RAC Launches Game Design Program In January 2010

Game on.

Or rather, game design on: Recording Arts Canada (RAC) in Toronto has debuted a curriculum that admirers of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Assassin's Creed II, The Beatles: Rock Band and Batman: Arkham Asylum will undoubtedly embrace.

RAC's Game Design program launched on January 14, 2010 - one that will rely heavily on hands-on practicality and market reality, a course outline of which faculty director Greg Beaton is particularly proud.

"There are four tenets we want to provide," explains Beaton, a Toronto game designer, formerly with the interactive division of new media company Decode Entertainment, one of the largest international suppliers of television and interactive programming for children and youth."

"We want students who are coming to game design to be properly trained so they can get an entry level position. We want to get them so they can maneuver within the industry once they get into it, to get into the kind of positions they want.

"We want to make it so they can actually design their own games, and we want to make sure that they have a solid grasp of the whole process."

Beaton and RAC were so adamant in providing students with the most relevant education, that the program was postponed from a September 2009 start date while the duo reassessed and redesigned the courses to make them more academically valuable.

"In those four basic concepts, we established what we wanted to do and we started breaking down the things that didn't fit into that program, rebuilding things that really worked," Beaton admits.

"We've reduced the reliance of the program we originally had on art and animation, and we've put more focus on design theory and programming in order to make it much more oriented towards game development."

As well as immersing pupils in the worlds of programming and 2D/3D animation, course material will also focus on business skills, project management, career management, audio for game design and portfolio development.

By the end of the third semester, students will be well versed in creating their own games for hardware, online and mobile applications.

"Students are getting a more practical look at how games are made, rather than just how illustration and graphics came together in it, which was more the focus of the original program," Beaton notes.

And the 44-week program arrives at a time when business is booming. In March of 2009, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) reported that 247-plus Canadian video game companies directly employ more than 14,000 people, establishing Canada as the world's third-largest centre for development talent, trailing only Japan and the United States.

ESAC also predicts that by 2011, those numbers will have grown by a minimum of 29 percent, with companies such as Ubisoft Montreal  -- currently staffed at 1700 in Canada alone - igniting an expansion to Toronto that should result in another 800 jobs being created in 2010.

"There's extraordinary growth," concedes Beaton. "In Toronto alone, we've got a lot of development companies that are emerging from nowhere. There is Koei, a Japanese company that has produced Fatal Inertia and is working on Warriors: Legends Of Troy, that has an office here, along with Rockstar Games, the makers of Grand Theft Auto and the upcoming Max Payne 3."

 "There are a lot of similar large companies in this area."

That accelerated rate of escalation will continue, based on consumer stats. According to market researcher NPD Group Inc., 2008 video game sales in Canada topped $2.09 billion, a 23 percent increased from 2007.

Media Control GfK, another market research firm, predicts that video game purchases will account for 57 percent of all home entertainment sales in 2009.

The bottom line: Great news for a business that's still very much in its infancy.

"Games have only been commercial for 25 years, so the industry is still figuring out how it's doing things," Beaton reassures. "It's changing daily."

It's also fragmenting, with smaller independent studios forming and flourishing thanks to more accessible distribution channels.

"There have been a lot of developments lately with the iTunes Apps store, Steam, Direct2Drive and other distribution methods, but one of the more recent changes is that large companies are losing a bit of their grip," states Beaton.

"Earlier, if you developed a game, it wouldn't be enough to program it with hard assets: you'd also have to secure a publisher like a music or film company in order to deliver it to your consumers."

"With the current state of digital distribution, that's totally irrelevant.  As a lot of companies are now struggling with how that impacts their business models, it's made a lot of headway for small companies to really grow, since they can save a lot of the money they would have otherwise been spending on advertising and publishing by doing it online."

Beaton also says that programmers will continue to splinter from larger corporations to form their own studios.

"In game development, a big company will bring in lots of employees to do a lot of smaller tasks that become unmanageable at very large scales," he explains. "So in order to program a complicated game, you need more programmers and they do less creative work and more boring grunt work."

"Because it's a creative industry and a kind of creative job, a lot of people will become dissatisfied. Once they feel they've learned everything they can from a larger company, they'll splinter off and form their own studios."

"So in any area rich with larger studios, you always find a lot of smaller studios and the numbers just ramp up over the years. A lot of those companies just live or die, but with digital distribution and modern distribution methods becoming easier to access and more popular, those companies are having a higher and higher survival rate."

The RAC Game Design Program prepares student for software jobs in both small and large entrepreneurial companies with an intense three-semester course.

 "We spend the first semester working on computer basics and art fundamentals, getting people accustomed to a lot of tools they use in the periphery of game design, because it's vital to understand how all the concepts and components of game design work before you can really get into programming," Beaton explains.

"Once you learn those concepts, that knowledge is transferrable across any platform."

"Then we push into doing 2D game development in the second term, and that term ends with a cumulative game project."

"Term three finds us moving into 3-D game development and we expand on some of the theories and cases that we've studied in the second term. We start getting into a little more advanced theory and an understanding of the heuristics of game design, and then ends with a game project as well."

Although Beaton says the industry definition of a "game designer" can be somewhat confusing, RAC will help students achieve a better understanding of their potential role in creating the next Super Mario or Left 4 Dead.

 "Probably the most fundamental thing is that we have a lot of focus on the distinct design challenges presented to game design," he notes. "The game industry still hasn't come to a consensus as to what exactly a game designer is, or what they do, but the general understanding today is that it's the person who takes the vision of the game from start to finish.  In most cases, they're involved in doing documentation and the outline of how the game works and what it does, and what the player is supposed to experience and how.

"Then they work with the rest of their team to make sure that vision happens. Those core skills are still used in every position you can get within game design, and they're not really taught anywhere else."

Which is one of the reasons Greg Beaton is so excited about RAC's Game Design program.

"In a lot of schools, they'll teach you how to program games and they'll show you how games have been done, and they'll give you good examples of common and popular methods that have been used, but it doesn't help you to know what people are doing," he explains.

"You have to know why they're doing it, and how to make the next big thing. And that's what we're teaching: There's a real drive to understand games on a more fundamental level."


- Nick Krewen

For more information on the RAC Game Design program, click here.