Hey, teacher!

As our industry grows, which is does relentlessly, and matures, which it does grudgingly, obviously the workforce will grow in terms of needs, numbers and skills, and so it is not surprising that institutions will offer dedicated courses and degrees which, in turn, get to be scrutinised by the press in a recent bit of hooplah over the state of such affairs in Britain. This leads me to pondering the value of game-related degrees and a lot of chin-stroking on what I believe the industry needs. And I've come to the conclusion that the industry does not need game-related degrees.

As can be said for any industry, arguably, the skills you will rely on most in your career will be learned on the job, with a previous education only offering you a solid base to start your training from. The game industry is no different. Looking back at my own career I find that all the skills I possess and use nowadays I have learned while doing the job and my skill set when I joined the industry was laughably inept to deal with the issues I face in my day to day activities. Ask a banker, labourer or teacher and you'll probably find this to be a common thread. Experience is a far better teacher than any humanoid, but that doesn't of course mean education is useless - far from it. I studied in a vaguely related field, though still far removed from video games, and one of my most hated courses I find taught me things I, I reluctantly accept, still use today, in the form of colour theory and composition. What my education did well was to teach me the basics of the visual arts and the disciplines of production, scheduling, pre-production and the like. But with my degree in hand a young JC would in no way be ready to start a job as a games artist from the get-go. No, I was lucky enough to find a company who saw my potential and hired me. From that point on I've relied of colleagues, training, self-study and a bit of real-life working pressure to make me what I am today: a dried up husk of a shell of my former self. All joking aside, I am what I am in terms of competency in my job thanks to the job, with my education serving to add a sense of depth and grounding.

And this is an important issue, I think. Video games are still so immature, as an industry, with so much to learn and improve on that any study that bases its syllabus on the current state of the business is basically teaching "broken knowledge" or immaturity. If you teach a student how things are done now, they might be able to wrangle a job in the short term, but as an employee they'll form part of the problem, not the solution. What we need is versatile, well-grounded graduates who can think fast on their feet and, as much as I detest the phrase, "think outside of the box". With vastly exploding budgets, higher risks, shorter development times, growing impoverishment of the imagination and the difficulties of nurturing new IPs, how can a graduate help solve difficult issues like these if all they know is how to do their jobs in these circumstances? A game degree course as a supplement to a regular degree could be helpful in getting that first job, but as a substitute for a more general degree I'd say it's specialising too soon. There is a very good reason why the better environment artists I've worked with usually have an educational background in architecture.

From an art perspective, these are my thoughts on education:

- Communication
One skill that is often overlooked is the ability to communicate ideas effectively, not only between client and artist but also between artists within a team. Video game development is, by and large, a team-based endeavour and communication is paramount.
- Basic art sensibilities
I am shocked how little people understand about basic colour theory or composition, to the extent where it is applied correctly it jumps out at you as fantastic game art. We must learn from established arts when it comes to the emotive power of colours, the space they need to be read properly, the effect light and shadow have on directing the eye and much much more. These skills can all be learned during your average basic art degree without even thinking about video games.
- Working to tight budgets and deadlines
Having studied a subject that required expensive equipment I learned early on to schedule in time for the use of these often over-burdened devices. We got away with a lot by doing prep work on home computers before sending the data to the larger equipment at college to do the rendering, or we would sneakily hide in cupboards to be locked in overnight, illegally, so we could have an entire digital editing suite to ourselves for 10 glorious but tiring hours. Knowing the time limitations taught us to think things out ahead of time to make the actual process as quick and easy as possible. This seems to be a skill in short supply in our industry.
- How the software works
All you need to know is where the buttons are. Anybody, and I mean anybody, can learn to use Photoshop or Maya. To use them well requires a talent and skill you'll pick up over time, but you need to know what buttons do what, totally outside of the context of video game graphics. Maybe nowadays we are stuck with polygon modeling, but who knows what the future may bring? Teaching only polygonal modeling will short-change the students who will be unprepared for future developments in video game technology.
- Don’t focus on current-gen
As mentioned above, by the time you graduate and get your job video game technology will have advanced - no question. You may be able to model and texture one mean Unreal 3 character model but you'll be at a loss as to the latest developments. It's best to have a general grounding in the software and techniques than anything too specific. On top of that, each company has their own techniques, limitations and toolsets and everyone (everyone!) will have to learn new approaches when changing companies anyway.
- Don’t focus on game art
As a personal opinion, a lot of the video game art out there is ugly. They may be technically accomplished and display excellent craftsmanship, but still, a lot of it lacks visual gusto. Being able to rely on acquired art sensibilities from other media can only help give you and your project that unique visual flavour that will set it apart from the other Space Marines of Hell FPS clones out there.

Video game education is in its infancy. I'm sure it'll evolve into something quite useful but all reports state that that might not be quite the case yet. If my experience seeing game school graduates' work is anything to go by, I'd say it has a long way to go yet. Your more cynical observer may think these schools are merely profiting from the growing trend in youngsters wanting to work in video games, promising increased chances of employment, despite the evidence to the contrary, and offering a very naive syllabus by people with absolutely no actual development experience or clue. At this moment in time I would highly recommend people with an interest to find a general education in the rough field of their future expertise, rather than a specialised education for video game development.

