Video game design as a career path?
October 9, 2009 8:57 AM   Subscribe

What's the best path to take for a high school student aspiring to get into Game Design in college? Any advice?

A little backstory to frame my aspirations here: I've been playing videogames since a young age. However, I don't consider myself to be one of those guys who just plays Halo and Madden- "oh, game design could be fun!".

No, I take this seriously, and as I near my junior year of high school and see more college programs I see it as a viable option. I not only play lots of videogames- I have designed several in my spare time (and not just video; board, card, etc.) and find design theory incredibly interesting. Listening to lectures/panels/keynotes from the people who design games is something I happen to enjoy. I've actually made my own games as well and could be prepared to show them to a college. If I could do one thing for the rest of my life this might actually be it, and I've had years to think about it.

Right now, I'm looking through my high school to try to prepare for that sort of option. That's the easy part; we're not a high school with a large swath of computer classes, especially game related.

So here's the main question(s):
*In terms of after high school education, where should I go and what should I consider? From personal experience and/or statistics what would be some of the better undergraduate and graduate schools to attend? I know this may not have a definitive answer, but I'd like to look at some college programs and see what places I could consider.
*Also: supplemental classes (as in, when I have free courses outside of this focus what kind of things should I pursue that might help bolster my education in this field?)
*And last but not least, after college prospects?

I was inspired to ask this question mainly after being asked to look at Columbia College's Game Design 4 Year Plans. It seemed like a decent program, and it's local to me, but I was curious what was out there.

My apologies if I'm asking vague questions or silly ones; it's simply that I'm just about to dive into this whole thing and I'm not the most experienced kid on the planet. I would really appreciate all discussion, even "Don't do it, period!". I want to see what you all have to say, you're an educated group of people.
posted by Askiba to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Game professional here.

People will tell you different things about game design and production programs. Some of them, such as DigiPen, are worthwhile. Your mileage will vary greatly.

But ALL of them are a distant second to getting started RIGHT NOW with freely available tools. Source engine, Unreal engine, Torque engine, Flash, etc, etc. Hell, write me a great text adventure, and your foot will be in the door.

If you do choose a college program, good for you. But supplement your work with independent projects, which will teach you more and carry you just as far, if not further.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:29 AM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

USC's game design program isn't too bad. I took a few classes with them before I decided that I wasn't ready to live at the office as some game designers do. But as Cool Papa Bell alludes to above, even if you can't get into the school of your dreams, game design is an art, and like any art your portfolio, not your school is what really matters. You seem like you're on the right track. Just keep chugging away at those projects.
posted by tastycracker at 9:49 AM on October 9, 2009

That's not my industry but it seems like in many fields it's experience that trumps credentials. Whatever you end up doing for formal education, make sure you're also building a portfolio on your own time. Teach yourself a programming language or two outside of the classroom. Put together some freeware or Flash games; don't expect to monetize them but consider them an investment toward the future. A software studio is likely to value a history of independent projects higher than a piece of paper college degree (but of course, you should have both).
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:12 AM on October 9, 2009

Don't get blinded by the appeal of game design degrees, you don't really need one. In fact, I prefer candidates who don't have these kind of specialised courses, because they tend to get a broader education from a "normal" degree. Specialised game design courses are often too vocational IMO, and teach you a particular way of thinking and working which you will discover to be completely worthless once you get into a game company. Every game company works differently and has different skill requirements of their designers. When I interview a junior designer with no previous paid experience, I am looking for:

* Enthusiasm, which means having worked on some games in your spare time.
* Thoughtfulness and good critical analysis skills, which means I ask you what was good or bad about a game you have played, and you can explain your thoughts well and have clearly understood the underlying gameplay structure of the game.
* Creativity, which means I ask you to suggest improvements to a game you have played, and you can come up with something that might improve the gameplay experience, seems feasible, and fits within the setting and playstyle.
* Intelligent, responsible, attention to detail, quick learner.
* Good personality fit for the team and will work well with others (here is where having made a game or a mod with others will help you enormously)
* Bonus if you seem self-motivated and I feel I won't have to watch you all day to give you a new task when you are done with the old one, you will be proactive about finding more work to do.

