UT Gaming Academy Aims to Train Next Generation in Business

It’s time for the video game industry to grow up.

No longer the purview of introverts on the sidelines of the creative arts, gaming is a global business worth tens of billions of dollars, and its practitioners need to become as savvy business-wise as they are in the creative and technical realms.

That’s the perspective of Warren Spector, a 30-year gaming veteran and one of the brains behind the new Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s innovation, and we still desperately need that, but we also require leadership,” he says. “How do you innovate in a commercial context? You have to work efficiently, especially when you start talking about the kinds of dollars we’re spending.”

The academy has enlisted some of gaming’s top success stories to lead the effort. Spector, who will be part-time faculty at the academy, will be joined by Paul Sams, COO of Blizzard Entertainment, which has produced some of the industry’s most recognizable games, including “Diablo” and “World of Warcraft.”

UT says it’s the first video-game program in the country led and taught by gaming industry professionals. And Fred Schmidt, who, along with Richard Garriott, founded Portalarium, says he’s excited to see how the academy can create a corps of junior executives for the next generation of gaming companies.

“People just sort of evolve in our industry, if you’re there long enough,” he says. “You’re never really taught like you would be if you’re getting an MBA in finance about how the banking industry works as an industry and as a business. How do you manage your project through market transitions? How to fund projects? How to keep on schedule and maintain accountability when you’re dealing with millions in budgets?”

Schmidt is keen to have the academy provide what is, essentially, an “MBA in gaming” that adapts the pedagogy of a graduate business program to suit the needs of the gaming industry.

Spector agrees, saying skillsets related to leadership are under-taught in current game development schools across the country. “In 30 years, we’ve gone from one person alone in a room somewhere creating a game to teams that often have hundreds of people,” says Spector, an Austin native known for his work on the “Deus Ex,” “Disney Epic Mickey,” and “Ultima” games. “We’re entrusting more and more money to more and more people and, frankly, those people learn on the fly.”

UT’s academy, which will enroll its first class in the fall of 2014, has just 20 spots. The students will receive a post-baccalaureate certificate, instead of a graduate degree, which would have more academic restrictions. Students will receive free tuition and a $10,000 living stipend. The program is a joint effort sponsored by UT’s Schools of Communication, Fine Arts, and Computer Science.

Blizzard’s Sams, and his wife, Susan, as well as Wofford Denius, who is the director of the Cain Foundation, contributed an undisclosed amount of funding to start the program.

Schmidt says that existing programs so far have focused on undergraduate education and the more technical facets of game development. In fact, UT already has a Game Development Program, similar to programs such as Guildhall at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. “There’s a lot of buzz and applause and camaraderie. Startups get created on a bus to South by Southwest,” he says. “But it sets up false expectations, and six months later they’re back looking for a day job.”

The key question for the gaming academy is how executives who have learned the business on the fly come with a set curriculum to train future gamers in how to not just run a studio, but lead a business. Hitting that sweet spot could help the Texas gaming industry cope with the rocky economic climate recently, which has included studio closures and mass layoffs. Electronic Arts laid off 900 last month, while Blizzard cut 600 people from payrolls last year. Earlier this month, San Francisco-based Zynga announced it was cutting 520 jobs, a group that included 96 employees in its Texas offices.

“There is a disruption in our industry,” Schmidt says. “You don’t just need the big central publishing conglomerates anymore. The pipeline to customers is very direct, creator to consumer.”

UT’s academy could help the Texas gaming industry develop an ecosystem within the state, one that is more independent from the economic cycles of the big California-based companies. Today, Texas has the second-largest concentration of game companies in the U.S., with more than 155 development and publishing companies accounting for about 4,000 full-time jobs, according to the Texas Film Commission in the Office of the Governor.

At least one prospective student is intrigued. Austin Hallock created Clay.io, a marketplace for HTML5 games, when he was a UT student and is thinking of applying to the new program. “This is an opportunity to work with 19 other students who have the same mentality that you do,” he says. “You can be creative and also a leader in the game industry itself.”

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