NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.
I see a lot of questions from game biz hopefuls who are planning their college/university preparation. That's very good, that so many understand the importance of college in obtaining a game biz career. Some of the college questions have been answered already, in articles 3 and 25. The purpose of this article is to try to address some of those other frequently asked questions about college. (Note: I use the term "college" to be synonymous with "university." I realize that the word means something different in the United Kingdom. I'm American - deal with it.)
1. What should I study? - Art, design, or programming?
How on earth should I know? I don't know you!!
You should major in art if you are artistically inclined - if your family and friends are constantly commenting on your artistic ability, and asking you if you are going into art as a career.
NEWS FLASH: You should not go into programming as a major if you are a budding artiste.
You should major in computer science if you are a budding programmer - if your family and friends are always commenting about your constant devotion to your computer, if you are always trying to figure out how stuff works, and if you are always fiddling with some new language or routine. EARTH TO ASTRONAUT: You should not major in art if you are a budding programmer.
You should study game design if you are always thinking about some new game idea, writing stories, and critiquing the gameplay of some new game everybody is playing. WORD TO THE WISE: Read article #3 if you want to study to become a game designer.
In other words, the major that's best for you is a matter that ONLY YOU can decide - not me (a complete stranger who doesn't know you and your special talents).
Game biz jobs are highly specialized. Some hopefuls think that they have to be able to draw and write and program - but in fact because of specialization, this isn't the case. We have artists who do the drawing (note: programmers don't have to) - and there are specialties within the field of art, as well. Some artists specialize in the design of human figures and characters. Other artists specialize in buildings and landscapes - others specialize in drawing animals, and some specialize in textures for 3D objects. We have specialization in the field of programming, as well - some programmers specialize in 3D, some in physics, some in A.I.... And the same for writing, and game design.
So you don't have to be able to do it all - you should take some courses in several different things, and find out which things you are good at - and which ones you enjoy. Ideally, your skills and your proclivities take you in similar (not opposing) directions.
Article 3 discusses college preparation for aspiring designers (see article 28 for my definition of "design"). If you want to become an artist, get a 4-year art degree. If you want to become a game programmer, get a 4-year programming or computer degree. If you want to become a story writer, get a 4-year writing or literature degree.
2. Which school should I go to to get a game biz job? - Some hopefuls think there is one special "one size fits all" school, that if they just go to that school and get that one "one size fits all" degree, that their entry into the game biz will be assured. These guys are deluding themselves. Life ain't that simple - it's simpler. You can go to ANY college or university. It doesn't matter which one you go to, as much as it matters what you do with your education.
If two candidates show up for an interview, with degrees from two different schools, it's the one who has the better portfolio - not the one who graduated from "the right school" - who will get the job. When I say "portfolio" in the sentence above, I mean "sample of work" - in whatever form that may be. The aspiring programmer who can demonstrate exceptional programming talent is going to outshine the guy who just has the degree from "the right programming school" - but hasn't bothered to ever create anything with his programming degree. The aspiring game artist who has created a more impressive body of work (and has an equivalent degree) is going to outshine the one who just has a degree from "the right art school" (if there was such a thing). Read article 25 for more about choosing the right school for YOU.
3. Then I shouldn't go to a specialized game school? - [Sigh!] I didn't say that. The candidate who has both a 4-year degree in programming or computer science, and then supplements it with an A.S. degree in game programming from a game school, is going to look better (in general) than a candidate who has the 4-year programming degree alone. These game schools have valuable stuff to teach you about making games - but if you're fresh out of high school, you need a regular college education. A short specialized degree is no substitute for a traditional, well-rounded, 4-year degree. Read article 44 for more on this topic, and read article 25 for help in choosing a school. After you've gotten your 4-year degree, if you can afford it and have the drive to learn more, go to one of those game schools to supplement your education.
For even more of my thoughts on game schools, see my June and July 2009 IGDA "The Games Game" columns, "The Whole Game School Thing." And I further recommend that you know if a school is a for-profit school or not, and what that means (link).
