Student Successes Drive Head of Game Development Program

Paul Toprac, head of the Game and Mobile Media Applications (GAMMA) Program, discusses his experience in gaming, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Paul Toprac leads UT’s Games and Mobile Media Application (GAMMA) Program, an interdisciplinary undergraduate certificate program for students of the Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies (CAET), Computer Science Department and Radio-Television-Film Department. The program produces graduates ready to design, develop and provide leadership in computer game, mobile app and creative media agencies and studios in Texas and around the world. In addition to teaching game development and design in the program, Toprac also oversees the Simulation and Game Applications (SAGA) Lab.

Could you tell me a little about yourself? What is your background?
I started out as a chemical engineer and ran my own business. Then I got an M.B.A. and my Ph.D. in educational technology. I have a wide background, but it’s mainly been involved in software.

What are some projects you’ve done or experiences you’ve had that you are most proud of? Why?
I’m most proud when my students are successful. For instance, one of my students, Christina Curlee (B.F.A., Studio Art, 2016), recently got a full scholarship at UCLA. I’ve also had some students go to MIT or other great universities around the country for graduate school. Some of them went directly into the game development industry as well, which I’m really happy about.

I’m proud of those student successes and the work we’re doing in the SAGA Lab, where we help research and develop solutions to advance that research. Primarily so far, we’ve done educational tools and health care. That’s something that’s pretty neat. Also starting the GAMMA Program here at UT. There was only one game development class here at UT when I started, and so I’ve helped expand the program. Most recently, I helped with the launch of Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies. All of these initiatives center around helping students succeed.

What do you cover over the course of the semester in your capstone classes?
The two courses I’ve been teaching for five years now are the Game Development Capstone courses. There is 2-D version in the fall and 3-D version in the spring. I run those just like I would run a game studio. I form teams, and then the teams decide what kind of games they want to make. From then on I run it based on milestones they have to hit and expectations that will prepare them to step into most any studio. That includes software, processes and attitudes, so it’s really a stepping-stone to a career for anything in the creative industry.

I also teach AET 335, which is Game Aesthetics where students learn what aesthetics for games is about and how to design a game to hit the aesthetic that they want to achieve.

Currently I’m also teaching AET 318 which is Foundations of Games/Playable Apps. It’s basically a mini version of the capstone. We use easier software and smaller teams. Capstone teams are usually between five and seven students, while this class is two to three. So the processes are less heavy, but the class gives them a taste of what it is to make a game. It’s good for students trying decide if they want to pursue game development or not.

What do you hope students take away from your courses?
I want them to gain the tools necessary to be successful in the 21st century: collaboration, creativity and communication. All of these courses are focused around that, and it just happens that you also get to make a game. Making a game is a struggle, but when they actually get there and you see the look on their face of, “Yeah, I created this and I’m proud of it,” it’s really great.

A few years ago there was a VR game created in my class, and a year before that there was a mobile game that someone decided to do, which is usually a lot harder to make. I’m often surprised by what students can do, especially when they take on something completely new and different.

Besides teaching, you are also working in your field. What kinds of projects are you working on outside of the classroom?
The SAGA Lab has a few projects we’re working on. Games to help with the depth of students to cope with different scenarios in their lives. We worked on a history interactive timeline tool. We have this game called Environ that is about economic and environmental sustainability. We recently completed this.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in following a career path in games?
Just do it. If you like it, that’s great, and if you don’t, go pursue something else. You don’t know unless you try.