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More than a Game: the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy

Giving News

By Jamey Smith

Summer is blockbuster time, and the multiplexes are packed with superheroes and space operas. But some of the highest-grossing epics today don’t come out of Hollywood, and they’re not movies. It may surprise you that the video game industry has grown into a $100 billion business, and that Texas can claim a substantial piece of it.

Not so surprising? The University of Texas is at the forefront in producing effective leaders to take the industry even higher.

Call of Duty. Grand Theft Auto. Minecraft. If those names don’t register, just ask your kids — or your aunt — because video games have become a cultural force. Ever play Words with Friends on your phone, or Candy Crush? Then you’re a gamer. And forget the pale teenage boy stereotypes. More than half of gamers are now women.

Warren Spector, director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy

As director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, Warren Spector emphasizes team building and communication.

Acknowledging that thousands of people are making games in Texas already — the Lone Star State has the second-highest concentration of game companies in the U.S., after California — UT leaders saw an opportunity and enlisted a gaming industry veteran, Warren Spector, MA ’80, to help articulate a vision to address it.

The result is the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, which launched last year with a singular mission: to teach creative team leadership.

“Traditionally, the gaming industry has not done the best job of training its leaders,” says Spector, who has been on more than 20 production teams over three decades as a designer, director, and producer for such games as the popular Ultima, Deus Ex, and Disney Epic Mickey series. “So when I was asked to come in and help plan this program and later to direct it, I wanted it to have a unique focus. And we decided that we could best serve the industry by focusing on creative leadership and management. There’s no one else doing this.”

Denius-Sams is based in the Moody College of Communication and is a joint effort with the College of Fine Arts and the Department of Computer Science, with support from the Provost’s Office. Meant to complement and not replace what undergraduates learn about creating games at UT and other universities, the academy does not offer a degree. Not yet, anyway. For now, the participants receive a post-baccalaureate certificate — and bragging rights for making it through an intense and challenging nine-month program.

“Our students know how to make a game already, so we’re not teaching them the nuts and bolts. Rather, we’re trying to recreate the experience of being in a real-world development environment,” Spector says. “When we evaluate applications, what we’re looking for is a balanced team in terms of skill sets and disciplines. For our first class of 20, we had five programmers, seven artists, two writers, and six designers. I could leave the university with a team like this and we could make games tomorrow.”

DSGA instructor Joshua Howard

Instructor Joshua Howard works in the production lab with students Ross Marabella and Graciela Ruiz.

A rigorous experience with many long, demanding days, the academy asks a lot from its eclectic, high-achieving students and offers much in return. Participants receive a tuition waiver and a monthly $1,000 stipend to assist with expenses — again, the only game development program to do this.

Admission is highly competitive, with no more than 20 spots available each year. Students learn about team building, studio culture, and communication strategies, along with deal making, budgeting, and business strategies.

To prepare them for problems and challenges they will encounter in the real world, the students work together to create a game, rotating through multiweek stints as creative director, producer, and discipline lead. Along with Spector, core instructors Joshua Howard and David (D.S.) Cohen spend much of each day mentoring students one on one. Guest lecturers bring their expertise as well.

“Game development is the most collaborative medium I can think of,” Spector says. “You’re combining programmers, who think one way and have their own language, with artists, who think a different way, and designers, and writers, and audio people, who think the way they do, which is different again. The best leaders in this business find a way to get all of those people communicating effectively to create one thing.”

Graciela Ruiz, a graduate of the University of New Mexico, was drawn to game development because it fulfills her passion for art, technology, and connecting with others. She says her academy experience helped her land a dream job as a cinematic artist at a prominent game company.

“I’ve learned so much this past year and would recommend the experience to anyone looking for the skills to accelerate their career,” Ruiz says. “If I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

The Calm Before release party

In May 2015 the academy welcomed the community to play its first game and meet the creators.

The academy was made possible by startup donations from its namesakes: Wofford Denius, BBA ’74, who directs the Cain Foundation; Paul Sams, chief operating officer of gaming company Blizzard Entertainment; and his wife, Susan Sams, BJ ’92.

Additional ongoing support is welcome, and a development council of industry notables is helping spread the word that individual and corporate sponsorships are available.

For the academy’s second year, Spector is tweaking the syllabus and making other small adjustments, as one would expect after the “beta 1.0” version of a major new undertaking. But he is thrilled with how the first year went.

“Nobody is going to leave here and be the director right off the bat on the next $100 million game,” says Spector. “But they’ll go in understanding the decisions the leaders above them have to make. And they’ll have more empathy for those people, which is good in and of itself. They’ll also be able to work more effectively to help those decisions lead to success. If we’ve taught them one thing, hopefully it’s that you can lead from any position on any team.”

He looks forward to when academy graduates can come back to share their own hard-won insights with students. “I can’t wait. One of the most gratifying things about this for Joshua and David and me has been seeing people grow — not just as programmers, designers, or artists but as people. I wish I had a crystal ball and could see where these folks are going to be five years from now. Because some of them are going to be stars.”

Learn more about the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and how to support it.

Download and play the academy’s inaugural game, The Calm Before.

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