4. Is it worth the expense to go to DigiPen or Full Sail? They're both awfully expensive! - Those schools' programs are good. But so are the programs at a lot of mainstream universities. No game industry employer demands diplomas from those particular schools as a requirement. And folks with degrees from those schools don't necessarily find an easier time getting jobs in the industry than someone with a mainstream university degree.
Whether it's "worth it" or not is entirely up to YOU. If you have to work hard to earn the money, but you are really motivated to study there because you want the knowledge you'll gain there, then go for it. If your daddy's rich, your momma's good lookin'*, and they wanna send you to game school, then more power to ya. If the expense is just out of question because of your life situation, then all I can say is this: You can only do what's possible for you to do. Don't go around moaning about stuff you can't control. Do what you can with the cards you're dealt. That's what the rest of us do. Be a winner, not a whiner. I wrote about winning vs. whining in both article 3 and article 24.10 - it's an important concept. And there are more important words of wisdom about dealing with the limitations life has imposed upon you in article 47. And an ""is it worth it" question is pretty much the same thing as a "waste of time" question. That said, I do not recommend spending so much on your education that you'll still be paying for it twenty years down the road. Read my August 2011 column, "The High Cost of College."
*Sorry, couldn't resist - the song "Summertime" is a classic!
5a. I'm planning to go to the local community college, because that's the only one my family can afford. Will I get mocked when I show up at a game company with that pitiful little degree on my resume?
5b. I'm planning to get my degree online, because of cost and other reasons based on my current life situation. Will I get mocked when I show up at a game company with an online degree on my resume?
- No. Here, if you're worried about getting mocked by somebody, let me save you the trouble and mock you right now, for asking such a dumb question!
Look. In the game of life, you have to play with the cards you're dealt. Some people are dealt aces and kings - other people get dealt less lucky cards. The secret of the game of life is to play the best game you can with the cards you have. It's up to you to do the most with the education you can manage to get. A four-year brick-and-mortar education is best, but that isn't in the cards for everyone. It says good things about you if you manage to build a spectacular portfolio with a less-than-Ivy-League education. Don't worry about appearances; focus on substance. Wherever you study, you have to apply yourself to your education, do your utmost to learn the material and build a strong portfolio. It's all up to you, baby. Nobody cares where you got your learning. You should get the best education you can, I'm not saying it doesn't matter - but then you have to use your education well, to play the game as best you can.
For further reading about this question, see my September 2007 column (scroll down after clicking that link).
6. So if I want to be a game designer, I should get a Game Design degree - that's what you said in point #1 above, right? - That isn't precisely what I said, no. In fact, in article 3 I outlined some specific classes you should take, to prepare for a career in game design - but without ever specifying what degree you should get. Hopefully, you have some other skill going for you besides a general creativity, and an ability to communicate in writing. Because most game companies don't hire novices to fill "game designer" openings, a "game design" degree might or might not get you your foot in the door. You should also have other skills or abilities that are useful to game companies - like programming or art or management or marketing or customer relations. You should certainly always use your best writing habits (good spelling, proper punctuation, correct capitalization) whenever communicating with anyone in the business world. You might get a start in Q.A. or Customer Support, or in Marketing or Production. I recently got an email from a guy who'd gotten a degree in programming. Very soon after getting a job as a programmer, his special talents as a game designer were recognized, and he was offered a promotion to game designer. That kind of stuff happens! But you have to get your foot in the door. And a "game design" degree might not be the sole key.
7. So if I just study anything I want for 4 years, I'll become a Game Designer? That's what you said in Lesson #3, right? - No, I didn't guarantee that you will become a Game Designer simply because you follow your passions (and get a 4-year degree). What I suggested is that if you follow your passions (and get a 4-year degree) that you will probably like the place where you wind up - that you will probably wind up doing a job that you're good at, and that you enjoy.
