New York Film Academy teams game students with pro coders

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New York Film Academy offers one-, two- and three-year videogame courses in New York City and Los Angeles, splitting students into small ‘studios’ to accelerate learning and boost their chances of landing a job in games.

Veteran developer Chris Swain, based in California, is an architect of the challenging programmes. “The biggest problem in game academia is when students don’t have programming ability. That means they are stunted in what they can produce and therefore frustrated,” he says.

“We wanted to make something that would allow students to learn the technical skills and be sure they are able to produce code. They have professional support from a programmer who becomes part of their team.

“We don’t want students simply telling the coder what to do. They have to learn, but they can rely on the professional. To my knowledge there is nothing like that [on any other course].”

The courses kicked off in autumn 2012, and with one semester complete it’s notable that only one team hit the challenging goal of launching a game online. But in all learning, failures and relative successes are part of the process, says Swain, whose job is to ensure a ‘culture of excellence’ at NYFA.

The purpose of this small-team dynamic is to deliver learning in the most effective way, but the teaching ethos at NYFA is not simply part of an indie game production line. Agile and scrum techniques – iterative development in small teams with a range of technical knowledge and development experience – are used on big-budget projects, too.

“I push for everyone to be agile-literate and to use all of the tools available for the modern production process. A lot of game programmes can get antiquated – they still write design docs and have no bearing on how games get produced. We want to give students the knowledge of how to go into an efficient studio and don’t want to restrict that to either indie or triple-A companies.”

Swain clearly knows his way around the game industry. He co-founded and co-directed EA’s Game Innovation Lab and has worked on titles for a who’s who of game publishers including Sony, Microsoft and Disney. As such, he is acutely aware of the wide range of skills studios expect of their employees.

“We encourage every student to learn how to programme whether they are a potential programmer or not,” he says, suggesting that a slavish emphasis on coding skills can pose its own challenges to game professionals looking to move up the career ladder a few years down the line.

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