Get Into Games: Ontario’s new games design degree

Avrim Katzman

In almost thirty years as an academic teaching computer graphics and game design, Avrim Katzman has watched technology revolutionise art, animation and interactive entertainment. Though perhaps ‘watched’ isn’t quite the right word.

In his youth, Katzman learned to programme through a painstaking process that required patience, persistence and presumably the aeons of free time only a teenager living before the advent of home videogames consoles could spare.

His high school had no computers, so Katzman and his classmates would write out programmes in pencil to be inputted by the Board of Education and printed. The process from penning the script to receiving the printed results took a week. A mistake in the first line of code could, as you might imagine, prove costly.

That story gives the lie to Katzman’s self-deprecating rationale for channelling his background in fine arts and understanding of the potential of computer assisted design into a career teaching at Sheridan College, Ontario, Canada.

“I started in 1984,” recalls Katzman. “I’m a lazy person and I was trying to find a way to get my hands on a machine to do the work for me. They had the kit and there was literally no place to work with that kit in the field. Technology was hugely expensive and inaccessible.”

Sheridan College then, as now, he says, had a reputation for experimenting with new technologies. Soon Katzman – whose name has something of the ring of a nocturnal superhero – found himself hijacking the college’s admin computers in the small hours, when they weren’t in use processing student records, to experiment with design.

The pioneering spirit of that era lives on at Sheridan, he adds. Though it has taken 15 years of campaigning to persuade colleagues to focus the light of the college’s long-established reputation for animation excellence on games with a fully-fledged undergraduate degree.

This September, 75 students from a field of 600 applicants will begin Sheridan’s new, four-year Bachelor of Game Design degree. The application process – centred on a portfolio and two short essays on design – is an unashamedly competitive affair. Students are expected to have high school – or international equivalent – qualifications in English, art and mathematics, reflecting Sheridan’s belief not only in a broad skillset but in the core importance of maths.

“Because of the extraordinary maths requirement in an arts school we had a number of students go back to regain a maths qualification,” he explains. “If nothing else we’ve raised levels of literacy in this area. And I believe everyone should know or have a passing familiarity with programming too.”

Katzman is also convinced undergraduate studies should continue to offer a broad education, which encompasses maths and programming. “People who are going to work as designers or call themselves a designer should be familiar with those skills, though I don’t think a lack of understanding of maths precludes you from a career in game art.”

He is less convinced that students should be preoccupied with specialised jobs in games. “If students are looking to find a niche at a large developer such as EA or Ubisoft they can find a tiny niche to the exclusion of others,” he says, adding: “Personally I wouldn’t find that very satisfying.”

Katzman continues: “Over the four years here they will find niches of their own, but it is not my job to enforce them. It should be a process of self-discovery and an exposure to the world and all it offers. If you tie yourself down too early to a narrow technical education you will be rendered obsolete too quickly.”

Not that Sheridan College is unmoved by industry demands for specialist graduates. Three years ago, on the advice of a Ubisoft HR manager, the institution created a specific level design course. The one-year programme for graduates continues as a bridge between wannabe developers, Canada’s development community and the wider world.

“We try to be as responsive as possible,” says Katzman. “We have a memo of understanding with Ubisoft Toronto and we are currently involved in a research project with them. We aid them in a small part in the development of their process. The work is under NDA and platform agnostic, but I can say it is to do with motion capture.”

Sheridan’s academics are not just concerned about working with Canada’s larger studios. With an estimated 120-150 devs ranging from tiny two-people teams to mid-sized 40-person studios there is, says Katzman, something of a burgeoning indie scene in the Toronto area.

“There are a lot of startups and lots of casual and mobile games. It’s something of a movement with lots of game jams and gamer camps,” says Katzman. And, while he wouldn’t wish to second guess the aims and ambitions of every student, he hopes they will get together and create games as indie teams.

During their four years at Sheridan students will undertake an internship which sees them working in industry. As well the wider importance of that experience, says Sheridan, it’s enlightening for future developers who realise they are working on machines and software that are less up-to-date that the equipment at college.

And while this new kit and strong industry ties are important to Sheridan’s offer, it’s the college’s focus on the uncertain future which is key to its appeal, says Katzman. “We concentrate on the fundamentals of design and development. We don’t target any platform or console, but we can address all the potential developments.”

This is less about making students ‘industry-ready’, Katzman adds. “I hope students will define the industry rather than the other way round,” begins Katzman, explaining, “The role of academia is to tread where industry doesn’t dare to go. We should explore unknown territory on industry’s behalf. Really it’s about passion. Passion makes the world go around.”