8. If I study Game Design and then someday want to change careers, will I have wasted my college years? - No, of course not. I get a lot of people worrying how "applicable" their college studies will be in life - perhaps prompted by parental fears of spending good money on a "silly videogame" education that won't get used.
What would really be wasteful, in my opinion, would be to spend money on a curriculum your parents approve of (like law or medicine) only to have you drop out of it in short order because it isn't where your heart lies. If you study a subject you don't care about, then go into a career you don't care about, then your life will be miserable.
So all I can say is that if you choose a major based on your passions, then you will be happy with the place in life where you eventually find yourself (hmm, I just noticed that I already wrote this in #7 above). A degree in a subject that interests you will get you jobs suited to ... guess who ... YOU.
Consider my case. I had never played a video game when I picked my college - video games didn't even exist yet. All I knew was that I wanted a creative major. Writing, drawing... I was enamored of comic books, and used to write and illustrate my own stories all the time. I'd been in theatrical productions in high school, and was interested in that too. The college I chose was affordable, not ungodly far from home, and offered majors in art, music, and theater (there wasn't anything else that fit my criteria, and that school scored highest on my decision grid). It took me two years to even pick a major once I'd begun matriculating. I finally chose Speech & Drama because the head of that department was helpful to me, I was in a lot of his theatrical productions, and stuff. I also took courses in art, radio, astronomy, scriptwriting, as well as the usual required courses.
I didn't really want a career in theater - it was just something interesting to study. It wound up getting me a job as a model maker, which led to my moving to Los Angeles, and before I knew it, I was designing electronic games. (You can read the story in Lesson 18.)
See what I mean? I took courses that were interesting to me. And they were useful to me as I found my way through life. You might take courses now, focusing on game design, then later you might discover a whole new medium - call it interactive wireless fiction - and although you hadn't majored in "interactive wireless fiction," you were perfectly suited for it because of what you'd studied, and the path you took in life.
9. I can't convince my parents that I'm serious about studying Game Design, and they don't want to pay for me to go to Game Design School. How can I convince them? - There is nothing you can SAY that will convince them. The problem is that you haven't been SHOWING them that you're serious. See what I said in the other articles about what game biz employers are looking for. They want to see that you're the kind of driven passionate person who is constantly creating, writing, or programming stuff that's related to games. It's the same thing with your parents. If all you do is come home from high school and play games, then that doesn't show them that you're passionate about working in games - that only shows them that you play games all the time. See Lesson 12 for some ideas for the kinds of home projects you ought to be doing. But like I said in Lesson 30, if you aren't already so crazy about doing your own writing, drawing, or whatever, that your family and friends are a little worried about you, then you're already doomed to be rejected by game biz employers. Work IS fun, and if those three words shock you, you've got a long way to go before you become a winner.
10. Oh my god, I just read #9 and that's me exactly! I have to apply RIGHT NOW, and my dad is reluctant to let me apply to the Game Design School. How can I show him I'm serious? - Too late. Let this be an important lesson to you. Your only option at this late date (assuming your dad is being a responsible dad and is sticking to his guns) is to go to a college that he will accept. And start acting like you're serious about wanting to work in games - rather than just acting like you just wanna play games all the time. Time to start growing up.
Why is a degree so important?
A few years ago, I found out firsthand what it's like for hirers at game companies when they post a job opening. The floodgates are smashed open, and applications flood in by the hundreds. It's necessary for Human Resources people to find a way to take that huge stack of applications and narrow it down to a manageable smaller stack. The Education section of an applicant's resume is the first thing they look at. If there is no degree listed, the HR person scans down to the Experience section to see if the applicant has professional experience. (Note the necessary emphasis on professional, not indie or amateur, experience.) The HR person makes several stacks, based on risk level. Applicants with professional experience are low-risk; applicants without degree or experience are high-risk.
Everything is about managing risk. Check out this risk table I made just now:
On Tuesday, December 14, 2021, 10:56:24 PM EST, Yacine K wrote:
Why is a degree so important...
My name: Yacine
My approximate age is: 19
The level of education I've completed is: High School.
