Computational Media, Art, and Design

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Computational Media, Art, and Design

by Nancy Nicolaisen

Docid: 00011461

Publication Date: 1707

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Demand for academic programs in computational media, art, and design
(CMAD) has grown explosively, right in step with the skyrocketing demand
for multimedia content. In the Princeton Review‘s annual ranking
of university-level game design programs, it is estimated that CMAD
graduate degree holders can expect starting salaries of at least $80,000,
with the ten best rated programs located in the US.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Computational media, art, and design (CMAD) is an interdisciplinary field
of study that exists at the intersection of diverse academic specialties:
human cognition and learning theory, cultural anthropology, sociology,
fine art, digital media production, and several types of software and
electrical engineering.

While the creation of video gaming experiences is probably the most
well-known application of CMAD, there is currently very little
professional quality video content production that doesn’t make use of
CMAD tools and technologies. Undergraduate academic programs exist at over
forty universities in the US and Canada, with many of these also offering
graduate-level study. Predictably, there is a fair degree of diversity
among these various university degree programs, ranging from those tightly
focused on aesthetics to others that emphasize engineering innovation.
Demand for CMAD talent remains very strong in traditional applications
like high performance, single-player games, massively multiplayer online
(MMO) games, online marketing, and traditional entertainment production.

US producers of online game content are closely watching the Asian
experience with free-to-play online gaming business models. Rather
than battle intellectual property pirates, Asian publishers
give games away and generate revenue by letting players spend small sums
on in-game micro transactions for special weapons or powers, visual
adornments, or the ability to bypass lower game levels. This model
has proved far more profitable than generating revenues from up front
purchase; however, the key to success in the free-to-play space is flashy,
attractive, engaging content. A game must be a hit from day one or users
tend to walk away. Still, the model works extremely well when deftly
executed. Although more up-front investment is required to create
high quality content, these games tend to have much longer distribution
life and software engineers never have to deal with legacy game versions
since everyone can update for free. Even better, no revenue is lost
to software pirates.


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The field of computational media, art, and design (CMAD) brings social
scientists, marketers, artists, and technologists together to analyze the
relationship between play, learning, and communication. Works of
computational media have two significant characteristics:

  • They provide engaging aesthetic user experiences.
  • Though they are used repeatedly, each user experience is perceptibly different than the

CMAD supplies an aesthetic experience to mainstream content like video
games and movies, but additionally and increasingly, to purely artistic
creations, educational and commercial experiences.

Computational media theorists build their work on a deep foundation of
earlier cognitive research, beginning with cultural anthropology of early
primates. A key study question: Did engaging in games make us “human” in
the first case? Game theorists believe that. At least in part, unraveling
this mystery may be key to understanding how
our earliest ancestors played.

Today, there are over forty accredited college degree programs in CMAD.
In fact, this field of study is so popular that the Princeton Review
publishes an annual top ten list for both undergraduate and graduate
programs in the US and Canada. CMAD degree programs are fairly elastic in
their curriculum definitions. They often take in a very broad variety of
skillsets, which allows students to emphasize either technical or artistic
concentrations. Freedom to create personalized interdisciplinary study
programs is common, particularly at the graduate level. At the least,
these programs explore methods and tools for developing representational
digital art, including two dimensional and three dimensional imagery.
Other more technical programs explore imagery generation techniques based
on signal processing and physics. Because sound plays a major role in
computational media, development and manipulation of digital audio is also
a key area of academic specialization.

Princeton Review Top Ranked Game Design Programs

Demand for academic programs in computational media, art, and design has
grown explosively, right in step with the demand for well-prepared CMAD
workers. The Princeton Review publishes annual rankings of
university-level game design programs, based on faculty credentials,
program diversity, facilitates and infrastructure, outplacement, and
financial aid opportunities. Based on survey results from the National
Association of Colleges and Employers, average 2016 starting salaries for
game design graduate degree holders came in at about $80,000, while
undergraduate CMAD graduates earned about $60,000 on average. Princeton
’s 2017 rankings for the top ten undergraduate programs

