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Building the Next “Grand Theft Auto”

New MET program teaches video-game design


Eric Braude

The mean streets of Liberty City are awash in violence and vice, but they may also be recession-proof. This digital metropolis, featured in the Grand Theft Auto series, is the creation of a video game business that just keeps booming: according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group, gaming revenue neared $4 billion in 2006, having grown at least 17 percent for three years running, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that software publishing, which includes video games, will grow by 68 percent between 2002 and 2012.

Now, a new graduate certificate program at Metropolitan College offers training in video game programming and design, a discipline whose applications have grown way beyond simulating violence for over-caffeinated teenagers.

“The idea of making a game has changed to mean the creation of any interactive, entertaining, engaging experience with a computer,” says Eric Braude, MET associate professor of computer science and a co-founder of the new certificate program. “And that’s pretty much pervasive now when it comes to computer applications, whether they’re run on your desktop, on a handheld device, or at the supermarket’s checkout line.”

The first students enrolled in MET’s interactive multimedia and game engineering graduate certificate program last spring. They take 16 credits worth of courses, split between computer graphics and artificial intelligence. BU Today recently talked with Braude to learn more.

MET’s department of computer science will be hosting an information session on January 8, 2009 at 6 p.m. in room 325 of the School of Theology, 755 Commonwealth Ave. You can sign up for it here.

BU Today: What led to the graduate certificate program in video game engineering?
A few years ago, I took a cursory look at the number of video game companies in New England. I thought there wouldn’t be too many, given our image as stodgy old Yankees. But there are actually tons of video game companies in this region, and it’s a very active and growing industry everywhere. In fact, it’s bigger than the motion picture industry in the United States.

In 2006, we visited an existing graduate certificate program in game development at Southern Methodist University, and I started discussions on setting up something here with Lou Chitkushev, MET associate professor and chair of computer science, and Ian Davis, who is a luminary computer scientist and a pioneer in the use of artificial intelligence in video games. He started a company called Mad Doc software in Lawrence, Mass, and it grew into a significant company and was recently bought by Rockstar Games. We enrolled our first students in the certificate program in the spring of 2008.

Why is the video game business still booming?
Well, the industry used to be driven by executives who looked for blockbuster titles, games that would sell to the masses. They were looking at your teenager or just-past-teenager audience. But, if you look at the average game player, it’s not just teenagers anymore at all. I was at a meeting with some off my colleagues the other day, and needless to say my colleagues are not teenagers, or even in their 20s or 30s, and they tell me that every night before they go to sleep they get on the computer and play games. These are somewhat more sedate games, of course, but they find this relaxing. The bottom line is that computer games span the generations.

And beyond the classic idea of a video game, the same techniques are being used by anybody looking to engage the computer user on the other end of the line. For example, here at MET we’re heavily involved in distance education, which is increasingly going to make use of animation and artificial intelligence to help students learn via computer. Even the word “game” has become something of a misnomer here. As a teacher, I definitely want to engage my students, but I wouldn’t call that a game.

Likewise, the same kind of technology has long been used for simulations and training. I used to work in for a defense contractor, and we made simulations of tank formations and tank attacks for training. Or you can imagine going to an automatic check-out at Home Depot, where a little character on a screen tells you how to scan your items. The breadth of applications is enormous.

So how do you make a video game?
As a discipline, creating games uses both parts of your brain. It’s hands-on programming and development and also some very interesting math — for instance, you have to compute what a moving 3-D scene looks like on a 2-D screen depending on what angle you’re approaching it from. And so you go from the extremes of being very interesting math and technical computing all the way to storytelling and character creation.

And what are the specific game engineering skills that students learn in this program?
While the gaming industry as a whole involves creativity from both sides of the brain, this certificate is a very technical one. The graphics instruction is not about designing or graphic composition, it’s technical, it’s how do you program a computer to achieve a graphics goal. You learn how to program a computer to represent a 3-D moving scene in 2-D, which involves issues of perspective, color and texture. And in terms of artificial intelligence, you’re talking about designing the architecture of the game — how it’s controlled, what switches what parts on and off and when that happens. You also learn about mingling sound and the graphics. Artificial intelligence in gaming is all about creating an engaging experience, where the game reacts to you in a manner that is natural and interesting. You want to give the characters in the game “intelligence” so they’re interesting to work with or work against.

Most of the courses have a project in which you produce a game or parts of a game. Graduates of this program will be able be part of a team developing games. And our contacts in the industry have been very encouraging of this program, because they need people.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.


One Comment on Building the Next “Grand Theft Auto”

  • Anonymous on 01.08.2009 at 11:49 am

    game coders and developers are usually very highly paid too–often offering higher starting salary than other software development companies like microsoft, adobe etc.

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