My occupation (if student, enter 'student') is: Student.
The type of game job I aspire to (if applicable) is: All of them (I want to become an indie developer, but if I had to choose it would be either Game Artist/Animator or Game Programmer or something similar)
The country I live in is: Canada.
My game biz question is: “why spend money on college/university in 2021, when nowadays there are so many free and/or way cheaper authentic resources available for us in the internet”.
I’m asking this because I noticed that you insist a lot on the importance of getting an “old-school” degree in a industry ruled by experience, (forgive me if I’m wrong), but wouldn’t employers find someone with many personal projects such as: personally made games, animation pieces, game design ideas, coding skills…etc, wouldn’t they find him useful?
In high school we were forced to study a lot of subjects that weren’t interesting to me, thus by only focusing on the subjects I liked, I didn’t do very good in my overall grade, and by consequence, when I applied for university, I got rejected in my 2 first choices, that were respectively “Computer Science” and “Software Engineering”, and because I surely thought I would get accepted in one of them, I chose randomly my 3rd choice, knowing that there was nothing else the university offered that interested me.
And now I’m failing my 2nd semester drastically from lack of motivation, because most (if not all) of the subjects don’t interest me and some I literally hate. So now I’m left with 3 options options: either 1) I switch to another university or college with a lower acceptance rate and hope for the best, 2) Dropout and pursue my passion on my own, hoping to become a self taught game developer, or 3) Just accept my fate and study something I don’t like and be miserable, which I think both of us agree it’s not an option to begin with.
So after all this what I want basically is advice of what you think I should do, and your thoughts on my first point, and whether you think the game biz respects self taught Game Designers/Programmers/animaters…etc.
I’m so sorry if it was too long, I thought I should give you the full context to help you understand my situation better, so you can give the answer that suites me.
And I want to say thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your knowledge with us, and for making it so accessible, you have all my respect.
Your email is excellent. I totally get what you're going through.
I'm sorry to hear that you are failing your 2nd semester. (As a retired educator, I can't help but wonder either when your 1st semester started, spring or summer, so that you are in your 2nd semester already in mid-December, but never mind, don't answer that.) I have an idea that might help, if you are removed from your current college/university and if you choose to continue pursuing advanced education. But before I get to that, let's address your overall question.
Why is a degree so important?
A few years ago, I found out firsthand what it's like for hirers at game companies when they post a job opening. The floodgates are smashed open, and applications flood in by the hundreds. It's necessary for Human Resources people to find a way to take that huge stack of applications and narrow it down to a manageable smaller stack. The Education section of an applicant's resume is the first thing they look at. If there is no degree listed, the HR person scans down to the Experience section to see if the applicant has professional experience. (Note the necessary emphasis on professional, not indie or amateur, experience.) The HR person makes several stacks, based on risk level. Applicants with professional experience are low-risk; applicants without degree or experience are high-risk. Everything is about managing risk. Check out this risk table I made just now:
HR people might object to some of this -
Just email me if you want to discuss!
You know what a cylindrical file is - it also goes by other names, such as "bin" or "trash" or "garbage." Depending on the company's needs, the volume of applications, the time factor, and the HR person's patience level, many if not most of the "High risk" applications may also go into the cylindrical file.
Note also that I listed high-experience/high-education applicants as "expensive." That's another factor. How rich is the company? If you're applying to a AAA company like EA or Activision Blizzard or Riot or Ubisoft (etc.), they may have openings for students with good projects under their belts, and also can afford high-price applicants. If you're applying to a small or unknown indie studio, they may not be able to afford recent college grads who have expensive student loans to pay off and have high salary expectations.
I hope you can see now that the portfolio (i.e. projects you've worked on) is not a one-for-one substitute for the degree. It's comparing apples with oranges… and with kumquats, cucumbers, and sofas… And I hope that you can see a need for a degree as you transition into independent adult life in the digital millennium. So now I want to address your current college situation.
