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In Austin, learning by playing video games

In a recent class, Austin Community College student Richard Moss showed off his group's project: a demo of a submarine video game called "Treasures of Atlantis."

It was the end of the semester for a combined class of about 14 game designers and as many artists enrolled in ACC's Game Development Institute.

As Moss piloted his digital submarine around the treasure-filled depths, he was eventually killed. Except it wasn't quite clear if the game was over.

"Yeah, I'm dead, but we don't have a 'Game Over' screen," Moss said as the class laughed.

Garry Gaber, who is head of the institute, encouraged Moss and suggested adding more aquatic wildlife, such as sea horses and jellyfish.

For Gaber, a veteran ofLucasArts Entertainment who runs his own Austin studio, the class is an attempt to re-create a real-life gaming studio.

ACC's Game Development Institute, a two-year program, has about 250 students. About 33 graduated last year, and Gaber said he's had graduates go on to work in almost every major studio in town.

For the gaming industry, which can be a tough nut to crack, the program is a legitimate foothold into the industry. And the video game industry in Austin has grown significantly in recent years: Employment in gaming and digital media jumped from 2,848 people in 2005 to 7,274 jobs in 2010, according to a report by Austin economic consulting firm TXP.

Gaber said the program has an advisory committee with representatives from almost every major studio in Austin, as well as some smaller ones.

"And the Austin game community is really receptive to these guys," Gaber said. "They love what we're doing; they're involved with the school. I mean, that's the thing, they kind of tell us what to do, and so we do what they say to get these guys jobs. It's all about that."

But the students are also learning lessons that they might not immediately grasp, he said.

"It's the teamwork; it's the completion of milestones; it's knowing when to cut bait on things," Gaber said. "That's what the studios want. They know they're going to have to train them on everything. They want [new employees] to drop in Day One and know how to work on a team, not be obnoxious, know what it's like to be in an office environment, work with artists. That's what they got out of this that's so important."

One of those students, Adam Stockton, showed off his group's tower defense game, "Steam Punk'd," in a recent class. The game, which took Stockton's team of nine students 16 weeks to build, requires the player to defend against attacking bugs.

Gaber and the class loved it. "I think the art is spectacular," Gaber said, while offering suggestions for improvements. "I think you guys have really pulled something off here."

Mike Malleske, whose team showed off an action game called "Chrome Saga," said the program can be demanding -- but in a good way.

"It's a lot of work -- more work than I've ever done in college -- but the payoff is greater as well," Malleske said.