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Steve Stringer, SMU Guildhall — Interview Series

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As the world of academia continues to shape new ways to engage with aspiring students and emulate their inner creations into full-fledged works of art, SMU Guildhall, one of the world’s best universities in the field, moves to elevate its program to even greater heights. To touch base on this, we thought we’d catch up with Steve Stringer, a reputable designer, producer, and professor at SMU, to discuss the facility’s ongoing projects, as well as the checkboxes that the university aims to fill with each passing day.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Steve. Tell us, how did it all start for you? Was game development always in the cards?

Steve: I was lucky enough to grow up around technology for my whole life. My dad
worked for IBM his entire career, so he was always bringing home PCs and taking me
into his office on the weekends so I got to be around computers and tech as far back as
I can remember. I learned to program and create things early on, and that never

But having a career making games was about as attainable as being a rock star or an
astronaut back then. There was no SMU Guildhall. There were no degrees in game
design. There was no mature path into an established industry, so it wasn’t an explicit
career goal. I played the crap out of every game I could get my hands on, but it wasn’t
until the CD-ROM era when games like Myst and The Journeyman Project started to
come out, when I read about these guys basically making the game in their garages,
that I realized it was possible. I just needed to start my own studio. Easy, right?

So I went to get my MBA with an eye on starting a studio with my best friend from
college. That idea didn’t pan out, but for a good reason: we both got hired by Activision
in ‘95 as associate producers after graduation. Activision was looking for producers and
thought for some reason MBAs and lawyers would somehow know how to run projects.
We didn’t, of course, but we figured it out quickly.

I felt like I won the lottery. I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe I was making games, and I
am eternally grateful to the many folks who helped me launch my career. I transitioned
from internal development at Activision to the publishing side, and that’s where I got to
work with studios like id, Raven, and many others. That’s also where I really learned
about the business of games.

You’ve a lot of credits to your name—Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Judge Dredd, and Quake II, to list just a few. At what point in your career as a designer and producer did you want to transmit your knowledge to a student base?

Steve: Wow, I think that’s the first time in history Judge Dredd and Quake were
mentioned in the same sentence. One of these things is definitely not like the other.
They can’t all be hits. Ha.

In fact, I think for the vast majority of us that have been doing this for a while, most
projects didn’t go well or even saw the light of day. That is certainly the case in my career. Looking back, I’ve had a great run and have worked with some incredibly talented people and great studios.

But we learn the most from the things that went wrong and the projects that should have
been better but weren’t for lots of reasons. I think that’s one of the things that makes me
(I hope) a good teacher, coach, and mentor for my students. I’m not just drawing on
research-based best-practices, but also hard-fought lessons and even-better-ifs.

To answer your question more directly, it was after a very long, frustrating grind at a
certain studio that death-marched us (and itself) off a cliff. I’ll be honest and say I
burned out of the industry for a few years after that experience. I stayed in project
management but veered away from games and started a web services studio and spun
off another GIS services company out of that. I enjoyed a really good run with these

Meanwhile, my wife, Elizabeth, had been teaching at SMU Guildhall since the beginning
and eventually became their Director of Academics. One summer about two weeks
before the beginning of a semester, she and I were on vacation when she got a call
letting her know a faculty had to drop out to pursue a can’t-miss opportunity. She was in
a bind, and I said I might be able to help out until she could find someone.

One semester turned into another and another. I loved it and, surprisingly (to me), I was
pretty good at it. For the first few years, I adjuncted and helped out just on the Capstone
projects, but I quickly discovered that this was a way for me to keep making games
without the toxicity and crunch. I rediscovered my love for making games and working
with creative people. In 2016, I came on full-time, and took over the GameLab in 2018.

Fast forward almost a decade and I’m back doing what I love for the right reasons now.
I’m able to take my experience both in games and on the entrepreneurial side of the
business and bring along new generations of diverse developers who can learn from
those mistakes and create an industry less prone to crunch and more able to create
amazing games predictably. I’m grateful for all those who helped me in my career, and
I’m doing my best to pay that forward and help help create a better industry one developer at
a time.

Tell us a bit about SMU Guildhall. What is it, and what sorts of modules can potential students expect to find in the program?

Steve: SMU Guildhall is a top-ranked master’s program in video game design. Students
in four specializations—Art, Design, Programming, and Production—split their time
between making games and mastering their craft. It’s our goal to create experienced,
full-stack, studio-ready developers.

In the afternoons, they focus on discipline-specific courses to hone their skills. Our
specialist faculty teach them how to use the tools to bring games to life on screen, and
it’s an integral part of their education, for sure. But it isn’t the whole story.

Each morning, they come together and work in cross-discipline teams and put what they
learned into practice while learning how to ‘team’. This is a process, and it’s what sets
us apart, I believe. In their first semester, they make a tablet game with three or four
teammates while learning the fundamental principles of development.

