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  • Lisa Jevens

Gaming and mobile apps design a growing, competitive field

From smartphones to senior centers, video games are everywhere and on every mobile device. Its hard to find a person of any age who hasn't played one.

If gaming is your passion, does that mean you'd be good at creating them for a living?

"The short answer is no," says Nick Ehrlich, chair of Game + Interactive Media and Animation + Visual Effects at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy in Chicago. "You must be passionate about gaming to be a good developer, but it's not all you need," he says. "I tell applicants that just because you like to swim doesn't mean you want to make swimming pools. You need to be passionate about a lot of another things."

The gaming industry is in transition right now, trending away from consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation toward online and mobile gaming. That means gaming is a growth area and a viable career choice, Ehrlich says.

But lots of people want to get into it, so it's competitive. That's why up-to-the-minute, industry specific education and training is a must, he says. "Real-time game coding has a high level of proficiency and efficiency. Game designers have to be somewhere between artists and programmers. They have to have the technical skills to think about logic, but also the story choices of a character. They have to be capable of implementing their ideas," Ehrlich says. "I have a lot of candidates who talk about writing stories. That's great, you need the ideas. But you need to learn the technical skills to implement them."

Local schools are building and refining their digital curricula to meet the demand for skilled game creators and app developers.

Tribeca Flashpoint offers an associate degree in gaming. Graduates take one of three paths: programmer, designer, or artist, Ehrlich says. Programmers work on the back end; designers code and also develop stories; artists design the look and feel of the characters and environments. Graduates go on to jobs in the Midwest, California, India and China. "You don't have to leave Chicago to work in the gaming or mobile app business," Ehrlich says.

Elmhurst College has offered a bachelor's degree in Computer Game and Entertainment Technology since 2007. Not every graduate goes straight to a gaming company, but they have no shortage of job prospects.

Elmhurst graduate Matt Staudenmayer works at Xorbix Technologies, a mobile app and software development company, based in Milwaukee. Staudenmayer grew up on games, and always knew he wanted to work in the business.

"When I was a kid I wanted to see my name in the credits," he says. "As an adult I played a lot of games and I knew I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes. I always thought I was really good at it. I wanted to make a name for myself, which is not easy to do in the gaming world."

At Xorbix, he works on mobile apps for companies and other organizations. He recently completed the app for the Festa Italiana festival in Milwaukee. Like many who graduate with a gaming degree, Staudenmayer is gaining experience at a mobile app company, which he hopes will lead him back to gaming.

"Gaming is in the back of my mind. I still want to do it. But right now the mobile world is growing, and it is a good opportunity. I definitely love it, because there is always something new to do on your phone," he says. "I would love to make mobile games because that would be the best of both worlds."

John Jeffrey, professor of computer science at Elmhurst College, says graduates trained in gaming offer companies a lot.

"For example, they can work at places like Argonne, displaying and visualizing data," he says. "A lot of them go on to web development companies. For example, at American Eagle — not the clothing store — in Des Plaines, they work on major sports teams' websites. We have 10 former students there. They don't all work at gaming companies, but may write games on the side and sell them in Apple or Android app stores."

Jeffries says most gaming students at Elmhurst are straight out of high school. "Most of them are interested in gaming because they've played all their lives. Then some have experience in programming, or double major in computer science."

He says gaming majors can expect to earn salaries comparable to those of computer science majors.

Nontraditional students and career changers can also take advantage of the online professional certificate programs Elmhurst College offers in gaming, mobile app development and other digital skills. "Most of these classes are online. It is perfect for adults working in the field who want to add skills. Classes are interactive via a webcam," Jeffrey says.

Offerings include Mobile Application Development, and Serious Games and Gamification (which deals with creating training programs, simulations, etc.) More courses are in the works, including at the master's level.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Advanced Education section on July 18, 2013.

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