Rob Lloyd is the Assistant Professor of Game Design and Production at Drexel
Readers of ACR are familiar with Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design that includes some of the nation’s best digital arts programs. Among them, the Game Design & Production degree consistently ranks among the top in the country, earning accolades and garnering industry and research attention thanks to the rigorous, mutidisciplinary education students receive that pushes the bounds of what’s possible.
Undergrads in Game Design & Production at Drexel dive deep into all aspects of immersive technologies- encompassing traditional entertainment arts and going well beyond those boundaries to new frontiers in the field. Prior to earning their Bachelor degree, each Drexel undergrad is required to fulfill a 6-month co-op internship, giving them the soft skills, confidence and connections that further boosts their education as they set out on their career paths.
Today, we’re catching up with Assistant Professor Rob Lloyd to talk shop about the program and its approach to game design. His own educational and career background is enviably broad- merging print, wearable objects, web, animation, and aerospace and theme park simulation. Like his colleagues, Lloyd brings enthusiasm and an expansive knowledge of the current and emerging fields within game design to his classroom. We hope you enjoy!
This Q&A has been edited minimally.
ACR: Rob, before we talk about Drexel’s Game Design program I’d like to look at your own unique background and career trajectory in the arts, multimedia and simulation. Tell us about it, and the lessons you learned that you share with your students.
Rob Lloyd: I like to tell my students about my crooked career path to help them realize they don’t need to have it all figured out today. Embracing the personal filter you create through life experiences makes your work different- maybe just the right fit for those special companies looking for the weird combination that is you.
I started as a solo studio artist- first as a photographer and then as a metalsmith. I became part of a renegade group doing crafts digitally; we were designing and making objects using CAD/CAM and RP tech, distancing the hand of the maker from the work. While this is actually commonplace now, we faced a lot of resistance in the beginning. It was more practical to design, render, and animate designs digitally. I went from CAD/CAM and household objects to creating virtual architecture fly-throughs and making games on motion platforms for theme parks, museums, family entertainment centers and a few other digital things. I’ve helped simulate aircraft carrier takeoffs, sub-orbital space flights on a real centrifuge, and flipped and rolled people in virtual monster trucks.
Teaching was always my plan, but a growing family and a hungry mortgage required me to delay my plans and go corporate after earning my MFA. After a rewarding career as a creative director running a media lab and making themed games and attractions, I am thrilled to be with Drexel, teaching and heading the Game Design & Production program.
ACR: On that note, you joined the Drexel faculty in 2014, eventually steering the ship of the Game Design & Production program as Director in 2017. What aspects of the program initially attracted you to it as an educator?
RL: (As Creative Director for the aerospace simulation company ETC) I hired Drexel Digital Media co-ops for a decade and attended many senior showcase events to see my co-ops graduate. I am proud that some of the program’s top alumni worked on my team at ETC. I loved working with the Drexel co-ops who added fresh energetic talent to my studio every 6 months.
The Co-Op program is central to the Drexel experience and a focus of growth, particularly through our established alumni network. The Drexel Digital Media programs are over 20 years old and our alumni are well positioned in a variety of industries, including senior positions. Obviously, we have folks in established game companies, but some have started their own, like Greg Lobanov (Wandersong and Chicory) and Dan Fornace (Rivals of Aether). It’s important to recognize that the skills our students master are also applicable to practically any industry and our alumni have proven that by following many career paths that reward their digital and interactive experience.
ACR: And what elements were you keen to further develop as Director?
RL: We are building on our long history and evolving the program to best prepare our students. We’re more aggressive about getting them into game engines in the freshman year, to break the ice and get them ready for our newly added 5-year, 3-Co-Op program.
We’re constantly growing our offerings of special-topics courses like our recent Level Design from an Architect’s Perspective (co-taught by game and architecture faculty) and a 3D Virtual Costuming course taught by our internationally ranked Fashion Design program.
