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Getting Into The Game Industry – An Interview With Academy of Interactive Entertainment

Established in Australia  during the mid-nineties, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) has been recognized throughout the video game and film industries as an institute that prepares students to go into the game development and 3D animation workforce. The AIE now has two campuses in the United States, one in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the other in Seattle, Washington.

Graduates of the program are trained in cutting-edge technologies, whilst increasing their proficiency with game art, development, programming, CGI design, and other related skills that are in demand in the modern video game industry. Graduation from one of the AIE’s programs provides students with both an American and an Australian Diploma, which can be of great benefit as they increase chances of finding work in both countries.

JTM Games recently had a chance to talk with Dr. Chris Erhardt, Head of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment’s US schools, to talk about the AIE, its graduates, the current state of the video game industry, as well as the skills and training that are currently in-demand within the industry.

Check out the full interview after the break.

Dr. Chris Erhardt

JTM Games: Good afternoon Chris, could you tell us about The Academy of Interactive Entertainment?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: We’re a 15-year old non-profit private college that has been based in Australia until last year when we decided to open two campuses in the United States. One in Louisiana, and one in Seattle. We are the only non-profit college in the United States teaching digital media.

JTM Games: What programs or courses do you offer students wanting to get into the video game industry?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: We’re currently offering three different tracks; we’re offering our Advanced Diploma in Professional Game Development Programming, Professional Game Development Art, and an Advanced Diploma in Screen and Media.

The advanced diploma is an Australian degree which is equivalent to an associate’s degree in the United States. It’s a two-year dual degree program and students that graduate from the program get both an Australian degree and an American degree. We’re having intakes in Lafayette and Seattle for this January term, and for the term next September.

AIE student-created outdoor environment

JTM Games: What are the few common misconceptions students have when going into your school or about working in the video game industry in general?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Well a couple misconceptions they have is that they can go into the school and study game design and immediately come out and get a job which is incorrect because most development studios and publishers are not looking for game designers who only know how to design. They’re looking for people who know how to program or draw as well as design. That’s one misconception.

The other big misconception that we have is students who come in with unrealistic salary expectation, who believe that they can finish their college degree and they’ll be making as much as somebody that’s been working in the field for seven to ten years. So we try and make sure that we teach students the realities about that before they get into the digital media industry and also explain to them that while they will probably find a job when they graduate, we can’t guarantee it’s going to be in a city they really want to live in or even the country they want to live in.

JTM Games: You mentioned realistic salaries, what would be the most realistic salary for a student who’s just graduating and entering into the workforce?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Well it depends on if they’re in animation or if they’re programming and if they want to work internationally. Most of our graduates (artists) technically start between $25,000 and $30,000 a year depending upon what region they’re in. Most of our programmers start at between $32,000 and $45,000 a year depending upon their region.

Seattle AIE Poster

JTM Games: How does the AIE prepare it’s graduates for the job hunt after they graduate?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Well like I said, we’re a not-for-profit as opposed to a for-profit institution so we have a lot of community outreach and we have a job placement coordinators that work with the students to find them oppurtunities, be it in gaming or film; some of our students are even working in the south, in the petroleum industry or working in medical imaging systems.

JTM Games: Could you give us a brief overview of skill sets and requirements are for programmers compared to animators/visual fx as well as game artists and designers? 

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Sure, well the most critical component for all three of all you just mentioned believe it or not is their English composition and communication skills. Their ability to write and talk and communicate effectively to the other people on their team, to the studios, and to the publishers is a critical component that most people forget when they’re applying to programming or art courses.

If they’re applying to programming courses, obviously their math skills are also important. If they’re applying to art courses, obviously any experience they have in hand-drawing or in working with paint programs on the computer is always a plus.

JTM Games: What overlapping skillsets have you noticed employers in the gaming industry are looking for?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Most gaming industry professionals right now are looking for people that have a very firm foundation in the basics; that artists have a firm foundation in 2D animation, the programmers have a firm foundation in C++ and C-Sharp, but at the same time they’re willing to be flexible and agile and be able to work in (for the artists) photoshop one week, flash another week.

