Ethan Ham is Chairperson of Bradley University’s Interactive Media Department, and Professor of Game Design
Centered not far from the midwestern hubs of Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, Bradley University students have access to a variety of opportunities from their campus in Peoria, Illinois. The university was founded well over a century ago, and it prides itself on preparing students for their future professional and personal growth. With enviable resources and facilities along with a small student population of less than six thousand, Bradley offers nearly two hundred degree programs including several degrees of relevance to our readers.
Bradley University’s Interactive Media department is home to four undergraduate majors including animation, game design, game art, and UX design. Don’t let the school’s small class sizes fool you. All the merits of a large institute greet its interactive media students including industry-grade equipment and industry partnerships with the likes of NASA.
Ethan Ham serves as Chair of Bradley’s Interactive Media Department, as well as Professor of Game Design. Prior to his role as educator, Ham designed, developed and produced numerous games including his work on The Sims Online for Electronic Arts. Amidst his successful career, he pursued an MFA in sculpture and has pushed the bounds with a multidisciplinary approach to his craft. Ham brings his savvy insight and dedication to the classroom at Bradley. For this spotlight interview, we catch up with Ham to talk shop about the Interactive Media department at Bradley. Enjoy!
ACR: Ethan, let’s start at the top. What was the genesis of Bradley’s Interactive Media Department, and how has the program evolved in the years since?
EH: The department began as an interdisciplinary Multimedia program in Bradley’s College of Communications & Fine Arts. It focused on creating digital media by combining communication strategy with aesthetics derived from art. In its early multimedia years, the program had about 60 undergraduate students who worked together to create interactive media for CD-ROMs and DVD discs.
As the program grew, it evolved into the Department of Interactive Media. Over time, the Interactive Media major established concentrations in Animation, Game Design, and Web & App Development. Eventually, those concentrations grew into full-fledged majors. Today we have about 260 students who major in Animation, Game Art, Game Design, Interactive Media, and User Experience Design.
ACR: On the subject of the majors offered in the Department of Interactive Media, is there cross-pollination between them?
EH: Until recently, all of our majors shared a foundational freshman year. We have moved away from that, however, as we have tried to deepen the curriculum for each of our majors. There still are some shared courses. For example, IM 150 Fundamentals of Interactive Design is taken by every major in the department. Game Art and Game Design majors work together in many classes, of course.
But the main avenue we have for cross-pollination is our Practicum course. This is a class that all of our majors take together every semester. All faculty and students meet together for an hour each week for this class. In it, we do two things. First, we host guest speakers from industry- and we’ve had some pretty amazing guest speakers. Second, we combine our students into groups (mixing years and majors) and have them develop co-curricular projects for our end-of-the-year show. Really amazing projects come out of Practicum which go right into the students’ portfolios as highlights.
ACR: The department’s students also intermingle on a big project each year...
EH: They do. Every fall we create teams that mix together our freshman, sophomore, and junior students from all of our department’s majors. The teams must come up with a proposal to create an ambitious interactive project (typically a game) to be featured at our end-of-the-year show at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
The groups present their proposals and 8-10 of the game projects are selected to be funded by the school to be created. The game projects are co-curricular; we provide some mentorship and guidance, but the projects are student-led and done outside of classes. This provides the students the opportunity to work towards something that is very real. In fact, thousands of museum visitors will play our students’ games. The students relish the opportunity to work on these projects, and we find that the outcomes are almost uniformly outstanding.
These co-curricular projects are an important part of our program because it is a place where the professors step back and the students step up and really own the process. One of the game projects students are working on this year will become a permanent exhibit at the Riverfront Museum.
ACR: Does the Interactive Media department work with industry partners, and if so in what ways might we see their influence?
EH: We do. We have partnerships with a number of companies and particularly strong connections with Deep Silver Volition game studio, OSF Hospital/Jump Simulation, and F84 Games- all of which provide industry internships to our students. We just wrapped up a multi-year project for NASA and are working on launching a new one with the Dayton Research Institute and the Air Force. Our Hollywood Semester program involves students taking a semester “abroad” in Los Angeles, where they study and intern at an animation or game company.
ACR: Working with NASA… how cool is that? We can’t talk about interactive media without talking tech. Given the rate of technological advancements, how do you stay on top of it and ensure students are well-rounded?
EH: Technology is something that has always driven the game industry and advancements are made quite often. Because of this, tools that developers use change, and at Bradley we update our curriculum often to ensure that students are getting experience working in the same tools that they would be in the industry. Beyond that, we teach the underlying concepts and development skills that transcend the particular tools. We give our students the opportunity to work on projects for our annual FUSE show which gives them the freedom to succeed on their own and build the skills to do so, while also supporting them through mentorship and funding.
ACR: Give us a glimpse into Bradley’s enviable facilities that students utilize.
EH: The Interactive Media department's facilities feature a UX lab, a XR lab, an animation lab & 2D capture system, two game development labs, and an extensive game library & console museum. We have plans to establish a tabletop game workshop (the room renovation for this was going to happen over the summer but was derailed by COVID). We are also on the cusp of having a 3D capture lab.
Cinema 4D, Maya, AfterEffects, ZBrush, and Unity are some of the software packages used by our animation majors. Our game art majors use Maya, ZBrush, Substance Painter, Unreal, and Unity. Game Design majors tend to focus on Unity, but we have plans to create a series of classes that focus on Unreal, as well. Our game students create work on mobile devices, web-based desktops, arcade cabinets, virtual reality, augmented reality, and consoles. The User Experience Design students learn industry-standard, user-centered design tools such as: Figma, Sketch, Invision, Optimal Workshop, Adobe XD, Illustrator, Photoshop, Adobe Project Aero, and Usertesting.com.
ACR: In addition to your role as Chair of the Interactive Media Department, you remain a Professor of Game Design. What are the distinguishing characteristics of Bradley’s Game Design program that poise students for future success in the fields?
EH: As students progress through the Game major, the size of the development teams they are working in increases. During freshman year, students work individually. This way, we ensure that every student is learning the fundamental skills needed for game development while creating a project entirely on their own. During sophomore year, students work in a small game development team of 2-3 while learning to work effectively in a team. In the junior year, the teams increase in size to 5-7. And for the year-long senior capstone project, the team consists of more than 20. This progression exposes students to a variety of team dynamics and production methodologies (Agile, Lean, Kanban, etc.). As the team sizes grow, students also have the opportunity to take on leadership as well as more specialized roles.
ACR: Last but not least, Ethan, what are you most looking forward to seeing evolve games in the near future?
EH: I’m excited about the prospect that commercially viable AR technology will take mobile gaming- which is already a larger percentage of the market than anyone could have predicted a decade ago- and explode it yet again. That being said, all the advances in tools that allow people to do more with less resources are exciting in what they can do and have done for the indie game industry.
On the art side of games, I am excited to see the continued advancements in ray tracing and Unreal Engine 5's nanite and LumenTechnologies. I believe this will allow artists to focus more effort on game art and storytelling while worrying less about technical limitations. Ultimately, this would shift what techniques we would need to teach regarding optimization for in-engine models, lighting and materials.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.