Once Upon a Dot

Above: Game designer Junki Saita (B.F.A. '95) of Naughty Dog helped produce one of the biggest games of 2009, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

As video games grow in popularity, NYIT alumni play their role in creating the next wave of interactive entertainment

By Michael Schiavetta (M.A. '07)

Engineer Ralph Baer was not even 30 years old in 1951 when he was asked to build TV sets that his company could sell to consumers. To calibrate each unit, he manipulated horizontal and vertical lines across the screen. The process, writes Mark Wolverton in his article, "The Father of Video Games," gave him an idea—why not build a TV device that would allow viewers to move objects and create a simple game out of it? Baer brought the idea to his boss, who told him to forget it. They were already behind schedule.

Several years later, the engineer returned to his TV game idea while working for another company. This time, his boss saw its potential, and Baer began designing what would ultimately become the first home video game console—the Magnavox Odyssey, which went on sale in May 1972 for $100.

Jump ahead to November 2009, nearly six decades since Baer envisioned dots chasing each other on a black-and-white screen. Video game publisher Activision Blizzard announces that first-day sales of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 reach $310 million in North America and the United Kingdom. It is not the biggest video game launch in history—it is the biggest entertainment launch. By comparison, it took The Dark Knight an entire weekend in 2008 to sell $158.3 million in movie tickets. Modern Warfare 2 would go on to earn $550 million in its first week, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimates that the global video game market will grow to $68 billion by 2012.

In short, video games have arrived as a primary source of entertainment for millions of people around the world. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reports that today’s average gamer is 35 years old, with 25 percent of Americans over the age of 50 enjoying their share of video games as well. In addition, an estimated 73 percent of American households play video games on consoles such as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, or on Windows- or Mac-based computers.

The belief that video games were only the realm of children and young adults has changed as new technologies make games more accessible to older generations and others who might not have ever picked up a game controller. One of the most popular devices to reach those populations has been Nintendo’s Wii console, which features a sensory controller that simulates real-life movements such as swinging a bat or serving a tennis ball.

Karl Hsu (M.S. '94), chief information officer for Gamania, says games that offer unique experiences are among the most successful.

“In the past, companies made video games for ‘core’ gamers, or those who had the ability to skillfully operate video game controllers,” says Karl Hsu (M.S. ’94), chief information officer for Gamania, a Taiwan-based digital entertainment company with popular gaming titles that include Lineage, Maple Story, and CounterStrikeOnline. “Mobile and casual gaming now occupy a fast-growing segment of the industry.”

Though “casual” games—with basic controller commands and simple play mechanics—have been around since the earliest video games (as anyone who has played Pong or Space Invaders can attest), the increasing complexity of some modern games can intimidate potential new gamers. The Wii, as well as the ubiquity of cell phones that can play Solitaire to the latest 3-D games, has created a new market for video game developers to explore.

Hsu grew up playing video games and today enjoys the latest games for the current generation of consoles. “I was amazed that so many pieces of computer code could bring so much joy,” he says. Now, Hsu realizes, it’s not just the code that makes a connection with gamers. “It’s the spirit of the game. Not the way it appears, but the way you interact with it.”

And that interaction is what attracts people. Both Microsoft and Sony, makers of the Xbox and Playstation consoles, respectively, plan to release motion-controlled technology later this year in an effort to piggyback off the Wii’s success.

“Whether or not these other manufacturers develop a unique interface as opposed to a ‘me too’ device, we’ll have to wait and see,” says Peter Traugot (B.F.A. ’92), executive producer of iWin Inc., a developer and publisher of casual games for the PC, Mac, Nintendo DS, iPhone, and other platforms. “Sony and Microsoft are looking at motion control as more than just throwing a bowling ball. They are looking for a more full-featured experience expanding outside of games, using it as a method to virtually interact with other people and activities on the Web.”

For Traugot, working in the video game industry was not what he pictured while a student at NYIT. After graduation, he had planned to use his degree to enter the world of advertising, which in 1992 had just begun to adopt 3-D graphics in TV commercials. “As a student, I was involved in a computer group on Long Island that focused on the Commodore Amiga. A sales rep from Electronic Arts would come in twice a year and show off the latest games.”

During his last semester at NYIT, Traugot sent a demo reel with his resumé to the video game publisher and got a call for an interview 48 hours later. And even though “they offered me a job on the spot,” he wanted to attend his NYIT graduation before leaving home.

“They offered to fly me out after graduation, and I left that same day!” Through the next several years, Traugot helped develop several popular titles, including Road Rash and the Strike series. Working at video game developer 3DO brought him face to face with R.J. Micals, one of the lead software engineers for the Commodore Amiga. “I was working with my geek idol,” he says.

"As a student, I was involved in a computer group on Long Island that focused on the Commodore Amiga. A sales rep from Electronic Arts would come in twice a year and show off the latest games."
-Peter Traugot (B.F.A. '92)

At iWin today, Traugot is responsible for the development of all first-party titles, including the popular Jewel Quest series, one of the most popular casual games on the market. Over the past three years, he has produced 25 titles and launched iWin’s iPhone gaming division.

