October 29, 2015
Video gaming's march into the mainstream grows every year, with major developments in digital entertainment and practical application. For anyone who loves to bounce through Mario's fanciful worlds, raid tombs, or tackle alien hordes in "Halo" and "Destiny," this represents an immense opportunity. Video game development is now a $68 billion industry and growing, providing solid career paths for coders, designers, writers and managers.
It's not just big-budget, AAA games like "Call of Duty" and "Mass Effect," either. Smaller studios, and those focused on mobile apps, are actually some of the fastest-growing sectors of the industry. According to data from market research firm NPD Group, even something as simple as "Candy Crush" generates over $1 million every single day. The category has also expanded broadly - the popular image of kids or teenagers huddled in a darkened room playing for hours has given way now that the generation that spent its free time in basements and dimly lit arcades has moved out into the professional world. In fact, NPD found that the 55-and-older demographic spent three times as much as 18- to 24-year-olds on mobile-game apps.
Video game development is relevant for far more than just entertainment, however. There's strong utilization of this same technology for training and teaching purposes in healthcare, the military, education and many other fields. The ability to create virtual worlds to solve real-world problems, and offer a simulated environment to explore potential paths for resolution, maximizes critical thinking and problem solving in ways never possible before.
The Role of STEM in Video Game Development
If you're passionate about computer science, technology, engineering or math, video game development encompasses many of the critical elements of each. Every component in a video game needs to be coded by skilled programmers and the software used to build games from scratch has to be developed by engineers.
Dr. Gwen Britton, executive director of STEM Programs at SNHU, tells how video game development incorporates the primary components of STEM.
"We've recently updated our BS in Game Programming & Development program, which most people don't think of as an engineering program," said Britton. "But if you look under the covers, it has a lot of engineering flair. You have to know how to do physics. You have to know how to do math. You have to be able to write programs. Think about it; if you've got an animal coming at you and it's coming at a certain velocity; you have to know how to make its arms wrap around you, you have to know how to make it go fast - velocity and force and all of that."
The key here is problem solving. Whether you're trying to figure out the force needed to launch a rocket through the atmosphere, the strength needed to bear the load of a bridge or the trajectory of a digital projectile, STEM disciplines focus on identifying problems and figuring out the solutions. Math is just a part of it - you need to be able to figure out which problems to tackle and in what order.
"They love to do puzzles. They love to create. They love to envision. They love to be innovative," Britton said of the students in SNHU's STEM programs. "It doesn't matter which one of those STEM fields they go into. Environmental scientists like to play in soil. They're just solving different kinds of problems with different mediums, whether it's with soil or video games or space satellites. It doesn't matter. You're solving problems and being creative and innovative."
What's Involved in Video Game Development?
Today's games are far more complex than earlier renditions. The industry has come a long way from arcade classics like "Asteroids" and "Centipede." Those games are so simple by comparison that they're sometimes programmed into contemporary games as Easter eggs - hidden objects that game developers include in games for savvy players to find for fun.
Many STEM disciplines intersect when creating a virtual world. The most obvious is computer engineering - the knowledge of hardware and software that allows developers to create engines that can display everything from a cave troll to an entire galaxy. Courses like Object Oriented Application Development and Principles of Database Design teach students how to work from the ground up to construct these programs at the most fundamental levels.
The objects here are not physical ones, of course - they're virtual objects contained within a development environment. Learning how to manipulate these pieces of data and teaching them how to interact with each other to create a believable world represents the core of video game development.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another fascinating element of video game development, which brings a sense of realism to the virtual world you experience behind the screen. It isn't just the characters you see, either - it's the other cars on the road avoiding you during a driving game or virtual fish scattering when you dive into a digital sea.
There's also the visual aspect. Every single object in a digital world needs to be created from scratch with the aid of 2D- and 3D-design tools. In some ways, it's like a theater production - some people are behind the scenes creating props and scenery, others program the lights and sound for the theater, and some bring the characters to life, with a director leading the whole show.
"Let's look back at the old days when you didn't have video games; you had puppets. Back when 'Sesame Street' and the Muppets first came on, for those of us who watched those shows, we thought that was the coolest thing because here were these inanimate objects that somebody brought to life," Britton said. "Did you know that people major in puppeteering - the way you make their arms move, the way you make them show a gesture? Video game development is similar - the difference is that you're working in a two-dimensional space and you have to make it look three-dimensional and know how to move all of those things. Do you have any idea how much thought goes into that?"
What Are Some of The Careers That Video Game Development Graduates Pursue?
At the heart of video game development firms are its coders - the people who work with programming languages and game engines to construct the digital nuts and bolts of a virtual world. It's a fascinating, yet challenging, job. They determine the rules of the game, the way a player interacts with it and how each object interacts with every other one, whether it's the speed of a bullet or the arc of a jumping avatar.
SNHU graduate and Army veteran Derald Wise was fortunate to get in on the ground level when the military began using a first-person shooter video game to help train soldiers and Marines for combat. While it was still a relatively new concept, he began creating scenarios for the military as a game developer. He knew he needed to further his education if he wanted to advance his career. After earning his bachelor's in video game development and design, Wise was able to get more visibility in the job market and received multiple job offers from companies engaged in simulation.
Designers and artists bring video games to life. Some work in purely 2-D media, drawing what a game world will look like or sketching out the curves of a starship. Others go into the real world to film and digitize actual objects like cars in a racing game or even the streets of real cities. 3-D designers build models and then stretch textures over them, so that wireframe models look like real people, animals and buildings.
