Playmakers

Want to design video games? SMU's Guildhall can show you how, if you're willing to work like a dog.

"Remove the money," Wright says.

How long, she says, has he talked about programming video games? How many times, even at Nortel, did he apply for openings at game publisher Electronic Arts in Florida? How many nights did they work late and talk about Levy's idea, in which a game's protagonist is an African-American who does his community good, who isn't a rapper or an athlete or a gangster but a normal guy faced with various dilemmas and given the choice to make his neighborhood a better place?

Shoot, Wright says, if the Lord can create the world in seven days, you can move to Dallas in four.

The character Ming Li Ho from the game created by Levy's team
The character Ming Li Ho from the game created by Levy's team
Two students in the Guildhall's motion capture studio, which takes human motion and converts it to a character's motion in a game
Steve Satterwhite
Two students in the Guildhall's motion capture studio, which takes human motion and converts it to a character's motion in a game

"One of us has got to live out the dream."

Four days later, Levy's suitcase sits in a Dallas hotel, stuffed full with everything he could throw into it, and he's at the Guildhall, picking up his homework assignments for the weekend.


There are more, of course. A bus driver from Reno, a chemist from New Jersey, a chef from Seattle. One guy's at the Guildhall on the GI Bill. In Bosnia he reported to General Wesley Clarke, who later ran for president. One woman here has a background in opera. A great many more are flat-out computer geeks.

There are 102 in all, old and young, black and white, male and female. And all of them are here because, finally, there's a school teaching them how to break into the industry they love.

That's not to say SMU is the only institute of note offering a degree or, at least, courses in video gaming. No, the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have theirs, Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech, too. In fact, so many schools now teach video gaming, it's tough to get a number on how many in all there are.

But a couple of things separate SMU from the rest. First, there's the Guildhall's curriculum. Some of the biggest names in gaming--Gearbox, Id Software, Ensemble Studios, Ritual Entertainment--are in Dallas, and the Guildhall asked the industry execs to help write the curriculum and then snatched up industry people to teach the classes.

Secondly, and not surprisingly, there's an emphasis on real-world learning. At the Guildhall, students make video games from scratch, without professors hovering over their every decision. And they make the game as a team, because long gone are the days of two guys in a garage, punching out code and selling it to the masses. It takes millions of dollars and scores of people to make a video game today, and the people who don't work well with others don't work at all.

Team-based learning "is an absolute requirement for a sound education in interactive entertainment," says Richard Gray--or Levelord as he is known throughout the gaming world--the co-owner of Ritual Entertainment, maker of the popular military shooting game Counterstrike. "Even down to the smallest assets [specific levels, sections of code, models, etc.] materials are passed amongst more than a few different developers."

Though physics and art and other theory-heavy classes are taught, the Guildhall has adopted a sort of trade-school philosophy, and not everyone at SMU is thrilled with that. In private, Guildhall personnel admit some faculty members from traditional departments are skeptical at best and derisive at worst when discussing the new graduate-level program. Even SMU President R. Gerald Turner, while supportive of the Guildhall, says, "If these graduates can't find jobs, then it's a question of whether [the Guildhall] serves their needs."

Peter Raad is the executive director of the program. "Yes, the university is watching us," he says. "It's incumbent upon us to show that indeed this is as big a discipline as we say it is."

For students like Drew Murray and Derrick Levy, this means 80-, 90-, sometimes 100-hour workweeks, the faculty piling it on to prepare the students for the real world but also to show the worthiness of the program to SMU administrators.

As a result, "[Drew] routinely comes to bed at 4 a.m.," says Katy Murray, now Drew's wife.

It's the biggest complaint among the students, the hours they log. Between team projects, individual portfolios and classroom assignments, cans of Mountain Dew are as common at the Guildhall as books on programming. "I did a breakdown of hours at the beginning of this term," Drew Murray says. "I thought it was a pretty accurate representation of how long it would take to do everything [required of me]." He pauses for effect. "I needed to be working 16 to 17 hours a day. Seven days a week. For three months. And when I say working I mean not going to the bathroom, not eating."

Levy, who'll graduate in December, six months before Murray, laughs when considering how long he's gone without good sleep. Says it works out to about 18 months. Or how long he's been in Dallas.

But they're both happy. They're avocations soon will be vocations. After all, Levy, at 12, bought a computer with the lunch money he saved and learned to program video games from the magazines he read. And when Murray wasn't drawing castles and monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, he was heading to the Safeway with his father to play arcade Pac-Man. The two played so much Drew's mother bought the game, "so I'd have my boys home," she says.

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