A Story of Spell Studios

This is an attempt to explain a little bit about MAGIC Spell Studios (LLC) at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC Center). Right from the beginning, we created MAGIC in two halves: part university research center, part production studio. While there were lots of little details and process optimizations we thought would be valuable in this operational model, the core of it was a pretty simple concept: we learn by making things, and we wanted to get the things we make out into the world. That was a lot harder in practice than it sounds.

Part 1: Early Rationale

I remember my first engagements with the World Wide Web in college as an undergraduate. Someone showed me at the library how to use Gopher to talk to the library at the University of Michigan, and later how to use Telnet and PINE to send electronic mail to friends at other places. It was a brave new world — information could be freely exchanged. Fast forward to today, almost 30 years of work in games and media later — and just about everything is distributed electronically. Brick and mortar stores are dying, suburban retail is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Anyone anywhere in the world can publish anything online, available for everyone else, as I am doing right now in writing this. And yet, things are not so simple: many channels and ecosystems of content have rules and obligations that functionally require a studio, sometimes via legal constraints and requirements, sometimes because of the rules and regulations involved, sometimes just because of the sheer scale of the work. The free and open internet of the proverbial Wild West is carved into walled gardens by device, OS, platform, and channel, and media content is an astronomically complex system of trade-offs and marketing deals. This is what humans do; we complicate things.

At RIT, my solution to some of these problems was to create our own studio. We did this so that students and faculty could publish through us, and learn about how studios worked without necessarily having to make their own LLC. We did this so we could provide protection, accounting, licensing, and other services to students and faculty that wanted to publish their work in digital media. We did it to spur a kind of ‘start-up’ mentality in teams approaching some work, a focus on product, on production, on shipping. Often academic work is ‘finished’ when the point is proven, regardless of whether the prototype is at a point where it can resonate with an audience. We did it because the things we wanted to make were not necessarily the things that can be made in 16 weeks, and that require multidisciplinary teams with different skills and abilities. Pretty early on we had the idea that having a functional studio on campus would be a pretty fantastic tool for immersive education. And then everything started to get weird…

The Higher Education Video Game Alliance, the organization I currently serve as president, has recently had quite a discussion on its internal mailing list on the subject of studios and incubators on campus in the field of game design, development, and production. Approximately 20–25 universities have engaged in creating some kind of studio or incubator specifically in this space, in addition to any larger business incubators or accelerators at the university or in the local area. The questions were interesting: do students get course credit for their participation? Do students own the IP? What role do faculty play in the studio? How does the studio engage with curriculum? In what unit or college is it located and how is it managed? The answers were all over the map, ranging from off-campus companies and faculty lead efforts, to on-campus incubators with a completely separate staff. I began a careful effort to find, catalogue, dissect, and examine these different labs, centers, incubators, and curricula, and their interconnections.

And then I gave up. Not out of laziness, but out of principle. It’s happening too fast, and the healthy thing here is probably for lots of universities to try lots of different things. Things will get a little chaotic before they calm down, and I’m not sure yet we know enough to call these experiments anything other than just that. There are, however, some very interesting trends, and I’ll talk about those in the context of our own studio, MAGIC Spell Studios.

MSS just celebrated turning 5 years old recently: in that time we’ve shipped 53 different ‘products’ ranging from small experiments and prototypes to a VR project with the NFL, from student games and experiments to a small but fully featured XBOX One title. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Part 2: Some Things We Learned Along the Journey

Probably the first thing we learned is that every project is a snowflake. In the last five years I have been asked over and over what the process is to make something in the studio and the answer is “it depends” — which i realize is a wholly disappointing answer. But the reality is that every project needs something different, the team is different, the personality of the group is different, the technical requirements are different. The point of the studio is to say ‘here’s a broad organizational structure and some dedicated personnel that will get on the ground with you and help make it go.’ It’s not a place where projects are dropped off for day-care, nor a turnkey service with a sign that reads ‘work for hire, will make ur id3a!’ This sounds, to anyone in industry, pretty simplistic, and it is. But the modern university is sometimes obsessed with rules and metrics and measures: the ability to stand outside the standard structure and _be adaptable_ has been of critical import to the success of this endeavor.

The second thing we learned was just what ‘standing outside the standard structure’ meant. MAGIC is a weird organization at RIT: it’s not an academic program, it’s not in any specific college. It reports directly to the Office of the Vice President for Research, and was established directly by the Office of the President in 2013. It makes for a good story at parties. But with that structural freedom comes a host of problems: accounting, signatory authority, salaries, and governance are all very strange. Faculty affiliated with the center work with us, but there can be tension with home departments and expectations, particularly in cases involving multi-disciplinary work. Students can work with us from any department or program on campus, but getting that message out has been difficult to say the least. The natural entropy of the university is in its institutional structures, those silos through which we slice horizontally on an org-chart. Every thing we’ve done has consistently challenged structure, practice and the status-quo, merely because they were new.

An offshoot of this is the question of our relationship to the curriculum. The school I founded, the School of Interactive Games & Media, has a course or two in the upper division which essentially amount to a ‘projects course’. The college in which I now serve as faculty, the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences, has numerous studio electives and senior project opportunities. And it’s probably fairly obvious that a lot of students (and faculty) use those courses to build things they care about, some of which find their way to the studio. In my own work, I specifically use my ‘production studio’ (read: ‘projects course’) to start projects that could hopefully move over to the studio. Now that I am in CIAS, I expect I’ll be doing the same thing from a slightly different perspective.

