Five Questions With: William Culbertson

The assistant professor at the New England Institute of Technology talks about the school’s video game design technology program. More

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Five Questions With: William Culbertson

Posted 3/27/13

The New England Institute of Technology was recently named one of the best schools in the United States to study video game design by the Princeton Review.

William Culbertson, assistant professor of game development and simulation technology at New England Tech, talked to Providence Business News about the program, its superlative rating and what makes it superior to other game design programs.

PBN: New England Tech was recently named a “top game design school” by the Princeton Review. What do you think makes the program so successful?

CULBERTSON: One of the strengths of the Video Game Development and Design Technology program is the aspect that we offer a very comprehensive program. Students are exposed to all the major aspects of the industry as well as additional specialized facets. When attending the Associate in Science degree program, students can expect a curriculum that will provide a solid foundation in industry, including areas such as, standard programming languages, computer generated 3D modeling and the fundamentals of game design. Our Bachelor of Science degree program builds on those fundamentals with advanced studies in technical skills game development and design. Along with our course studies, our department strongly encourages students to participate in a number of activities including 24-hour and 48-hour game jams, student game club and our guest speaker series featuring industry leaders and professionals. Additionally, our department faculty is very active and engaged with the students.

PBN: What do New England tech game design students get at NEIT versus at another program?

CULBERTSON: I think NEIT has several features that help to make it a top tier program. Our facilities are exceptional. I doubt there are many schools our size that can match the number of fully-equipped computer labs that we have for students’ use. Additionally, we have a dedicated HP Gaming Lab with very high end computers. It is used primarily by our advanced capstone classes and work groups. Team work is another key feature of our program. New students in our game development and design programs learn from their first classes that the game industry places a very high value on team work and being a team player. Our program emphasizes “team” in many of our courses. Employers have been very specific in complimenting us on our “team” approach to projects and are appreciative of how it prepares our graduates for employment. Through our Technical Advisory Committee, we work very closely with professionals in the game industry in seeking advice to help guide our program so that our curriculum adapts and grows reflecting the most current industry trends. We are not a research college. Our mission is to provide an opportunity for students to acquire the skills and knowledge to work in the industry.

PBN: Can you explain a bit about the program's curriculum and what students study while attending?

CULBERTSON: We utilize a quarter system for our calendar of studies. In their first quarter, students get an overview of the many aspects of the game industry. They are introduced to the concepts of programming using XHTML and JavaScript languages as well as the basics of digital graphics. In their second quarter they learn game design concepts, documentation, and the fundamentals of C++ and Flash. Quarter three students continue their programming studies with Intermediate C++, Flash II and are introduced to the 3D world of computer modeling. Quarter four is the big decision time when students must choose to concentrate on programming the complex code that makes the games run or to focus on design, developing game assets, character design and interfaces. We intentionally designed the program with this structure so students could experience both sides of the industry, allowing them to determine where their true passion lies. Having chosen either the development or the design track, students progress through the subsequent quarters of study pursuing their choice in depth. By the end of quarter six, they will have completed their Associate in Science degree. At this point they have developed a strong foundation in their area of study.

The Bachelor of Science degree program builds from quarter seven through twelve on the Associate in Science degree foundation with advanced studies in the students’ area of specialization. Programming areas of study include C++, Advanced Game Programming, Game Persistence, API programming with Direct X/Open GL, programming for consoles, handheld devices, etc. In the design track, students are exposed to design fundamentals for user interfaces, 3D modeling programs for character and game assets and animation. A unique aspect to our program is that we developed the programming and design curriculums with common courses each quarter, ensuring that the students learn to interact with each other, programmers and designers, much like they would at a game company. This is where the “team” emphasis comes into play. Team work, communication, recognizing how to anticipate obstacles and how to learn from failures are all part of the program.

PBN: Where do you see this field heading in the next 5 to 10 years?

CULBERTSON: That’s an interesting question. This industry is constantly changing and evolving. Look at the hardware, where it was 10 years ago, and the changes made within the last five years. We don’t know what new technology will be in the next five years, but chances are, it will be awesome, consumer friendly and will bring new challenges and opportunities for our students. Over the past two years, the industry has made a huge shift from pay-to-play games to fee-to-play. Who knew that companies would actually make more money from their games by giving them to players for free? The key is micro-transactions: monetizing the game play and assets. No one could have foreseen that move five years ago.

Look how mobile phones have changed the industry. Apps, tablets, and evolving game consoles are all world changing - all new to the industry. This industry is growing at a tremendous rate. Consider the Asian marketplace and the huge emergence of gaming there. Some areas of the world are facing the challenge of developing a game industry with strong cultural boundaries. The Pentagon has identified modeling and simulation as a vital element in developing our nation’s strategic defense.

At New England Tech, we are building a co-op internship program with the US Air Force to develop training games designed to aid in the training of our troops. Serious games, medical simulations, personal tutors for aiding students from Pre-K through college, virtual worlds… games are being integrated into our daily lives. One of our challenges is to adapt our program to prepare our graduates for today’s world and to have the tools necessary to adjust to the changes that are coming tomorrow. Our close alliance with the gaming industry has been key in guiding us.

PBN: What advice do you have to prospective students or high schoolers thinking about a career in game design?

CULBERTSON: First and foremost, you have to have a passion for video games. If your passion isn’t there, it will show in your work. Developing great games requires a lot of hard work, dedication and passion.

Learn to be a team player. Games, in general, are too complex for one person to develop. It takes many people, each bringing their expertise to the table and working together. It is an exciting industry. Unlike some other industries, the gaming industry is very friendly. There is a lot of interaction between companies and the people. It’s a global industry with many, many facets.

I’d recommend that students to go into their education with an open mind as to their area of specialization. They may think they want to be a programmer and soon discover that 3d modeling is their passion.

Visit our college. We host Tech Nite Open House every few months where prospective students can come learn about the industry, the employment opportunities, and our program and speak one-on-one with faculty. The next Tech Nite is on Tuesday, April 2, from 4 pm to 8 pm at our East Greenwich campus. Our faculty and our administration are committed to our program. We are very proud to have been distinguished as one of the top colleges for gaming programs in the country.

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