13 August 2010

The Department of Interactive Games & Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology offers a wide range of undergraduate courses to a variety of constituents. The core bachelor’s degrees offered by the department are the Bachelor of Science in New Media Interactive Development, and the Bachelor of Science in Game Design & Development. While these degrees differ in their focus and academic flavor, they seek to address the disparate roles of the designer and the developer, and to educate students about the interoperability of these roles in the production process.


For each of the degrees, students are required to focus on elements of production first as a designer, and then as a developer. Indeed, throughout the curriculum students alternate between these roles several times. This article explores two distinct sequences that chart this path through the IGM curriculum: Web Design and Development, and the other on Interactive Media Production.


The curriculum introduces Web design, the first area of interest to IGM students through a core class, Foundations of Interactive Media. In this course, students focus on media theory, and basic imaging and design skills using Adobe Photoshop. Students then take a course in Web Development, which focuses on core web design elements such as XHTML, CSS, color, layout, and type. In the second half of the Web Development course, students transition to the role of light-weight developer, adding bits of code to pre-parse pages and provide interactivity. The next course in this sequence, New Media Web Technologies 1, requires students to rethink the entire web development process from the perspective of the developer, focusing on interoperability between the web server, the database, and the client. Students incorporate their design skills and previous work in web design to create data-driven sites that generate content dynamically.


The second area in which students explore the designer/developer paradigm is in the area of interactive content creation. Students entering the New Media program take a first course in Time-Based Imaging that provides an introduction to the Flash environments. Students in the Game Design & Development program take a course in 2D Animation, which provides many of the same skills. Students then take courses in ActionScript programming that focus on the paradigm split between asset creation and programmatic development. One example is the course titled Programming for Digital Media. Assignments in the first part of the course focus on concepts of asset creation and interactivity with projects such as animated greeting cards, and interactive galleries. Projects in the latter half of the course (such as a video game, or a music visualizer) focus on the role of the developer, using either pre-developed content or content created programmatically, with the focus of the course on working in the object-oriented programming paradigm.


Students then explore advanced development in the Programming for Digital Media course, in which all content beyond basic images is created through ActionScript, using a variety of techniques including bitmap imaging and custom sprite classes, 3D, and intelligent agents through state-machines. The focus is very much on the development of behavior, but this incorporates sub-areas such as coordinate systems and movement, programmatic animation, etc. In this way, students explore the differences between how they create content as a designer, and how they can combine elements as a developer.

The focus of these courses culminates in downstream coursework in which students take the roles of either designer or developer on team-based projects. Students working in web design and development often go on to the New Media Web Technologies II course, which explores advanced data-driven website construction, and then on to the New Media Team Project course, which combines students in our program with students from the sister programs in New Media within the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences. Students are tasked with creating full implementations from concept through production over the course of several months, involving all aspects of both the designer and developer roles.

Students pursuing interactive media development often take the Multiuser Media Spaces course in which they must create assets to populate a multi-user world developed by the class. Afterward, these students may be involved in the team projects like the one described above or, as Game Design & Development students, may incorporate their skills on a downstream project related to game development. In either case the students are working in teams whose responsibilities include both the design and development of content and interactivity.


The Adobe product lineup has given us an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the workflow of these roles throughout the curriculum. Students in their introductory courses are often creating content in Adobe Flash using the tools in the interface such as the timeline and the vector graphics tools. Likewise, they develop imaging skills in Adobe Photoshop, and compare these two environments when discussing the differences between vector and bitmap paradigms. Students then add bits of interactivity by applying ActionScript through the Flash interface. When students change roles, they also change tools: the middle tier of coursework both in the Web Technologies courses and the Programming for Digital Media courses are taught in FlashBuilder (formerly called Flex). This change reflects not only the focus of the work, but informs students about the workflow they are likely to see in industry. They come to understand the difference in expectations that designers and developers have for a tool based on entirely different set of needs and requirements in order to accomplish their tasks.


By focusing on these differences, and by requiring that students explore both of these roles, the department curriculum prepares students that can hit the ground running when they enter industry. The faculty do not expect that every student will excel in every role; quite the contrary. But by exploring the tasks of different members of a production team, students are better prepared to work with others who have different skills. That diversity is the overall goal we set out to achieve in our curricular design. Slowly but surely, in each iteration of our curriculum, we are moving closer to this goal; it is apparent in the students’ capstone projects, and in the career success our graduates achieve.