This GameSetWatch article mentions Andrea Rubsenstein's continued adventures at the HAL game academy in Japan. And, of course, how could it not be, Japan is a slightly different beast in these matters. As a commenter pointed out, in most cases in Japan the prestige of the name of your alma mater is much more important than your actual skills. Video game development is slightly different in this, as actual skill is a requirement, or at least the potential for it, and as such, having "Tokyo University" on your resume might pique the interests of the potential employer, it is in no way a guarantee to employment, as it might be in, say, politics or banking.

In Ms. Rubenstein's situation I have actually little doubt it will increase her chances of employment. She is, afterall, a foreigner and a woman, which in Japan will raise many (irritating) concerns over suitability. Having been through a Japanese school not only will show Japanese language ability but also a slightly better understanding of the Japanese working system than we, as foreigners, are usually given credit for, so even though I have my question marks over the transferability of the skills taught, it would count as a proof of aptitude which would make her a more enticing prospect to employers - at least, it would assuage many of the usual concerns.

So in closing, the above is all personal opinion and video game specific degrees could, potentially, augment a regular degree but not, as of yet, replace them. But don’t quote me on that.

14 comments:

  1. Great post. There is definitely still skepticism towards seeing a Video Game College degree on a resume; it's most often associated with a rather poor attached portfolio.

    Getting a broad-based 4-year degree (for design that would be a liberal arts major like history, English, or philosophy, for programming it would be a more well-rounded computer science degree) then doing a game-related project in your own time to build your portfolio is the most sustainable approach to preparing yourself for the games industry. It also has the added benefit of leaving you with a somewhat less-useless degree if, lo and behold, you don't end up in the games industry after all.

    Third option: you're a superstar prodigy so you drop out of college to start up your own company and become a millionaire. But we all can't be John Carmack.

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  2. I think it depends on your speciality, for games art I think you are 100% correct, being able to draw, and get ideas out of your head onto paper/sculpture/etc is much more important than ability to use max/maya/photoshop whatever, those are basically just tools to get those ideas out of your head.

    For programming however, I think game degrees are more useful - maybe because I did a good one and got a good job out of it... This does rely on the course being up to date and teaching useful things. Lots of CS degrees are a lot less 'hardcode', for want of a better word, nowadays. Games programming still requires a lot of low level knowledge compared to 'real world' jobs.

    On the other hand there are thousands of game-degrees popping up that aren't researched or created to give you any useful skills, I think that's the problem than a general all game 'degrees are rubbish'. Almost all game degrees are rubbish, but if you find one of the ones that isn't, then it's all good. I assume at least that my company wouldn't keep hiring us all from the same course if it was rubbish.

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  3. I'm always grateful when others make the case for a solid liberal arts education (as opposed to me endlessly ringing my own bell). Obviously, this kind of education may not be for everyone, but learning to think critically and communicate clearly and responsibly are fundamental skills that many specialist schools ignore. Being prepared to learn what must be learned in a fast-moving world is an invaluable skill.

    Geesh, I sound like an admissions brochure. ;-)

    Thanks for this interesting and provocative piece, JC.

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  4. Hmmm,

    I agree with some of your points but playing devil's advocate, by your logic USC should get rid of cinema and TV degrees. And Calarts should get rid of animation degrees because all those are too specialized. And yet some several succcessful and famous people have come out of those programs.

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  5. Gman, I don't know, no, probably not, no. That said, those are far older and much better established and understood disciplines. I'm sure one day we may have video game degrees on par with the examples you cite, but I'm pretty sure those are still a long way off.

    Steve Gaynor made a great point there; lifers in the development section appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Our industry has a bit of a reputation for burnout. You would want a more general degree to fall back on when (if?) you get fed up with game development.

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  6. I'd have to Disagree 110%. I graduated from Full Sail University in Orlando. I went from knowing basically no programming to being pretty damn good. I'm now 2+ yrs as a software engineer and have increased upon that foundation.

    Most NORMAL non-tech related schools stress "Theory" which in turn means your basically a stick in the mud once you graduate. I was far far from a stick in the mud. Yes I have learned more over time, but compared to People taking masters and double majors with all these "beefed" resume's. There Real-World application was horrible, and were quickly removed. Full Sail is no joke people, don't think learning how to develop games is easy, cause it isn't. And I for one stayed on the east coast, but the hours game developers work are far more then my meager 8hr day (with zero crunch). pulled in 75k last year. (remember 2 yrs outta school)

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  7. Holy crum I love that choice in title bar image...Got a full size pic? :O

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  8. The beef I have with game courses is the lack of actual production I see from graduates.

    The most important thing I ever want to see is content, followed by content, and then more content.

    I want to see some failed game projects and hopefully a couple of successful ones. When I've spoken about it, the excuses I get back are "we don't have time" or "the students don't have time".

    Two words - Game jam. There is always time. Students would learn more about actual development from 2-3 gamejams per year than any course could teach (obviously they should run alongside regular courses).

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  12. I actually attended a game art program at Art Institute Pittsburgh. From what I’ve seen so far it’s more what you make of the degree. Sure you could just cruise through the program, but most teachers put emphasis on working with the programs as much as you can on your own and making a portfolio. There are also multiple game design clubs, one of which I just got involved with what. Some early classes are color theory and design, and further in you get to character and object, 3d max, animation etc. while still having a constant stream of traditional art courses like life drawing. At the very least it’s forcing me to develop my subpar drawing skills, and motivating me and my roommate to start our own indie project.

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