Norco College’s Game Development program may be relatively new to the scene but it’s quickly flexing its muscles and earning attention with a rigorous A.S. of Game Art program. By leveraging the savvy insight of working faculty and industry advisors, the curriculum doesn’t lose track of the fundamentals of game development nor does it overlook the trends on the horizon. It’s also not averse to incorporating a little fun into the tough business of creating games (as is evident by the faculty-created Boom Ninja! Project). These are exciting times for the program which is currently expanding to offer three additional A.S. degrees (Game Design, Game Programming and Game Audio) thanks to a $2.8 million Title V grant.
After recently speaking with a Norco animation instructor, we were eager to learn more about the other aspects of this growing Game Development program in Riverside County. We caught up with Assistant Professor of Simulation & Gaming James Finley for our latest spotlight Q&A. An accomplished programmer and entrepreneur, Finley also serves as Creative Director and CEO of Broken Circle Studios. His work experiences within the game industry are varied, making him a virtual treasure trove of insight for both his students and our readers.
Thanks go to Finley for answering our questions about the program as well as his own experiences in the game industry and what he sees for it's future. (This interview was done via email and has been minimally edited for clarity).
ACR: James, thanks for participating in our latest Q&A. To start, when did you become interested in creating games and how have you developed your skills along the way?
James Finley: I’ve wanted to be a game developer for as long as I can remember. I came home from Kindergarten one day and my father had the original NES waiting for me. We played Super Mario Bros. and it was an amazing bonding experience for us. I tried to get fellow students together to create game ideas even when I was in elementary school. I had no idea what I was doing, or that you could make a living out of making games.
As I got older, I kept the dream going. I was so interested in all of the different facets of the game development process: programming; audio; design; art. I tried everything, eventually deciding that programming was the best fit for me. Developing my skills was an exercise in dedication. Throughout college I earned my degree in Computer Systems. After a long day of school, I’d head home and work on putting together my own little game projects with friends from school. Somewhere in there I managed to fit in work, sleep, and a social life too. The funny thing is that none of it felt like work.
ACR: You’ve since become not only a programmer but an entrepreneur and educator. What lured you to teach in the Game Development program at Norco College?
JF: The faculty here is amazing! I can’t say enough about them. They’re incredibly talented and hard-working individuals. Each of us fills a particular role in the department, and amazing things happen when we put our heads together. We also come from so many different experiences; some of us from independent startup studios, some of us from huge AAA development firms.
I taught at several other campuses before settling down at Norco College. The atmosphere, the culture, the passion, and the pursuit of excellence that you find here are truly exemplary. We have a wealth of programs, ranging from all forms of 3D art and animation, game design, simulation programming, and sound design. I wish that a program like this existed when I was in school. Working here doesn’t feel like work; it feels like home.
ACR: The Game Development program has four tracks in Audio, Art, Design and Programming. Are they each kept separate or is there cross-pollination and collaboration between them?
JF: Quite a bit of both, actually! Some of our courses are incredibly focused, training our students for the demanding roles they’ll have to fill when they enter the industry. Some are more general, bringing students from all of the disciplines together to collaborate, ponder over theories, and build soft skills. Perhaps the best part of all of our programs is that they culminate in a final, capstone class that simulates a real game development studio in which members from all disciplines prove their skills by constructed a condensed game title collaboratively. There’s nothing that excites me more than students putting their skills to the test, solving big problems together.
ACR: On that note, what attributes do you believe make for the best game devs and artists and how do you foster these characteristics in your students?
JF: Technical skills are nothing without critical thinking. There isn’t a single class on critical thinking- it’s something that’s woven into our entire curriculum. From day one we ask our students to question what “fun” is. We push them to transcend from consumer to developer, thinking of games as a process, not as a product. We push them to establish a critical discourse to speak to the intricacies involved with the development process, avoiding cliche terms and buzzwords. The ability to think critically transforms industry-followers into industry-leaders.
