Situated off of the I-4 corridor, a bustling interstate in Central Florida, the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) is one of the premiere graduate level programs for game design, programming, and art; FIEA is just one of the many branches in the University of Central Florida’s Center For Emerging Media.
Don’t think this is just a certificate, a pat on the back, and a great loan investment — FIEA offers accredited master’s degrees that translate into direct work in field.
For a more in depth look at what FIEA has to offer, I interviewed Rick Hall, the production track director at FIEA. With a fifteen year track record in the video game industry, Hall has worked on almost every game genre imaginable on consoles ranging from “PC, PlayStation, N64, PS2, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, and online platforms”(FIEA). While making premier games isn’t the major concern of Rick Hall and company at FIEA, training students to be the next generation of thoughtful, engaging, and imaginative game creators is.
Below are some questions and answers about the life and culture at FIEA, what it takes to be a game designer, and what you can expect to do once you have your degree.
The Nerd Stash — FIEA is one of the top three graduate programs for video game design, programming, and art. How did FIEA become so highly ranked and how do you plan on maintaining that level of excellence?
Rick Hall — From day 1, our approach has been firmly focused on the real world. We exclusively hire industry veteran as instructors, and we constructed the facility and crafted the program to feel as much as possible like a game development studio. Our students are required to participate in multidisciplinary projects (programmers, artists, and producers) on decent sized teams (12-15 on average) for long projects (Capstone projects are seven months long). Our entire emphasis is focused on positioning our students to get game industry jobs, and when they get them, we want them to have no culture shock in the transition to the real world. Everyone on the faculty has extensive industry experience.
When we were in the industry we knew what experience we wanted incoming developers to possess, and here at FIEA, that’s the experience we try to give them. As for how we maintain that level of excellence, we make a point to stay in contact with numerous companies in the gaming industry. We consistently keep our curriculum updated in order to develop the skills that our industry contacts say they want our students to have. As long as we continue to ground ourselves in the real world, I think we’ll continue to have results.
NS — Many gamers, through the democratization of game making tools, could essentially teach themselves the important aspects of game design and programming, all from the comfort of their computer chairs. Why should students consider enrolling in a graduate program that teaches video game production?
RH — Well, I think the key issue to understand here is the part you refer to as “the important aspects of game design and programming.” If all anyone does is use the same tools everyone else has access to, then games will all be derivative. Innovation is expected in the gaming industry. You have to be able to exceed the sum of the tools. You have to learn how to use the tools in interesting ways, or add new components to the tools. To us, the tool is just a tool. It’s a means to an end. It makes the basic stuff easier and faster to accomplish, so that developers can spend more time doing the hard stuff: innovating. Simple possession of the UE4 engine won’t allow a developer to make a better first person shooter than Epic. Purchasing the Unity engine doesn’t grant any insight into how to appeal to fans of mobile games. How long will it take a person on their own to figure out the most efficient way to optimize a scene with millions of polygons? Have you ever tried to change the lighting in a scene from noon to midnight? Plays havoc with your textures, especially if you’re using colored lights. We teach students development methodologies and how to work as a team.
This year, some of our students wrote their own terrain deformation code, because UE4 couldn’t do it out of the box. Another one of our teams created a spherical world that characters can walk completely around. Now think about that a moment. Normal game physics only has to deal with gravity pointing on one direction: down. Our students had to figure out how to create their own gravity that pulled objects towards the center of a sphere. Off-the-shelf engines aren’t made to do that without some serious effort. So am I implying that student’s couldn’t learn these things on their own by searching the web and experimenting? Possibly some of the best could. Eventually. But it’s a lot easier and faster when you have industry veterans to help you figure out how to address this kind of problem. And then there’s the side benefit of being able to look over the shoulders of other teams as they meet their own challenges. With multiple simultaneous Capstone teams, each providing status updates weekly that the whole cohort can observe, everyone gets the benefit of what everyone else learns. That’s simply not possible working in your basement by yourself. The learning process is dramatically speeded up here. And as a final point, I want to re-emphasize that our focus on teams is something that can’t be duplicated on your own. The difference between a one or two person team and something over a dozen is enormous. And not only do our students get that vital team experience, but they tend to stay connected to the program long after they leave. We have many, many grads from as far back as a decade ago who still network with us and our current students regularly.
