Campus Initiative Trains Future Video Game Designers

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This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Patricia Waldron

For Zachary Schecter ’23, it was winning the Most Innovative Game award at the Game Design Showcase his sophomore year that really clinched it: he would become a professional game developer. He had watched showcase attendees play his team’s game, Sisyphus, where the mythological main character swings his boulder through 40 levels, from the underworld up to Mount Olympus—and the judges deemed it the best.

“It was a defining moment,” Schecter says.

A longtime gamer, Schecter had considered game design as a career—but the computer science major didn’t know how to make that happen until he discovered the Game Design Initiative at Cornell (GDIAC) program.

“It literally changed my life,” he says. “It gave me everything I needed to understand how to make a game and also showed me what the real experience was like.”

Students around a table working on video game design on laptops.
Students displayed their designs at a showcase in May 2023.

Founded in 2001, GDIAC was the first undergraduate game design program at an Ivy League school and one of the first in the country. Students can declare game design as a minor, and Princeton Review lists it among the top 50 game design programs for undergrads.

For many GDIAC students, the showcase is when a passion for game design crystallizes into a career plan—all that hard work rewarded by the intoxicating rush of someone entranced by a game you created.

This year, the showcase was held May 20 in Clark Atrium in the Physical Sciences Building, with almost 600 visitors. According to vote counts, the crowd favorites were the desktop game Munchkey (where a monkey chef defeats dangerous fruit to make fruit skewers) and the mobile game Sunk Cost, a multiplayer stealth game where players are either treasure hunters exploring an underwater shipwreck or spirits trying to thwart them.

“There are a lot of flashy game design programs out there, but we hit above our weight for the resources that we have,” says Walker White, PhD ’00, director of GDIAC and senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, where the initiative is based.

There are a lot of flashy game design programs out there, but we hit above our weight for the resources that we have.

GDIAC director Walker White, PhD ’00

Despite being a highly competitive field, alumni of the program can be found at all levels of the industry, from companies like PlayStation and Oculus VR to successful indie teams with breakout hits.

White runs his introductory and advanced game development courses as studio classes, with students constantly presenting and critiquing each other’s games.

Twelve teams of eight—a mix of artists, programmers, and a musician—function like an indie game company to produce all or part of a game for the annual showcase. Students not only learn sound design, computer graphics, and software engineering but also the critical art of project management.

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While the professional tools from creating games have steadily improved in recent years, the students still build parts of their games from scratch—a decision that White says sets GDIAC apart from other programs.

A crowded atrium during a video game competion.
The Physical Sciences atrium drew crowds for the event.

“I’m an educator, and I believe in teaching foundational, portable skills,” White says. “I want them seeing how everything fits together.”

The program’s biggest breakout hit was the mobile game Family Style—a party game where players pass ingredients between phones to assemble dishes. In 2019, the game was featured on the front page of Apple’s App Store, went viral in Thailand, and reached a peak of 15,000 daily active players, White says.

But despite the preparation GDIAC provides, game development is still a tough field, with stiff competition for jobs, grinding hours, and frequent layoffs.

“I love supporting my students who want to go into the game industry,” White says, “but I don’t sugarcoat it.”

Students looking at laptop computers around a table.
In addition to the showcase, students in past years have traveled to compete in juried festivals.

He sends five or six graduates off to the game industry each year, while 15 to 20 others go on to work in game-related tech. “I make sure people are going in wide-eyed, because they’re hopefully in it for the long haul.”

Developing video games may seem like child’s play, but it’s a big business.

The Entertainment Software Association reports the U.S. spent $56.6 billion on video games in 2022; worldwide, the market was estimated to be worth $214.2 billion. About two-thirds of people in the U.S. play video games at least once a week, and the industry employed more than 400,000 people in 2020.

“It’s definitely a challenging industry; the bar is generally really high,” says Rajiv Puvvada ’10, an early graduate of the program and industry veteran who has worked at top companies, including Zynga, JuiceBox Games, and AWS for Games. Especially for entry-level positions, he says, “there are only so many of those spots that come around.”

It’s definitely a challenging industry; the bar is generally really high.

Rajiv Puvvada ’10

There are no cheat codes for breaking into the industry, but recent graduate Kristina Gu ’22, BS ’21, MEng ’22, says that after multiple attempts, she felt fortunate to have landed an internship at PlayStation.

Gu is now a technical designer at Naughty Dog, an affiliated company behind the critically acclaimed game The Last of Us. GDIAC made her well-rounded, which makes her a more flexible game designer, she says.

“Game development is really one of the only fields that has that perfect balance of being interdisciplinary, technical, and creative,” Gu says, “which is something I really, really enjoy.”

All photos by Rachel Philipson for Cornell University.

Published June 1, 2023


Comments

  1. Matt Sadinsky, Class of 1979

    There are so many professions few know about. Games are key to Career Exploration, perfect for discovery & preparation. As former SVP HR for Vivendi-Universal Games including Blizzard, Knowledge Adventure, Sierra Online, Flipside et.al. it was enthralling to learn the tremendous creativity that game design demands & offers. We see serious games as a rich platform for helping veterans, graduates & professionals explore new worlds, new professions & careers & for traditional Associations, Unions & Federations to attract new & more diverse talent to evolving careers. ILR’79

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