We actively support interdisciplinary teamwork like the VR motion-based game project we showcased at SIGGRAPH the last two years. 2019’s team had almost 2 dozen students from 8 different programs, including mechanical and electrical engineering, product design, games, and VR. We see it as important teamwork experience and a breeding ground for innovative convergence of art and technology.
We also replaced some older courses with an annual portfolio sequence that aligns with the new 5/3 Co-Op job-search structure. This supports annual insight to our students’ progress while giving them focused time to work on portfolio-specific projects, key to being competitive in the job market.
ACR: For readers who aren’t yet familiar with Drexel’s co-op program, give us the boilerplate and how they integrate with the curriculum of all students.
RL: Previously, we only offered a 4-year 1-Co-Op program, with the single 6-month professional experience happening during a student’s junior year. Now students can choose to have three 6-month Co-Op experiences, with the first coming in their sophomore year. We are putting energy into evolving the program, and working with the University’s Steinbright Career Development Center to grow our employer network to support the range of Co-Op positions, from total entry level in that 2nd year of the program, to more advanced placements for the third Co-Op in their 4th academic year.
The opportunity to spend 6-18 months in the real world as a working professional, no matter what industry, can be incredibly valuable. From the basics of just showing up on time regularly and learning how to talk to busy professionals, to working on real world problems and creating portfolio-quality work – the Co-Op experience can be a great jumpstart for a career. The potential to get fulltime experience while away from fulltime school is a great practice space for life after college.
Students have to earn the jobs they get, just like the real world. We give them a structured environment and training specifically in preparing resumes, portfolios, interviewing and related skills. We are constantly tending to a community of employers and providing networking opportunities with alums. We create a fertile environment for the students to connect to people and jobs. That doesn’t make it easy, though. But the rewards can be great.
ACR: Can you give us some examples of co-ops that your Game Design & Production students have participated in?
RL: In addition to small and large entertainment companies, students have opportunities to explore how game design is applicable to many local and international industries ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to home and even yacht design.
Co-Op positions include game and digital media jobs throughout the Philadelphia area. Students also secured game and digital media co-ops at national and international companies. I encourage those interested to read more in our catalog online.
ACR: In addition to gaining real world experience in the field through the Co-Op program, your students also benefit from Drexel’s close industry ties and access to entrepreneurial insight. Tell us a bit about this...
RL: A highlight of our program is the entrepreneurial support Drexel offers. From the Close School of Entrepreneurship to the Baiada Institute, Drexel helps prepare students to start their own business ventures with funding and mentorship. Specifically, for games, our popular and successful incubator Entrepreneurial Game Studio (EGS) has helped a number of award-winning Drexel teams, including SplitSide Games who won Intel’s University Game Showcase at GDC 2019, and Sons of Ra who won the 2019 E3 College Game Competition. Students apply to join the EGS extracurricular group and get valuable mentorship as they form legal companies and produce and publish a game to one or more commercial marketplaces.
ACR: You’ve mentioned the cross-pollination that occurs between your game design students and those in other departments. How does this multi-faceted approach to game design habitually produce so many accolades and achievements from students and graduates?
RL: We’re very proud of what our students, faculty, and alumni have accomplished and the recognition they have earned over the last 20+ years. As we grew, we evolved into multiple degree programs. The Digital Media programs remain interconnected and our students cross those boundaries frequently, in addition to working with other programs throughout Drexel.
Students come to us with a variety of interests and our challenge is to help them focus their energies. Everyone gets a baseline set of skills as a broad foundation from which to build. Most of our game courses are team project based. We encourage students to experiment with different roles early on and to concentrate on building the skillset that is the best fit for them.
We focus on teamwork and growing skills to work across disciplines effectively. Whether working with students from other programs and colleges, to working on non-standard platforms like motion simulators as non-traditional design challenges, we enable to students to stretch their comfort zones to include the unusual.
ACR: Simulation and interactive media have grown exponentially in recent years, as you point out. With these fields still nascent and rapidly evolving alongside technology, what’s your strategy for preparing your students to be leaders in these fields?
