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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Ode to joystick

Video game-design major at WPI the first of its kind


WPI associate professor Mark Claypool gestures last week as he talks about the school’s interactive media and game development major, which he is co-directing. (T&G Staff / CHRIS CHRISTO)
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WPI junior James M. Schementi will never forget the exact moment he became captivated with the idea of learning to create video games.

As an eighth-grader in Garden City, N.Y., he came across a “Star Wars”-themed game called “Jedi Knight.” The game allowed players to design the game as they played, creating their own new worlds to explore and conquer. It was the first time, he’d played a game that “let me look under the hood to see how this works,” he said.

He decided then and there that he would make a career out of designing video games.

“Game developers are the technical rock stars of this era,” he said. “It’s the job everybody wants.”

With students like Mr. Schementi in mind, WPI this month has instituted a new major in interactive media and game development.

School officials believe the university is the first in the nation to offer such a major at the undergraduate level: a four-year program with an emphasis on both the technical and artistic aspects of game development and interactive media.


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Students who declare the major will take four years of computer science and humanities and arts courses to learn everything from how to program interactive media and games, to how to develop story lines or create digital music and graphic art for them.

The major will be co-directed by Mark Claypool, associate professor of computer sciences, and Frederick W. Bianchi, a professor of music and WPI’s director of computer music research.

“Nationally, games are growing faster than any other entertainment sector,” Mr. Claypool said. “It’s very popular, and there are also some very sophisticated technical issues behind the games.”

Today’s gaming industry tends to employ two very different types of people, Mr. Bianchi said. Computer programmers provide the technical know-how to make the games work. Graphic artists provide the visual flair players have come to expect.

The industry is crying out for people who understand both aspects, he said.

“In the real world, there is no divide between the artistically savvy and the technically savvy. It’s a completely different world that hasn’t yet trickled down to the universities,” he said. “It’s very natural to me that there should be a program that addresses what the artist/technologist should look like.”

Students who declare the major will learn more than just how to create video games. They also will learn to design so-called “serious games” — such as those used to simulate homeland defense scenarios — and the skills required to work at places such as Pixar Animation Studios Inc., the creators of such animated movie hits as “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.”

Those same skills allowed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to drop an unmanned vehicle on Mars, and have dozens of military applications, Mr. Bianchi said.

“You cannot name an industry, application or interest that has not been impacted by this technology in some way,” he said.

The school expects about 40 to 60 students annually to declare the major. Mr. Schementi and WPI junior Christopher R. St. Pierre Jr., who lead the school’s student-run Game Development Club, believe even more students may participate.

Members of the club meet as often as once a week to learn the process of conceiving and designing a game. The club drew widespread attention in 2003 when it unveiled its “Mass. Balance” game at, a serious game that gives regular people a chance to try to solve the state’s budget woes.

The club also created a game called “Squirrel-Mageddon.” In the game, squirrels overtake the WPI campus. Students must fight the squirrels to regain control. The game contains an exact replica of the WPI campus, a virtual world that mimics the buildings and gathering spots on campus.

The game developers said they are still getting used to the school’s decision to embrace game design as a serious academic subject. “It was a shock to me,” Mr. Schementi said. “We were always the rebels of WPI. Some people looked down on it.”

“Now, you ask anyone inside the computer science department about it and they’re all gung-ho,” added Mr. St. Pierre, a native of Norwich, Conn.

The club exists to try to help students create a portfolio of game designs they can show prospective employers. The new major formalizes that process — and will give students a more realistic shot at landing a highly sought-after position in the game-development industry.

“I always knew I wanted to develop games, but before this, it always seemed like a dream, not a reality,” Mr. St. Pierre said. “I’ve always wanted to do it because I always thought I could do it better — and I still think I can.”

The video and computer gaming industry has more than doubled in size since 1995. That year, there was $3.2 billion in entertainment software sales in the United States, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group for the industry. During 2003, those sales topped $7 billion, according to the same group.

Earlier this month, the industry’s strength captured headlines with the release of “Halo 2,” a video game played on Xbox, a game console made by Microsoft Corp.

Sales of the game reached $125 million in North America during the first 24 hours of the game’s release, with more than 2.4 million copies sold, making it the biggest launch in video game history, according to Microsoft.

“Halo 2” generated more sales on its first day than the biggest movies in box office history, including “Spider-Man 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Matrix Reloaded.”

The video game industry has taken root in Massachusetts. Cyberlore Studios Inc. of Northampton makes action titles and a game that takes place inside the Playboy mansion. Zoesis Inc. of Boston is a digital animation studio that designs interactive creatures used in games.

And Blue Fang Games LLC of Waltham is the creator of a game called “Zoo Tycoon,” which allows players to assemble and operate their own zoo.

Two former WPI students, Michael N. Gesner and Michael Melson, are the co-founders of Dragonfly Game Design LLC, a company that has just leased office space on Friberg Parkway in Westboro. The company has created “Dark Horizons: Lore,” an online action game set in its own universe, and is developing “Q’Bicles,” an online office-humor game.

The industry needs talented, well-trained developers, said Mr. Gesner, adding that he hopes to someday employ some of WPI’s interactive media and gaming majors.

“As this degree develops, you’ll see a lot of people working in virtual reality, movie studios — even think tanks that create public policy simulations,” he said. “As an employer, this allows you to see the quality of the students before they come out of school. As the industry matures, there’s a need for more formal education like this.”

Ichiro Lambe, a 1998 graduate of WPI, is the founder of Dejobaan Games Inc., a game development company he operates out of his home in Northboro. The company has created and distributed nine different titles.

He said he wishes the school had offered such a major when he attended.

“It’s going to be a great resource,” he said. “Just being able to talk to people, to be immersed, really, in an environment where people are doing what you want to do is a remarkable thing.”

The industry is growing so rapidly that it may head in directions no one can anticipate today, he said. As Internet connections become faster and broadband more ubiquitous, games will become more sophisticated and elaborate, he said.

At the same time, players are looking for games they can play on mobile devices, and for games that are even more interactive, he said.

Today, players in different locations can play the same game at the same time, conversing via the Internet as they play. Soon, they will be able to watch each other play over live Web-based video, he said.

“Five years ago, there were so many things we couldn’t do that we can do today,” Mr. Lambe said. “Shoot forward a few years, and who knows where the technology will take us?”

Business Reporter Jim Bodor can be reached at

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