Playmakers

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

No matter how many times he tries, Drew Murray can't finish a meal. Five or six bites in, the nausea will overwhelm him, and he'll drop his fork and wait for the sickness to rise up. But it never does. It stays where it is, this dull pain rotting out his gut. There's no relief.

There's only Murray's work. It's not even hard work anymore, in this, the summer of 2003, not after every corporation in Manhattan penny-pinched its way through entire fiscal calendars, leaving Murray, as a corporate lawyer at Jones Day in Midtown, with little to do but think about how much he hates his job.

And he does hate it. He hates its lack of intellectual rigor; helping the rich get richer isn't demanding, he reasons. Hates its lack of creativity; he'd like to put his bachelor of fine arts to use. Hates the nausea it's causing, the kind that comes from being the son of a prominent Dallas lawyer and the kid who scored in the 99th percentile on the entrance exam, got the scholarship from Southern Methodist University's School of Law, clerked for the federal magistrate, studied at Oxford, landed the job at the Manhattan firm, and, at 32, finds his life miserable.

Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest
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

Murray loses weight--about a pound a week for 12 weeks. The guy's always been skinny, thanks to a metabolism that burns every double cheeseburger it comes across. But in the summer of 2003, Murray, who stands 6 feet tall, goes from 137 pounds to 125.

He poses outside his Brooklyn apartment complex with his girlfriend Katy and sends the photo to his mother, Carol, in Dallas. Carol cries when she sees it. Here's Drew, with a shaved head and scruffy beard with cheeks as gaunt as any she's seen and a body that looks more fragile than slender.

"Are you sick?" his mother asks when she calls. "You look like you've been in a concentration camp."

Murray goes to a doctor, who finds nothing physically wrong with him. "You're depressed," the doctor says.

Murray has a calendar in his office. It marks the days until April 2004, when he'll have enough financial security to leave. But, instead, he leaves Jones Day in August 2003, because, in the end, even the money, the reason he entered law, where he commands a $170,000 salary in only his fifth year out of school, with annual bonuses up to $20,000, isn't enough to make him stay.

His next job, he vows, he'll do because he loves it.

He hikes the forests of New Jersey for a few weeks, taking classes in wilderness survival before returning to Brooklyn. For 10 days he plays video games and thinks about the story he read on cnn.com a few months earlier, the one about a graduate program at SMU that teaches students how to make video games.

"Do it," Katy says one night in late September. She tells him she's "tired of you doing nothing..." She tells him he plays games all the time, might as well make them. Tells him the gaming industry would forge Murray's analytical strengths with his desire to be creative. Tells him Jones Day, where the couple met and Katy still works, has offices in Dallas.

For days, he mulls over the decision.

In early October, he sends SMU his application.


"Well, we just gotta do it now," Sharon Wright says. She looks at her friend Derrick, and Derrick wonders if she's right.

Derrick Levy, 32 and a networking manager at Nortel in Atlanta, has just returned from his boss' office. His boss told him it'd be better if Levy quit soon. Better for Nortel's bottom line if he quit today, July 8, 2003, rather than in a few months as Levy and the company had projected. Maybe it'd be better for Levy, too; he'll have more time to look for houses in Dallas. Because when do his classes in that video game program at SMU start? Next January?

Yeah, they do.

And that's the problem. In six months he'll have spent a good chunk of the money he's saved. And what if something else comes up? What if he finds another job, a better-paying job?

Levy calls SMU. Gets through to the Guildhall (the name of the video game program). He explains his situation.

Levy's told classes for the first term of students started today. If he can get to Dallas in four days, he will be accepted. Otherwise, he'll have to wait until January.

Levy hunts down Wright, who works in his division as a senior quality engineer, but, more than that, has been his friend since they were put in the same telecommunications department three years ago.

"Do it. Do it now," Wright says.

