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Fun & Games at Woodbury University: Q&A with Game Art & Design Chair William Novak

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...September 9, 2014
Woodbury University
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Finding a B.F.A. program in Game Art & Design can be a challenge, as many aspiring game designers and artists can attest. Three years ago, Woodbury University formed its Game Art & Design program within the School of Media, Culture & Design. In the time since, the program continues to grow, adding new courses and even gaining plan approval from NASAD (it will be eligible for full accreditation once it graduates its first class). Students focus on one of two tracks in Game Art or Game Design. Both options integrate and collaborate with each other as well as with other departments in the school.

To learn more about it, we caught up with the man behind Woodbury’s program whose own illustrious career has taken him through all things digital from music to virtual reality to casual games. Program Chair William Novak remains as drawn to the world of games today as he was in 1982 when he snagged his first gaming gig at Sega. Known simply as Novak to his students and colleagues, we asked him what makes Woodbury’s Game Art & Design program tick. We hope you enjoy! (This interview, done via phone, has been edited minimally for clarity).

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ACR:  You have such an interesting background. Tell us about it, and how you eventually found yourself teaching game art and design…

Novak:  I’ve worked with interactive electronics since the 1960s using synthesizers and sound test equipment. That led to an electronic music composition degree; as a student, I was an assistant to John Cage for a semester. I thought I’d be a starving artist until video games came along.

My knowledge transferred very well to the early video game industry. I didn’t know that you could get paid for doing weird stuff. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and never learned game design in school: there were no accredited programs at that time. I had my own software development company and we could only afford to hire inexperienced people. So, the new people coming in had to be taught how to perform their work- whether it was on the design side, game art or programming. That’s really when I got involved in teaching.

ACR:  What makes Woodbury’s Game Art & Design program different from others out there?

N:  Three years ago when I came here and started the program, I spent a lot of time looking at other schools and some didn’t make sense to me. A school would advertise themselves as focused on game design but they were really doing game art and 3D modeling; others were focused on theory. Having worked as a professional designer, I put together this program in the only way I know how which would allow students to make a video game.

We have two tracks: “Game Design” for students who want to create UI, play mechanics, backstory, scoring systems, and all the other elements of creating a game. Then we have a track for “Game Art” which focuses on 2D and 3D art, special visual effects, and animation. They are intertwined tracks. Both groups of students take courses together the first year and then they start breaking off into their own specialties by the second year, while still sharing courses.

ACR:  The program emphasizes 4 pillars which include transdisciplinarity. Tell us about this interdisciplinary approach to the study of game art and design…

N:  That plays a big role. For instance, our game art students take courses in our Animation Department. Our students also take courses in game programing from our new Media Technology Department. Conversely, I have animation students minoring in Game Art & Design because they’re not sure what direction they want their careers to go in. There’s a lot of cross-over. That’s been the hallmark of my life- you’re all over the place, learning as many different things as you can. 

ACR: How do you overcome the constant technological changes within the industry to prepare students for whatever they may face?

N:  There are best practices. Part of what we teach is that technology changes under your feet on almost a weekly basis. For just about every project I’ve done, I’ve used different hardware and software. That’s part of the gig. You don’t know what you’ll be working on. Skills and practices that are transferable are necessary and that’s a big part of what our students learn.

ACR: Entrepreneurship factors into the program, as well. Are students required to take courses in business or are there other ways you challenge them in this area?

N:  It’s not necessarily business-oriented. For us, entrepreneurship is a way of initiating actions on your own. We have a fourth year course called Professional Practices of the Game Industry; part of that course will be exploring how to start your own business. But we’re not focused on that exclusively because going into business is not for all students. Entrepreneurship is also knowing the job functions in the real world. Last semester, students posted their final projects to a Kickstarter campaign which brought up a bunch of issues like, “once we’re funded, what do we do with the money?” Having owned a small corporation for 14 years myself, we talk about contract work and taxes and the like. But we acknowledge that it won’t apply to everyone.

ACR: Along those lines, careers requiring the expertise of game artists and developers are ever-expanding outside of the bounds of entertainment. Do your students get a taste of these options?

N:  We’ve developed an elective course called Serious Games. Students use game technology outside of the entertainment business; things like medical therapy, military simulation, corporate training and education. The instructor teaching the course worked for a number of years in this field.

ACR: Another emphasized pillar is civic engagement. How does that come into play for your students?

N: It’s encouraged. And it’s something we’re actively working to develop. It’s also a component of our Serious Games course. Students explore how to design an interactive technology that would help a community, for instance. With a cheap laptop, you can go into a community and help solve a problem.

ACR: The film and music industries have shifted extraordinarily with the advent of crowdfunding and the independent artist. Can the same be said for video games?

N: In a word, yes. What changed everything in music, video games and movies, is digital distribution and the ubiquity of the Internet. You no longer have to drive all over trying to find a game; you can buy it within seconds sitting in your bed. That’s changed everything. In some places for the better, in some for the worse. In the last few years, the indie game developer movement has gained traction but aside from some superstars it’s a tough place to be. With so many apps on the App Store, or on Steam, it becomes more of a marketing challenge than anything- you can have the best game in the world but if it’s not easily found then no one will buy it.

ACR: Lastly, the million dollar question: what trends do you see on the horizon that you want to prepare students for?

N: I don’t know… that’s just it. Whatever it is, our students will be ready for it. Virtual reality is a trend right now. When I was at Mattel 30 years ago, I worked on the Power Glove- that was the first virtual reality-like mass market device and it failed in the market. Now with Oculus coming out, who knows? Maybe virtual reality will really take off in a big way. Ultimately, I don’t care if something becomes the next big thing, I just want to be involved in it all.

ACR:  It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, Novak. Thanks so much for your time!

Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.