How SMU Guildhall Became the #1 School for Video Game Design

June 1, 2018

In 2016, the video game industry contributed to the direct employment of 65,678 Americans and added $11.7 billion in value to U.S. GDP.

“It’s not like it was when I got into the industry,” said Mark Nausha, the Deputy Director of GameLab at SMU Guildhall. “In the ‘90s, we were doing triple A, console-quality games with five or six people. That’s unheard of today, unless it’s an indie studio or mobile game. I just had a previous student visit me, and he’s an associate producer on a game and that team was in excess of 200 people internally, plus outsourcing – and that’s not the exception if you are working on something triple A or high quality.”

Photo Credit: SMU Guildhall Facebook

Founded in 2003, SMU Guildhall was one of the first graduate video game development programs in the United States. The Princeton Review has ranked SMU Guildhall as #1 on its Top 25 Graduate Schools for Game Design for the past two years. The SMU Guildhall program is 24 months long and offers a Master of Interactive Technology degree and a Graduate Professional Certificate, with concentrations in four areas: programming, design, art, and production.

“Our biggest differentiator is that we take students from all four disciplines, and we build games together,” said Nausha. “We expose the disciplines to one another by working together and collaborating. The students have their individual skillsets, and they know how to team very well. That’s shown through their games and shown when they get out in the industry.”

Guildhall students work in cross-disciplinary collaborative teams to develop three games as part of their coursework, mirroring the style and pace of the industry. Currently, their first project involves designing a 2D game in Unity. Second, they build a 3D game in Unreal. The final Capstone project is equivalent to a senior project and is the largest in scope, producing a commercially viable product. The quality of these projects is so good that Nausha has been publishing them on the digital distribution platform Steam.

“A lot of people in the industry know us, and they know what to expect when they hire one of our students. For example, in 2017, one of our classes did a VR game – it was our first VR game for Capstone. We had a local developer take a look at the game, and they were so blown away by it they hired the entire team upon graduation,” said Nausha.

Photo Credit: SMU Guildhall Facebook

“Our goal is to build leaders here. The ability to go into the industry and know how to work with a large team and acclimate yourself is key. Here you can make mistakes and hone your skills – in the industry you can’t just jump in and make mistakes like that. I see it all the time, a student is having difficulties or they just didn’t know how to get through a problem, and a faculty member or another student will come to their side and a huge life lesson comes out of it. I know that wouldn’t happen in that way anywhere else.

“Sometimes parents will visit, and they’ll start by saying, ‘I don’t even understand what my kid does. He’s on his computer, he works with games…’ What really clicks for them is when they walk around here and see that there are a lot of other kids like their child. They don’t know what to expect when they come here. But once they get here, it doesn’t seem intimidating or frightening, and they realize there are so many people like their child. And that’s when the light clicks – you can see that realization hit as parents walk around.”

Community outreach is also a significant part of the Guildhall curriculum.

“Our mission for GameLab is to give students real-world experiences while they’re here. That includes publishing, working with industry, but also charity events like Extra Life, which is a two-day game jam where the proceeds go to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“We go to local high schools in different socioeconomic areas and build awareness about video games and the careers that they can provide. We take some of our thesis projects and our games. And just through that experience, the kids start asking a lot of questions. ‘How do you guys do this? How do you develop this? I had no idea you could take math skills and build these games.’ It’s a great way to bridge our students here with other students who may have similar passions and drives.”

Photo Credit: SMU Guildhall Facebook

As the top school for game design, it was only a matter of time before Guildhall turned its attention toward the fastest-growing sector of the video game industry: esports.

“Lots of people play games, whether it’s casually on their phones or hardcore, so people understand gaming. But when it comes to esports, some people do have a lack of understanding. They may appreciate that their child is doing something that looks like a club event or sporting event in high school, but they truly don’t understand the benefits of what they are doing and the community that is there. My approach to bridging this gap is to provide a better understanding of what esports is so their parents can better support them.”

When the Guildhall attempts to bridge that gap, it will occur in the form of a two-day esports festival called OP Live Dallas. The event will take place on the main floor of the Irving Convention Center, September 22-23, 2018. The event, which is a joint effort with eGency Global, will not only feature high-level professional competition, a 16-team collegiate tournament, and a showcase for the work of Guildhall master’s degree candidates in interactive technology, it will also provide education for students and their parents about how to break into the video game industry.

Photo Credit: OP Live Dallas Facebook

“We are going to have a lot of booths that illuminate the opportunities that gaming provides from a competitive play standpoint to how to design games, become a caster, or become a pro. We’re going to have talks given by people in various facets of the industry, from people that develop the games to pros that play games for money to casters and influencers. We’ll give this broad stroke approach to the different career opportunities for people who have a passion and desire to do such things and make it real and tangible to them. And, of course, there will be all the entertainment value that comes with it. There will be lots of things for fans to do,” said Nausha.

OP Live Dallas has the potential to expose and educate even more people about the burgeoning esports scene, which has experienced extreme and sudden growth, surprising even industry veterans.

“I had seen large events over the years, especially in Asia, but it was for anomalies like StarCraft. But as for people playing games, it’s always been a great community where people just got together and watched and played games. But, I’m totally shocked at what its turned into and surprised in the best ways. That huge arenas, like the Staples Center, are selling out, and the online audience is even more surprising, those audiences can be hundreds of thousands of people watching online. I don’t think anyone can say that they saw this growing to the extent that it is and is going to be,” said Nausha.