In their second semester, it’s much more hands-on and the scope ramps up
exponentially. We put the entire cohort (roughly 50-60 people) on one team and they
make an arcade racing game together. The point of this class is to learn how to
communicate at scale and solve creative challenges together. They come out of this
experience with a common set of their own best practices, which sets them up for
success in their Capstone projects which they develop over the summer and fall

Capstone is really where they’re operating at a professional level. They have the benefit
of preproduction, and the teams are more organized and experienced. I love this
semester. The teams are operating at a high level and the games are usually really fun.
In their fifth semester, they launch their games into the world while they’re finishing their
theses and personal projects and polishing their portfolios, doing mock interviews, and
working to land their first gigs.

My role in all of this is running and publishing the arcade racer and Capstone projects
through our GameLab, which is our development studio and publishing arm. Our goal is
to replicate a game studio in every way we can within an academic environment so that
the students are instantly comfortable and productive within any studio they go to.

All along the way, our faculty are there to teach, coach, and mentor our students. We
team-teach many of our courses, and all of us are from the industry rather than
academia. We all share a range of experiences, and each of us brings our ‘even-better-
ifs’, but we all seem to share a common passion for teaching these students and
creating great games along the way.

Putting my studio-head hat on for a second, I get to do something extraordinary at SMU
Guildhall. It’s a chance for me to experiment, tweak, and improve our production
methodologies and develop whole new techniques to structure a project and deliver
products sustainably from a human work/life standpoint and with predictable, measurable results. We get to reinvent ourselves with every project, and we’re iterating the program 6-10 times more rapidly than professional studios do. We’re definitely on the leading edge of development here, and with every cohort, we’re sharing this knowledge and experience out into the industry.

Kneedle Knight Trailer

Walk us through the process of building a video game from the ground up. Is there a certain game engine that SMU students use?

Steve: Ha. You’ll have to come to Guildhall to learn that. But, seriously, it’s not a secret.
We follow the best practices of Iterative Development and core tenants of Agile: deliver
in increments, fail fast, and find the fun.

You start with ideation. Understand the market, your customer, and the needs of your
stakeholders to develop an idea that targets certain goals that will be compelling to
players. You work through progressive rounds of development called sprints that deliver
incremental advancements toward those targets or even pivot to new and better ones
you discover along the way.

In the early days, you’re simply prototyping components of gameplay to see what works
and what is failing. You cut the parts away that aren’t working, and put energy into
developing the parts that are. Rinse and repeat.

At some point, the game “knows what it wants to be,” and then it’s all about finishing it in
full production. Again, we deliver this in increments with each successive sprint and
milestone. At various points, we bring in testers who give us incredibly valuable
feedback and validation on what’s working, and we make adjustments accordingly until
we’re out of time.

Sounds easy and logical, right?

Of course, it isn’t that simple. It comes down to experienced people creating a
framework around the teams that set them up for success. But that framework is
consistent from project to project, team to team. Studios and publishers are taking
massive creative and financial risks with these games. The trick is to use solid
foundational organizational principles that create an optimal environment for team
efficacy and creativity while still delivering a product with predictable quality and scope

It’s incredibly challenging and rewarding to do this well, but together we’ve set up an
unique pedagogy to set these students up for success to learn in a safe environment and come out of the end with a professional-grade skill set and a bunch of practical experience actually creating and shipping games.

You asked which game engines we use. We teach a wide variety of them in all our
design courses, but our TGPs are built on Unity for the tablet game and Unreal for our
racing and Capstone games. We’re also fully licensed Playstation and Xbox developers,
so we can target those systems, too. We publish on Steam, Epic Games Store, and
others coming soon. I should mention that both Valve and Epic have been incredible
partners for our program. Much of what we do wouldn’t be possible without their
ongoing support.

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to pursue a career in game development?

Steve: I love this question. I consult with parents and high schools all the time and this
is a common question from parents who want to support their kids who are interested in
gaming but don’t really know how to guide them. Preparation for a career in the industry
starts early. Fortunately, we can be the last stop along the path towards that career. But
it starts with Math. Sorry, kids, but it’s true.

STEM is hugely important for all of our disciplines, especially programming. Game dev
requires some of the most performance-critical programming around. In fact, it might be
a challenge to find courses that push the 3D math, low-level optimization, and
programming principles you need for gaming at some universities. Of course, learning
any programming language is valuable. However, high-level languages like Java,
JavaScript, Lua, and even C# have limited utility beyond specific situations. Instead,
look for courses on C or C++ or other languages that get all the way down the technical
stack. You have to make things move through 3D space, so you’ll also need lots of
algebra, linear algebra (vector math), and trigonometry.