RL: For most industries, the desire has always been there to exploit digital content, but it’s now easier and affordable. The barriers to entry are generally lower but you still need talent to make it real. As many of our alumni illustrate, we combine art and tech to produce strong candidates for multi-faceted roles like a tech artist. Crossing borders enables students to not just use existing tools, but to create their own. If you are a user of commercial tools, then maybe anyone can do your job. If you are a maker of tools, then you might be a bit more valuable, a bit more unique.
It also gives you the ability to approach a problem from a variety of perspectives. In sectors that are experimenting with interactive media and game tech, they need someone who can explore and cut new paths that look good, offer compelling user experiences, and work. For sectors with established applications of game tech, they still need someone who can see and solve problems as their challenges evolve – because only change is inevitable. Becoming an agile, life-long learner is particularly important in digital content creation. I’ve used dozens of tools in my career, all self-taught and on deadline. I would be given a problem on Monday, research the solution on Tuesday, learn it on Wednesday, produce on Thursday, and deliver on Friday. I want our students to be able to do the same.
ACR: Where do the tools of the trade fit into the picture, and what hardware/software do your students generally leverage most?
RL: We’ve been a Maya/Unity shop for a while, but I’m old enough to remember days before standard game engines and tools. What is standard today may not be tomorrow. What is manual now, is likely to be automated by the time students graduate. Plenty of companies have proprietary toolkits. Our goal is to make students tool agnostic.
We’re including Unreal more often in the classroom. Freshmen start with Twine and engines like Godot. We are looking at 3ds Max and Blender. We add specialty tools as projects, faculty, or students demand – Substance, Marvelous Designer, Perforce, Shotgun, and so on. My old lab had the longest list of software in the company – from primary tools with deep feature sets to small one-shot widgets, it takes a lot to make games.
The labs are packed with hardware. Since we intermingle with our sister programs in Animation & Visual Effects, Interactive Digital Media, and VR & Immersive Media, we have PCs and Macs, and mega machines ready to create massive procedural worlds in Houdini and display them on anything including desktops, mobiles, and XR headsets. We have holographic displays, walk-in domes, and of course motion simulation platforms. Our faculty put games on the sides of skyscrapers and have the Guinness World Records to prove it. Our motion capture studio is an incredibly flexible space that sees daily action for all types of projects.
ACR: In your view Rob, what are some of the biggest hurdles or limitations of today’s tools on immersive and interactive applications?
RL: The big projects demand bigger and bigger worlds, produced time and cost-effectively. Small projects also need to do more with less to be profitable and competitive. Procedural methods and techniques to make virtual universes are required. Real-time feedback, like virtual production in film and vfx, or rendering animations in game engines instead of traditional rendering tools, is opening Hollywood to career opportunities in game tech.
As new display and interaction modes are experimented with, we will need people prepared to explore those new platforms. Some might be fads, but some might cross the line into becoming new standards – and quality content is a major part of that success formula.
ACR: Taking a queue from your own enviably diverse career, what do you council students on when it comes to finding the right job fit, Rob?
RL: More than the concepts of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ or ‘follow your passion,’ I believe that students should look for what they do well, what they enjoy (not always the same things), and what someone will pay them for. The center of that Venn diagram is the sweet spot, but anything combined with ‘pay’ is a potential career. Tempering passion with a practical approach can support a healthier career arc with a better work/life balance.
Every industry is applying digital content – real-time, interactive content – to a wide spectrum of goals. Training, simulation, education, entertainment in and out of the home and workplace, marketing, product development, and more. Our goal is to help our students be able to seek out those unexpected opportunities and be prepared to thrive in them.
ACR: You serve as Faculty Advisor for a student group focused on theme park engineering and design- something that you gained experience with throughout your career. Tell us about this club and others that help round-out your students’ education in game design.
