Gaming the (Educational) System

Although video games have been around for decades, if you want to go about making games for a living, the paths to doing so aren’t readily laid out for you. Fortunately, more and more universities and colleges are now offering courses and degrees focused on game design. Here, DIG gives an overview of some of the different game design programs across the country, as well as what skills, materials and advice students need to get properly schooled for a career in the games industry.

Skills and Interests

If you’re reading this, you probably play and are interested in video games — and that’s a great start.

“A love of video games is obviously a must,” says Jameson Durall, a senior designer at the studio Volition Inc. (Saints Row, Red Faction) based in Champaign, Ill., and a Full Sail University graduate with a degree in game design. “Not only does this love give the student the ability to correlate what they are learning on the development side to what they’ve experienced in the past, but that love of games also helps give the desire to continue learning, even when things get difficult.”

Katherine Isbister, an associate professor of digital media and computer science at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, adds that studying game development isn’t, well, all fun and games. “Someone who mostly wants to just play games, or talk and write about games, shouldn’t really go into a game development program,” she says. “At this point, there are great programs that emphasize critique and theory about games too, so be clear about why you are getting into this.”

Many prospective students seeking a higher education are often undecided in their specific areas of study. But would-be game developers should have at least some idea of what they’re looking to do within the industry if they want to go to a tailored program.

“As far as technical skills go, it depends upon the game program itself,” explains Isbister. “Many programs have multiple tracks, so having strength in one core area of game development — programming, art, management — may be fine.”

Tools You’ll Need

Schools provide most of the equipment you’ll need for your studies, but it helps to be familiar with the materials you’re working with, especially if you want to get a head start.

For many programs, you won’t need more than a good quality mainstream computer to start with, like one featuring an Intel Core i5 or AMD Phenom II X4. But if you do want to invest in a hardware upgrade, an Intel Core i7 or the forthcoming AMD Bulldozer or should be top of your processor wish list. Similarly, add-in graphics cards like the GeForce GTX and Radeon HD brands can pack adequate power for reasonable prices.

The software needed is particularly program-dependent, but most game development tools are PC-based. There are also free game development tool sets that students can learn and practice with. Industry standard software packages from Unity, Unreal Engine, Havok, PhysX, MAYA, ZBrush and Adobe Creative Suite all have free or reduced-price options for students, not to mention scores of tools, white papers and communities that are available for free on manufacturer websites. Unreal and Intel in particular have vast resources available for no charge.

“I always encourage students to download a free version of a 3D modeling suite so they can practice building basic environments and worlds,” says Durall. “Getting a game development package like the Unreal Engine development kit will allow students to experience what working with game development tools are like and let them practice on their own.”

Top Schools

The list of top schools for game development can vary greatly depending on who you ask, but Isbister says that it all depends on the individual and what kind of program they’re looking for. “I’ve seen talented and well-placed grads from many programs,” she explains, “and a lot of the variance can be explained by the quality of the individual going in, as much as by the program’s quality.”

According to the Princeton Review’s latest rankings, the top 10 video game design schools for undergraduates are:

  1. University of Southern California  in Los Angeles
  2. University of Utah  in Salt Lake City
  3. DigiPen Institute of Technology  in Redmond, Wash.
  4. The Art Institute of Vancouver in British Columbia
  5. Michigan State University in East Lansing
  6. Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.
  7. Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn.
  8. Champlain College in Burlington, Vt.
  9. Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.
  10. Becker College in Worcester, Mass.

However, there are many other prominent game-centric programs not ranked by the Princeton Review, including Full Sail University  in Winter Park, Fla.

“Gaming colleges were very new when I began at Full Sail, and I was actually part of the first class they had,” says Durall, who graduated from the school in 2001. “I had dreamed of making games when I was a kid, but never knew it would be possible. Once I heard about Full Sail, I went down for a tour and was entirely impressed with the campus and their style of hands-on instruction. At Volition, we hired several Full Sail University students recently, and I’ve been impressed with their skill sets as game designers.”

Still, the school itself doesn’t matter as much as having any kind of formal training at all. “I’ve seen students of all backgrounds and skill levels succeed with a gaming education,” says Durall. “The most important thing is that students should be willing to put in the effort during their time in school.”

Words of Advice
All in all, if wannabe game developers have the passion and the drive, they can succeed in getting a higher education and find a great career in games.

“Students need to realize that making games is hard, and that it requires patience, persistence and openness,” advises Isbister, who also runs the Social Game Lab at NYU-Poly . “Teamwork is a big part of game development, so being willing to collaborate and able to communicate is valuable.”

“I recommend anyone wanting to get into the games industry to get a gaming education,” reiterates Durall. “Coming out of school with not only the knowledge of how to make games, but also with working examples from your studies, is a huge bonus. With so many other aspiring game designers out there now, you have to get every advantage you can.”