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Teaching Games in South Korea

David Ly only had about a month and a half to prepare for his move overseas. Having just graduated from DigiPen in the spring of 2009, it was mid-July when Ly learned about the opportunity to teach for his recent alma mater in the fall … in South Korea.

David LyIt was a tough decision, especially considering Ly had recently been called back for an interview with game developer Valve Software.

“It was just a contract position, but it was an interesting job,” Ly says. “And it was really tempting, because in the past, people who had gotten this job usually got hired full-time.”

After two weeks of deliberation, Ly opted for the teaching position.

“Teaching actually was in the back of my mind, to do in the future,” Ly says. “In the end I decided, because I’m not a family man right now, that this would be the best opportunity to work abroad.”

Ly’s position was part of a new joint program offering DigiPen Institute of Technology courses to students at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. The program, which is open both to Korean and international students, teaches the first two years of courses for DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation. Afterwards, students can transfer to any DigiPen campus to complete the final two years of their degree. Whereas the same program had previously been offered at DigiPen’s Singapore campus, 2009 was the first year DigiPen would offer the classes in Korea.

“One of the things that a lot of people ask me is, ‘Oh, do they make a StarCraft clone?’ And the answer is no.”

As an instructor, Ly teaches DigiPen’s freshman- and sophomore-level game courses. In keeping with the curriculum at each DigiPen campus, sophomores must design and program a 2D game using their own graphics engine.

“One of the things that a lot of people ask me is, ‘Oh, do they make a StarCraft clone?’ And the answer is no,” Ly says. “They actually are quite creative with their ideas.”

PC gaming is an important part of South Korean culture, thanks in no small part to the phenomenal popularity of Blizzard Entertainment’s 1998 strategy game, StarCraft, and the subsequent boom of internet cafés where customers can play StarCraft and other massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. According to Ly, the enormous StarCraft player base in South Korea likely helped drive the development of the country’s robust high-speed internet infrastructure, which even today provides faster connections at cheaper prices than in the United States.

“They’re looking forward into breaking into the industry here.”

While there are game development opportunities within South Korea, Ly says most students join the program with the goal of completing their degree in the U.S., where the demand for programmers is stronger and the pay rate significantly higher than in other countries.

“They’re not going to college just for the experience,” Ly says. “They’re looking forward into breaking into the industry here.”

One of Ly’s goals for the program is to attract more students from outside of Korea. The joint program offers 10 dedicated slots for international students, many of which currently go to Korean students who live in other countries or have dual citizenship. Ly envisions a more diverse program wherein students of several backgrounds work together to develop games.

“That’s pretty much what’s going to happen in the future,” Ly says. “And it will be a great experience for both the international students and the Korean students to really open their minds to working with other types of people that might not be fluent in their language.”

Although Ly initially planned to stay in South Korea for only one to two years, this fall marks his fourth year in Daegu.

“I still like where I wound up,” Ly says, “living and working in Korea and teaching something that I like a lot.”