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DURHAM – Duke Engineering’s new Master of Engineering in Game Design, Development and Innovation is a unique program that incorporates facets and applications of the industry that often get overlooked.

Growing up in Chile, most games did not come in Spanish. Ernesto Escobar attributes learning English to playing video games and forcing himself to figure out what was going on.

“Games are immersive. In most circumstances, people will not spend hours on end working through something they feel lost in,” Escobar said. “With games, people push through until they’ve learned something or developed a skill that will move them forward.”

This experience led Escobar to view games as much more than just a leisurely activity; he sees games as powerful tools that are relevant to many disciplines across unexpected industries.

It’s this view that led to Escobar agreeing to become the inaugural director of Duke Engineering’s new Master of Engineering in Game Design, Development and Innovation (GDDI). Housed in an engineering school surrounded by excellent programs in liberal arts, law, policy, ethics and more, he sees an opportunity to build a unique program around game design that incorporates facets of the industry—and targets applications outside of the industry—that often get overlooked.

In Escobar, Duke Engineering sees a talented entrepreneur with the wide range of experience needed to build such a program from the ground up. While working as an international programs manager for the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), his childhood experience of seeing how games could be used as a tool led him to leave that job and start his own company, FanaticusXR. “I wasn’t necessarily leaving to develop games,” Escobar said. “I was trying to solve a problem in the entertainment industry, and the best solution was to use game technology.”

Ernesto Escobar

Ernesto Escobar is a talented entrepreneur with a wide range of experience that will help him build an innovative game design program from the ground up. (Duke University photo)

His initial work included making a Virtual Reality flying broom simulator to try to disrupt the theme park industry with new technology and new business models. More than 450 people tested his prototype with ages ranging from 3 to 63 years old. The pandemic, however, forced him to move from location-based entertainment into publishing games and creating products marketed directly to the consumer.

Given his experience with his game company and at Georgia Tech, Escobar is a great fit to lead Duke Engineering’s new offering in GDDI. The GDDI program is a two-year Master of Engineering degree set to launch in the fall of 2024. Games are the biggest industry in the entertainment sector and the fastest growing. More industries every day are realizing that games are a powerful tool to accomplish a wide variety of goals. Duke’s new program seeks to train professionals to work in the game industry and beyond.

According to Jeff Glass, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of Duke Engineering’s Institute of Enterprise Engineering, in which the new GDDI program resides, the courses will push the  boundaries of computer engineering in the real-world context of electronic game design and development. This means innovating in both the technology and the multidisciplinary context of game applications that include intersections with art, music and business.

The expanding applications of game technology into medical and industrial simulations also makes this an excellent opportunity to have significant societal impact, which is a fundamental goal for Duke Engineering. It is part of a portfolio of master’s programs that harnesses Duke Engineering’s state-of-the-art innovations in computer engineering education coupled with Duke University’s collaborative multidisciplinary environment.

“This program is very exciting on numerous levels,” Glass said. “Our approach provides students with an applied, industry-focused education that enables them to immediately contribute to any organization while simultaneously preparing them for long-term career success.”

Innovation is essential to the GDDI program, and it has been the common thread throughout Escobar’s career. “I think we can do some interesting things,” he said. “The game industry as a whole is always pushing the boundaries of what can be done.”

Many of these boundaries are already being pushed at Duke, such as opportunities to use gaming in the educational and medical fields. Many of these opportunities are already being explored and are waiting for the first cohort of students to arrive in 2024. Applications for the program will open this fall, and Escobar is also looking to connect with companies in the Research Triangle area to apply games to their industries.

Greg Maletic, CS/EE ‘90, director of special projects at Panic, Inc. and GDDI advisory board member, also agrees that there is broad applicability for game design. “Our notions about ‘good design’ increasingly come from the expanding world of game design,” he said. “Techniques like onboarding, feedback mechanisms, rewards—even misdirection tricks that can magically hide technical limitations—can be put to use everywhere. And not just within the confines of an Xbox. For the good of users, for the good of design, we should want people trained in this rapidly advancing field to spread these innovations throughout the business world.”

Game development is extremely multidisciplinary, needing professionals with many different skills. The program will accept students from a wide range of majors and experiences and train them to be very highly proficient game programmers.

Housed in the Pratt School or Engineering, the program is technical in nature. Students will learn programming languages with a focus on C++. They will also learn design and business while participating in workshops that will expose them to many of the other disciplines involved in developing games such as art, music and narrative. There will also be many opportunities to collaborate with people across other programs and disciplines at Duke, giving students exposure to other skill sets and working styles.

Another exciting element of GDDI is that throughout the duration of the program, students will work in teams to go through the full process of developing a game from ideation all the way to publishing. According to Escobar, many gaming design programs offer students the opportunity to build a demo or a full game and then showcase it, but that is the limit for how far they take it.

GDDI will be unique because students will start working on their games early on; assignments will be weaved across classes to produce games that go deeper. There will be significant playtesting and feedback as well as debugging and considering the business elements of the game industry.

“That last part of the process can be very painful and tedious, but it is a crucial part of what happens in the real world,” Escobar said. “A lot of programs out there don’t focus on the full picture, and that is something that we are going to do. Our graduates will not only be highly technically capable, they will also be well grounded, which will make them different.”

“Game developers must possess hard skills such as programming, design, iteration and quality assurance testing, as well as soft skills including communication, empathy, collaboration and entrepreneurship,” said Catherine Croft, Biology ’99, CEO of Catlilli Games and GDDI advisory board member. “Our master’s program combines the strengths Duke holds in each of these areas to produce cohorts poised to bring meaningful change to the world through play.”

(C) Duke University

This story was originally published at https://pratt.duke.edu/about/news/master-engineering-game-design