Why Earn A Game Production Degree?
Each month we hold a Saturday open house event for prospective students at The Los Angeles Film School. The event starts with a continental breakfast in our lobby, where faculty members meet and greet our guests before entering our main theater for a formal presentation, followed by a tour of our facilities.
I always enjoy talking our visitors who are here for the Game Production tour, mainly because the prospective students are so eager and excited about the idea of developing games as a career. Usually they bring their parents with them, and that’s when the conversation turns serious. The parents, naturally, are focused on the most important question that we need to address, “Why earn a game production degree?” as opposed to another degree at another school? Will it help them to get a job in the game industry?
My first response is to ask a question in return: how passionate is the student about making games? Because if they are not one hundred percent certain that’s what they want to do with their career, they would be better off going to a community college and take a range of general education courses along with a computer-oriented class or two to really determine what they want to do. That’s what I did when I went to college — I was an undecided major for my first eighteen months at Cal State Northridge. When I enrolled, I thought I’d end up majoring in Art, English or Film Production, but I surprised myself when I took an introductory computer class to fulfill one of my general education requirements, fell in love with computers, and changed my major to Computer Science. You don’t have the luxury of switching interest in majors so dramatically when enrolled in a very specialized professional school like ours. So, you need to be pretty sure of your interests when you enroll.
I then ask a follow up question: does the student already know what discipline he or she wants to specialize in — design, programming, art, audio, or project management? If the answer is programming, I suggest that the student might be better off attending a school where he or shed can earn a degree in Computer Science. When earning a Computer Science degree, a student will learn far more about programming in general than if he or she enrolled in a Game Production program where they might only take a handful of programming classes. However, if the answer is art or audio, I suggest that they might be better off in taking our Art & Animation or Music Production program. Why? When I’m hiring someone to be a programmer, artist, or audio engineer, I’m far more interested in the depth of their programming, art or audio skills, respectively, than I am in whether they understand all aspects of game production.
So, who should pursue a game production degree? Anyone who is really passionate about making games, but isn’t sure about what to specialize in. Or someone who has the ambition of forming their own independent game development team someday and needs to know about all aspects of game development.
I would also include anyone who is interested in being a designer or project manager (aka producer) working in the game industry. It’s true that you can become a game designer or producer having a degree in some other field, such as Cinema or History, but if you want to get a job in game development, it helps enormously to already have a portfolio of games you’ve worked on to show off to potential employers.
Do you really need to go to a game school to make some initial games for your portfolio? Can you simply go online and follow some GameMaker or Unity tutorials on your own? You can, but not everyone learns best that way. Some of use learn best in a classroom environment that has an instructor you can talk to, clear-cut goals for you to reach before progressing onward, and fellow students with whom to collaborate. I think this last aspect is the most important. Game development is a team sport. To do well at it, you need to have excellent communications, teamwork and professional skills — things that may not be easy to learn on your own.
The game industry is a very competitive one. Like other entertainment industries, there are more people wanting to work in it than there are jobs available. You need to be very driven and talented to find a job working in games, but it also helps to have industry contacts who can refer you to job openings. Almost every job I’ve gotten in the game industry has been because someone I knew told me about or recommended me for the job opportunity. The bigger your network of game industry contacts, the greater your chances of finding work. That’s another reason for attending a game school. Your fellow students and instructors may be the ones to help you get your fist job in the game industry. (That’s assuming, of course, that your performance as a student is good enough to earn you those recommendations and referrals).
So, why earn a game production degree? It’s true that there are many paths into the game industry, but none of those paths are guaranteed to get you a job. A game school can improve your chances by providing you with the experience of working on a team, helping you create a portfolio of game-oriented work samples, teaching you about all the different tasks involved in making games (which is especially useful if you want to be a generalist or down’t know what to specialize in) and giving you your initial set of game industry contacts.
However, there are no guarantees that any degree at any school will land you a job in the game industry, because your own drive, professionalism and talent are far more important factors to hiring managers than what your diploma says.