ACR: Ten years ago, no one foretold mobile gaming let alone tablet. Now, cross-platform gaming is the buzzword. Do these industry shifts affect what students should learn?
JF: Absolutely! We’d be doing a disservice to our students and the industry if we didn’t adapt to the needs created by these “game-changing” technologies. The tremendous growth of the mobile games market, the wealth of technology to take advantage of, and the drastic changes that the AAA studios are making are changing how everyone is making games. Committing to an academic program in games development means committing to changing, growing, and adapting with the video game industry. Norco College will never be content and comfortable with its offerings; the industry changes too fast. And quite honestly, that’s what makes this business so exciting!
ACR: As a department, how do you guys iterate so quickly to include the new dynamics of the industry?
JF: Oh wow, where to begin? It’s a team effort… a combination of dedicated faculty with real world experience, strong connections with industry to help guide us in developing the most relevant content possible, flexible and accommodating administrators who support the process of continuous change, and a shared passion to do what’s right for our students. We have also been awarded several grants that have been instrumental in allowing us to make some of the huge strides we’ve made, but I’d say that the secret ingredient at Norco College truly its people.
ACR: As you know too well, a career in the game industry typically entails late nights which may well be updating the big titles year after year. How do you best prepare students for some of these realities?
JF: We’re honest with our students from the very first moment they take a seat in our classrooms. We usually don’t have to do much to get them excited- after all, passion is usually what encouraged them to enroll in our program in the first place. We do the best we can to paint the picture for them, but nothing sticks like personal experiences. Our Game Studio Production class aims to simulate a real game game development experience over a condensed 16 weeks, complete with late nights and crunch time. Some of our students realize that this isn’t the right line of work for them. Others walk away knowing that this is exactly what they’re looking for. In either case, helping our students come to these conclusions is a huge success for us. Self-discovery is a major component to the academic process here.
ACR: Along similar lines, there’s been a flurry of discussion within the industry on how the expectations that some studios demand from employees ultimately are unsustainable to many talented artists and programmers. Do you agree?
JF: I wish I didn’t agree but in many ways it’s true. Still, not all companies are like that. Some game studios have incredible reputations for valuing their employees. (As) with any other business, it really depends on where you work and who you choose to work for. Too often, students come to us knowing who they want to work for. The problem is that they want to work for that company for all of the wrong reasons. Wanting to work for a game studio just because they make your favorite game is bad news.
I feel that a big chunk of what I do as an educator is to align student expectations with the realities of the industry. There are tons of options out there for talented game developers; you don’t have to work for huge companies that are known to have crazy periods of crunch. You can work for an independent studio, or even start your own! You could become a contractor, working for lots of studios filling in the gaps that they have trouble filling internally. With the right mindset, this industry can be incredibly flexible.
ACR: The industry also remains largely male and Caucasian ( 88.5% and 83.3%, respectively). Do you think we are at a point where more women and minorities, perhaps with differing perspectives that appeal to wider audiences, can play a pivotal role moving the industry forward?
JF: It’s a shame that the industry got off on the wrong foot. At its inception, game developers were home-brew techies that turned a hobby into a makeshift job. From these pioneers we have this incredibly lush and diverse industry today. In my opinion, since the founders of the industry were predominantly white males, they made games that primarily interested white males. Video game consumers who played these games would then become inspired to work in the industry, which leads to a cycle of demographics making games for their own demographic.
Prior to the expansion of the mobile market, we saw a lot of hardcore games- or at least games that were too hardcore for new players to comfortably jump in. Mobile popularized the casual and mid-core markets, creating many entry-points for new gamers to participate, including females, seniors, and children. If you made games 10 years ago, you were probably making games for a single demographic. Today, you can make games for anybody and everybody. There’s been no better time to be a part of the games industry.
ACR: Awesome James. Thank you so very much for your insight into the industry and Norco College’s Game Development programs!
JF: Thank you! It’s been an honor and a privilege!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.