Regarding the current video game marketplace, Traugot notes that consumer expectations have grown considerably in recent years. Many gamers are not satisfied with simply consuming dots on a screen, jumping over barrels, or shooting rocks in space. They now demand photorealistic graphics, innovative storylines, orchestral soundtracks, and other stimuli that help immerse them into virtual worlds.

“Everything got deeper and higher in production value,” says Traugot. “And what happens is that customer expectations start to exceed development’s production expectations.”

But all of the digital bells and whistles in today’s games, along with R&D, rigorous testing, and advertising, come at a cost, one that is usually passed along to the consumer. New video game releases often fetch close to $60 at retail, and that doesn’t take into account the cost of the console, controllers, and other hardware.

“Games are more expensive to make than ever before because of the next-generation technology requirements,” says Junki Saita (B.F.A. ’95), game designer at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Naughty Dog, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment. His latest game, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for the PlayStation 3, was one of the highest-rated and best-selling games of the 2009 holiday season.

“Game studios are always looking for ways to provide more value for their audience,” he says. “Today’s audience is very discerning, and $60 can be a lot to ask of a player.”

A quick glance at the names of the hottest video games—Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, Street Fighter IV, and The Sims 3—shows that the industry, like its Hollywood brethren, is fond of sequels. “It’s the obvious choice to stick with the perceived money makers, but the audience continues to want something new,” says Saita. “If the industry chooses to only rehash the things that we perceive as having been profitable in the past, eventually it may come back around to bite us. There’s a balance to be had.”

Saita’s first gaming job was as a digital artist at Activision. His gaming credits include Pitfall 3-D, Star Trek: Armada, and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Medal of Honor series. “As time goes by, I continue to grow and improve as a game designer, so each new game is my next favorite.”

Saita chose NYIT because of its broad range of programs. “At first, I didn’t really know what I wanted to focus on,” he says. Then he learned about the school’s computer graphics lab, and he got hooked.
“I think I was always meant to be a game designer. Even though, as a child,  I did not have access to a lot of games, looking back I have come to realize that my childhood drawings were essentially designs for games and game consoles.”

Though video games that teach math, spelling, and foreign languages have existed for several years, many companies have shied away from developing them because of their limited market. Moreover, many question the value of video games as anything other than a mindless, button-mashing diversion. This perception may change, however, as the children playing video games today become the CEOs and political leaders of tomorrow.

Already in some areas, the shift is taking place: the ESA reported in 2008 that 70 percent of major employers are using interactive software and video games to train employees. And more than 75
percent of companies not using such technology are expected to do so in the next few years. The advantages of game-based education, notes the report, are cost reduction, more efficient and faster training, consistent training across departments, easier tracking of employee participation, and better information retention.

Two NYIT alumni who are doing their part to boost the educational value of video games are Sally Rosenberg (M.A. ’86) and Michael Pugliese (B.F.A. ’07), co-founders of Westbury, N.Y.-based Game Builders Academy (GBA). Their organization works with Long Island school districts and summer camps, and uses specialized software to teach math, technology, literacy, and other classroom lessons using a unique twist.

“We take academic subjects and weave them into fun and enriching experiences,” says Rosenberg, GBA’s chief operating officer. “For example, learning about coordinate geometry may be tedious to some students, but once they realize that an understanding of the Cartesian coordinate plane is vital to making a video game character move in different directions, they become very attentive.”

For Rosenberg, there is nothing more exciting than seeing students’ eyes light up as they realize connections between what they are learning in school and the games they are creating. “The students feel empowered and their self-confidence soars,” she says. “I love being part of that.”

Sally Rosenberg (M.A. '86) and Michael Pugliese (B.F.A. '07) of Game Builders Academy use video games to teach children new ways of learning.

Pugliese, who is GBA’s director of video game development and graphic design, says that as more people realize the versatility of video games as an educational medium, more employers and teachers will begin to incorporate them into learning situations. His goal is to have students gain a genuine interest in academic subjects. Through real-world applications that are designed to be fun and engaging, Pugliese says his company helps students answer the question, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?”

But using video games as an educational tool is not limited to academic subjects. “Games are also being used in rehabilitation centers, physical education, music classes, and so on, and that idea will continue to grow,” says Pugliese. “I would expect to see a Wii or similar console in every elementary and high school fairly soon.”

And, it would seem, retirement homes. In November 2009, Guinness World Records reported the world’s largest senior citizen Wii bowling tournament took place in Houston, Texas. The event drew more than 1,500 supporters and 600 bowlers. For many retirees, using a Wii controller to mimic actual movements can help to improve motor control and keep their bodies active.

“More people are playing video games than ever before,” says Pugliese. “The industry has definitely changed and continues to change, but I think this new appreciation will only strengthen the idea that video games can do more than just pass the time.”

The definition of a video game, he notes, is expanding as quickly as its audience. “Whether they’re used for playing, cooking, designing, composing, relaxing, animating, exercising, or teaching, video games really are for everybody now.”

Next: All Work and Maybe Some Play

Winter 2010 Table of Contents