A decade ago, as the dot-com boom was busting, Bob Kessler said enrollment at the University of Utah’s computer science program was “dropping like a rock.”
While looking for a way to excite students into signing up for computer science classes, he encountered a video game engine, an incubator where engineers and artists team up to develop new games. Kessler got excited, and so did students.
That shared enthusiasm is what led Kessler, Mark Van Langeveld and Roger Altizer to form the U.’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, or EAE — which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week as one of the country’s foremost launchpads for young men and women getting into the video game industry.
The EAE is celebrating with a launch party for this year’s classes’ new games, which the public can see demonstrated and even try out themselves. The event happens Tuesday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the EAE’s Master Games Studio, in Building 72, 332 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City.
On Monday, students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends gathered at the U. to praise the program and to reminisce.
Rob Baer was an animator studying at Salt Lake Community College when he was inspired to join the U.’s EAE program.
Baer, a grad student, is part of the team that is developing a mobile game, “Zoom Zoom Newton,” in which a spacesuit-clad kitty flies through the galaxy, bouncing off obstacles, destroying asteroids and going up against a sinister alien robot.
One of the biggest lessons at EAE, Baer said, is that developing games requires teams who can work together.
The program, Baer said, “forces us to be in groups, to get to know each other. … You have to have that communication between the artists and the engineers.”
When the EAE was started, Kessler said he consulted with people in the computer industry about what kind of employees they needed. The message was that computer programmers “have got to know how to work with artists,” Kessler said. “So the EAE program became the bridge.”
The EAE “gives you a safe environment for learning things and trying things out,” said Laura Warner, who earned her master’s degree in 2012 and has worked steadily in the industry since. She starts a new job this week as a game designer at Niantic, a game developer best known for the mobile-phone game “Pokémon Go.”
Warner reminisced about when, early in EAE’s history, she was one of three women in the program — and all three were artists working on the same project team. The three got into an argument that lasted into the night, until they forced themselves to work it out.
The lesson Warner learned, she said: “We’re making games — this is supposed to be fun.”
“I think I learned more from the failures,” said Patricia Kendrick Balik, an EAE alumna who is now a senior program manager at Microsoft.
Balik recalled working on a team that reached an impasse on a project, and they called in Kessler to settle the argument. “We were like, ‘Dad, pick the side that’s right,’ ” Balik said.
What Kessler did surprised Balik: He told them to work it out.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Bob is treating us like adults,’ ” Balik said. “No one’s going to solve this problem but ourselves.”
EAE also serves as a pipeline for graduates to break into the game industry. “They gave me such great introductions and connections to people in the industry,” Warner said.
In 10 years, Kessler said EAE has adjusted to changes in technology (with the rise of mobile games) and social (now half of all game players are women). He’s also seen people’s attitudes change about studying video games in a university.
Where once people didn’t take video games seriously, he said, “we’re moving to where studying games is a discipline.”
EAE Launch Day<br>The University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program celebrates its 10th anniversary by launching its students’ latest video games and medically related apps.<br>Where • Second floor, Building 72, University of Utah campus, 332 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City<br>When • Tuesday, May 1, 3 to 6 p.m.<br>Admission • Free