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A Look at GameInstitute

GameInstitute is a website dedicated to online learning. Unlike other sites that offer online courses, however, the GameInstitute offers courses directly related to game development. Now if that's not cool, I don't know what is. So excited was I about taking online courses and learning from industry experts, I emailed GameInstitute and asked them if they would do an interview. After quick and friendly negotiations with the people behind GameInstitute, the interview was held, much to my joy and satisfaction. Now I get to share with you a look at GameInstitute - its past, its present, and its future. The interviewee answering these questions is none other than the man who started GameInstitute, Joe Meenaghan, the Institute's CEO.

I would also like to ask all readers, on behalf of GameInstitute, that if you have any questions or comments on GameInstitute that they be placed in the thread attached to this article. This way we can effectively extend the purpose of this article, which is to inform you about GameInstitute and what it has to offer you.

Although the GameInstitute is up and running, eInstitute is not. Could you explain what the plans are for eInstitute relative to GameInstitute, if any?
eInstitute, inc. is our corporate identity. Long term we intend to expand beyond Games to other Internet based education. As we develop, we will be introducing many other technical courses that don't relate directly to games. For now, though, we are concentrating on game development.

So eInstitute is the one name you could use to identify GameInstitute as well as any other Institutes in the future, and the site would act as a launch pad into your learning centers?
Exactly. But for now, we will be thrilled to be the definitive place to go for game programming education

What is the history of the GameInstitute? Whose idea was it, what got the ball rolling, how long did it take to set up and how long has it been in operation?
The GameInstitute was birthed, at least conceptually, in early 2000 although the concept had been one I was toying with for years. Like many of us in this community, I learned the tricks of the trade by purchasing and reading as many books and magazines as I could get my hands on. Going it alone was painful at times and I thought about how much easier it would be if I could just pick up the phone, dial the author and say, "what the heck does this mean?" So, to some extent (and perhaps to the chagrin of some of my victims) that is exactly what I did. Over the years, I managed to develop many friendships with some really talented writers and game developers. Eventually, after speaking to some of the these folks, guys like Andre LaMothe and John DeGoes, I concluded that there was a need for something more than a book, but less expensive, and less full-time, than a university. Thus, the die was cast and little more than a year later, here we are.

What are the goals (both long- and short-term) for GameInstitute?
Our long- and short-term goals are essentially identical, with the only difference being scope. We want to provide a solid curriculum with lots of educational opportunities to those students wishing to learn how to create games. Whether they be total beginners or experienced programmers or artists, we want to open up new doors for them. Our goal is to keep people dedicated to the practice by keeping them interested in it. There is certainly no shortage of fascinating subject matter in this field and we intend to offer as much of it as we can as quickly as we can. Perhaps our greatest sense of accomplishment will be when we see our students creating the games (commercial or not) that break new ground or redefine current concepts and practices and then coming back to GI to teach the next generation how they did it.

Are there any other sites like GameInstitute? If so, how does Game Institute separate itself from the pack?
We have not found any sites that are operating with a similar infrastructure. Of course, as an education-oriented site, we recognize the value of information in all forms and I can tell you that our own shelves are overflowing with some absolutely invaluable books. The way we 'separate ourselves from the pack' is to take a step beyond the traditional book with a structured classroom-oriented approach. By providing our students access to the instructor in addition to the book itself, the experience becomes so much more interesting. Learning no longer has to take place in isolation. The feeling of being a part of something is very palpable. Not only do you get to read the words, but you get to hear your instructors voice in weekly lectures, interact with him or her live to ask questions, meet other students from around the world studying the exact same things as you, and so on. Better still, you don't have to leave your home or quit your job or refinance your house to do it. It is a unique experience for sure and our current students will attest to that. We have been simply inundated with letters asking for courses on topic 'a' or 'b' and I can assure you that we are working around the clock to continue putting together new courses.

English is the common Internet language, but have you taken into account the chance of non-English speaking students?
Actually 35% of our students are from outside [America], including many for whom English is not their primary language. As we have discovered though, many people who do not natively speak English still have profoundly impressive receptive English capabilities.

You have so far 15 course subjects. What kind of course range are you trying to cover? Will Game Institute eventually offer courses in PDAs, multiple platforms, project management, etc?
As I mentioned earlier, we are first and foremost in the business of education. As such, we prefer that our curriculum be as absolutely complete as is possible. >From design to implementation. From the artwork to the artificial intelligence. The answer to each of your questions is then necessarily "yes". Of course, we temper our development timeline based on demand, but we intend to leave no stone unturned. What you see now is merely a scratch on the surface. We are a young company with a very committed faculty that is growing very quickly. The range of topics expands each time we bring someone new on board as everyone has their own area of interest and expertise. Beyond the PC, we have faculty members who have shipped software for PDAs, home consoles, even military hardware. Linux and Macintosh users will not be overlooked either. Things are going to get very exciting, very quickly.

So then what would you estimate to be your rate of expansion? Say, the end of the year. Can you predict where you'll be in terms of GameInstitute and any other Institutes? Where do you want to be?
It is unlikely that we will move to other 'Institutes' before late 2002. Course development is a long and laborious process and the very technical nature of this particular subject matter only ramps up the difficulty. Our short-term goal will be to have about 15 to 20 courses up by the end of the year.

