DepaulJULY 21, 2010 • For years game developers not situated close to primary industry hubs such as California or Montreal faced low availability of creative talent in any off-the-beaten-track locality. Yet with the growth in strong university video game production programs during the last 20 years, the pool of quality new hires in many areas is now quite good. One of those academic programs feeding the Chicago area can be found at DePaul University.

When DFC appraises development zones, one of the first questions we ask is how strong are the academic programs in the surrounding area. In the case of Chicago, DePaul’s program is a major feeder of student talent into the local development community.  Chicago may have seen its ups and downs as a development hub in recent years, but that hasn’t kept DePaul from pushing ahead in training students.

DFC: Can you give us some background on the history of the game program at DePaul University?

CDMDU: Located in downtown Chicago, DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM) offers both a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Game Development as part of a liberal arts education and a professionally-oriented Master’s degree in Computer Game Development. Students can round out their skills with additional courses from degree programs in Computer Science, Animation, and Digital Cinema.

The undergraduate Computer Game Development program started in 2004 with 23 undergrads and a curriculum modeled on the International Game Developer’s Association’s framework. The first classes were taught by faculty from Computer Science and film. The full-time faculty teaching in the program is balanced between professionals from the game industry, game scholars, and academics from other related areas such as film, computer science, and animation. The college uses adjunct instructors from local studios as well to give students a real world view of what the industry is really like outside the school’s walls.

Excellent facilities, a supportive administration and university environment as well as synergy between the technology and the art side of CDM helped the program grow quickly. DePaul’s Computer Game Development program now has 225 students including 28 graduate degree candidates, and the school draws applicants from all over the world. The Game Designer in Residence program, which allows students to interact with world-class game designers on a face-to-face basis, is a high value offering and a highlight of the overall program.

DFC: What are the advantages for students attending DePaul?

DU: Undergraduates receive a liberal arts education as well as practical training in game development that prepares them to take an entry level job in the game industry.  Most of the faculty spent years in the industry themselves, so our courses are geared for real-world learning.

Another advantage of the DePaul program  is that it is multi-disciplinary in its approach and integrates highly artistic, creative courses with technical courses from the computer science curriculum. A student can pursue a degree program in Digital Cinema, Computer Science, Animation, Software Engineering or Interactive Media and Computer Graphics.  Housing all these programs together in one building gives our students exposure to related disciplines and allows them to explore these areas before they choose their major.

Because of this approach, our students have many opportunities to work on multi-disciplinary game projects, both within courses and through extra-curricular activities. This creates a holistic learning environment that encourages teamwork, problem solving, and non-rote learning. Contrary to the standard problem and answer structure, they’re often faced with problems that don’t necessarily have an answer. These team situations expose them to real-world experiences that employers say are critical for hiring. When our students have a job interview , they’re able to relate anecdotes of how they dealt with complex problems and personality conflicts. They’re learning so much more than just the traditional subjects and having fun at the same time.

In addition to working with state-of-the-art tools, students learn to be well-rounded problem solvers. This better prepares students for a changing world where specific technical skills quickly become outdated.

Graduate students have access to a large number of courses in allied areas, including Software Engineering, Computer Science, Animation, and Computer Graphics and Motion Technology.

DePaul is the largest provider of information technology graduate degrees in Illinois, providing students with access to a large alumni network, a big help to students  when they are looking for internships and jobs after graduation.

DFC: What can you tell us about supportive game industry interaction in your program? How closely does DePaul work with established companies in the game industry from both a curriculum perspective and a recruitment perspective?

DU: DePaul has strong connections to the local game development industry. We have an active advisory board of working professionals and industry leaders, a game designer in residence program, many adjuncts that are working professionals, and the Capstone class utilizes industry professionals as mock publishers evaluating student games.

