Western builds up games development courses

The University of Western Ontario is designing games development courses to help round out the education of its computer science graduates.

The London, Ont., postsecondary school has offered games development as part of its curriculum since

2002, but will build up the course load over the next year or two so that students can earn a minor in games as part of a degree.

The theory behind games development and enterprise software development isn’t that different, said Michael Katchabaw, an assistant professor in the computer science faculty. Regardless of the development jobs in which they are ultimately employed, the games courses can be a valuable part of a student’s education.

“People (think) building a game is more like shooting a movie. Certainly there are some of these elements in there, but really a game is a piece of software. The same software engineering principles and methodologies that would apply for developing enterprise software of course apply here as well,” said Katchabaw.

“You still need to know how to program, you still need to know algorithms and data structures and software engineering and all the things that you would need otherwise.”

Katchabaw brought a multi-disciplinary approach to software development from his Ph.D studies into his teaching career. His own studies focused on quality assurance issues when using multimedia, digital or voice applications over a network.

His own interest in games development also made the transition from student to teacher. The prospect of working on a game that may one day end up in the homes of millions is helping to draw new recruits into the field of computer science as well, he said.

Katchabaw works with high schools to increase the visibility of computer science and “as soon as you tell people, ‘Yeah, we’re actually doing (game development) at a university,’ there’s definitely an increase in interest.”

Some of the funding for Western’s new courses will come from Microsoft Corp., said Katchabaw.

“Microsoft’s interest in this is, they would like to be able to take this material and provide it to other educators and other students so they can kind of get a leg up on the process as well,” he said.

The company is reaching out to the Canadian academic community this week through a series of “academic days” being held in Toronto. Experts like Katchabaw were invited to meet with some of the brightest minds at Microsoft and Microsoft Research (MSR) and swap ideas.

The multi-disciplinary approach to software development that Western is embracing is common in the actual development community, said Kevin Schofield, general manager for strategy and communications at MSR. The company employs technologists, but also psychologists, anthropologists and graphic designers who all have input in the software development process, he said.

“It takes a village to build a piece of software these days,” he said. “There’s a set of demands being put on the way we build software today that didn’t exist 20 years ago. The tools and technologies that we use in the software development process need to change accordingly.”

A key factor in the evolution of technology over the last 20 years is the rise of games, added Katchabaw.

Today’s desktop machines are as powerful as they are because they were designed with the rigors of gaming in mind. High-performance desktop software packages, particularly those that use a lot of graphical content, are the way they are partly because games pushed the envelope first, he said.

The skills that Western students learn in gaming courses will be transferable to practically any other facet of software development and vice-versa, said Katchabaw. But there are some aspects that have more to do with gaming than, say, spreadsheets.

“If you’re out there putting together a payroll system, you don’t have to make sure that the people using the payroll system are having a good time,” he said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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