Video-Game Creator Directs an Academy to Cultivate Managers for the Industry

U. of Texas at Austin

Warren Spector
March 31, 2014

Thirty years ago, Warren Spector was lured away from the world of scholarship by a game-development company offering a minimum-wage job.

"I was just short of getting my doctorate in radio-TV-film," from the University of Texas at Austin, says Mr. Spector, who is now 58. "I walked away from academia to make video games, and it turns out to have been a very good decision. But I always thought I would return."

Now he has, as founding director of the university’s Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, which accepts its first class this fall. Mr. Spector is creating and running a one-year postbaccalaureate certificate program that he describes this way: "An M.B.A. meets game development by way of Navy SEAL-style training."

The $100-billion video-game industry is a force to be reckoned with both culturally and economically, says Mr. Spector.

Roderick P. Hart, dean of Austin’s Moody College of Communication, says the gaming academy has been years in the making. Financial support fell into place in 2012, he says, and the academy was established with donations from the Effie and Wofford Cain Foundation and from Paul and Susan Sams. Mr. Sams is chief operating officer of the video-game company Blizzard Entertainment. Along with the Samses, the academy is named for another co-founder, Wofford Denius, an entertainment-industry lawyer and a director of the Cain foundation.

The donors have provided start-up support for the academy’s first four years, allowing the university to offer a tuition waiver and $10,000 stipend for each student in each class of 20, says Mr. Hart. He will work on building an endowment and looking for alternative sources of money past 2018.

When time came to appoint a director, Dean Hart says, he naturally thought of Mr. Spector, whom he has worked with before. "In many ways, gaming is a Renaissance art," he says. "You need da Vinci’s art, but also da Vinci’s mechanical genius, and that takes a certain kind of leader, like Warren. Also, it’s been made clear to me, like when we went to a gaming convention a year ago, that that guy’s a rock star. "

There are already plenty of programs that teach how to design games, says Mr. Spector, a creator of games including System Shock, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey. Instead he plans to use case studies to teach how, for example, to manage a $50-million project that could have 800 collaborators in nine locations, and how to work with investment partners and real-world fans.

"In my time in industry, I’ve seen that there’s a crying need for better-trained leaders," says Mr. Spector. "I’ve worked on movie sets, and what film guys do is easy compared to what game guys do when it comes to working with all these different people."

He’s been open when writing about his new mission on Twitter and his blog. In answer to a question about student housing, he wrote on his blog: "Frankly, anyone who can’t find an apartment probably isn’t going to succeed in a leadership position on a game development team!"

The openness is necessary, he says, as he continues hiring faculty members and talking with prospective students. Students and instructors alike need to know what to expect, because they can’t look at the past 10 graduating classes to get an idea of what the program has to offer.

Ultimately, says Mr. Spector, there’s a zero-percent chance that someone will graduate from any program and immediately become creative director of the next smash game. "The process of moving up in industry, which can be a matter of luck, is a five-to-10-year process," he says. "The promise I want to make is that we can give you the training and knowledge to shorten that."