Yes, but. The thing is, Levy wanted to put off reality for as long as it could be put off. The Guildhall is a great opportunity and one he's looked forward to his whole life, but...but...he's established here. He's risen from his humble Jamaican roots, and he now makes $90,000 a year. He has a house. A BMW. Friends.

And then to give it up? To move halfway across the country and spend $37,000 in tuition for a program that's new, that's untested, that has yet to churn out one graduate? And then, 18 months after that, after he picks up his diploma, to enter a field where he'll make considerably less money than he does now?

"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.

"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.

For Levy, graduating will put him one step closer to creating the game he feels he's destined to make. For Murray, it's simply the work he enjoys: He takes the programmer's code and the artist's drawings and makes a world out of them, putting trees here, villages there, deciding if the main character should, say, jump over a tar pit, and if he should jump over the tar pit, should he use jungle vine to get across or a rope or just hop over the thing.

"I love what I'm doing," Murray says.

But he's ready, as is Levy, to be done with Guildhall. The workloads and deadlines--Murray's schedule kept his and Katy's honeymoon this summer to one day--are causing more stress than his previous career. "This is a lot more work than being a lawyer," he says.

Sometimes, to feel better, or just feel something else, Murray leaves team meetings, walks to his car, closes the door and screams till he's ready to go back inside.


In the beginning, there were freelancers. That's how you broke into the gaming industry: You programmed or shaded trees or designed levels when you weren't working as a software technician, an engineer or even a lawyer. The problem with some freelancers, though, once gaming studios hired them, was the growing phase. Or, better put, the metamorphosis from freelancer to industry man.

For one, there's the studios' team-approach to game assembly. But even more than that, there's the pace of video game production. More gaming studios means more competition, which means tighter deadlines to put out even more games, which, you hope, will maintain your chunk of the buying market.

One would assume the metamorphosis is complete once the former freelancer works quicker. But that's not quite it. The Guildhall found, after asking around, that many former freelancers have more trouble scaling their ambitions to reality. They want to impress the boss, so they set to work on their wildly imaginative ideas, but when deadline approaches, they're too far behind to care. If they can't learn to scale back, they often quit.

"We've tried to simulate this scoping experience," says Jon Skinner, a level-design lecturer at the Guildhall.

In the second term at the Guildhall--the second six months of the 18-month program--students for the first time make a video game as a team. There's no outside influence over the game's plot, its characters or the different levels it incorporates. There are only the students' wildly imaginative ideas.

And on the second floor of the Guildhall on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Drew Murray's metamorphosis continues.

"We're way behind schedule," he says. There's stubble on his chin and deep shadows beneath his eyes, which remain fixed on the world he's creating on his laptop, a vaguely jungle-esque land in which his game's main character will eventually travel about with a spiked ball and chain and kill the cannibals attempting to eat him.

There's a major presentation this Thursday before Guildhall professors and executive director Raad. With the game as it is, "honestly, I just hope we don't get laughed at," Murray says.

The game's been cut from seven levels to three; actually, it's more like two and a half. Murray became the team producer--delegating tasks, keeping everyone on schedule, troubleshooting--a month ago after the last major presentation, when it became clear the team needed new leadership. "He's done a great job," says Skinner, who's overseeing Murray's portfolio.

But there's so much still to do. The trees on his level need to be placed flush with the jungle floor. The jungle floor needs to be different shades of green and brown. A sword needs to slice through a cannibal without the cannibal's leg flying off. The slave-ship level, from which the main character advances before fighting off cannibals on the jungle island, well, the ship itself isn't, ah, finished yet. And the sea captain's acting weird. And mountains need to be texturized...

Murray left a party last night at midnight to work on the game. He'll work tonight until Katy wants to eat dinner and then work some more. He'll work tomorrow night until 5:30 in the morning.

And to think he and the rest of the 13-man team should have all content added by now and should be testing it for glitches.

Derrick Levy, sitting at his computer one floor below Murray on this Saturday afternoon, smiles. He remembers those days. "We had a hundred different things going on [last term]," he says. "We're a lot better now with how long it takes us to do stuff."

