Skyrim’s lead level designer, Doom 4’s lead programmer, Insomniac’s creative director: these developers share something in common, bar the fact that they hold key leadership positions in some of the industry’s most respected studios. All three individuals graduated from The Guildhall, an intensive two-year master’s programme that operates out of the Linda and Mitch Hart eCenter at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the Dallas suburb of Plano.
Roughly 45 students enter the programme per admission (twice a year) in groups known as ‘cohorts’, which reflect a careful balance of disciplines across art, level design, programming and production. In addition to classroom instruction delivered by the faculty’s veteran developers, The Guildhall’s project load escalates rapidly, with increasingly complex games developed by multi-disciplinary student teams. Balancing personal work and projects can require students to devote anywhere between 50-100 hours each week. Only serious aspiring developers need apply.
“I’ve been a fan and supporter of SMU’s programme since its inception,” says Steve Nix, GameStop’s general manager of digital distribution, and former id Software senior excutive. “I think we helped [Dr Raad] do it the right way when we recommended that it be a graduate level professional development programme for artists, designers, producers and programmers based on large team production. They’ve graduated 14 cohorts and I’ve made it to almost every graduation. It’s amazing the footprint the programme now has in the industry.”
The concept for The Guildhall was born in late 2002, when local industry heavyweights such as John Romero, Tom Hall and Randy Pitchford approached SMU’s Dr Peter Raad about launching a game design programme. Traditional HR channels weren’t supplying them with people who could show up to work on day one knowing how to move at the pace of the game industry. They needed a programme that would deliver battle-tested recruits who were vetted and reliable. So Raad worked hand-in-hand with them to shape the curriculum.
“It’s the only way to do it, if you’re honest with yourself and listen intently to the industry,” he says. “We did not have the typical academic self-centeredness that we know everything, the mindset that says, ‘We’re going to build it and you’re going to love it.’ We thought, ‘If we’re going to build something from scratch, let’s start with the end in mind and build backwards. I’m going to listen to the neurosurgeons if I’m putting a neurosurgery programme together.’”
Q&A: Course insight
Dr Peter Raad (Founder and executive director)
What inspired The Guildhall’s approach and educational philosophy?
Think of a med school, or dental school, or a conservatory. Maybe you’re learning the fundamentals of theatre, but at some point you’ve got to perform. And not every piece is a solo piece; sometimes you’ve got to perform with other actors, and you’ve got to understand what the lighting is doing, and what the grip does, and what the people behind the stage do. So those were the models. The important thing about The Guildhall at SMU is that it walks a sweet spot between learning what to do and how to do it, and then I’ve got to do it, and finally do it with others.
Is the mounting complexity of AAA games making education more essential?
The industry is filled with amazing, highly successful people who were self-taught in the field of games, and, frankly, they did great without really needing academic enterprise. The problem with that is two-fold. It’s difficult to teach yourself things that you don’t know. How do you know what you don’t know? You’re spending a lot of years trying to figure things out, and many times it’s a lot of dead ends. And the other thing that’s difficult about it is the fact that it’s incomplete. If you’re doing it by yourself, maybe you’re doing programming, art or design, or maybe you’re learning production. But you’re never learning all the other parts, which is [what’s] so different between videogame development and any other field that I’ve come across. It forces you to leverage the expertise of others continuously.
There’s a very pragmatic ethos that seems to drive what you’re doing.
I tell the students here, there’s a big difference between being a hobbyist and being a professional. To be a professional is to get paid, which means that I have a responsibility. This is about commercial art, commercial programming, commercially viable design and production. We don’t do it for the sake of doing it, we do it because there’s a product at the end of the line, and that product is a societal product. It’s something that society is going to accept or reject.
You’re extremely selective in your admissions. Are there plans to expand?
I would love to, but here’s the catch-22: if you want a Guildhall, then you have to have people leaving the videogame industry. Not when they’re sour on it, but when they’re at their best. I’ve got 14 full-time faculty here and between three and six adjuncts any semester, and they’ve all shipped games… So if I want to keep the student-to-faculty ratio small, that means I’ve got to double my faculty. Where the heck am I going to find another 20 people? It’s a difficult proposition.
What feedback do you hear from studios about your graduates?
The feedback we get from the industry is that, on day one on the job, it seems as if our new graduates have already been working in the industry for three to five years. Because of the two-year condensed effort, when they get to a videogame studio they already know what it is to work with others. They already know what a milestone is. They already know agile production principles… So they hit the ground running and immediately they begin to rise through the ranks. There are 30-some-odd Guildhall alumni at BioWare Austin, and their leader said publicly that without The Guildhall, they wouldn’t have been able to ship The Old Republic.