Artists can come at this from a bunch of directions, but you need to develop basic art
skills that include perspective, anatomy, color theory, composition, and rendering. You’ll
also want to develop a range of styles, not just one like animé. We get students who are
accomplished comic artists, photographers, fine artists, and sculptors, but the ones that
succeed learn how to master a variety of genres and tools to bring characters to life
within beautiful environments regardless of the game’s art style. Speaking of
environments, I also recommend studying basic architecture and what makes a
believable space.

For designers, you’ll want to download Unity or Unreal and start learning how to
assemble assets into something resembling a fun game experience. You’ll want to learn as many engines as you can. Mostly, you have to develop the ability to create a fun and
varied game experience collaboratively through ideation. Start creating a side-scroller in
Unity. Work your way up to the much more complex Unreal, but the amount of free
assets available to you these days is simply unbelievable.

STEM is also really helpful for artists and designers, too. Our tools are highly technical,
and we use math all the time for things ranging from color theory, to lighting, special
effects, virtual economies, game balancing and many other things.

Producers are a special breed. Key qualities I look for in producers coming through my
door are empathy, strong communication skills, and the ability to be calm under
pressure. My students come from a variety of backgrounds, but the common
denominator for the successful ones I’ve encountered is a passion for helping people
and the art of empathy. Learn math, business, organizational behavior, and
communications in school.

As a bonus, it’s helpful to know the tools of the trade so you can anticipate the needs of
your team more effectively. Learn Unity and Unreal. Take a basic programming course
or two. Learn music. Learn sound design. Study film. Learn podcasting and video
production. Learn everything you can and be just good enough at the thing to be able to
appreciate what your developers will need to do their jobs optimally so that you can help
the team succeed.

Whichever path you choose, join the IGDA and start to network while you build your
portfolio. Join GameJams and have fun with it. Then, when you’re ready, come to SMU
Guildhall and learn how to do it all at a professional level so you can crack that door
open and start your career.

Asurya's Embers Trailer

SMU Guildhall releases two student projects each year. Tell us, what do you look for when it comes to making the selection? Are there certain checkboxes that you aim to fill?

Steve: Our metrics for success are not the same as they would be if we were a
commercial studio. Everything we do is for the benefit of the students. It’s not about
Metacritic scores or revenue. It’s about them being able to demonstrate clearly that they
are capable of making games at a professional quality. It’s critical that they are proud of
what they create and that they can point to their game with any potential employer and
say, “I’m capable of making more of this.” So we put an emphasis on quality over
quantity when it comes to scope.

Picking the concept is a combination of factoring what the teams are passionate about
and what can be done within our timeframe. Some things we aren’t going to touch.
MMOs or live ops MOBAs for example, but we’re open to just about anything the
students decide to make so long as it can be made in 20 weeks and has the potential to
show our students as full-stack, studio-ready developers.

And are there any upcoming games that we can look forward to? If so, would you kindly tell us a bit about it/them?

Steve: By the time your readers see this, we’ll have just launched our two most recent

Kneedle Knight is a really cute, charming 3D platformer where you are a mouse named
Sir Lukoss The Small. In order to defeat the Evil Witch of Fabric and free himself from
her curse, Sir Lukoss must traverse her magic castle filled with traps and obstacles. The
trick is that you have a magic needle as your sword and you can weave yourself in and
out of the fabric in the castle to avoid obstacles and enemies and climb walls. It turned
out incredibly well and the team is really proud of their work.

Asurya’s Embers is an innovative take on an FPS where you wield a bow and arrow and
use light and shadow to your advantage. This game is gorgeous, and the team worked
hard to combine several Asian cultures with a reimagining the Chinese myth of Hou Yi
and the Ten Suns (后羿射日) to create a lore and culture of their own. Their original
concept was that there were 10 suns in the sky, and 9 of which could be extinguished
by defeating a god/boss for each one. We knew early on we couldn’t create 10 levels in
the time we had, so the team pivoted and crafted a new legend of their own where you
work to defeat a sun god named Asurya that takes the form of a dragon. This introduced
an interesting mechanic where light hurts you and shadow heals. So the game is about
finding strategic safety in shadows and defeating enemies and ultimately Asurya.

Kneedle Knight and Asurya’s Embers, along with our whole back catalog of games, is
on Steam for free.

Any final words for our readers?

Steve: I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Thanks. This has been a lot of fun.

Thanks again, Steve. We look forward to seeing what SMU Guildhall comes up with next!

For more information about SMU Guildhall, be sure to check in with the team over on their official social handle here. Alternatively, you can visit their site here.

Jord is acting Team Leader at If he isn't blabbering on in his daily listicles, then he's probably out writing fantasy novels or scraping Game Pass of all its slept on indies.