He went out last night and slept in this morning. Got to the Guildhall around noon. The video game his team's making--a kung fu fighter game, also from scratch--will be presented one day after Murray's, but today Levy's working primarily on his individual portfolio. The video game's solid. "Looking better all the time," he says. So good, Levy's leaving tonight around 6.

So good, he's playing video games at home Wednesday night at 11 while Murray and his team "bottleneck everything," Murray says.

But his game looks good. Or, at least, better. At 12:10 Thursday morning, he looks at the 19 items on his to-do list and says, "Done that, done that, done that, done this, I think I'm half done with this." There's a 20-ounce Dr Pepper and a jumbo Snickers next to Murray's laptop in this darkened room on the Guildhall's second floor. Going home tonight depends on checking off all the items on his list. And only eight are checked so far.

"Go by and say hi to my wife for me," Murray says as two level designers from other teams zip laptops into cases and leave the darkened room. He and his three other level designers remain. In two other rooms, programmers and artists slave away.

Well, truth be told, it's not exactly slaving. Sure, there's lots of work to do, but Jon Skinner's supervising the room--it's an SMU policy--and pumping emo and Rage Against the Machine through the speakers attached to the front wall. (Not a policy.) He also bought beer, which is sitting in the parking lot for anyone who wants it. (Definitely not a policy.) There's a giant bag of Cheetos, too, if you're hungry.

"Best club in town," Hunter Woodlee says, as Skinner turns up the music. Woodlee's the level designer who still, at nearly 1 a.m., hasn't finished the slave ship. But he's chewing gum to mask the beer on his breath and dancing to the music.

"How's that ship coming, Hunter?" Murray says, two desks away. The room, including Skinner, goes "Oooh."

But there's no malice in the question. Fact is, though he spends 80 hours a week with the guy and isn't a drinker, most Friday nights Murray waits till Katy's asleep and then calls Woodlee to see if he or anyone else wants to grab a beer, simply because the people on his team "are some of my best friends," he says.

And why are they? Simple.

They're metamorphosing, going through the same second term together.


Worldwide sales of video games, at roughly $20 billion, now exceed movie box-office revenues, but it's the film industry that's welcomed onto campus, and has been for more than a generation. Try to find any institute offering a gaming degree even five years ago.

It's tough to decide which industry is less socially conscious, says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at MIT. In their pursuit of larger revenues, each industry increasingly avers risk, expressing a societal or political awareness only as it benefits a bottom line, and seldom even then.

Yet hearing this does not deter Derrick Levy. Nothing will. It took him 20 years just to find a way into the gaming industry. If it takes 20 more to see his game published, so be it. "We need to show other aspects of black culture," he says.

To make the game Levy has in mind, in which the hero is an African-American boy who ages as the game progresses and ultimately, Levy hopes, does his community good, the protagonist must first be given the choice of doing bad.

"I don't want to be pedantic. Because that game would be boring, and kids today are told enough as it is what they should and shouldn't do," Levy says.

So it's not Sims for the African-American set. Instead, Levy's game would be more like the gangster role-playing Grand Theft Auto series, only with a conscience. The hero would perform missions for people in various standing of the law. Maybe beat down some cops. Maybe even blow up things for fun.

"I'll allow that choice, but what I'm going to do, what I think I have a responsibility to do, is to be fairly honest about what the dilemmas of that choice are," Levy says.

As the kid ages, each choice is weighed with more serious consequences. It decides his fate, and the fate of the neighborhood.

"I don't want to make this a game of Do the Right Thing," Levy says. The player can deal coke if he wants. But if he buys, say, a grocery store with his drug money and staffs it with disenfranchised neighbors, well...

Levy wants the player to see the gray in life. "The goal of the game is to have the kid succeed...Fighting crime. Fighting negative elements," he says.

