The first videogame programming school emerges -- DigiPen Applied Computer Graphics provides the foundations for future game developers

By Jacqueline Savaiano
Updated June 30, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Rough sketches flash across a screen on the classroom wall. Scene one: Aliens bombard earth. Scene two: Scientists hide in a bomb shelter. Scene three: A survivor lies on a table, awaiting cloning.

”In Universe, the only 10 survivors — all scientists — aim to kill off the enemy alien race and create a new, perfect, indestructible earth race with genes from other alien races encountered during an outer-space journey,” fresh-faced 19-year-old Shelby Hubick breathlessly narrates. ”The dilemma: When do they destroy an alien race and when do they use its genes?”

Hands pop up from the youthful, grungewear-clad audience: ”What are the good genetic traits?” ”Body type, invincibility, intelligence?” ”How might the acquired qualities propel the game?”

Not your typical academic exchange, to be sure. But in a white-walled schoolroom stocked with rows of Macs in downtown Vancouver, these 26 students, from China, Korea, Hong Kong, Canada, and the U.S., are learning something way beyond the three Rs. They’re having a storyboard session at the DigiPen Applied Computer Graphics School, the only North American institution with a formal curriculum in videogame programming. Their goal: to become the next-generation Spielbergs, Coppolas, and Lucases for an interactive future fast becoming the present. The field is already a big business (1994 software retail sales were $4 billion in the U.S. alone) that’s thirsty for multiskilled talents who until now learned through ”piecemeal education and trial and error — basically basement work,” says Claude Comair, who, as president of DigiPen Computer Graphics Inc., a software development firm, is founder and director of the training division.

In March, the Microsoft-DreamWorks SKG multimedia joint venture announced that it was looking for 75 interactive-game developers. Yet such studios and game companies tremble at putting $1 million-plus into the hands of hackers — no matter how brilliant — to develop a single product. DigiPen’s videogame-programming school was created in 1993 to calm those nerves. ”It blends the desired technical and creative training,” says Jim Merrick, project manager of software engineering for Nintendo, which supports DigiPen’s efforts through curriculum advice, equipment, and internships.

Through an intense two-year program (4,859 hours in the classroom and lab), students are taught storyboard presentation and elements of computer mathematics, programming, animation, and modeling — all the tools necessary to create original videogames. These first students — who have ponied up the $6,500 annual tuition and braved 70-plus-hour weeks run by Comair like a ”military camp and convent” since September — will graduate in 1996. Sixty new students are expected to matriculate this September.