, he discovered a path to the career he desired.

Working on a multidisciplinary team with deadlines at Cornell was excellent preparation for reality, he said, and learning the fundamentals helped him stay agile as game technology evolves. “The field of the games industry is very broad and it changes a lot, often very quickly,” he said.

Puvvada said she is always happy to talk to current students and help them break into the industry and grow their career. He thinks this is vital to “increasing the level of diversity in the industry, because that’s something that benefits us all.”

There are no cheat codes to get into the industry, but recent graduate Kristina Gu ’21, M.Eng ’22, said that after several attempts, she felt lucky to have landed an internship at PlayStation. Thanks to a good word from her internship supervisor, Gu is now a technical designer at Naughty Dog, an affiliate company behind the critically acclaimed game The Last of Us.

GDIAC made her whole, making her a more flexible game designer, she said. “Game development is really one of the only fields that has that perfect balance between being interdisciplinary, technical and creative, which I really enjoy.”

The end. And another search begins

Upon graduation, Schecter will be the latest GDIAC alumnus to join the gaming industry, with a graphics development position at Blizzard Entertainment. He interned with the company in 2022 after being selected from a pool of approximately 20,000-30,000 applicants.

“I love Blizzard games. In fact, I run the Overwatch team in Esports at Cornell, which is a Blizzard title,” he said. “I’m sure that helped.”

Schecter will once again descend into the underworld to work on Diablo 4, the fourth installment in his popular Diablo series, a set of dungeon-crawling games where players face off against hordes of demons.

Soon, Schecter’s games will not only be played by hundreds of people at the Game Design Showcase, but will captivate millions of people around the world.

Patricia Waldron is a writer at the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Sciences.