But putting it on shelves won't be easy. There's no precedent for this. Blacks, to the extent they're in games, are either thuggish and destructive or athletic and banal. "It's a stereotyped view of the African-American community," Levy says.

So the first step is to get into the industry. Tell his co-workers of his dream. Learn how a game is successfully made. Wait.

And wait. Wait for the savings in his account to build; Levy figures he'll need about $1 million to produce a prototype, which is a playable, smaller version of the game. Wait until he finds enough co-workers willing to make the prototype. Wait until he finds an employer who'll take suggestions from a person who's never made a game, or, more likely, wait until he finds other game publishers--probably small ones--willing to listen to his idea. Then wait until one accepts it.

What's surprising is that Levy's not one for social activism. He's wanted to program video games since he assembled his family's first computer at age 12, and even into his late 20s programming was all he hoped to do. Never cared if the game was fair to the culture it displayed. Never cared about making a game that could change the industry's outlook toward a people, including his own.

But on October 12, 2002, on the Indonesian island of Bali in the town of Kuta, a white Mitsubishi van carrying a bomb exploded outside the Sari Club bar. Levy and his friends were one block away, on vacation. More than 200 people would die in the terrorist attack.

That night, with buildings burning and medics carrying out the dead, Levy thought back to six years earlier, when a guest minister at his Atlanta church pointed in his direction and said a young man here today will do the Lord's work in the emerging field of computer technology, and Levy was the only young man seated nearby. He thought back to two years after that, when, angered by video games' stereotypical portrayal of blacks, he found the old sermon from the guest minister on tape in the church's library. Listening to it gave him a resolve he didn't have before. He thought back to the games he'd played recently with friends and how they all wondered why there were no titles with positive black characters.

He thought about the broken glass and burned bodies one block away, and how he could have been in the Sari Club tonight.

"Maybe I should do this," he muttered to himself.


The game looks amazing. Well, maybe not amazing, but from that rainy Saturday afternoon to this sunny Thursday morning, what 30 students, faculty members and the Guildhall's executive director see in the game is progress, and certainly the progress is amazing.

Murray is hunched before his laptop, which faces the room, the jungle level he designed displayed on two projection screens on either side of him. His 12 teammates stand behind him, some watching the game, others fighting off sleep. The jungle floor is various shades of brown and green, trees are no longer floating in the pink and red sky and the game play includes a feature that splatters blood on the screen when a cannibal is sufficiently done away with.

"Ooh" and "damn," the crowd says, after the first cannibal meets his gory end. The protagonist, a former slave leveling justice one swing at a time with a ball and chain, laughs as the blood drips off the screen.

"This level looks really good now, you guys," one of the 30 students says moments later.

Murray has a permanent smile on his face, and his eyes, though puffy from two hours of sleep, dart across his monitor. He swings the character over tar pits, takes him up mountains, between rather obvious booby traps that kill the dumbest of the cannibals.

"Dude, you'd think they'd know there are traps," says someone from the crowd.

"Dude, they're cannibals. They're protein-deficient," Murray says.

He smiles.

On occasion, Murray stops by his dad's house to show him the projects and games he's working on at the Guildhall. When Murray talked about Jones Day his face was never animated. Now, Mark Murray says, "there's just this glow about him."

And it's evident this Thursday morning. In the 10 minutes it takes him to present his level, Murray looks as though he's just woke from a 10-hour nap.

But that changes when his professors question Murray and his team. Can you make the closing cinematic shot into an entire level? Why can the protagonist literally walk through an enemy sea captain on the ship level? Why are there still unaligned textures? And where are you for artificial intelligence?

Murray takes a seat in the first row after his presentation. "We definitely need the next two weeks to work," he says. The brightened eyes and grin are gone. It's as though a day's worth of stubble just grew on his chin.

The next team begins its presentation. Murray sits still for a moment, then grabs his notebook, flips past last night's 19-item to-do list and settles on the next blank page.

He starts writing. Within moments, the list is 10 items long. He cracks his neck and keeps adding to it.

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