Computer Game Science students show off game
Computer game science seniors Shelby Yokote, Samuel Rodriguez, Richard Nguyen, Justin Lara and Christopher Noel (standing, from left) win approval from Blizzard Entertainment mentors Ben Deane and Grant Mark (sitting, from left) for “Ignite: The Descent,” a video game they created as a class project. Jocelyn Lee / UC Irvine

The tiny creature whips and wriggles through the murky depths, a spiky, stylized fusion of fish and insect. After blasting its way through a series of narrow tunnels and braving an array of sinister marine monsters, it emerges into a dark, open space.

A moment’s respite, perhaps? Nope.

A latticework mass embedded in the background scenery suddenly shudders to life, disgorging a gargantuan creature, all bones and blades with one pulsing red eye, bent on destruction.

“What is this?” exclaims software engineer Grant Mark, sitting in front of a laptop screen in the Video Games Projects Lab at UC Irvine. “Amazing!”

The eight students responsible for spawning the beast are clustered around the same laptop in informatics lecturer Hadar Ziv’s capstone-project class, showing Mark and fellow engineer Ben Deane – their mentors from Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment – how far they’ve come with “Dark Current.”

The game is their senior project, the culmination of their studies as the first computer game science majors at the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences. Fourteen such students will be honored June 14 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim as inaugural graduates of the new degree program.

“They’re an awesome class, and we’re very proud of them,” says computer science professor Magda El Zarki, co-creator of the program.

She expects the major to evolve. Many students have expressed an interest in specialized tracks – game systems, game design and game studies, for example. Informatics senior lecturer Dan Frost, director of the degree program, says that faculty members have built more flexibility into the curriculum over the past four years.

“We deliberately named it computer game science,” he says, noting that an emphasis on programming and user experience and game playing has worked well – producing graduates schooled in the entire process.

While the seniors appreciate the core technical training, they relish the opportunity to design cutting-edge games.

“The best thing about the major is the hands-on experience,” says David Conley. “It’s allowed me to not only sit in class and learn but actually apply what I’ve learned. You’ve got a chance to make things, to create a portfolio, and not a lot of majors offer that. Three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of helping to create something like ‘Dark Current.’”

Not all the senior projects are aimed at commercial entertainment. Allen Roman and Hongde Jin designed an educational product – compatible with the popular Oculus Rift 3-D virtual reality headset – about the former Elmina Castle slave fort in Ghana.

The project was challenging both technically and because of their desire to not trivialize the topic. Roman says Blizzard mentors steered them toward an approach that makes the learning more exploratory – and less of a game.

Katie Bryant, whose seven-person team created a dungeon adventure called “Ignite: The Descent,” advises anyone entering the major who’s keen on developing lots of games to “join the club” – meaning the Video Game Development Club. However, she adds, “I did learn a lot of useful things in classes.”

“I know more technical, programming stuff than I would have gotten just designing games,” Bryant says. “When I got my internship at Blizzard, I noticed how relevant the information I was getting from my classes was.”

Paul Foster, a Blizzard engineering manager who’s also a senior mentor, says the technical training that the computer game science majors receive makes them a hot commodity in the industry. “From my standpoint, the program’s emphasis on computer science is a key factor” in its students’ appeal to employers, he says.

Internships such as Bryant’s are just one aspect of the celebrated Orange County firm’s deepening involvement with the ICS school. In addition to providing biweekly mentoring, Blizzard is hosting another 11 UCI interns this summer. The company also recently donated $12,000 to the campus’s computer games lab to update equipment and renew costly software licenses.

And the video game developer and publisher is interested in hiring from the class of 2014. “We’re interviewing five [of the 14] students for positions with Blizzard, which is a pretty high percentage,” Foster notes. “There’s a possibility we’ll take zero, of course, but that’s a good number of potential candidates.”

Word has clearly gotten out on campus too: In fall 2014, total enrollment in the major will reach 260 students.

As UCI’s first gaming graduates prepare to enter the workforce, they’re hopeful about their futures and that of the pioneering course of study.

“If I can get this much out of the major when it’s so new, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like a decade from now. It’s going to be really, really great,” Conley says. “The computer game science major has given us the resources we need to succeed at the highest possible level.”