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Capstone Video Game Course Aims for Super Brains

May 3, 2011- At this time of year, many graduating students are still looking for the right career path upon which to embark, trying to get a foot in the door for their chosen industry or seeking a summer job to make money toward a graduate degree. For some lucky University of Utah students, those tasks may be completed even before they walk across the stage at Commencement.

At the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year, the undergraduate senior students in Bob Kessler and Roger Altizer’s entertainment, arts and engineering senior capstone class were told to come up with an idea for a video game. Kessler, a computer science professor and Altizer, an assistant professor in film and media arts, then helped the class whittle down the projects into the top three games over the first month of fall semester.

This refining was done through a process of student voting and review by a committee of faculty and professionals in the video game industry.

The 30 students -19 from computer science and 11 from film studies – then split into teams of ten each and set out to develop the three games. They each came up with an “alpha” version (a sort of rough draft) of the games by the end of the fall semester.

The games, developed with Microsoft software run on the Xbox 360 game console, were further tested and refined throughout the spring semester of the class and developed into a “beta” version, or test phase.

All three final products — “Minions!,” “Mr. Gravity” and “The Last Podfighter”– now will be presented at the University of Utah on Tuesday May 3 from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Warnock Engineering Building (Room L130) as part of EAE Day.

EAE stands for Entertainment Arts and Engineering, which is an interdisciplinary course of study that gives computer science or fine arts majors the chance to graduate with an emphasis in video game development.

“These projects are all about fine arts students working with computer science students in a melding of art and technology,” Kessler says. “Basically, we look at EAE as merging the left (more logical) and the right (more creative) sides of the brain to develop a super brain.”

The games developed in the capstone course also have been submitted to Xbox Live Indie Games, an online game store that allows downloads of games anywhere in the world for about a dollar each. If a game is sold on Indie Games, Microsoft will pay the students 70 percent of the games’ income every quarter.

In addition to the interdisciplinary experience, students learn how to pitch their projects to industry professionals, get important networking opportunities and learn to deal with the challenges of creating a product for consumers.

While video game development may sound somewhat frivolous, the industry is quickly overcoming the film industry in economic strength. Game development companies like Electronic Arts and Disney Interactive Studios have recently expanded their studios in Utah, bringing many high-tech jobs to the state.

Of course, students may see the rewards of their efforts as somewhat more tangible than exercising both sides of their brains in academic pursuits, notes Kessler, “Last year, two teams published their games on Xbox Live Indie Games. One got a four out of five rating and has sold several thousand dollars’ worth already.”