What we’ve noticed is that they’re looking for people that are able to be flexible and at the same time continue to communicate their passion about wanting to work in the industry.

AIE student-created environment

JTM Games: What traits, if any, do you instil in your students so that they can work towards a successful career?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Well the Australian model is all about workforce education. It’s about giving the skills necessary to actually be able to have an occupation. So with regards of the academy for instance, students have 1700 contact hours over the two-year program with an instructor of record. And with that much face-time with an instructor in small classes (we only allow 20 students per teacher) they’re able to really get a firm grasp of the fundamentals, be they art or programming and that allows them the oppurtunity to be able to actually have what the traits are that people that are hiring are looking for.

JTM Games: From your experience, do AIE graduates tend to go into larger development studios or form their own independent studios?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: It’s a mix of both, we have about 50% of our students who go into larger studios and the other half that go into smaller studios or want to form teams of their own. In our campuses in Australia starts next month, we’re going to be offering a graduate certificate in entrepreneurship for those students who graduate our advanced diploma program and we’re going to be rolling that out in the United States in 2013.

What that is, is a program where we coordinated with incubators within the local areas to be able to take these small three-to-five person student teams, we train them for nine weeks, and then we mentor them through the process of shipping their projects commercially.

JTM Games: Will the AIE have any students who will enter their projects into the PAX 10, IGF student showcase or the indie showcase? 

Dr. Chris Erhardt: We’ve made our first submissions to the GDC Independent Gaming Festival recently, and we submitted a total of seven games from all five campuses.

JTM Games: What do international students need to do to join AIE? And how likely are international graduates hired in American video game studios?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Quite frequently as a matter of fact. Now we’re a dual degree program in the United States like I mentioned earlier so that allows students that attend the Lafayette or Seattle campuses to be able to (if they want to) already have a foot in the door to apply to Australian film and games industry.

As far as students wanting to apply, its a different procedure for applying to the Australian campus compared to the US campus. For applying to the US campus, we encourage them to go to the website www.theaie.us, and there’s an application form they need to fill out, then an interview process that’s very iterative and we will only start accepting foreign students from the September intake.

If they want to go to the Australian campuses, the campuses are accepting students during the January intake for international students. For this they need to go to www.aie.edu.au and follow the procedures from there. Costs are different in the Australian campus as foreign students fees are higher than normal Australian students. For 2012 only at the US campuses, the rates are going to be the same between American students and foreign students.

Fully modeled 3D car

JTM Games: What is that you’d like potential students and people looking to get into the industry to know about the Academy of Interactive Entertainment?

Dr. Chris Erhardt: Besides the fact that we’re the only non-profit academic institution that teaches digital media; we also work with our students to get their projects (if they’re really good) out into the marketplace. We work with local game development and film editing studios to make sure that our students get internships during the summer to be able to practice what they’ve been studying during the year.

In fact we have an educational title for four year olds already on the iTunes store that was done by a team of our second year students. We helped them get the project through the approval process at Apple while they’re still full-time students . We allowed them to take their intellectual property and publish their game on the iTunes store.  One of the things we really encourage that people remember is at the AIE, we’re here about workforce education, but since we’re a non-profit in the United States, we’re also about community.

Our community is the digital media sector so we work with the students to make sure that they’re able to get their projects, if they’re meritorious, out into the marketplace through such things as our graduate certificate in entrepreneurship.

JTM Games: Thank you very much for your time Dr. Erhardt.

Dr. Chris Erhardt: You’re welcome Jan.

*END INTERVIEW*

Gamers who are interested in going into the video game industry may want to check out the programs offered at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. Check out their official website at www.theaie.us.

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About janhutchings

Canadian Game Industry Blogger / Contributor for @Sonyrumors & @ShogunGamer / Communications and PR Professional. Voice of Canadian and Indie Gaming. http://jtmgames.com/

Posted on November 27, 2011, in Interviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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