The DePaul Game Dev advisory board is currently made up of Eugene Jarvis from Raw Thrills, Alex Seropian from Wideload/Disney Interactive, Denny Thorley from Day 1 Studios, Nick Ehrlich from Robomodo, Chad Kent from High-Voltage Software and Shawn Himmerick from Warner Bros.

Our Game-Designer-In-Residence, Alex Seropian, led a student team that created an entry for the Independent Games Festival Student Showcase as part of the 2010 Game Developer’s Conference.  Out of more than 300 entries, the DePaul game, Devil’s Tuning Fork, was a Top 10 finalist and Student Showcase Winner.

The DePaul curriculum is a result of input from many sources, including the suggested curriculum from the IGDA, feedback from our advisory board, alumni, and the adjuncts we hire from the industry. We are also continuously sharing ideas and insights with other college and university programs.

DFC: What are the advantages to housing a game development program in a liberal arts campus versus a sciences campus?

DU: DePaul University encourages personal growth for the whole student. At DePaul, that means we believe in giving students a liberal arts education, so they’ll be better prepared for the ever-changing landscape of the future job world. This is because we feel our responsibility to our students  goes beyond the short-term question of whether they’ll be hired upon graduation. College graduates switch careers several times during their lives, and graduates of the DePaul Game Dev program are prepared for a wide range of possible paths. The problem solving and teamwork skills learned, for instance, are in demand in many fields.

Likewise, students in the Programming concentration are prepared for a variety of computer science careers. This degree is excellent preparation for graduate study in Computer Science, Software Engineering, Computer Graphics, and of course Game Development. The Bachelor of Science in Animation prepares the student for a variety of animation and multimedia careers, including movies, television, commercials and the Internet. This degree is excellent preparation for graduate study in Digital Cinema and Animation. The concentration in Production and Design prepares students for a variety of information technology and business careers.

DFC: Compared to other university programs, what differentiates DePaul in terms of fostering technology and innovation?

DU: DePaul’s curricular structure allows for rapid changes in course and program offerings. Students always have access to the latest technologies and approaches to computer game development. The CDM faculty is particularly entrepreneurial, and new courses are typically created on a yearly, if not quarterly, basis. Last year, for example, Ed Keenan started an iPhone game development course.

DePaul CDM faculty members also have remarkable freedom to innovate in curriculum and subject matter. This is essential in continuously changing fields like game development. After all, just a few years ago nobody would have predicted the rise of simpler games for the Wii, iPhone, and Facebook platforms. You need to be flexible.

DFC: Can you give us some specifics on developers and games that have been developed that connected to DePaul?

DTFDU: The most noteworthy game has been Devil’s Tuning Fork (DTF), one of the winners of the 2010 Independent Games Festival Student Showcase. The DePaul student team continues to work on the game, and is in negotiations with several major publishers. Their short-term goal is to release the game commercially on the Steam game distribution system; the long-term goal is to use the game to launch their own game studio here in Chicago.

The Malicious Masque, a game developed by students in less than 48 hours during the 2010 Global Game Jam, was recently featured by the International Game Developers Association in their quarterly Global Game Jam newsletter.

Many of the students involved in these projects have been hired full-time and as interns at Chicago game studios. Alumni of our program work for Microsoft, Midway (now Warner Bros.), Wideload (a Disney subsidiary), High Voltage and WMS, as well as many indie studios.

In addition to the game projects created in classes, most notably the two quarter senior capstone projects,  and Devil’s Tuning Fork, the DeFrag student group runs development and gameplay competitions.

DFC: As part of the School of Cinema and Interactive Media, how much of the program is weighted to digital content in cinema versus video game development?

DU: Both the undergraduate and graduate programs are a joint effort between the School of Cinema and Interactive Media and the School of Computing. The main focus of both degrees is on computer game development, although the amount of course work that students take in programming, production or design depends on their particular concentration.  Students have the opportunity to take courses in screenwriting and cinema, for instance, with our experienced film faculty. All of the game development students learn basic modeling and animation in Maya, since 3D technology is so central to the majority of game development.