  1. University of
    Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
  2. Rochester
    Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY)
  3. University of Utah
    (Salt Lake City, UT)
  4. DigiPen Institute
    of Technology (Redmond, WA)
  5. Becker College
    (Worcester, MA)
  6. Hampshire College
    (Amherst, MA)
  7. New York
    University (New York, NY)
  8. The Art Institute
    of Vancouver (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
  9. Drexel University
    (Philadelphia, PA)
  10. Michigan State
    University (East Lansing, MI)

As CMAD content continues to evolve and diversify, specializations within
the CMAD field have become well established and students would do well to
take this into account if they have definite plans as to what type of CMAD role
they hope to play in the workforce. In particular, in the
fields of animation and special effects, job specific degrees make
candidates much more competitive. Here are Princeton Review‘s best
ranked schools in those disciplines:

  1. Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY)
  2. Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, GA)
  3. Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, New York)
  4. Bennington College ( Bennington, NY)
  5. Bradley University (Peoria, IL)

Current View

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Computational media (CM) has long been a driving force in advancing the
capabilities of personal computer technologies and consumer adoption of
these products. Gamers and content consumers have proven willing to spend
a hefty premium to equip their devices with high end memory, advanced
graphics processors, CPU, sound, and display capabilities. This has tended
to bias the development of CMAD content in favor of powerful
platforms – designers work from the premise that end user systems would be
very close to the state of the art. Mobile device use is modifying this
assumption, however, and pushing computational media content onto ever
smaller screens.

Better Mobile Devices Translate to Opportunities:
Worldwide, mobile devices continue to significantly outsell desktops.
Partly, this is due to rapid global smartphone adoption, but accelerating
tablet adoption is also emerging as a key driver of mobile content
consumption. This is good news for computational media designers because
tablets provide a much better engagement experience for users than
smartphones. At the same time, high end smartphones have achieved screen
size and quality that makes complex media viewing and gaming more

Audience Federation: A rapidly growing variety of
platforms for mobile content publishers are in some respects
challenging. However, there is huge benefit in this trend for CMAD developers and media innovators, because it has the effect of aggregating a very large potential market
– one with many profitable niches.
In the media business, the is known as
audience federation
. Audience federation is important because it lowers barriers to entry for
innovators and entrepreneurs by reducing risk, time to market and cost of
entry. Existing channels like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s App Store, iTunes,
and Google Android Market all provide ready outlets for device tailored versions
of content.

A Better Business Model for Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming: The big 2016 revenue leaders in the Multi-Player Online Battle Arena
(MOBA) themed games were Dungeon Fighter, Crossfire and League of Legends,
each pulling in more than a $1 billion USD for the year. All are
“free-to-play”. Clearly, it’s well worth studying the Chinese approach to
online multiplayer gaming business models. As of 2017, the
“free-to-play” market is better than 3 times as large as the “pay-to-play”
market, generating $7.8 billion in revenue in 2016.

  • Trends in
    China seem to track about two years ahead of the rest of the world.

    Conditions that are already established and prevalent in the Chinese
    market will be factors in the North American game space in 24 months or
    less. Typically, Asian solutions to critical problems like copyright
    infringement make the hop much more rapidly.
  • Chinese
    developers are taking innovative steps to beat piracy and intellectual
    property thieves.
    However much North American content
    publishers have to fear from systematic copyright infringement in Asia,
    Chinese content publishers have it even worse. Chinese companies have
    evolved an ingenious solution to the problem. They make piracy work for
    them. Games published in Asia are typically “free-to-play”. The
    publishers realize revenues from games through in-game micro
    transactions rather than from up-front purchase. For example, gamers pay
    small sums to get small visual customizations of an avatar’s
    appearance to make them distinctive on the playing field. For a
    slightly higher price, they might purchase a temporary ‘super power’
    that helps them to play through a level or they may even purchase a
    ticket that takes them past one or more levels to play in a more
    interesting or competitive space.
  • The
    free-to-play business model benefits CM content publishers in several
    First, a popular game can produce revenue for an
    extremely long time, which makes it less risky to invest in upfront
    development costs. Second, developers don’t have to worry about issues
    related to game versions; since the game is free, everyone can upgrade
    at will, so there is little risk of the audience abandoning the game.
    Third, players become agents for broadening a game’s adoption. The only
    real downside is that free-to-play games have to be fairly compelling
    right out of the starting gate because players will abandon games if
    they aren’t satisfied with the early experience, even though there is no
    up-front cost.

