University, industry get design game on

Heather Hughes // Western News

Big Blue Bubble COO Claudette Critchley, BSc’94, BEd’95, and Computer Science professor Mike Katchabaw are partnering to develop the future of Western’s game design program, making the university a leading destination for studying and launching a career in the industry.

Claudette Critchley, BSc’94, BEd’95, wouldn’t call herself a gamer – an odd statement from the COO and co-founder of Big Blue Bubble, Canada’s largest independent mobile gaming company. An influential name in the industry, Critchley is lending her experience and expertise to her alma mater to help define Western as a leading institution for studying game design.

Recently, Western was named among the top designations in the world to study and launch a career in game design, according to The Princeton Review’s rankings of the best graduate and undergraduate schools. The university placed No. 44 in the world among undergraduate programs and was one of only three Canadian schools, and the only Ontario institution, on the list.

Crtichley, who sits on the Advisory Board for Computer Science, is influencing the future of Western’s game design curriculum so students receive the technical and professional skills needed to be the next new employee for Big Blue Bubble.

“I see it as a cyclical relationship,” Critchley explained. “We are working with Western on the curriculum and teaching what we feel they need to teach with respect to gaming. It is making better employees; good recognition for them is good recognition for us.”

Of the people on the technology team at Big Blue Bubble, 80 per cent are Western graduates. This is not a coincidence, Critchley continued, as the proximity to highly skilled and knowledgeable students allows the company to mine talent from its own backyard. All students who have completed internships at Big Blue Bubble have been offered full-time employment.

“It’s not so much about learning the programming language, it’s the underlying methodologies and skills you need that the university excels at. You have a deeper understanding of things. In addition to the (technical) language, you have an understanding of how the computer works that makes you stand out and be really successful,” she said.

Like many people who enjoy playing video games, Critchley grew up appreciating the social aspect of the pastime. “When I was a kid, I would play video games and I would have my brother or some of our friends around,” she said. “Me being the non-gamer type, I like it to be a social experience.”

Critchley took a non-traditional path to working in game design, bringing a unique perspective to the fast-paced and challenging industry. A graduate of Western’s Computer Science program, she received a Bachelor of Education before teaching Computer Science at a private college. But it was programming that always gave Critchley more professional satisfaction. In 2000, she made the jump to the gaming industry.

“It wasn’t my lifelong career goal to make video games,” she said. “Most of our company is gamers, but some are not. When we are making a game – we are making a lot of casual, mobile games – we are making them for everybody. We are not making them for people who play games all the time. We are making them for anyone who wants to pick up our games and play in their free time. We need input from everybody to do that.”

When hiring new employees, Critchley looks for people who bring different skills. She is also shifting perceptions of what a ‘game designer’ should look like.

“I would always picture this really geeky, nerdy person. That’s not who I am. But when you actually explore it – the creativity, problem solving and teamwork – it had all those elements I was looking for,” she said.

Working in video game development at EA’s DICE Studios, Critchley was the lead programmer on several AAA+ Disney and Dreamworks games for PS2, Xbox and Game Boy. In 2004, she co-founded Big Blue Bubble with Damir Slogar.

Big Blue Bubble is recognized around the world for its leading role in mobile game design, particularly with its award-winning My Singing Monsters app.

As a city, London has quietly made waves in the gaming industry.

Critchley noted many London residents are surprised by its local presence. Prominent game developers Digital Extremes and Big Viking also call London home, and through the work of the London Economic Development Corporation, Western, Fanshawe College and the game development companies, the city is garnering a reputation as a hotbed for game design.

It is this strong connection – both in proximity but also through academic partnerships – that makes Western a leader for studying game design, noted Mike Katchabaw, professor and Undergraduate Chair of Computer Science. Katchabaw was integral in building Western’s game design curriculum from the ground up.

“We rely heavily on companies like Big Blue Bubble in terms of supporting our students for internships and employment opportunities upon graduation. They’ve also been very helpful with forming the creation of curriculum, providing feedback on what we need to cover, methodologies and some of project courses are run like a miniature game studio,” Katchabaw said.

The game design contacts provide insight into where the industry is going which, in turn, influences what students are taught in the classroom.

“We do what we can to future-proof our students. We don’t just focus on a particular technology; we cover several different technologies and platforms so as soon as there is something new on the horizon, our students are able to go off and tackle that,” Katchabaw said.

Many Western alumni, like Critchley, have found success at existing game design companies, as well as started their own businesses. “We’ve got a solid foundation in terms of the programs, students and faculty, and the relationships with industry,” Katchabaw explained.

“It’s one of the area’s best-kept secrets,” he noted of the strength in game design. But recognition, such as The Princeton Review ranking, will help to attract top talent to Western and indirectly recruit potential future employees for local game design companies.

“From the get-go, right when we started the company and we needed to hire on the tech side, it was an immediate reaction to go to Western to get grads. It was a given for me that that was where the talent was going to be,” Critchley said. “Drawing more recognition to a program that deserves it should help to attract more people to the area and draw more attention to the gaming industry in London.”