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Culture

Computer game design goes academic

Game developers have a reputation for being computer nerds, making a career out of their hobby. But game design has become an academic field and the career prospects have never been better for game design graduates.

The days when a handful of computer geeks would sit in smoky basements developing games are long gone. Those "geeks" now have chiseled figures, speak in industry jargon, listen to cheap synthesizer music and play around with a lot of pixels. Some games have just as high production values as Hollywood blockbusters.

These days, hundreds of people are involved in the development of one single game: programmers, designers, illustrators, musicians, authors, narrators. It's not rare for the production costs of really big games to exceed those of blockbuster movies. And they often generate much more profit.

As the industry continues to grow - in particular for tablets and mobile phones - talented young game designers are always in demand. The Media Design University in Dusseldorf trains 26 budding game design students every year.

From niche to mainstream

Linda Breitlauch is Germany's first and, up to now, only female to hold a professorship in the field. The 46-year-old took a long detour in getting there.

She began playing computer games at the age of 12. Later, she encountered computer animation while studying film at university, then took a teaching position at a university specializing in information technology.

This screenshot provided by Square Enix shows a battle sequence from the video game Final Fantasy XIII-2

Production costs for modern computer games can exceed those of blockbuster films

Breitlauch's doctoral thesis examined the dramaturgy of computer games, a subject that "just a few years ago could definitely raise eyebrows at art school," she explains. In the meantime, computer games are now recognized as part of the art and design field.

Breitlauch is now a professor at the Media Design University in Dusseldorf. It is afternoon, lectures and seminars are over. But business is brisk in the rooms here. Students sit at their PCs with two to three monitors a piece. They're developing a 3D adventure game as a team, exchanging ideas and laughing.

Linda Breitlauch is proud of her students when she sees just how deeply engaged there are in their work. "Naturally they also have lectures, theory and practical seminars alongside their projects where they can decide for themselves want they want to do."

Not just a man's world

Many students came to the course from the fields of graphic design or art. Screenshots of fantasy worlds and outlandish figures, monsters and other creatures hang in the corridors. Prototypes are exhibited in glass cabinets. Clearly, the students' creativity knows no bounds.

A screenshot from the game Medal of Honor depicting a soldier

Games such as Medal of Honor require sophisticated technology and design skills

In the past, the number of male students was far higher than that of females. But more and more women are attracted to the field, which is not just about "nerdy hackers and technology," says the professor. "Instead, game design encompasses a broad range of skills."

The cliché that women don't like computer programming no longer holds water. "There are lots of girls who in the beginning say that they want to do graphic design and then suddenly realize that they actually enjoy programming more."

Bea is one such example. She's working on a 3D representation of a weapon. She studied business, but realized afterward that she was actually more interested in doing something creative.

After completing her business degree, it was clear to her that she hated the subject, she explains. So she applied to study at the Media Design University, despite having little interest in technology or mathematics.

Here students don't just work towards grades like in school, but can actually see the results of their hard work. "If you are really interested in something, and you know why you are doing something, then you are more motivated, also to approach something that you would usually shy away from," says Bea. Nevertheless, programming is still "the hardest" for her.

A model of a computer game character at the Media Design University in Dusseldorf

The fantastical characters are first produced as models before going digital

Lukas is building a new game level. He originally wanted to study architecture, but he also liked telling stories. Then he discovered the game design degree course. "You have a really broad spectrum to express your creativity in. You think of stories, you obviously have to find sounds, find videos, and develop characters, invent worlds and build levels."

Work hard, play hard

A common assumption is that the students are making a profession out of their hobby. But in reality, they have little time to play. When the professor asks her students if they still play computer games in their spare time, there are astoundingly few answers. "Nights!" says one, and everyone chuckles.

"I have to force them to play because it is part of the lessons," Linda Breitlauch says. "It's like in film school. They have to really pull things apart: What works and what doesn't work, what can we do better, what can we learn from this, what can we take away from it or whatever - it's really hard work."

Their career prospects are excellent. Trained developers are highly sought after. But even after their studies, the students will have to continue to learn since the industry is changing at breakneck speed.

At the moment, games for mobile phones and tablets are still where it's at - but they were virtually unheard of two years ago. "Industry development is so astonishingly quick that we can hardly predict what will happen in the next two to three years," explains Martin Lorber from game publisher Electronic Arts.

Graduates from the course are very attractive for the industry, but the interest goes both ways. Freelance lecturers from developing studios often hold talks at the university as well. "That's very important of course so we can have constant feedback from the industry and the developer scene," Breitlauch says. "They also come here to see if they can support the course with grants, for example."

The game's not over yet

The university continues to support students after graduation if they wish to complete a promising project. Julian Reinartz and his team of eight are sitting in the half-light, working intensely at their screens.

Game design student Julian works on the development of a new game

Julian is immersed in the world of a small demon with an inferiority complex

The eight young men are all graduate game designers and are now continuing their work on their 3D game "Minion," which they started during their studies. They have access to the university facilities to complete the project and aim to be finished in a year's time.

The characters just need refining, and extra levels and worlds need to be built. The music is already finished and sounds like a real fantasy game - dramatic, orchestral and with elements of medieval folk music.

At first glance, the game looks like so many others - but it's not. Julian and the team, who call themselves "Frame 6," have opted for dark humor and a new player perspective. It's about a small demon with an inferiority complex who hectors an aging hero. Players can only be the demon, but also inadvertently influence the hero. What happens next, well, you'll have to wait and see.

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