Redmond-based DigiPen is renowned for schooling elite video game engineers. Could its model solve the state’s tech education woes?
Most people testing student-built games at the DigiPen Institute of Technology are handed an Xbox controller, joystick, or keyboard. But those taking a whirl at the game Douglas Buzzell helped build first receive a warning.
“People can get motion sickness, so don’t push it,” Buzzell says. “We can’t have people sit in rolling chairs, and we made sure you can’t jump in this game. That would just make it worse.”
The cautionary statement is necessary because Ocublocks, the game created by Buzzell and his teammates, is an early attempt at virtual reality gaming using the Oculus Rift headset. It is an immersive experience unlike anything on a conventional console, and it’s far more advanced than some school project thrown together in a semester. Like most students at DigiPen, Buzzell and his teammates spent a year on their project, constantly testing and tweaking it during that time.
The Ocublocks world is a glimpse into the future of gaming, which DigiPen faculty and students have been shaping for years.
But can the school ’s curriculum, which so deftly produces top-notch video game developers, work in other industries? As the state’s public education system struggles to keep up with the demand for skilled tech workers, the solution to the dearth might be housed in this Redmond office-park campus.
DigiPen offers baccalaureate degrees, but at its essence, it’s a trade school. Students don’t just learn about stuff; they learn how to do stuff, and they don’t have to wade through general education courses that aren’t applicable to their chosen professions.
This allows DigiPen to do things differently than most computer science or game development schools. Instructors focus on the basics — programming students, for example, start off in the simple C language created in the 1970s — and the material in each class is constantly adjusted to best provide the tools necessary for game developers.
“I don’t run a department, but I can go to the math department and say I need a probability and stats class that is more applicable to game design,” says Ben Ellinger, who leads DigiPen’s game design program. “The math department here goes, ‘OK, here’s what we can do.’ A normal math department says, ‘We can’t do that. Here’s another class they can take.’”
Once students — DigiPen has about 1,000 — have the basics down, they begin working on intensive, yearlong group projects that incorporate concepts learned in the classroom.
“At most schools, maybe you do a team project, maybe you don’t. Here, you do three,” says instructor Ellen Beeman. “We want students to build a game from scratch, and you can’t do that in one semester.”
A few of those game projects have helped build DigiPen’s brand. The most famous is Narbacular Drop, a DigiPen student project that caught the attention of Valve Software. All seven Narbacular Drop team members were hired by valve, and their concept became Portal, the award winning 2008 puzzle game. Success stories like this drive the students that follow.
“There have been a few games that have won (Independent Games Festival) awards, so there was this talk of, ‘Oh, DigiPen’s been doing well. Let’s not be the ones who blow it,’” says Jordan Hemenway, a 2012 DigiPen graduate whose student project, a racing game called Nitronic Rush, has been downloaded an estimated 3 million times. Following the success of the game, Hemenway and two of his classmates founded Seattle-based Refract Studios.
Employers notice, too. Of DigiPen students who began their program in 2006 and graduated in 2012 or earlier, 90 percent who earned a game development degree were hired after graduation, and every single student who received a computer engineering degree landed a job.
“What DigiPen does is grabs (students) and helps mold them into the gaming industry,” says Thomas Abrams, head recruiter for Bellevue gamemaker ArenaNet. “You have good people coming out of schools like (the University of Washington) that are doing their stuff on the side. The difference is they don’t have a lot of guidance.”
The school’s track record is especially appealing in Washington, where there is a huge shortfall in the number of computer science graduates needed to fill the technology industry’s talent maw. The Washington Student Achievement Council estimates the state needs to produce 4,468 computer science bachelor’s degrees per year to keep up with employer demand, but Washington is currently handing out about 1,800 CS degrees per year. As a result, tech companies are looking elsewhere.
“Your alternative is to import the talent,” says Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “You can import the talent from Utah, Massachusetts, or California, all of which are producing a lot more grads than we are both in volume and quality. But when you compete with Massachusetts, you’re competing with companies out there and there’s a huge relocation cost. So what we’re left with is to import talent from around the world … because there is no choice.”
Schutzler says anything that cuts the CS talent deficit is good for the state’s tech sector, and companies are partnering with community colleges and tech schools to create tailored curriculums for current and prospective employees. DigiPen does this well in the game industry, but it’s not clear whether other tech sectors could employ a curriculum that will remain relevant over the course of a degree program.
“In the long term — over a lifetime — the things that make you successful are less the tools you learned in school and more the capabilities you acquired in areas such as critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, elocution,” Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW, wrote in an email. “The top bachelors programs teach these things. That’s why Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, top startups, and indeed the game and animation industries focus on students from schools such as UW, MIT, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, (and) Stanford.”
But to DigiPen’s Ellinger, the school’s game-focused curriculum gives students the analytical background needed to excel in other areas.
“There’s a weird illusion of what we do with our specialization,” he says. “So we’re the ‘game school,’ and in one sense we are. But the reality is we use games as the draw to trick students into learning really hard subjects. When you graduate from here with a CS degree, sure, you specialized in games, but as we see many of our students do, you don’t have to work in games.”
DigiPen’s role in the statewide education scheme isn’t of much concern to Buzzell and the other students on the last day of summer semester. Teams hover around computer screens, finalizing networking and other back-end elements of their games. In the fall, some will return to polish gameplay elements such as art and levels.
The video game focus isn’t the lone oddity on campus. Among the seniors, there’s almost an absence of stress about what comes next.
“I’m not worried about getting a job,” says Wooyan Kit, a senior computer science and game design student visiting from DigiPen’s Singapore campus. “The reputation’s so good here that none of us really worry about it.”
Wooyan’s stateside companions have little reason to worry, either. Washington is looking for a few thousand students just like them.