NS –While most gamers don’t think of Florida as a hub for game production and design, FIEA has taken up residence in this burgeoning Central Florida metropolis. What does Orlando offer students at FIEA? Also, does the host city make a difference in game design?
RH — Well, first and foremost, it’s probably a mistake to discount the presence of the gaming industry from the Central Florida area completely. EA Tiburon is just up the street, and there are numerous smaller studios like nSpace and Iron Galaxy too. Our gaming industry presence is growing, and small developers are cropping up from Jacksonville to Miami, and points in between. And of course, Orlando proper is working on some substantial changes with the Creative Village initiative. Secondly, we should also recognize the presence of tangential developers like Lockheed Martin (who has hired a number of our students for creating military simulations) and places like Universal and Disney. Gaming industry technology has crossover into many areas, including film education, medical simulations, and more. All of those have a presence here in Florida as well. There’s a lot of application for what we do, even though our focus is certainly games.
NS– Follow up question: Do most students that graduate from FIEA end up working in or around the Orlando area at the various production studios in Orlando, e.g., EA Tiburon, Iron Galaxy, etc…?
RH— Checking in with our industry relations, I’m told it sits at around 50% who take up jobs in the Central Florida area after graduation. Many who leave the area do so by preference. Some of our former graduates have gotten jobs from places like Activision, Bungie, and even one who is currently at Blizzard. And, you know, if you are a fan of World of Warcraft, and you get an offer to work there, you’re going to move. We’ve also got former grads who are as far flung as Finland (Rovio) and Sweden (D.I.C.E.) For some, the dream is here in Florida. For others, it’s elsewhere. Our job is to help our students pursue the dream wherever it takes them.
NS– Have students at FIEA or other game production programs around the country noticed a shift to mobile platforms in recent years? Is there an equal amount of production on both the console/PC side and the mobile side of gaming?
RH— There is certainly a growing mobile market. All you have to do is watch the commercials from the most recent Superbowl to see that. Mobile is big, and it’s expanding. I don’t think that means console or PC games are going to disappear. It’s just another emergent market. There’s room. As for what our students focus on, we’re seeing more and more students choose mobile games for their Capstone projects. In fact, our students just placed a game for the iPad called Junkers: Some Assembly Required. I couldn’t tell you the exact percentage, but it’s a student choice whether they work on mobile games or not for their Capstone projects. We certainly do include mobile in the curriculum, though.
NS– AAA titles occupy a unique place in the hearts of gamers — yet there is a trend in recent years for more nuanced and personal game experiences. Does FIEA embrace the ideas of indie development and gaming or is FIEA firmly in the camp of producing the next AAA programmers, designers, and artistic hands?
RH— We neither embrace AAA nor discourage indie development. I think it’s important to understand that “indie” doesn’t mean “low quality”. We want the students to make everything they do meet a certain, professional quality bar. Talented developers can make high quality games whether they work for a huge corporation or a small self-funded group. It’s true that indie developers usually aren’t going to be working with huge licensed properties, and are unlikely to be able to work on the scale of something like WoW, but the fundamental skills of development apply to both equally. The biggest differences between the two are scope and marketing dollars. Our aspiration is for our graduates to be equipped to go in either direction, as their passion dictates.
NS– FIEA is a relatively small graduate program with a majority of your students coming from within the state of Florida. Does your industry based curriculum prepare students for the rigor of working within the top video game companies in the country?