RL: The Drexel and Philadelphia game and media community are wonderfully vibrant and constantly growing and evolving. Before I mention the established groups, I want to praise our recent first-years who stepped up and created what they did not see yet – one group wanted access to the motion capture studio faster than the curriculum would open that door for them, so they started a MoCap club that is doing great; another game freshman wanted to do stop-motion animation on the side – so that’s a new club now. These are just recent examples of how the students engage the local scene and become a part of it.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Theme Park Engineering & Design group when I joined Drexel. At the time, they were almost exclusively mechanical and electrical engineering students. They were helping each other get Co-Ops at Disney and Universal and getting recognition in national contests like Disney’s Imaginations Design Competition and Ryerson’s challenges. I’ve worked with some of them on engineering senior projects on our 2.5-ton hydraulic motion platform. They’ve done a great job bringing in top engineers and executives from the themed entertainment industry. On a recent tour of Walt Disney Imagineering in LA, we met a few alums who were founding members of TPED. They were thrilled to hear that the word they very deliberately put into the group name – design – was bearing fruit with the recent addition of digital media students to the group. That delightful and creative mix helped make the VRoom project we highlighted at SIGGRAPH. I could not be prouder of them.
ACR: Tell us about Drexel’s participation in SIGGRAPH and the important role it plays for students.
RL: Our SIGGRAPH student chapter is very active and a focal point for alumni involvement. In addition, we have Drexel Game Developer Group, Drexel University XR (AR/VR/MR), Drexel SIGCHI (computer-human interaction), and more. All of these groups put on regular meetings and hold specialty events throughout the year. Welcome Week will include an XR Arcade, and these groups will bring in speakers from industry (including our own alum) and host workshop and project events like game jams.
The larger Philadelphia community includes the local IGDA Philadelphia chapter (I’m on the board); a tabletop group, Game Makers Guild; and the Philly Game Mechanics – a wonderfully vibrant and inclusive group. I recently changed our class scheduling to reduce conflict with the regular meeting times so our students could join in more easily.
At events like SIGGRAPH, our faculty and Co-Op staff are actively talking to alums and companies to grow the list of job opportunities. I was really warmed by the response of alums at SIGGRAPH and the excitement they have for helping the next generation of Dragons.
ACR: I also want to ask you about your fellow faculty members at Drexel and their impact on students’ education.
RL: Drexel’s faculty are brilliant and Digital Media has a number of research faculty doing incredible work in multiple areas. Undergraduates have the opportunity to work in the faculty labs on funded research outside the classroom. Those opportunities need to be sought out, so I advise all ambitious students to get to know the faculty and what research is ongoing.
Each faculty has a specialty area, based on their experience and current research or creative focus. Our faculty are working in spatialized audio, storytelling, emotions, avatars, XR, games for health, and more. I encourage folks to review our faculty directory and see all the things going on at Drexel. All of our faculty have worked and taught in a variety of areas and they all have valuable feedback to give – students can sometimes dismiss a faculty for potential feedback because their title doesn’t match the student’s program title. Digital Media has so much crossover, it pays to seek out any of our faculty, no matter the project type.
The individual goals of each faculty drive the program forward. EGS was started by Dr. Frank Lee – the Guinness World Record holder for the largest videogame display (on the side of a skyscraper) – and is run with Tony Rowe – a AAA veteran level designer, writer and game historian. A project like EGS only exists because faculty will it into existence and keep it running successfully year to year.
ACR: Last but not least, what do you value most about your work at Drexel both in terms of the connections you make with your students and the role you play in developing one of the world’s best department of its kind?
RL: As program director, I go to more meetings or push paper around perhaps, but Drexel’s success is due to the students and faculty. It’s challenging and satisfying to be surrounded by so many creative, brilliant, clever individuals. Students come in, energized by their love of games, and discover the many possible roles as makers of games that they can become. Trying out things, seeking that Venn diagram sweet spot of something they enjoy, are good at, and what someone will pay them for.
It’s great to see students, maybe hesitant at first to reach out to anyone, become comfortable talking to faculty and alums to take the next steps in their careers. Making those connections is important and one of the valuable things our program does.
Personally, I love seeing students develop from their raw potential as accepted high school candidates to become powerful seniors crossing the commencement stage. It’s an emotional moment that catches me every year.
ACR: Sincere thanks, Rob, for sharing your insight with us today!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.