Bradley’s growing game design program emphasizes real-world development

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

A woman tries out a virtual reality exhibit run by Bradley University junior Kelly Sofian (right) at last year’s FUSE interactive event that showcases games and projects created by Bradley game design students. This year’s FUSE will be April 28 at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. (Photo courtesy of Bradley University)

Coming off a year when some of its students gained national attention, Bradley University’s undergraduate game design program has been ranked 15th in the world by the Princeton Review. 

It’s the fourth consecutive year that Bradley’s program has landed in the top 15 in the Princeton Review, which surveyed 150 institutions in the United States, Canada and abroad in 2017 that offer game design degree programs or courses.

It surveyed everything from the schools’ game design academic offerings and lab facilities to graduates’ starting salaries and career achievements.

Listing an emphasis on real world skills and experienced faculty as program strengths, Bradley game design professor and Department of Interactive Media chairperson Ethan Ham said, “We have been continuing to expand and deepen our program to keep up with the student interest. This last year our students have had a lot of success, and that weighs in.”

The digital game Starcats, designed by a team of Bradley students that graduated last May, was named a top five finalist at the prestigious E3 College Game Competition in Los Angeles last summer and was selected to be showcased at last year’s IndieCade, an international festival of independent games.

In addition, a board game called Dark is the Night that was created two years ago by students who are now seniors was featured at the International Games Day conference and went to market last fall. Students are also currently working on four NASA-funded projects involving satellites and augmented reality.

“We try to structure our classes as if they were game development studios,” Ham said. “Over the four years our majors are here, they work extensively on game projects, starting out with simple ones and becoming more and more elaborate.”

Ethan Ham is a Bradley University game design professor and chairperson of the Department of Interactive Media. (Photo courtesy of Bradley University)

Most of the department’s faculty, including Ham, have real world game development experience, which he said is important “because if you’ve done it professionally, there’s a deeper understanding of it.”

The newest faculty member, David Abzug, joined the department this year as an instructor-in-residence.

“He has almost 30 years of industry experience, having worked on games like Mechwarrior/Battle Tech, Crimson Skies and Saints Row,” Ham said.

Bradley’s video game curriculum debuted in 2010 as a collaboration between the Departments of Interactive Media and Computer Science & Information Systems, with additional support from the Art Department. Game design became a full-fledged became a full-fledged major in 2015, said Ham, who’s in his third year at the university.

The Department of Interactive Media currently has about 180 students, with about 60 of them majoring in game design. Enrollment has increased dramatically in recent years to the point that the department will soon be capping the number of accepted students for the first time.

“Moving forward we’re aiming to accept 30 freshmen for the game design program each year and about 15 for the animation program,” Ham said, adding that students come from all over the country.

Students hit the ground running as game developers from their first freshman class. “We have a lot of students who come in who like playing games, so we want to give them the opportunity right off the bat to know if they like making games,” Ham said.

About 87 percent of game design students stick with the program after the first year, and most graduates find jobs using video game technology but not necessarily with video game companies, he added.

“Getting into the game industry is the goal for virtually all of them and I think they all have a good chance of doing it, but the pathway to the industry isn’t necessarily direct for all of them,” Ham said. “I spend a lot of time talking to students and parents about job outcomes, and it’s a reasonable fear. It is really hard to get into the game industry. But there are good jobs out there working for companies that use game technology.”

Gage Melton (center), a 2017 Bradley University graduate and current teaching assistant in the Department of Interactive Media, helps a group play Starcats, a digital game he helped create with 16 other students last year. Bradley’s undergraduate game design program was recently ranked 15th in the world by the Princeton Review. (Photo courtesy of Bradley University)

Quentin Young of Groveland is a 2017 graduate of the game design program who produced the Starcats game and has since started his own game development company called Symptomatic Productions. Young believes the Bradley program prepared him well for a career but said he knows peers who feel they

“Every student who goes through the program will have a different experience for any number of reasons,” Young said. “For instance, my graduating class took different courses than the courses that a student entering the department today will take. This is because the game industry–and inherently employers–are constantly changing which program or software they are hiring for, but academia can’t adjust as quickly as the industry can. Even so, the Interactive Media Department is aware of this constantly shifting landscape and do their best to adjust courses to better fit the industry’s needs.”

Young said the program “challenged and pushed me to find my niche in the industry: production.”

The public will have a chance to see what Bradley game design students are up to at the fifth annual FUSE event from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 28 at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

The free interactive event will showcase students’ games and projects and is intended to engage visitors with the artists and developers, as well as show the latest innovation and applications.

“Our target audience is fifth-graders, but people many times that age still have fun and younger kids do, too,” Ham said. “We have things like a virtual reality game where you’re throwing snowballs at evil snowmen, and arcade games and animations in the Planetarium Dome. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a good experience.”

For more information about FUSE, visit



Bradley’s growing game design program emphasizes real-world development–