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Going to Video Game School

Meet a Rising Star in Game Design
By Elisa Batista
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/games/0,2101,57850,00.html

After four years studying chemistry and pre-medicine, Fraz Akhtar found himself with nowhere to go.

The two medical schools he had applied to rejected him. So, instead, he accepted a generous offer from his older brother's family to live with them in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he found work as a chemist in a power plant.

That was six years ago, shortly after Akhtar graduated from Southeast Missouri State University.

It was a time of uncertainty for Akhtar: He didn't want to remain at the power plant yet longed to build a life of his own. So he applied and got into the PhD chemistry program at Southern Illinois University.

However, he ended up scrapping those plans when one of his brothers -- a 37-year-old computer programmer -- encouraged him to apply to DigiPen Institute of Technology -- a four-year college in Bellevue, Washington dedicated solely to the study and development of video games. After witnessing Akhtar spend 3 to 4 hours a day after work playing video games, his brother was convinced he would not be happy as a chemist.

As for his other two older brothers -- a 41-year-old doctor and 33-year-old electrical engineer -- not only did they support his decision to enroll in DigiPen in the fall of 1999, but they agreed to help pay for it.

"I applied, got in and decided to take the plunge," Akhtar said. "They were supportive, my brothers in particular."

Today, the 26-year-old Pakistani native seems destined for stardom in the $10.3 billion gaming industry.

Akhtar's school project, a video game called Crazy Cross, was selected in a nationwide hunt to be showcased at the prestigious Independent Games Festival in San Jose this week.

Similar to the Sundance Film Festival for the movie industry, IGF strives to recognize the most innovative independent game designers and hook them up with the bigwigs of the gaming business, which analysts say is quickly becoming more like the movie industry: ultra-competitive and much more demanding in terms of technical difficulty and graphics quality.

Akhtar has known since January that Crazy Cross had been selected as one of 10 student-made games to be exhibited at the conference, but he still lets out a sigh of relief when asked about it.

"This was a full-year project," he said. "We were pretty hopeful."

Crazy Cross, which included the work of seven other students at DigiPen, is a fighting game where heroes Lou, Emma and Tiny Jim must battle the villain, Gill Bates. In order to save the 3-D world called "Macroshaft," Lou, Emma and Tiny Jim must keep Bates -- who looks like Microsoft's Bill Gates and sports a cape -- from using his weapons of mass destruction: the ability to buy off allies and defense attorneys.

The game, which is actually a sequel to Crazy Lou 64, a DigiPen freshman-year project from three years ago, includes references to Microsoft, role-playing games and popular Japanese animation.

"(The Crazy Cross) script was written by our artist, Peter Thurwachter, who comes from Japan," said Dan Brakeley, 22, a member of the Crazy Cross design team who recently graduated from DigiPen. "He has a lot of artistic influence from the shows he saw growing up there. We don't get all the jokes, but we tried to get humor in all different levels.

"It's kind of bizarre for a game. Most people find it fairly amusing."

Joked Akhtar: "Don't blame us. Blame the artist."

Neither Brakeley nor Akhtar have ever been to IGF, which operates under the broader Game Developers Conference that includes educational technical sessions and keynote addresses by the leaders of video-game animation. This year's keynote highlight is Jon Labrie, who led the team that designed the animation for the Lord of the Rings movies. The conference also includes a games exhibit and plenty of opportunities to hobnob with gaming executives.

"(IGF) is a foot in the door," said Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer at Epic Games. "It's a tough business to get into. It's an industry that is growing and developing much more quickly than anyone can keep up with."

It is this increased competition among game developers as well as a convergence with the movie industry that has led many gaming analysts to draw parallels between movie and gaming studios. While other tech sectors are experiencing a recession, the video-game industry has blossomed into a $10.3 billion market in 2002 from $9.4 billion in 2001. That year, the industry experienced record growth from $6.6 billion in 2000, said Mike Goodman, an analyst with market research firm the Yankee Group.

"People are spending less money going out to dinner and less money going to the baseball games," Goodman said. "But they are not going to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs.

"Video games have shown themselves to be fairly recession proof."

And games are showing up in other forms besides traditional consoles and desktop computers -- such as cell phones and personal digital assistants.

For the first time, GDC organizers are also including an entire section dedicated solely to mobile technology. Keynotes will be led by executives from Nokia and NTT DoCoMo.

"Any device that is like a computer -- a laptop or a phone -- people will find a way to goof off with it," Bleszinski said. "People by nature ... like having a distraction. Heaven forbid people carry a book around."

Akhtar said that until now he never had enough time to attend the developers' conference.

Despite what people might think when they hear the phrase "video-game school," DigiPen actually boasts a rigorous curriculum of intensive math courses and lab time for programming and designing applications. Akhtar said each student on the Crazy Cross team put in 25 hours a week on the project, not including numerous hours and all-nighters covering the rest of their course load.

In his freshman year, Akhtar said, he was a bit shellshocked to learn that 13-hour days were not at all uncommon for students at the school. Eating at the school cafeteria, which opens up at 5:30 p.m., is not nearly as common as gorging on 7-Eleven hot dogs in the wee hours of the night.

"If you can survive the first year here, you get to know the basics of C-plus programming and they build up from there," Akhtar said.

Unfortunately such a grueling course load doesn't leave a lot of time for playing video games, which Akhtar says he loves. He admits it's what often kept him from his pre-med studies at Southeast Missouri State.

"I used to be at the computer lab playing games all the time," he said. "Games like Prince of Persia and Civilization -- that is one of my favorites. When I say bad grades, I mean I got Bs and Cs, which is bad for someone potentially going on to med school."

His chance of becoming a doctor dashed, Akhtar hopes his passion for video games and his current achievements will land him a job at a major gaming studio after graduation. He dreams of someday creating a major role-playing game like System Shock 2.

Akhtar also swears that this will be his last undergraduate degree. He graduates from DigiPen in the spring.

"This time I found what I really enjoy doing," he said, laughing.

The Game Developers' Conference runs Tuesday through Saturday in San Jose, California. The Independent Games Festival starts on Thursday.

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