Rice Getting Plaudits For Teaching Video Game Design

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Photo by Hallie Jordan
Rice senior Giacomo Ferrari with his game Box Wars

Computer gaming--usually a top procrastination activity -- has landed Rice University a spot in the Princeton Review and GamePro magazine's top 50 schools for computer game design.

Computer science professor Joe Warren started the program ten years ago with the class advanced computer graphics. A freshman gaming class is also offered, along with 3D modeling classes offered through the Visual and Dramatic Arts department.

"I decided on a lark to teach a senior level class where everyone would build a game," Warren said. "We had a great time and the students actually learned a lot."

With both art and computer science majors, game design is way of collaborating between these departments, Warren said.

"Typically we have artists working with the programmers," Warren said. "It's an interesting experience for both the artists and programmers because there is communication that has to take place. Computer science students must learn to talk to those who are non technical, and the artist has to understand how to deal with technical things."

To Warren, the game design classes teach a lot more than programming and technique. As a group effort with collaboration between many a must, he says students can learn life lessons.

"People learn skills that you really use in real life," Warren said. "You have to be able to talk to others and convince others that your ideas are good. You have to be able to be a communicator and work in a team."

Warren believes one main reason Rice ranked was because of the good, basic degree the university offers.

Criteria for the rankings listed on the Princeton Review website included the quality of the curriculum, faculty credentials, facilities and infrastructure, university financial aid and post graduation career opportunities.

"We strive for interesting and innovative games with professional design elements," Warren said. Students create a variety of 2D puzzle games (think Tetris), 2D scrollers (Mario Bros.-type game), 3D racing games, real time strategy games (in the style of War Craft 3) and 3D fighting games.

One game, called Spectrum, seems to work like Mario Bros. but is based entirely on colors. The small character must get through blockades to level-ending doors. In each level there are multiple color screens where different parts of the scene are visible only in that color. For example, a floating bridge that is visible in red will disappear when the user switches to blue.

"My favorite part of game programming games is letting people play," Dustin Bachrach, a Rice junior, said. "It is fun to see our game concepts click with people."

Busker, a term meaning street performer, is a game similar to Guitar Hero, but more in depth musically. The game is based on playing chords instead of individual notes. Also, when additional notes are played the game does not respond with a bad sound, but just adds in the notes to the overall music.

"It is much more musically accurate than Guitar Hero," sophomore Jesus Cortez Jr. said. "I love playing guitar and I love playing Guitar Hero, so I wanted to make a more realistic game."

Then there is Box War -- a cute 2D game based on a small multitasking box man. The game consists of a multiplayer battle mode as well as single-player options.

Rice's program is still small and students should not expect to graduate being professionals in game design technique, Warren said.

"I'm not that focused on commercializing the games," he said. "That's not the point."

For Warren, gaming does not end when the workday ends. At home he plays World of Warcraft with his three children. The online role-playing game teaches leadership, economic strategy and privacy, Warren said.

"There are a lot of thinks about World of Warcraft that are actually quite good," Warren said. "World of Warcraft has taught them about privacy anonymity. For instance, a sexy night elf might actually be a balding middle age man."

Aside from life lessons, Warren also believes playing World of Warcraft will help him keep in touch with his children when they go off to college, as the came uses a voice chat system.

Warren has been playing video games since college when he got his first game console, the Atari 2600, in the `80's while he was a student at Rice.

"The reason I do this is because I enjoy it -- its fun," Warren said. "It's fun building the games. I think that's why the students come. It's great fun building a game and getting the chance to see it and play it."

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Hallie Jordan