SAN FRANCISCO — It turns out that experience as a maker of triple-A games is actually useful in the classroom. That’s what four big-name developers discovered when they made the transition from the studio to the university.

“I feel like I began to learn how to be a teacher here at GDC, really,” former Naughty Dog lead director Richard Lemarchand said Monday at the 2014 Game Developers Conference. “By being able to do talks, by going to roundtables, actually, and beginning to learn how to have a debate in front of a room of 30 people.”

Warren Spector, Brenda and John Romero, and Lemarchand discussed at the “AAA Academics: Superstar Designers in Academia” panel how their professional game development experience applied to academic course and program design. Evolving products, collaborating with teams of creatives, making deadlines, and even discussing game design with colleagues at industry events all prepare a triple-A developer to be successful working in game design programs in higher education.

From the studio to the classroom

When Lemarchand first entered the video game industry, he made a promise to his friends that he would hold a doctorate in ludology someday. He volunteered as an online course instructor at the University of Southern California in 2004 and worked with IndieCade festival in 2009 and in 2010, when Lemarchand first thought seriously about getting into academia. “I had this opportunity to pursue this love for games and play as arts and culture that I’d always nurtured, really since the beginning of my time in the industry,” Lemarchand said.


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Spector, the developer of the original Deus Ex and Epic Mickey, was playing Dungeons & Dragons while working on his doctorate at the University of Texas, and he never thought he would get whisked away by the development world for 30 years. When UT was opening a video game program, he wanted to make sure the effort was done right. “The day came when I said, ‘Wait a minute. If anybody but me is directing that, I’m gonna be really upset,” Warren said.

Brenda Romero, the lead designer of Wizardry and The Mechanic is the Message, says that her entrance into the academic world was the result of a happy coincidence. It enabled her to have the discussions about video games she wanted to make time for but couldn’t when development projects consumed her. What especially makes her job at the University of California, Santa Cruz fulfilling is seeing the looks on the faces of her students when, for the first time, they realize that someone is going to take their discussions about video games as seriously as they do. “That’s a drug to me,” Brenda said. “I love it, and that’s why I keep teaching.”

In 2002, a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, asked John Romero of Doom and Quake fame to teach a cross-platform game development class. The experience got him to thinking about effective game design instruction, and inspired by the immersion offered by Full Sail University, helped set up The Guildhall, the intensive game design program at Southern Methodist University. “Mostly because I needed to hire people at my [local] company who knew how to code,” John Romero said with a laugh. He later helped the UC Santa Cruz to set up its masters degree program.

How teaching students is like building a game

Years of guiding projects and helping less experienced developers makes a difference for anyone looking at teaching the art of game design.

“Building an academic program to me feels like building a game, and I’m shipping students,” Brenda Romero said. Lemarchand handles working with large numbers of students as their course instructor the same way that he handled his work as a lead designer. “Just as at Naughty Dog, where I worked with a bunch of game designers … I still do, just with people with a little less experience but who are amazing game designers bursting with ideas,” he said.

Spector is technically not teaching yet. He’s helping to construct an academic program the way the Romeros have done, and he also thinks about it like making a game. The very day his program launches, he begins version beta 1.0. “What I knew six months ago might be out of date already,” he said. “You really have to keep making games to stay relevant.” As the industry changes, so must Spector patch his program to keep it current.

“The game is not the product. The people and the knowledge they gain are the product,” said Spector. “We can take what would take years to learn and compress it into a year. You’re not going to get it overnight, but I think we can do a lot of compression and accelerate a career in the academic setting.”

John Romero likes to see his students meet their assignment deadlines with plenty of room on either side of them. Making sure students have enough time to finish their assignments is like setting reasonable deadlines for deliverables on a development project. “I try to make sure I work really hard at the beginning of a project with my students to make sure projects are well-scoped,” Lemarchand said.

It’s not possible to just move from game development into academia by applying game management skills, even if they’re well-honed from decades of use. Brenda Romero thinks developers who want to expand into course instruction are most effective if academic institutions take a lesson from the collaborative nature of game development. “I wish that there had been some little boot camp. ‘So you’re a game designer, and you’d like to come teach people! I’m a teacher, let me tell you what I know about working with students,” Brenda Romero said.

“Learn the meaning of the word ‘assessment,’ and learn the meaning of the word ‘rubric,'” Spector said, referring to core design elements that ensure expected outcomes are well-defined and that students gain knowledge appropriately. “Although the rubric’s just the rules of the game, isn’t it?” said Lemarchand. “The conditions of the class.”

Trying to apply some lessons from game development, like that one’s list of shipped games is the resume that matters, doesn’t work if a developer wants to teach in the academy. Brenda Romero wants developers to understand that they’d better be ready to account for all their experience on paper, especially if they don’t have a degree. “When John was looking at going to UCSC. I asked him, ‘Let me see your resume.’ He says, ‘I don’t have one.'”

“You didn’t have to make a resume, did you?” Spector asked incredulously.

And now their students know they need one, too.

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