Three young Clarkson graduates seeking to break into the highly competitive video games industry

are doing it the hard way. They have founded their own games company and funded it from their collective savings, rather than bank loans or venture capital.

Even so, they start with an edge over much of their competition; the prototype version of their first game, Snapshot, was nominated in 2009 for the prestigious Excellence in Design award at the Independent Games Festival. “It’s hard to get your game noticed, especially if you are a small independent game developer,” says Peter Jones ’08, co-founder of the group’s company, Retro Affect. “The Festival gave us a really good launch pad.”

The trio has been immersed in video games since childhood. Kyle Pulver ’08 began playing video games when he was two. By age 12, he had created one of his own. David Carrigg ’07 learned to read from video games instruction manuals. After college, he turned down a lucrative offer from IBM, opting instead for an uncertain future in the video game industry. And Jones sees things in everyday life that might serve as the raw ingredients for future video games. One of his nightmares provided the grist
for Snapshot.

dig_arts_group1All three are steeped in the technology that underlies today’s sophisticated video games. Carrigg graduated with a degree in computer science. Pulver and Jones each earned a degree in the Digital Arts & Sciences (DA&S) program. Clarkson’s DA&S program was the nation’s first to demand that its graduates be proficient at both the artistic skills and the computer skills needed in film-making, advertising and video games.

“Our skills are complementary,” says Jones. “When Kyle and I did the prototype for Snapshot, Kyle took care of the science side, I took care of the art. When we wanted to make it a bigger game, the science was beyond either of us. That’s when Dave joined up. While there’s some overlap, each of us
has skills that the others don’t.”

“Now we’re talking about how to get 3-D models on the screen,” says Carrigg. “Instead of trying to make something look like a rock, we’re trying to make it look like a rock with water on it, where light bounces off just as it does in real life.” The challenge is to translate the complex artistic vision onto the screen, and that takes the kind of advanced technical skills that Carrigg brings to Retro Affect. “My role,” he says, “is to open the doors for Peter and Kyle to do whatever they want by solving the technical problems.”

In the past, Retro Affect’s chances in an industry dominated by Sony (PlayStation), Nintendo (Wii), and Microsoft (Xbox) might have been poor. But the arrival of high-speed computers and advanced software at bargain prices leveled the playing field for upstart game companies, just as it has for book publishing and recording. Anyone can write a book on their computer and sell it online, and any independent band can bypass the record labels and sell through the Internet.

The scenario is similar for independent game companies. “Making a game is really easy compared to what it used to be,” says Pulver. “There’s lots of software out there. This will encourage more people to take a role in the game industry, rather than just playing the games.”

In this new world, big outfits such as Sony still offer their own games. But for a fee, they also serve as distributors for games produced by small concerns like Retro Affect. Ownership of the games and the profits remain with the independents. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Jones. “The big players don’t have to spend money on the game’s development. And we don’t have to spend money on distribution and advertising.”

In the end, the trio won’t be a cog in a big company that uses hundreds of employees to design a new game, nor will they have sold their rights to outside money men. If they hit it big, they will reap the rewards and the credit.

“I didn’t want to spend two or three years making a really cool product, and then have the product associated not with me, but with the investor who financed it,” says Carrigg. “It’s my company. I’m not just another salaried employee. And I want to make this the best game I possibly can, because it’s my game.”

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Next time you’re at a movie that uses computer-generated images, think of the digital picture on the screen as the product of two things. One is the blend of image, sound and movement that you’ve paid for. The other is the sophisticated mathematics and computer coding that made these effects possible. The latter doesn’t show up on screen, but without them the screen would be blank.

Clarkson recognized the importance of both components in 2005 when it created the nation’s first digital arts program requiring majors to master both the artistic and scientific sides of digital imagery. The new program gives the University’s graduates an edge when they compete for a job in the digital media industry — one section of the economy that’s still growing.

In 2010, the International Digital and Media Arts Association named Clarkson’s program North America’s most innovative digital media training ground. Clarkson won over 700 other programs.

“Our program is unique because we demand that students utilize both sides of the brain,” said Dave Beck, director of Digital Arts & Sciences. “After four years, they find that they are better artists and better scientists.”

The idea of merging art and science at Clarkson was conceived by Peter Turner, now dean of Clarkson’s School of Arts & Sciences, after he heard an official from Pixar Animation Studios say that mathematics made possible the company’s stunning animation.

“The only reason movies such as Avatar can exist is because of science and art working together,” said Beck. “Without the computer engineering and the math, our students can’t get onto the screen what they have in their heads.”

Learn more at
www.retroaffect.com
twitter.com/retroaffect