Get Into Games: Howest University on creating game industry ‘minions’

There is no glass ceiling on what their graduates can achieve, says Howest University‘s Rik Leenknegt, a strategic advisor on their visual FX and game courses. But the Belgium-based institution is a proud production line for game industry ‘minions’ who can work anywhere in the world to the highest technical standards. Here, Leenknegt explains why he uses the term so affectionately and highlights Howest’s growing international appeal.

How would you describe the students who graduate from your university?
We offer ‘minions’ for the game industry. They are trained to do production as well as possible. That is one of our distinguishing features. We compromise on a lot of other things to focus on the production part, so the name fits the profile of our students pretty well. They are really trained to perform well as a team against deadlines and to a budget. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just people should realise games are being made in large teams and being able to function in a team and do your part is crucial. That’s our emphasis.

You’ve been at Howest for 16 years – why stay in one place so long, given your reputation for innovation?
Because I love it. I went into education to change things and be innovative. Howest is a wonderful environment to work in. It’s very atypical. As a university, we are small. There is no other university in Belgium that could enable you to start a curriculum like ours. At Howest they said ‘If you believe in it, just go for it and make us proud’. At the moment there is no other place I’d rather work.

Is it difficult to attract students to Belgium?
It’s pretty difficult to get people to study here full-time for three years. But the reputation of our curriculum is starting to pick up abroad so we get more and more applications from international students. It’s not a curriculum that is feasible for all types of students, so you haveto find the specific students with the right profile.

Howest students spoke with Gabe Newell himself on a visit to Valve.

What makes the curriculum special and challenging?
From the beginning we have focused on the ‘tech art’ profile. We don’t offer exclusively artistic degrees. We also don’t offer specific programming course. It’s always a mixture of technical and artistic skills that we bundle into one profile. We have three majors – one for the VFX industry, game graphics production and game development. One is more artistic, one aimed more towards video and one is aimed more towards game development.

You must be doing something right, you’ve just moved into a new building.
We were running short of space. The curriculum has been growing steadily. Last year 25 per cent more people signed up. We bought a new industrial building and converted it and it’s a really inspiring place to work and study.

What facilities do you now have after the move?
The new building provides space, of course. But we also have a state-of-the-art, fully-equipped green key studio, motion capture and audio studios. But we wanted to create a hub where people would want to come to be part of a creative atmosphere.

And you now have a game incubator in the new building?
Yes. It’s in the centre of the building so startups, research groups and other companies in the incubator cannot run away from students! Students, staff, researchers and startup employees will meet each other, get to know what everyone is doing and this will generate new ideas and collaborative working. That’s the spirit we try to achieve with the students. They should strengthen themselves by adding students to their team with better skills in a certain area.

Give us a flavour of the other activities at Howest games students are engaged in?
Every year we take a study tour alternating between London one year and Seattle and Vancouver – to see companies such as Valve and Arenanet – the next. It gives students a realistic impression of what it’s like to work in a big studio. In Belgium there are almost no major studios. But we hope some of our graduates will come back after working abroad and set up studios here. We also run Multimania, which has grown into the biggest free multimedia event in Europe. It attracts speakers from around the world and students get jobs there just by talking to people.