Q&A: Meet the Director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy

Longhorn Life: What is the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy (DSGA)? What makes it special?

Warren Spector: DSGA is a new, innovative game development program at the University of Texas at Austin. Unlike other game development programs out there (and there are 384 of them in the US alone), we’re not focusing on the nuts and bolts of game making.

We only admit 20 people who already know how to make games. We want to teach our 20 stellar game-creators the ins-and-outs of game development {{leadership}} in an intensive, nine-month course of study. The focus on leadership alone sets us apart, but there are two additional things that set us apart.

First, our faculty is entirely made up of current industry professionals. You’d be amazed how many programs don’t require industry experience. Having said that, the unique feature I expect our students appreciate the most is no tuition payment and, in fact, we pay them a $10,000 stipend to cover expenses while they’re in the program!

LL: What is the program curriculum, and why did you choose this curriculum model?

WS: The curriculum is pretty simple: 90 minutes of class time, four days a week, followed by four hours of lab time, Monday through Thursday, and a solid eight hours in the lab on Friday.

We want to give people a conceptual grounding in leadership and management through the class and then give them a lab space to put all those concepts into practice. The lab is really the heart of the program – we want it to feel like a real job but with one critical difference - the power to fail!

Failures are firing offenses in the game-development world, whereas failures are learning opportunities in the academic world. Obviously, we hope our students internalize the lessons learned in class and execute against them exceptionally well in lab, but we’ll be able to stop, assess the failure case, learn from it and move on when they fall short.

The coolest thing about the lab is that all 20 students will work on a single game of significant scope throughout their two semesters at UT. Very, very few game development programs at other institutions give students that long to make their games, and even fewer programs offer them the opportunity to work on a team that big. We’re really excited to see what amazing games come out of this approach.

LL: What should the ideal candidate already know when they apply for the program?

WS: The simple answer is that candidates should already have significant game development experience. This is not the place to learn how to make games. You need to come to us as the master of your discipline – coding, design or art, mostly – and having been part of a game development team. We’re just not going to teach the basics. Also, be ready for a full-time commitment. This isn’t just a class or two you take before meeting friends for dinner. Candidates have to be ready to approach this as if it were their first job. It’s a taste of what the real world is like.

LL: What can students do nowto start developing their game development portfolio?

WS: The most important thing is to get on a game team or two (or ten) before applying – no experience, no admission. There are three ways to get into the DSGA – you can come to us with a game development degree from another institution; you can come with real industry experience; or you can be so good at what you do we have no choice but to admit you. Each case requires game development experience. Period. End of story.

LL: What is the gaming scene like in Austin and/or Texas?

WS: Austin is one of the hotbeds of game development in the world, not just in Texas or the US. It’s been a center of excellence and a development hub since the ‘80s. There are dozens of game development studios in town, some with hundreds of employees and some with, well, one! If you want to make games, there are few better places to do it than in Austin. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the DSGA – there’s a real opportunity for our students to leave the program and get jobs right here in Austin.

LL: How will the DSGA better prepare students to enter today's job market?

WS: Well, no matter how hot game development is right now – and it is hot, with lots of jobs available – there are no guarantees! There’s fierce competition for every open slot. Candidates have to bring something unique to the table. People with industry experience have something to talk about in interviews; recent college grads have far less – there are just too many people getting game degrees these days for a sheepskin to matter much.

We feel like the unique focus of the DSGA gives our graduates something unique to talk about, something that sets them apart. And it’s not just a good story we’re giving them – they’re leaving us with a set of leadership skills and an understanding of how teams really work that will allow them to contribute effectively, even in an entry-level position.

We think potential employers will see and appreciate that. All of our students are good enough to get jobs without any help from us – they’re that good – but what we can do is provide a career accelerator.

Becoming a game development leader normally takes 5-10 years. We think we can reduce that timeline. In a sense, we’re not preparing students for jobs; we’re preparing students for the jobs they want.