What To Consider Before Getting A Game Degree

Recently I was approached by a local community college looking for instructors to teach students earning an Associates Degree in Game Development, and just last week my wife, a high school teacher, told me that her school was very interested in starting up a game design.  In fact, my son took a game development class at his own school.  I, of course, teach game production at The Los Angeles Film School, and many of my game industry colleagues now teach game design and development at various colleges and universities throughout the country.  Games are increasingly becoming a recognized field of study.

Does that mean that the only way to learn how to make games is by taking a class or pursuing a game degree?  No, of course not.  There are many ways you can learn game design and development on your own:  you can read books such as The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses and Game Coding Complete, visiting websites such as Gamasutra and GameDev.net, watching Extra Credits YouTube videos, download the Unity game engine and going through the tutorials, and/or attend a local game development hobbyist club.  All of these resources can give you the knowledge you need to make games.

More so than most other fields, the game development industry is a meritocracy; that is, people are valued according to their skill.  Hiring managers at game companies are far more interested in how much skill you have than on how your acquired that skill.  They determine a candidate’s skill level in part by taking with them and may also give them a test or assignment to perform, but they mainly do so by looking at their portfolio of past work.

However, many of the large game studios and employers do require candidates have a Bachelors Degree in a relevant field of study.  For programmer candidates, a degree in Computer Science or Software Engineering is most helpful.  Artists should go for art or animation degrees, while audio specialists should pursue degrees that will teach them music composition or sound design.  As for game designers, I’ve known game designers whose degrees were in Computer Science, Film, Literature, Physics and even Philosophy.

Still, it helps — and for game designers and programmers it’s necessary —  to learn about game development in addition to what you learned through your degree program.  So, a successful game programmer candidate will have learned game programming on his or her own outside of schoolwork.  Artists should be making game characters and environments on their own time if their school assignments don’t result in the necessary portfolio pieces.  Those interested in game design should be making their own game levels or writing game design documents.

Where does that leave schools that teach game design and development, if that’s something many people can learn by reading books and taking online tutorials?   There are actually many reasons why someone might consider getting a game degree:

  • Some people learn much more effectively in a school environment than on their own.  (I’m one of those people — I need the structure of a classroom to focus my attention).
  • When doing school assignments in a game program, you are building up a portfolio of work to eventually demonstrate your skills to potential employers.
  • Your classmates, instructors and career counsellors may be able to provide you with opportunities to get your foot into the game industry’s door.  This is something that cannot be overestimated.  The game industry is very competitive, and so most people do not get game jobs by answering a want ad or submitting a resume to a company website.  Almost every job I’ve gotten in the game industry was because someone either told me about a job opening or recommended me for the position.  So, if you want to get similar opportunities, it helps to have a network of contacts who are connected with the game industry.

There are now many trade schools, community colleges, and universities offering degrees in game design and development.  Here are some factors to consider when deciding which one to attend:

  • A Bachelors Degree is much more useful than an Associates degree.
  • Find out the backgrounds of the faculty to see if they have actual game industry experience and have shipped game titles.
  • Find out of the school has connections with game companies and have successfully placed students in the game industry.  It helps if the school is located in a city that is in a game development center such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Boston, New York, or Chicago.
  • While most studios want to hire specialists (e.g., an AI programmer, an environmental artist, a puzzle game designer), and if you know an discipline in which you want to specialize, find out if your school allows you to focus your studies on an area.  However, if you don’t know what you want to specialize in, or are interested in being an indie developer who is more of a generalist, find out if your school teaches you some skills in all the disciplines of game development.

So, do you homework — before you decided to enroll in a game program.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on March 14, 2016, in Career Advice, Game Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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