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Everything stopped when the gaggle of Boy Scouts entered the art studio. They had just entered the most interesting room in The Guildhall at SMU, the country's foremost graduate program for videogame design, but that wasn't the reason for their freckled, dumbstruck faces. It may have been the sketches of lightsaber battles that decorated the walls. It may have been the still-drying sculptures of monster heads that huddled in the corner.
Probably it was the nude college girl posing for a life drawing class.
The silence held until one kid tugged his father's sleeve and whispered, "Dad, this is the best school ever."
Kid, after going there, I'm inclined to agree.
In seven years of operation, The Guildhall has developed a reputation as a dream program, a sort of Hogwarts for game designers, where students can earn a Master of Interactive Technology degree specializing in Art Creation, Level Design, or Software Development. The program has graduated 370 students who work in 120 studios globally, including industry leaders like Infinity Ward, Gearbox, and Valve. Their industry placement rate is a phenomenal 95%, and 40% of the graduates report being in a leadership position within a few years of graduation. When asked to rate the skill level of newly-hired graduates, most managers report that if they did not know the graduate's background, they would guess he or she had 1« -5 years of experience with one shipped title.
It's likely you've already enjoyed, or have been foiled by, the work of its graduates. Guildhall alum Drew Murray is now a Lead Designer at Insomniac, having worked on Resistance: Fall of Man and Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction. On the frustration side of the coin, if a spy in a fez knifed you in Team Fortress 2 last week, you can thank alumna Shaylyn Hamm, who created the new Saharan Spy class as part of Valve's item-modding contest and walked away with a $50,000 royalty check.
The Guildhall's almost preternatural talent for turning out top-level game designers is a result of the amount it demands from its students. In the professor's wing, a collaboratively created depiction of a Guildhall student's journey, crafted by successive waves of students, sits on a staff office whiteboard. It depicts a perilous trek across spike pits labeled "specialization," towering thesis-project mountains, and a rickety bridge across the Chasm of Finances. Helpful fairies and wizards stand in for the staff and professors. It's Pilgrim's Progress for the WoW generation, and floating above all is Doctor Peter Raad, the school's Director and Founder, standing on a cloud and smiling like a benevolent deity.
Dr. Raad greets each incoming class, or "cohort," in Guildhall parlance, with the words: "You are professionals in training." It sticks. Everything Raad says sticks. He's a fluid dynamicist by training, but he has the voice of a hypnotist. "We built the program backwards. We started with what the videogame industry would consider an archetypal outstanding artist, programmer, or level designer and created a two-year path that would get a student there."