But every project we’ve done at scale hasn’t ended as a course: we pick up projects from courses or other humble beginnings, move them into the studio, and iterate, extend, polish, and publish. This is how we did Splattershmup, Hack, Slash & Backstab, Fragile Equilibrium, and some others. Not every project starts this way, but some do. How these actually work are a mix of full-time staff, temp hires, the work from the class, extending the project through co-ops and summer hires, GA/TA roles, etc. I’d like to say it’s a carefully orchestrated plan of sustained support. In truth it’s perpetual chaos as we champion a project, figure out what it needs, and course correct each semester, each month, each week. Every time they are written about (and we’ve published 151 news articles in our first 5 years), the story is something like ‘RIT students create XBOX game’ — it’s obviously much more complex than that. I tried to talk about that a little bit in the HSB Post-Mortem talk a few years ago.

Most of that is logistics. I think a deeper issue is at play here, that there’s a more fundamental divide between curriculum and studio production. For many of our students, courses are about learning, practicing, and refining particular skills. They take graphics to learn theory, apply it to code and engine development, implement it in DirectX, and contextualize it by building demos and small games projects, as one example. An experience at MAGIC Spell Studios isn’t that: it’s a messy trial by fire of doing anything and everything to get a project across the finish line of production. Studios live or die by their leaders, by the personalities of their teams, by the things they make but also by how they make them. What our students are learning in MSS is deeply experiential, it’s apprenticeship, it’s a cultural indoctrination to a small independent studio. It’s a completely different intellectual and emotional approach. We’re offering something that embraces and extends the traditional degree program, that bridges the gap between academia and industry in a very raw, unrefined way.

A third thing we learned early on is that there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding out there. Early on we had the rumors going around that we were going to ‘take student work and profit from it’. I also heard faculty ‘were going to be forced to sell their work instead of openly publish it’. At one point I was told we were putting ‘the entire non-profit status of the university at risk’. None of that is, of course, true in any way. But it points to a very real problem in university culture: the rules, operations, and dealings surrounding intellectual property, technology commercialization, invention disclosure, etc. are not well understood by students, and often not by faculty either. And in choosing to engage in commercial activity, the university is in fact stepping outside of its comfort zone! But that doesn’t mean, and shouldn’t mean, that the values and ethics of the university no longer apply. The core reason MSS exists is as a service to our students and faculty. When we make money (which we usually don’t), we turn around and plow it into the next project, or into start-up funds for our incubator programs. We don’t have shareholders.

In fact, I was recently presented with some criticism that the studio in and of itself does not make money, and I would offer that I think this is exactly the way it should be. If we were to optimize on a profit motivation, the first thing that would likely happen would be to kick the students and faculty out, and replace them with full-time staff. Studios don’t normally operate via part-time design-domain experts (faculty) and a workforce that turns over rapidly (students) — they operate by attracting and retaining exceptionally skilled talent. We would drop most experimental projects and find a balance between risk-aversion and market position for a select few products we could move forward. We’d probably pick up contract work to pay bills, which could put us in a position to complete with efforts of our partners and alumni. I think all of those are horrible propositions. My opinion is that we are approaching this the RIGHT way currently, focusing on the long game of creating experiences and interventions that extend the student experience and entrepreneurial preparedness. In short we want to act as a commercial studio, but for purposes that have deep roots in the identity of the university.

Finally, we learned a lot about the importance of marketing and communications, and what universities are and are not prepared to deal with. Our university, like most, approach marketing as an organization partially as a function of brand management and partially as a function of recruiting (and those are intertwined). Students in select programs study marketing, even digital marketing. In working with artists, designers, and developers from our academic programs, it’s become clear that we are not always preparing them with the marketing and communications skills they need to succeed as independent developers working in small to mid-sized teams: MAGIC Spell Studios is working hard to become increasingly adept at marketing and brand-building on its own, and for its individual products and projects. This is still fledgling work, and we take a lot of flack for trying to insist on brand, on ensuring quality control, on monitoring communications and pushing a consistent external message. It’s not the normal operations of the larger academic campus.

It is telling, though, that all the students that work with us, regardless of what they said they wanted to do when they came to us, wind up telling us that the thing that was most important to them as they leave and the thing that was critical to success was “communication skills, both internally and externally” (to quote one student of many). That’s partly a function of a first larger-scale experience with a multi-disciplinary team, but it’s also a recognition that the studio culture, branding, and messaging play a role in the work itself, and are as critical to its success as the technical and artistic function of the work.

Part 3: Some Conclusions and Beginnings

As I write this, we are two years into the journey of building a new multi-million dollar facility for MAGIC Spell Studios. That facility will have some labs and classrooms, but most of it is either specialized facilities for media production, or multi-purpose development space for studio operations. It is the most wired thing we ever built, and the first facility built around and end-to-end 4K production workflow.

In many ways, it suffers from the same misunderstandings as the studio itself: it isn’t a college, it isn’t a school, so the details of operations, support, staffing and management are all at odds with standard university practice. We are once again on the ground floor of institutional change. It’s also immensely complex: game production, animation, film, VR/AR/MR, new media: these are forms that are rapidly expanding in complexity. Facilities to support research and production in these spaces are similarly intricate. If you’ve followed me on social media you are no doubt aware of some of my frustrations with this aspect.

But in the end, this idea of embedding a studio on a campus and within a local community may turn out to be profound. It has clearly provided some of our students with experiences and insights into both the professional field and a critical examination of their own work and process. It has challenged the university to think and reflect on what it is and what it aspires to be. It has offered to me and my colleagues a unique experience and an ability to mentor students in a completely unique way.

And in the end our tag-line is the thing that resonates with me: We Learn by Making Things. We’re learning a lot by making the studio itself.