Admittedly, the strategy of giving the product away may be kind of a
tough sell where investors are concerned. However, if you want hard proof
that it works, look no further than Nintendo’s July 2016 release of the
old school Pokemon game, re-imagined as a mobile phone app. In a single day,
the game added $9 billion to Nintendo’s total worth and earned $4 million on
in-game micro transactions.

Changing Gaming Culture Expands Opportunities for Game Designers

Today, with 89 percent of parents involved with their kids’ game purchase
and play, we are seeing the rise of second generation gamers. For
this group, gaming is often a social experience, involving family members,
friends and spouse/significant other in joint play. In addition,
video gaming has blossomed among seniors – about 29 percent of all gamers are
over 50. As of 2015, women represented 47 percent of the overall market, up from
42 percent in 2012. Even more surprising, adult female gamers substantially
outnumbered teenaged boys. Expect these trends to accelerate, as boomers seek
the benefits of mental stimulation from gaming that they don’t get from watching

For the last several years, video game revenue has outpaced movie
revenues. This is beginning to look like the new normal to entertainment
industry analysts. The ubiquity of mobile platforms is also a big
factor in the growth of gaming. In the US an estimated 48 million
gamers use mobile devices to play games; in Asia, the mobile gaming
audience is at least six times that large.


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Virtual Reality Will Become a Crossover Technology Near Term

To date, CMAD content and virtual reality technology have a strong link to
entertainment and leisure. However, expect to see this change
radically in the next two to four years. Here’s why.

Out there in the risky real world, hybrid systems built on CMAD content and
virtual reality technology are making very dangerous things and places much
more accessible to remediation. One example: The University of Exeter is
developing immersive virtual reality training for first responders to nuclear accidents. Exeter’s new VR tools build upon research that
combines CMAD content and technology with an understanding of how
people learn and perform in high stakes/ high pressure scenarios. These systems have proven that it is possible for workers to develop expert
“hands-on” skills in potentially catastrophic situations through the use of
training simulations. The acquired skills transfer seamlessly to real
world operations. The potential here is practically limitless for all kinds
of experience based training applications.

  • Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and CMAD content are about to
    assume a crucial role in educating workers in medicine,
    manufacturing, emergency response and military applications.

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Increasingly powerful graphic engines and small platforms are opening up
new worlds, and new challenges, for developers.

Powerful GPUs. Increasingly powerful GPUs and companion
programming technologies enable software developers to make full,
unimpeded use of processing hardware. GPUs are highly parallel processing
units, and tremendously powerful when operating at full capacity. The
tricky part for software developers is keeping the GPU at or above 90
percent utilization. New tools are available to help developers
achieve high GPU utilization rates across many types of devices and also
help harness GPU cycles for parallelizing non-graphical workloads. These
techniques have implications that extend far beyond entertainment:
Education and business process applications are likely to emerge first.

Small platforms. Small platforms like smartphones and
tablets not only have powerful GPUs, they increasingly host a variety of
environmental sensors. Designers and developers are using cameras, GPS,
accelerometers and the like to increase the immediacy of gaming, social
networking, and entertainment experiences on small, mobile
devices. Expect to see the lines between education and entertainment
blurred as highly visual computational media scale down to mobile
connected devices, especially tablets.

Increasing Diversity of CMAD Professionals: A few years
ago, CMAD graduates came from a small number of engineering oriented
universities. Today CMAD programs are numerous, diverse, and growing, and
now more frequently based at schools that emphasize art and design. As
this trend gains momentum, expect to see:

  • Developer
    populations expand and diversify, with CMAD content also diversifying to
    reflect new, nontraditional viewpoints and applications.
  • Creative CMAD
    content hothouses springing up, far removed from Hollywood, Silicon
    Valley, and high profile engineering schools.

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About the Author

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Nancy Nicolaisen is an author, researcher, and
consultant specializing in content experiences targeting small, mobile
connected devices.

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