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Video Games Sales Fuel California Community College 3-D Animation Programs to Provide Workforce Pipeline

Many students hired by companies right after graduating with certificate or associate degrees

Sales of video games and consoles each year continue to eclipse the market for movies, both in ticket sales and purchase of DVDs. The video games industry has become big business and now encompasses not only the Playstations and XBOXes in living rooms, but smartphones and tablets where people can play anywhere, anytime.

So who creates the games? Certainly the industry giant, Electronic Arts, has many of the top-sellers in its sales stable including the Call of Duty and Madden football franchises that have sold more than 150 million units worldwide. But more and more the true mavericks in the industry are community college students taking courses in 3-D animation, computer modeling, multimedia production and earning certificates and associate degrees, and turning those into jobs at game design studios. Nearly a third of the 112 California Community Colleges offer some type of computer generated 3-D animation courses.

“I started recruiting game designers at the Arts Institute but soon found that students with two-year degrees or certificates were better designers than students with four-year degrees who I found to be grossly unprepared and horribly in debt,” said Brian Linville, owner of Sacramento-based Stigma Games. “I get far better results from the community colleges than I do the trade schools.”

One prime hunting ground for talent, Linville said, is American River College in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento. Linville attended the college and has gleaned several designers from Professor Matthew Stoehr’s digital animation program. American River College offers three certificate tracks -- 3-D modeling and textures, 3-D rigging technical director and 3-D technical director. The modeling and rigging certificates are 18 and 19 unites, respectively, while the more broad-based 3-D technical director certificate is 30 units.

Matthew Stoehr teaches 3-D Animation at American River College

Matthew Stoehr teaches 3-D Animation at American River College.

Stoehr and Linville have a created a talent pipeline between the college and Stigma Games. Several of Stoehr’s current and former students are working for Linville developing mobile games. One such game, RayGun Rocketship, is a two-dimensional retro “shooter” similar to the old Flash Gordon series. It’s set to launch June 1, 2013.

Games built for smartphones and tablets are quickly out-selling console games and Electronic Arts’ new CEO Peter Moore estimates that digitally delivered video games may account for 50 percent of sales by 2015 as more players move to tablets and smartphones and away from consoles.

That’s music to Renee Ruiz’s ears and potentially a lot of money to her bank account.

The American River College student is taking Stoehr’s 3-D rigging certificate courses while working full-time as a digital media artist for Vision Service Plan, the nation’s largest vision and eye care benefits company. She said she’s working pro-bono for Linville and hopes Raygun Rocketship and the other releases sell well.

“I’m not really a gamer, per se, but I’m taking these courses to stay ahead of the curve and bring some of this training back to VSP,” Ruiz said. “I have a marketing background but if there’s an opportunity to work for Linville or another video game manufacturer I’d certainly listen.”

Stoehr said a certificate from American River College doesn’t mean the student has to get into video games production. Businesses, such as VSP, are developing applications all the time to get noticed via smartphones or in digital marketing deliverables. Rather than designing a static 2-D display, companies are designing 3-D ad campaigns and students such as Ruiz have positioned themselves nicely to bring their classroom experience working in Stoehr’s computer labs to the business world thirsty for the latest and greatest.

“I’m actively recruiting local companies to develop connections for our students,” Stoehr said. “I’m working with Elara Systems, a medical animation company in Rancho Cordova, and one of my former students works there fulltime.”

Stoehr said he’s actively working on the curriculum so the college can offer an associate degree in the near future.

Mt. San Antonio College does offer an associate of science degree in animation that encompasses traditional animation (think old Disney movies), 2-D computer generated animation and video game design through 3-D animation. Mt. SAC also offers certificates in traditional animation, 2-D animation and 3-D animation. Professor Keith Wilson said his entire animation program has approximately 300 students enrolled each semester and about 80 percent are interested in computer animation.

“I started this program 14 years ago and really have seen it grow alongside the video game industry,” Wilson said. “We have a wide range of students, too, from the new high school grads to those looking to get new skills for the job market.”

Wilson said a student of his several years ago was laid off as a traditional animator at Disney, commuted an hour each way to Mt. SAC for two semesters, got the training he needed in 3-D animation and was rehired by Disney.

“I have students get jobs at DreamWorks and Disney right after they earn their certificates,” Wilson said. “And many others transfer to (California State University) Fullerton where we’ve built kind of a partnership. Fullerton has a real pipeline with Warner Brothers and other entertainment companies down here. But the big thing now is companies want everything to be transferrable between consoles and mobile devices and (the community colleges) are right there providing the training.”

College of Marin video game programming class
Three-dimensional animation classes at community colleges, such as this one from the College of Marin, are leading to good-paying jobs. Fields such as video game production and medical imaging all require some course work in 3-D animation.