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Student Soapbox - Immediate Professionals: Dev Kits and University Game Degrees

SMU Guildhall game student James Stewart gets on the Student Soapbox to make his case for giving console development kits to game universities, to further game education and leave graduating students better prepared to face the real world.

James Stewart is a student at the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. He was a copyeditor at White Wolf Games in Atlanta and has written around numerous editorials for his hometown newspaper, The Shreveport Times.

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Development kits for modern consoles require more security than the average nuclear reactor. Students enrolled in game development programs could sooner get their hands on a suitcase full of undepleted Uranium than an Xbox 360 dev kit.

That's the way it seems, at least. The truth is much more mundane: Academic game degrees are a new thing. The industry isn't used to hiring new employees from such programs, and the tradition of philanthropy that sustains almost all universities hasn't had time to take root—there's no “older generation” to give back to the younger. Though a few developers and hardware manufacturers are beginning to form relationships with institutions of higher learning, less than a dozen schools worldwide have access to the technology that their graduates will use daily in the “real world.”



Xbox 360 Dev Kits are hard to come by...

The issue comes down to trust. In the new few paragraphs, I hope to persuade industry decision-makers that it is worth their while to make dev kits more accessible to university students.

The Benefits of Dev Kit Programs in Schools

Judging by the Gamasutra jobs page, the industry wants employees who have worked with modern platforms. An applicant who can list console development experience on his or her resume has a much easier time finding a job. The benefit to students, then, is obvious, but what do developers and hardware manufacturers have to gain?

Instant professionals, for one thing. Graduates with dev kit experience can be immediately productive upon entering the industry. It costs money and time to ramp up new hires. Surely, developers would prefer employees who have already acquired the requisite skills (at their own expense, no less).

Second, experience precedes innovation. The sooner junior programmers can work with next-generation platforms, the sooner they can invent new ways to exploit the hardware capabilities offered by multi-core processors, physics cards and so forth.

The third benefit is product placement: Presumably, there's a reason that Adobe and Microsoft offer such generous academic discounts on their software. Student who are already skilled with, say, Excel spreadsheets from their undergrad education are more likely to use what is familiar after graduation.

The model works with hardware as well: The proliferation of IBM mainframes on campuses during the '70s was crucial to sustaining the preeminence of Big Blue.

The same concept could apply to game consoles. One day, the young Turks from upstart game schools might become wizened studio heads, prominent game designers, or maybe project leads who have to choose target platforms for their latest hit title. Are they likely to exclude the latest generation of the console that they've worked with since their school days?

Finally, consider the tax write-offs: Better employees and positive future predispositions probably seem nebulous to corporate accountants, but they might perk up at the possibility of tax-deductible equipment donations.

The Obligations of University Game Development Programs

Trust implies responsibility. So far, this Soapbox has put the onus on the industry, but schools that want greater access to dev kits must reassure hardware manufacturers that their valuable technology is in good hands.

Though console manufacturers still control the final stage of the pipeline—the pressing of the copy-protected disc—dev kits are crucial tools for any would-be pirate. At a minimum, universities need to prove that they can protect the intellectual property of their corporate partners.

Though non-disclosure agreements and academic honor codes are standard almost everywhere that academics intersects technology, game programs must be prepared to go further. Aside from physically securing dev kits, schools must control remote access to this sensitive technology. Perhaps this could take the form of closed “dev labs” with only local network access in which portable hard drives, laptops and so forth are strictly verboten. Universities should be willing to hire IT or industry professionals whose sole job is to ensure the security of the dev kit lab.

Doubtless, hardware vendors have more sophisticated methods to protect their products—a good reason for industry and academe to work together more closely. If universities can conduct research for the Department of Defense, surely they can also provide effective security for dev kits.

No matter how many countermeasures are in place, students themselves will bear the ultimate responsibility. Piracy costs the industry millions by even the most conservative estimates. For a student who is supposedly passionate about finding a job making games, IP theft is the height of hypocrisy. Those lucky enough to get dev kits should respect the opportunity as the privilege it is, and do nothing that would confirm the anxieties of hardware manufacturers.

* * *

I don't want to trivialize the issues involved in making dev kits available to students. For one thing, there's the matter of maintenance and support, and it remains to be seen which schools are serious and which are fly-by-night. Given the complexities of these concerns, it's crucial that developers, manufacturers and universities come together to discuss them.

Whether or not these discussions take place, the games industry will continue to mature. As demand for its products continues to grow, so will the need for programmers who can make use of next-generation hardware. The best academic game programs have already proven they can produce graduates up to task, and it seems inevitable that academic training will soon become as important to video games as it is to other high-tech industries. Developers and manufacturers who recognize this trend sooner rather than later, who make it a priority to form solid relationships with universities, will fare better in the console wars to come.

Give us dev kits, and we'll show you what we can do.

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