RH–– I think the fact that our graduates are employed (and thriving, I might add) at many of the top video game companies in the nation answers that question better than I could. You know, in our ten year history, we’ve had 420 graduates placed at 127 different companies. Our web is extensive, and growing all the time. When I look back to some of our grads from when the program started, I find a crazy percentage of them rising dramatically within their respective studios. Our grads aren’t just landing gigs at top developers like EA, Activision, Pop Cap, Riot, and Bungie, they’re rising through the ranks at an impressive rate. More than that, we have several grads who have gone on to grow their own start-ups. Who knows? Maybe one of them will become a giant at some point too.
The point is, our grads are ready to hit the ground running the day they leave here. One of my favorite instant messages I got was from a recent grad who’d landed an internship at a major developer. He messaged me two weeks later and said “On my second day, they asked me to redesign the entire tournament scoring system, and then create a presentation, because a VP from corporate was coming to see our ideas next week.” Two years later, he was lead designer on his own project. And that’s the metric by which we measure ourselves as faculty. When one of our programmers from cohort 2 was named “Rookie of the year” at her studio, we smiled. When one of our artists scored a position at Lucas Film, we celebrated. When they hit the pool with a big splash, that’s when we feel like we’re doing something right.
NS– Gaming in schools is rising in popularity as a means of teaching effective curriculum and core competencies. No longer just infotainment, video games can be a serious teaching tool for primary and secondary students. Does FIEA have any outreach programs for the local public and private schools in the Central Florida area?
RH— Oh, we’re always reaching out. Every year, we’re at Otronicon here in Orlando, and Arts and Algorithms. We host summer workshops and give talks to schools all over Central Florida. We’ve worked with the A.C.E. program where we reached out to 300 fifth graders. We worked with the Make-A-Wish foundation a while ago. We give lots of tours of the facility to high schools. We think it’s important to be a part of the community at large, and don’t just limit ourselves to interacting with Master’s Degree students.
NS– E-sports, Twitch, Youtube, game jams, etc… show the growing trend for mainstream success in video games. With this in mind, will FIEA and UCF consider a program much larger in scope than the one currently in place?
RH— We’re always exploring options for expansion. But we’re also very careful, because we don’t want to break what we’ve accomplished. Our low student-to-teacher ratio, combined with our emphasis on one-on-one instruction is something that is tricky to scale. We also take care to select good students to begin with. And, of course, our facilities are only designed to contain a finite number of students. We don’t want to pack them in like sardines, or put so many students in a class that we can’t work with them individually, or have such an intense desire for expansion that we start lowering our entrance requirements. We will expand, but we’ll do it in a way that doesn’t break what we think is a great model.
NS– What do students recognize when coming out of FIEA as the most important aspect(s) they learned in the 18 months at your school?
RH— I think I can say without hesitation that the three most important lessons are: 1) how incredibly important teamwork and communication is, 2) the importance of teamwork, as noted earlier, and 3) the fine art of scoping. When you haven’t done it before, it’s nearly impossible to get a good handle on how much manpower goes into a feature. Our experience is invariably that students start out in December with a specific vision for how big their Capstone game is going to be. Then by January (when they make their initial scheduling estimates), they’re cutting that in half. Then by March (vertical slice day), it gets cut in half again. And then there’s the start of semester 3, where they’re realizing they only have 3 months left, and they cut it in half once more. It’s a really eye opening experience for them when they realize, for instance, just how much work goes into something seemingly trivial, like making a polished looking 3D character walk around on the screen and feel natural.
The mentors and students who call FIEA their home are passionate and determined to work in games and other emerging media. It’s an understandably rigorous school with high achievement levels held for the students and staff alike. So, do you want to make games professionally, leaning the ins and outs of working on a team? Are you prepared for 80+ hour work weeks and ultra demanding crunch schedules?
Let us know in the comments below what you think about FIEA and their mission to teach the art of making games.
Gaming from the swampy flatlands of Florida since 1989, Alex D’Alessandro is always looking for a way to stay inside and escape the southern heat.