Araxie Yeretsian is a full-time video game designer, a freelance web designer and illustrator, and a full-time student at SNHU. She says, "Our job as designers is to make the experience smooth, and transition as much information about our game as we can, in the most visually enjoyable way possible."
Working in the video game industry on a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, Yeretsian takes great pride in the work she creates at SNHU with fellow peers and professors, who she says, "have the same desire to create a functioning and aesthetically pleasing player interaction." She's learned that the beauty of design in any game is the availability to allow players to discover and survey spaces that elaborate the story and message of the game.
"I enjoy continuing my education and fostering my skills with other designers, who are just as driven as I am," said Yeretsian.
Most games need a story, so writers and editors develop a storyline, creating characters and dialogue. The complexity in a script for an average AAA game makes even the most elaborate Hollywood screenplay look like a 22-minute sitcom in comparison.
For those with a bigger vision and business acumen, director and lead design roles present an opportunity to bring their ideas from inception to reality. A video game director plays a role no less important than the one behind a camera. In fact, his or her job might even be more challenging since actors, sets and shots all exist in a virtual world.
A number of other opportunities exist within the industry, including marketing and publicity, quality assurance (QA) and testing. Many people in the field today got their start in quality assurance, playing through game levels over and over to identify and help iron out all the bugs and quirks. In fact, QA is something of an unsung hero within the world of video game development. Without this critical role, games would be infested with bugs, glitches and other problems.
Simulations: Beyond The World of Entertainment
One of the incredible things about video game development is how its principles can be applied in other fields. After all, it's fundamentally about engineering and managing systems. A simulated world might be used to entertain, but it can also be used to solve problems in business, finance, health and even law enforcement.
At its heart, a simulation is just a model of how a system works. An engineer might simulate traffic over a bridge or through a complex intersection, while a medical research scientist might simulate the impact of a drug or treatment on a virtual patient. It can be as simple or as complex as its creator desires, from the simple simulation of a fire drill to the flight simulators used to train new pilots. That's exactly how people now learn to fly an airplane, with a sophisticated video game.
Britton shared her experience working with a simulation used to test nursing pre-licensure programs. She test-drove it not as a healthcare professional, but as an expert in mathematics, computer science and engineering - and found the process fascinating.
"The really cool thing about the whole experience is that the instructors are on the other side. This is all online, and they're observing what I'm doing. They're the ones that are making the simulated patient do these different things and they're following the set of protocols that the nurse should be able to do," said Britton. "But somebody had to write the programs that would allow them to do this."
Simulation In Post-Deployment Life
There is also a strong therapeutic application for games as well, as many military veterans have discovered. Returning servicemembers, who are afflicted with PTSD after their time abroad, can work through similar experiences in video games and virtual reality simulations as a means of coming to terms with and coping with their PTSD triggers, in effect giving them back a part of their life.
According to Defense News, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 percent and 20 percent of servicemembers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan developed PTSD. Virtual reality systems have been used to create therapeutic PTSD tools used in hospitals and clinics throughout the nation. One such tool, the Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan program, replicates many of the scenarios a servicemember may have experienced, without actual immersion in that environment and is an exercise involved in exposure therapy.
Simulation is also used to assist the families of transitioning military servicemembers, such as "Family of Heroes," an online avatar-based resiliency and PTSD training simulation to help family members learn important skills to cope with adjustment to post-deployment life. The simulation includes everything from managing their own expectations about a loved one's return from active duty to de-escalation of arguments, managing stress and encouraging a veteran to seek help for PTSD.
Video Game Design and Development Programs at SNHU
SNHU's online master's and bachelor's degree programs offer a strong set of courses designed to help prepare students for the video game industry.
"SNHU's game programs will teach students to design and develop games for entertainment value as well as simulations for solving problems," said Britton. "The beautiful part of these programs is that they are so authentic and it's really going to position students to do what they really want to do. If they want to be game developers and actually play with the big kids out in the game world, it will position them to do video game development or simulation development because they are learning so many different things."
At the undergraduate level, a student can earn a BS in Game Programming and Development at SNHU. The video game development program provides the fundamentals of computer science in the field of video games, including how to use a variety of programming languages, expertise in 3-D modeling and techniques for building robust artificial intelligence.
The online courses focus on the disciplines of information technology, mathematics, game design and graphic design, with core classes such as Psychology of Digital Games, Applied Linear Algebra and Scripting for C# in Games.
Both the bachelor's and master's degree online programs offer vital flexibility to online students, while still connecting them with experienced instructors who possess practical, real-world expertise. It's possible to complete an online graduate degree in as few as 15 months.
Your Future In Game Development
Over the next few years, U.S. News and World Report reports that video game development will become an $82 billion market. This is a challenging, but lucrative and growing, career path. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall, software developer positions will increase by 22 percent over the 10-year period from 2012 to 2022. Those who land jobs in the field can expect a median salary of $93,350.
Earning your degree in video game development at SNHU means you'll reap the benefits of a 100 percent virtual classroom without compromising the quality of your education. With incredible support from SNHU's team of academic advisors, instructors with real-world expertise and 24-hour access to your online course materials, you're sure to reach your goals.
Take your first step in this emerging field by contacting SNHU's admissions office today.
Peter Leahy is chief engineer aboard the container ship APL China. When he's not there, Peter is pursuing his online MS in Data Analytics - and his lifelong passion for conservation.
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