DFC: How many students are the game development program (please break down by BS and MS tracts), and how many are added each year?

DU: We currently have 197 BS students and 28 MS students. At the undergraduate level, we’ve seen steady growth in the program since it began in 2004. The MS degree is only a few years old but interest seems to be on the rise.

DFC: With a growing emphasis in the industry on specialization and outsourcing for specific tasks, how much do students in your program focus on overall product management and teamwork versus developing a specific skill set?

DU: This depends heavily on the concentration and degree students choose. Undergraduates in the Production and Design concentration spend more time in courses focused on project management than students in the programming-oriented Master’s degree. All of the programs, however, emphasize teamwork since it is so crucial for success in the industry. We also encourage students to participate in student-run competitions and activities as well as those organized by the college. For example, we organize yearly Game Jam events that bring together artists, programmers, and designers to spend a weekend working together in intense game development and design. The Game Jam events also feature industry professionals who are on-hand to provide participants with guidance and feedback on their games.

DFC: What kind of interaction does Alex Seropian and the other game designers in residence have with students?

DU: Eugene Jarvis of Raw Thrills was our first GDIR, and continues as a Senior Research Fellow.  Alex Seropian started with us when he was with Wideload here in Illinois and was on campus for a considerable amount of time last summer working with the DePaul Game Elites team on Devil’s Tuning Fork.

Alex has stayed in communication with the team on Skype and phone conference from Los Angeles, now that he’s VP of Creative at Disney Interactive.

In addition to leading game dev teams, Game Designers in Residence interact with students via special office hours and meeting times and events such as the Game Jam. They also help develop innovative projects that involve our students.

DFC: What percentage of DePaul graduates get placed in game development jobs?

DU: Unfortunately, we don’t have specific percentages for the undergraduate program but we do know the graduates of our programs are doing very well.  We have alumni working at Microsoft, Midway (now Warner Bros.), Wideload (now a Disney subsidiary), High Voltage and WMS, for example. More than 90 percent of DePaul master’s degree recipients are employed or continuing their education six months after graduation.

DFC:  Where do game development students tend to end up? How many actually go on to work on commercially marketed game products versus those that focus on say, “serious games” or using game development skills in other disciplines?

DU: Most of the graduates of our program have remained committed to the field, rather than straying into other disciplines that could utilize their skills.  It’s a competitive business, but they work their way up through internships and grad school.  Many work for start-ups and small studios for the experience and then move on to larger studios.

DFC: Chicago has had a few tough years as a game development hub. Bungie has moved to Washington state, EA Chicago was shut down, Midway fell on hard times… how has that affected DePaul’s program?

DU: The game industry is going through tremendous changes. While we would like to see local companies grow and prosper, that’s not the way it has happened here – nor other places around the country. This is a dynamic business at many levels and Chicago has seen its share of creative challenges. Bungie left, but Alex Seropian came back and started Wideload Games. Now he’s connected Wideload with Disney Interactive. Chicago EA faced hard times and Robomodo was created. Midway folded and Warner Brothers Interactive picked up part of the pieces. Through all the ups and downs, Day 1 Studios and High-Voltage Software have grown steadily.

Shaking up the big studios has also helped spur the growth of a number of small studios. There is a lot of opportunity in Illinois for game developers.


Who We Talked To

Usually we interview one or two executives or administrators for these question and answer sessions. In this case, DePaul let us know that wouldn’t do. So below are the DePaul academic staff that contributed to answering our many questions.

Liz Friedman, PhD

Assistant Dean

College of Computing and Digital Media


Joe Linhoff, JD

Assistant Professor

School of Cinema and Interactive Media


Scott Roberts, MFA

Associate Professor

School of Cinema & Interactive Media


Amber Settle, PhD

Associate Professor

School of Computing


José P. Zagal, PhD

Assistant Professor

School of Cinema and Interactive Media