You said you have 3 choices. I have a 4th to add: change your major. You may also need to change your school in order to do that. By changing your major, you'll be able to reduce the number of "boring/unpleasant" classes you have to take. But boring/unpleasant classes are unavoidable in the education system - just as boring/unpleasant tasks are unavoidable in life. No matter what you may think about those classes, they are required for a reason. A complete education must incorporate basic classes that not all students see the justification for.
And a 5th choice: transfer to a community college to get your boring basic courses out of the way (much cheaper than at the 4-year institution).
You said your job aspirations are Game Artist/Animator or Game Programmer "or something similar." Those are far-flung specialties. To go for programming, CS was the right choice but you went with a 3rd unspecified major in order to be accepted. Not art, I assume. With the majors you started with, you were not going to become an artist or animator - but studying programming and art (both) could lead to interesting jobs as a technical artist or level designer. Just saying.
And I think I've run out of things to say! Hope this helps.
A question of degree and breaking in
>From: james thompson
>Sent: Thursday, April 03, 2008 1:26 PM
>Subject: Question about degrees
>My approximate age is: _20
>The level of education I've completed is: _High School
>My occupation (if student, enter 'student') is: _Student
>The type of game job I aspire to (if applicable) is: _Game Programmer, Designer, and Production
>My game biz question is: _Hello, my name is James and I have read your articles on your website and they are very informative. Thank you for devoting your time to helping people find out about game design and production. I am a sophomore in college and my major is Management Information Systems. I have changed my major several times from computer science to general business to MIS, I decided to go with MIS. Working on video games, preferably desinging them, is all I have ever wanted to do since i laid my hands on the controller of my Nintendo when I was very young. I plan on taking the classes you mentioned in your design career preparation for game design. My questions are is it possible to enter the game biz having an MIS degree and having completed the classes you mentioned or should i change my major to computer science? And how do I get experience in game design and production so I can have a good resume when I apply for a job? Any advice you give me would be very much appreciated. Thank you
Hi James, you wrote:
is it possible to enter the game biz having an MIS degree and having completed the classes you mentioned
Read FAQ 50. The FAQ links are above left.
or should i change my major to computer science?
Read my article "Am I In The Wrong Degree Program?" on GameDev.net.
how do I get experience in game design and production so I can have a good resume when I apply for a job?
Read my October 2006 IGDA column, "The Experience Experience."
What you're asking is the classic unanswerable question, "how do I get job experience so I can get a job?" Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (^_^)
You can't get "experience experience" before you get the job, but you can certainly build up a portfolio and some creds by making some games. Work on mods and/or indie/garage games, preferably in collaboration with others.
Any advice you give me would be very much appreciated.
Sure. Ask anything (anything I can help you with), anytime.
Tom Sloper / トム·スローパー / 탐 슬로퍼 / 湯姆 斯洛珀
Los Angeles, California, USA
April 3, 2008
Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 05 Jan 2004
Hello again Darryl Gainer (malachi_fox), you wrote:
>Hey Tom, would you rather hire a person with a bachelors degree in game design or a person with an associates degree in game design and also has a bachelors in computer science?
That depends on the job being filled, Darryl. And it depends on what is meant by the term "game design" as defined by the school where the candidate got his degree. I've been in contact with a school locally who was not interested in hiring me to teach game design - because to them, "game design" is a visual design process.
>Also would you rather hire a person thats multitlented in game design that knows audio to programming thats little emphasis in those areas or a person who specializes in Programming and has great emphasis in his area.
That depends on the job being filled, Darryl. Am I head of a small developer where everybody wears multiple hats and I need a new, untried game designer? Or am I a manager at a bigger game company and I need a programmer?
Darryl, I assume you're trying to figure out how to structure your post-high school studies. But as I've said in lessons 3, 25, and the new lesson 34, this is something YOU have to figure out, for YOURSELF - not to try to please a hypothetical "average employer." Study what YOU want. Learn what YOU are good at. Your questions are an attempt to ignore this basic advice and find universal generalities, where none exist. Every situation is different - the company, the project, the team, the individual.
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