Computer game design attracts. Academy of Performing Arts in Prague opens new programme

The largest film academy in the Czech Republic is to open a new specialised computer room for students of game design. The team of teachers will include faculty members from the Game Studies programme and students will undergo training in development teams. The two-year master’s programme is scheduled to get under way next year, while a bachelor’s programme may be added later.

The date for the first-ever entrance exam is yet to be set although Helena Bendová, the supervisor of the new Computer Game Design study programme, has already received e-mails from dozens of potential applicants. New study programme at Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague is planning to accept seven students in the programme’s opening year. The programme will teach students to think about games in different contexts ranging from game history through psychology to politics. “Game designers do not need programming or drawing skills; their job is to create the overall game experience,” says Helena Bendová.

This will be the first study programme of its kind in the Czech Republic. Why is it being opened at FAMU and not elsewhere?
We are opening it because it’s in demand, both from game development companies that need professional and talented game designers and from potential students. The current generation grew up playing computer games and often see them as an expressive medium in their own right, which can offer entertainment as well as a more complex, artistic experience. However, they currently have very limited study options at the higher education level if they decide to pursue game design in the Czech Republic. Another reason for opening this programme was that we saw the interest in computer games from our current students.

I would assume that a programme of this kind would open at an IT-focused university rather than at FAMU, whose primary focus is film-making.
Computer games often require the same or similar expertise as films. Sound mixers, animators, screenwriters, documentarians, producers, and other professions involved in film-making can also work in game development. However, games also have their specificities. You have to learn how to work with interactivity, game mechanics, and the history of computer game development. The new programme in game design should produce qualified game designers while also enabling other FAMU students to participate in game development and gain an insight into their creation and underlying principles.

How attractive do you think the new programme will be for students? After all, you do not need a degree to design games and there are many designers who don’t have one.
We think that there will be a lot of interest in the new programme. The date for the entrance exam hasn’t been set yet and I have already received e-mails with questions from dozens of potential applicants. I have taught several courses on computer games at FAMU and I know that there are students at various FAMU departments who would like to enrol in the Game Design master’s programme after graduation. However, we also expect applicants from other universities. As I have already said, this will be the first study programme in the Czech Republic with this particular focus. The closest counterpart is probably the Studio of Animation and Interactive Art at the University of West Bohemia in Plzeň but, as far as I know, they don’t focus exclusively on computer games and applicants must be talented in the visual arts, which won’t be required from our applicants.

What will be your admission criteria and what form will the entrance exam take?
As is usual at FAMU, the entrance exam will consist of two rounds. For the first round, students will submit samples of their creative work – these can be games, but also short stories, animations, films, etc. – together with two set tasks as a part of the talent exam. Specifically, we will ask them for a short description of a narrative game for mobile phones and a video presentation of another game they would like to create in the future. We will then select around twenty applicants for the second round. This will be a personal interview where we will ask them about their ideas and experience, what they are hoping to gain from the study programme and what they like about games. We would like to select creative students with original thinking, who will be passionate about creating games and good team workers.

How many students are you planning to accept in your first year?
We are planning to have seven students in our opening first year, which will start next year.

Why have you decided to only open a master’s programme and not a bachelor’s programme?
A game designer must have some degree of insight into several other professions and must be able to communicate and work with animators, production sound mixers, programmers, etc. At the same time, they are responsible for the overall game design, the game world, plot, and game mechanics. It is a demanding position and previous experience from other fields is therefore very helpful. If the master’s study programme turns out well, we are considering opening a bachelor’s programme as well, but only after a couple of years.

What will the actual study plan be like? Will students simply sit at their computers, designing and playing games, or will they also learn about the history of the field and animation theory in general?
Even though it’s only a two-year master’s programme, the study plan is very comprehensive. Students will learn to think about games in various contexts from game history through psychology to politics, but the focus will be on the practicalities of designing and creating games. To be able to do this, they will learn how to work with game engines, which are software tools that help you put a game together even if you’re not a programmer. They will also receive training in narrative design and level design and will learn the basics of coding, animation, sound, and production. The goal is to teach them how to create a complete, even if a relatively simple, game on their own including graphics and design as well as helping them understand how they can use sound, music, and images in game design and what they can ask for from other professionals as team leaders.

And who will be the teachers? Do you have experts on computer games at FAMU or will you draft in seasoned developers and people from graphic design studios?
Our team of teachers for the new programme includes both people who already teach at FAMU and people from the field with different types of experience in game development. We are also planning to invite guest lecturers from video game development companies and students will undergo internships. They will see what it’s like to work in a game production company and should be able to find jobs more easily after graduation.

Computer game design is not just about visual arts, it also involves programming and advanced work with IT technologies. How will arts students cope with this?
Our students won’t be visual artists as such, but people designing the game experience based on a specific game world, game mechanics, and perhaps also the plot. Their job is clearly defined, and they don’t need to be able to code or draw. However, it is also a highly interdisciplinary job in that a game designer must be able to communicate and work well with all the other professions involved and use their skills to fulfil his or her vision. That’s why our students will also learn about several other related professions, but the core of the programme focuses on creating the game design, mechanics, gameplay, and objectives.

Does FAMU have the technology needed, especially modern computers with the required processing power?
As the largest Czech film academy, we already have high-quality equipment from computers to audio equipment. We are also fitting out a new specialised computer lab for future students of this programme. And we are planning to update the facilities as needed and acquire new technology, such as new types of virtual reality headsets and so on.

Speaking of job opportunities, what is the position of the Czech Republic in computer game design? Do we have a tradition to build on? Can young Czech designers compete on an international level?
The history of computer game development in the Czech Republic goes back to the 1980s. Even though we are a relatively small country, our computer and video game industry is quite well-developed and diverse, producing large and complex games – such as the recent Kingdom Come: Deliverance by Warhorse Studios – as well as games for mobile devices, virtual reality games, and smaller independent “art” games. Our game developers work on many different game genres and many of them are well-respected and successful internationally, for example, those working for Jakub Dvorský’s Amanita Design, Hyperbolic Magnetism, CBE Software, and Wube Software. It’s a shame that their successes are rarely mentioned in the Czech media because it means that the non-gaming public doesn’t know how creative and talented Czech developers are, even by global comparison.

Are there enough game development companies in the Czech Republic where graduates can find work or will they have to look for jobs abroad?
I think they can work both at home and abroad. There are about thirty game development companies in the Czech Republic of different sizes and some of them are continually looking for good talented designers. Our future students won’t have to limit their search to lead designer positions: they can also work as level designers, help design quests or mechanics, become game producers and so on.

In your opinion, are computer games a fully fledged artistic and cultural discipline on a par with theatre or film-making?
Yes, some computer games create unique experiences, which are just as intense as those created by other artistic genres. Games can move you and make you laugh; they are not limited to violence and excitement, as people sometimes assume. However, games are obviously a very diverse genre and while some of them are highly artistic, others are only meant to help you relax. Only a certain group of games are trying to use visuality, the game’s universe, and so on to create an aesthetic experience; other games are more like sport and really are “just” games, not artistic artefacts.

The author is an editor of Hospodářské noviny.