Video Game U
Yes Mom, Game Designer is a Real Job
You've heard it said before. "Kids today have it easy" and I'm going to say it again. Think about it. In addition to things like iPhones, Myspace and breast augmentation, they have more educational and career options than ever before. It's a good thing too because young people these days seem to be smarter (or at least less accommodating) than their counterparts of twenty or even ten years ago. They're unwilling to become just another brick in the wall and are looking for careers that pay better, are more satisfying and allow for a more flexible schedule. Not only that, today's young adults think they should be paid to do something they enjoy. What nerve!
If so many college freshmen are foregoing the usual “doctor, lawyer, business executive” career path, what are they choosing instead? Well you won't believe this, but aside from aspiring to join the NBA and auditioning for American Idol, they're going to video game school. You may not think you know what video game school is but surely you've seen those horrible commercials when you're lounging around watching Jerry Springer? They generally consist of two dopey-looking guys on a couch wildly waving game controllers in front of them while having some version of this pithy exchange:
“So...where do you think this guy should move?”
“I'd say this way.”
“Let's make sure that sound effect we used in the last level fits in here too.”
“Yeah! You know, I'm so glad I decided to get into game design. It's cool to be able to create the kind of games that we play. Can you believe we get paid to do this?”
I'm not sure what the makers of these 30-second video gems were thinking but the end result is hardly the sort of thing that'd motivate your parents to whip out their check books. Add to these mind-numbing adverts, the amusing but highly mis-representational game industry movie spoof, “Grandma's Boy” and parents everywhere are likely to send their kids straight to military school. It's unfortunate these mainstream images are out there skewing the public's perception of an industry that doesn't get enough (good) press because if the game industry gets precious little coverage, the education it takes to join the game industry gets almost none.
Ten years ago when I wanted to join the game-making ranks, there were few schools offering individual classes (let alone entire programs) that would prepare you for a job in games. There were a couple of informal guides to game design published by Brady Games which I absorbed energetically, but the text was peppered with unfamiliar terms and concepts and left me with more questions than answers. In those days, your best bet was to get your foot in the door by any means—usually through testing. Testing showed you a limited version of the ropes and after a few years (for some lucky, talented few) resulted in a promotion to production or design. For most folks though, test was dead-endsville. Today's generation of game industry aspirants is unlikely to endure that kind of agonizing, years-long waiting game, thanks to the exponential growth of the business and the concurrent growth of video game education.
Today students can choose from a rainbow of game school flavors from online courses to game programs at traditional four-year colleges to schools dedicated exclusively to training workers for the entertainment field. It can be a bewildering decision and with overall program tuition running from $40,000 to $75,000, an expensive one. How's the world's next game design star or game art prodigy supposed to know where to go?
I gained some insight into this tricky question by talking to a handful of schools. Not surprisingly, the average student looking for a game degree is twenty-two years old and male. The percentage of women in the field is rising, but it's still painfully apparent that women and girls are yet to be adequately convinced of the many options the game industry has to offer. Programs range from sixteen months to four years, depending on the school and the number of general education classes required for graduation. Yup, this is all the PR stuff, but how worthwhile is it to get a degree that's only been around for a few years? By interviewing alumni from the San Francisco Art Institute, Ex'Pression Center for New Media, Carnegie Mellon University, Full Sail University and Savannah College of Art and Design who all currently work in the game industry, I found that overall getting an education is definitely worth it.
Questions like, “How did you choose your school? What kinds of classes did you take? How difficult was it to find a job after graduation?” all generated a variety of interesting but similar answers. Charles Brahmawong, Senior Character Technical Director at the Walt Disney Company animation studios in Austin says, “I decided on Ex'pression because, at the time, they had the shortest, most immersive program I could find. The program schedule was set for roughly a year and a half of intensive, full day and evening classes. Every month you had two new classes, each would run on alternating days. The classes would be held either in the morning or in the evening with a 3-4 hour lab afterwards. By the time you were a third of the way into the program, you'd easily find yourself spending 14 hour days at school.” All that hard work paid off for Charles though because as he tells it, “ I basically had two job offers by graduation day.”
Associate Designer Steve Braman and Technical Director Peter Dollar, both of LucasArts, concur. Peter went the full time route while Steve attended school while working as a tester at LucasArts. A non-traditional student, Steve says, “It wasn’t until I was almost 30 years old before I entertained the idea of a career in gaming. I stumbled across an article in a gaming magazine about Careers in Gaming and after reading that article I knew I wanted to become a game designer. The Art Institute was the one school mentioned in the article and I knew that some of the bigger companies in the industry were located there (in San Francisco) as well. Goodbye Philly, hello California. [The school curriculum] was a mixed bag. General education classes like English, Math and History, Art classes such as figure drawing, storyboarding, layout design, Game Design classes that included 3D modeling, Animation, Audio and Level Design.”
Success stories like these aren't just flukes. According to 2008's Game Developer Magazine student survey, game school grads are overwhelmingly happy with their game school education, regardless of the institution. Even so, the survey also says game education could use some fine-tuning. Students say that although they're getting plenty of collaborative, hands-on experience, they're also lacking enough advanced courses, courses in video game history and adequate connection with the game industry. Companies as yet are not offering enough internship opportunities and there's a serious lack of classes in disciplines related to game development like production and project management. That said, considering a career in the game industry has only been considered legit for a handful of years and game schools for even fewer than that, maybe a few program deficiencies are to be expected.
On the up side, the majority of courses are taught by people who know what they're talking about, people who either used to work or are currently working in the industry and there's no way to overestimate the value of that. Game development still being something of an arcane art, any game veteran can tell you that having a mentor who's been in the trenches is worth more than a whole stack of instructional books. So unless you live next door to Shigeru Miyamoto or your dad's the head of EA, a game degree program may be the best (and only) way to find one of these.
In spite of the current recession, all signals indicate the game industry is going to continue getting bigger and bigger as, no doubt, will game school enrollment and tuition prices. Game education is still new and with demand for it high, is it any wonder game programs are as yet flying by the seat of their collective pants? The sort-of bad news is, both the industry and the training are still learning and so to be a game professional, you'll have to be willing to learn with them . The good news is if you want to work in games, you can take classes now instead of stalking game designers. Tell your parents. They'll be relieved to hear your video game fixation might actually pay off.