Set Sail: Starting Your Career in Game Design

Ask any game developer about schools that offer game development programs, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t name Full Sail University.

The school — which is based in Winter Park, Fla. — was one of the first to offer several degree programs for would-be game-makers, including four-year degrees in game development and game art, as well as a Master of Science for game design. And you don’t have to be near the Orlando area to get a degree: The school is one of the few that have online programs for both game design and game art. Currently, over 1,900 students are enrolled in the game development classes at Full Sail University.

Curriculum Overview

If you’re looking for a programming-based degree, Full Sail University’s game development program was designed to specifically address the programming needs of the gaming industry. Because it’s more of a software engineering degree, the skills and interests of a potential student should be in math-related courses and programming. (The two primary tools that students will use are a laptop and Visual Studio, Microsoft’s integrated development environment.) Although the curriculum is heavily programming-based, it starts off with the basics to ensure every student is on the same page.

“It starts from the very beginning, so no prior knowledge is necessary, although it is quite intense and the topics come fast, so you need to adapt quickly if you want to succeed,” says Jameson Durall, a Full Sail graduate in game design who is now a lead level designer at Saints Row developer Volition. “The lessons were all created by our instructors and tailored to what we needed to learn for game development.”

Durall explains that, in his experience, after learning the basics of C++ programming, students were able to create simple games and then move on to bigger group projects. In fact, the degree program culminates in a five-month final project that not only teaches students teamwork and the various roles in game development, but also provides them with something to show potential employers upon graduation.

“Students in the game development program immediately begin developing the technical, professional and personal skills needed for the industry,” says Rob Catto, program director for game studies at Full Sail University. “They learn the foundations of computer programming, create their own game engines and artificial intelligence, and collaborate with a team of like-minded artists and designers to develop a complete game. Our focus is to give the employer a candidate that has the programming background, has successfully worked with a team and understands the pressures of the industry.”

Famous Alumns

The list of notable alumni from Full Sail University’s game design program reads like a laundry list of the top game companies and bestselling titles. Graduates include Dean Johnson, lead programmer for Microsoft’s Kinect; Danny Bulla, a senior designer at Halo creators Bungie; and Shawn McCabe, technical director at Insomniac Games, the makers of Resistance and Ratchet & Clank.

Fourteen Full Sail students have also gone on to Rockstar Games’ San Diego studio, where they worked on 2010’s critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. Other titles Full Sail alumni have worked on include BioShock Infinite, Diablo III, Doom 4, Epic Mickey, the Madden NFL series, Quake 4, The Beatles: Rock Band, Twisted Metal and Uncharted 2, to name a few.

“I wanted to make video games as a kid, but had no idea where I would even begin such a career,” says Durall, who most recently worked on Red Faction: Armageddon. “Full Sail not only gave me the tools to work in the gaming industry, but it also taught me how to survive in a work environment that is very fluid and often hectic.”

How to Get Started

“The first step is recognizing that you have a passion for playing video games and a desire to take part in the creation of these games,” suggests Catto. “Once you’ve decided on a specific area of study — like programming, art, animation — Full Sail University offers several degree programs designed to equip our students with real-world experience in their chosen field.”

“I can’t state enough how crucial my Full Sail education was to my game design career,” adds Durall. “It was a very positive, eye-opening experience. Not only did I come out with the knowledge to program games on my own, but had the foundation I needed to pursue game design as a discipline. My education at Full Sail taught me the skills needed for succeeding in the gaming industry, as well as gave me an experience in a real development environment.”