Could you, if possible, briefly explain the functions of the EISDK and EICBT?
The EISDK (eInstitute Software Development Kit) is a proprietary game development toolkit developed by the in-house faculty and staff at the Game Institute. Essentially, it provides instructors with a unified code base from which they can teach their courses. This makes the experience more seamless as students progress from course to course and learn about different aspects of game development. All the while, they are assembling a fairly powerful suite of tools that they can use in their own game development efforts. To be clear though, our courses are not about the EISDK. Courses focus on the topics for which they are intended. The code provided merely serves as an example of one of the many ways students can assemble a reusable library of software routines. We have purposely kept the level of abstraction fairly low so that the details are never far below the surface and are clear and accessible at all times. We are not a software shop, we are an educational website. So, the EISDK merely provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate our concepts without losing focus on the material.

The EICBT (eInstitute Enhanced Computer-Based Training Environment) is a software project that is in progress and I am sorry to say that I cannot disclose details at this stage. I will say that its integration into our current program will add something to the experience that will blow people away. Announcements will be made sometime in early 2002.

Your WorldGen LE looks like a powerful program. Are there any other programs planned to help out the students at GameInstitute?
Absolutely, but I would rather hold off disclosing any particulars so that we can avoid the vaporware syndrome. There is enough of that in this industry. When our other products are closer to completion and we are happy with the results, you can be sure that we will make the necessary announcements.

In courses requiring tools like the WorldGen LE, how will GameInstitute supply those tools to the students (ex: like those of a 3d Modeling/Animation course)?
It really depends on the requirements of the course and our relationship with the product manufacturer. Many software lines provide discounted rates for students and we certainly try to arrange the best prices possible. Certainly, when a vendor expresses interest in working with us on promotional packages, we try to take advantage of the offer. You will start to see evidence of this over the coming months as we begin rolling out more diverse courses.

What affiliations does Game Institute currently hold with industry development studios? What affiliations are planned for the future? How will these affiliations benefit the students and Game Institute itself?
Currently all of our affiliations are in preliminary discussion stages. We are bound by confidentiality agreements and as such cannot disclose the details until those companies are officially ready to announce their intentions. I am permitted to say however that eventually GameInstitute hopes to provide "certified developer" programs on some or all of the dedicated hardware platforms available. In conjunction with that program and working with our partners, we will also announce an Employment Acquisition service for those ready and interested in obtaining jobs in the industry.

Can you say at this point how the Certified Developer courses will differ from the regular courses? Will it cost more, be more intensive, or taught on a lower abstract?
While the specifics are to some extent case-by-case, as we see it now, there will be a series of courses and their respective examinations that a student must earn passing grades in. In some cases, students may be required to take exams at a testing facility to verify that they are who they say they are. When such is the case, there is likely to be an added expense although we certainly believe that it will be worth it. But as I mentioned, there will some degree of variance depending on the particular certification sought. The requirements will be determined in a collaborative effort between the Game Institute and the entity sponsoring the certification.

On a similar note, what affiliations does Game Institute currently hold with any colleges? What affiliations are planned for the future? How will these affiliations benefit the students and Game Institute itself?
We have had very promising discussions with some respected colleges and universities. We hope that we will be able to offer courses for credit sometime in the not-too-distant future. Of course, colleges impose requirements that make it difficult to simply say "okay, now you get 3 credits for taking course X". For example, most expect verification that the student we are teaching is the one taking the exams. Given our current electronic format, this adds the additional factor and cost of on-site testing services. So, while we are making steady progress on that front, we are still moving forward on creating certification programs that in the short term may offer more immediate value to our students.

How far do you think the colleges and universities are willing to let GameInstitute handle the bulk of the learning process? Will they still require that the students take the colleges own exams to verify what they have learned, despite the course completions at GameInstitute?
Again, you can expect a case-by-case situation. The attitude of the traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities with respect to distance learning has certainly begun to change in recent years. Many are just beginning to adopt more progressive online curricula. Some use Internet-based education as a supplement only, while others have fully accredited programs available even now.

As it turns out, the difficulty is not necessarily convincing them to adopt alternative forms of study, or even to outsource the curriculum development. Most recognize the value that such options provide the institution. The real trick is convincing them that game development is a worthy academic pursuit in its own right. Few people outside of the industry have any clue about the level of knowledge required. They think of 'games' as synonymous with 'toys' and overlook the level of engineering sophistication that underlies the process. Of course, when you point out how their mathematics and physics and computer science departments can receive an enrollment boost, they start to pay more attention.

Joe, thank you for your time.
Thank you, Drew. It was a real pleasure.

Any last bits of advice for aspiring game developers?
Be patient and study as much as you can. Sure, there is a lot to learn, but it will happen. Just make sure that you maintain perspective and don't stress out. Every problem has a solution and there are plenty of experienced people who can help you through the tough times and not just at GameInstitute. Become active in the community and visit sites like GameDev and Flipcode and Gamasutra and browse around and you'll see what I mean. There is no shortage of good folks willing to lend a hand when you need it. I wish all of you the best of luck and hope to see you in class!

For you experienced guys out there, give some serious thought to the notion of teaching. You don't have to put together full-blown courses. We have guest lecture programs available for those of you on a more limited timetable. If you have a little free time and the idea of teaching appeals to you, stop by the site or send me an email (jmeenaghan@gameinstitute.com). I would love to hear from you.

Special thanks also goes to Mark Schneider, CFO, who helped set this all up and kept things moving swiftly. Thanks Mark!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora.

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