Try and get some experience with programming. You don't need to be a fully-fledged programmer, but the ability to do simple programming shows you are not afraid of getting your hands dirty with some technical implementation. You will likely work at a company where some basic scripting is a requirement.

Also learn some basic 3D modeling and familiarity with a 3D art package. Any one will do, just being able to grasp the concept of manipulating 3D models on a screen and build simple structures. I don't need you to be a master modeler or even be able to do texturing, although other companies may need that skill.

So to summarise, those skills and traits I just listed will come from you, and your spare time. I don't really care what degree a candidate has, I place no extra value on a game degree course at all, in fact I view it with a little suspicion. I personally like to see a CS degree, but that's because we tend towards the technical end of things with designers here, other companies tend towards the modeling/art skillset. Take a degree that's a good fit for you, not something you think other people want you to have. I will happily interview candidates with a degree in Economics or Philosophy or Basket-Weaving, or even - no degree at all, if they have have previous experience at least on mods or making their own games.

It's a hard industry to get into without any previous jobs in the industry, so you may have to go the QA route, which kind of sucks, but is good for setting expectations about the industry as a whole. I have worked with some graduates who came in as placement students from a CS degree and that worked out really well, so perhaps research which colleges have placement agreements with game companies.
posted by Joh at 10:13 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

So many colleges are offering game degrees now, but the approach varies widely. Some offer these programs through their arts department, others through engineering, others through their film school or regular old computer science. If you can figure out the approach that fits your interests, that will help winnow the candidates. You said you've created games yourself - did you approach this as an art project, or as a math/construction/problem-solving project? Which part of the game design process gave you the most satisifaction - designing the characters' appearance or writing their backstories? This kind of self-analysis could help you find a program that fits your style, and ultimately that's probably better than just picking a school by some random survey that rates School A or School B's programs the "best."

*Also: supplemental classes (as in, when I have free courses outside of this focus what kind of things should I pursue that might help bolster my education in this field?)

Art history, art appreciation, possibly a film theory or literature course, current events (keep up with pop culture as well as the larger political/economic landscapes), creative writing, maybe technical writing, business/accounting/marketing (especially if you see yourself going it alone), education or child development if you see yourself doing kids' games.

Also, it goes without saying that you should play a wide variety of games, even in genres and platforms you don't necessarily like. Talk to lots of gamers, participate in discussion boards (or lurk and learn), try out the new stuff and form an opinion on why it does or doesn't work for you. Read the trade mags (Game Developer, etc.).

Also, a completely biased opinion here: You can't go wrong with Columbia or DePaul for pretty much any course of study you choose. (DePaul alum here, and my brother went to Columbia)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:31 AM on October 9, 2009

Seeing your from Chicago (former Columbia grad myself), possibly jaunt on down to Champaign and talk with these guys:,_Inc.

They accept interns. Maybe you can learn as you go for a summer then decide if you want a degree or learn the core skills. Or at the very least maybe ask them if you can be an intern for a week just to get a feel, talk with different gamers. They also hire a lot for testers.

Just out of curiosity, are you looking into programming, design, writing etc.; what aspect?

And I'm jealous as sin. It wasn't even on my nor Columbia's radar 20 years ago that someone could make a good career out of it. Back then, Columbia wasn't all that and a bag of chip as it is today.

Good luck!!
posted by stormpooper at 12:43 PM on October 9, 2009

And saying "all that and a bag of chips" shows you how old I am. :)
posted by stormpooper at 12:43 PM on October 9, 2009

Just out of curiosity, are you looking into programming, design, writing etc.; what aspect?

Design. I've dabbled in programming to make games, but I don't think I could stand doing it for a living. I'm into the writing aspect as well. So either that or design.
posted by Askiba at 1:26 PM on October 9, 2009

You wanted to hear a "Don't do it!" Well I'll bite.

Your profile says you're 15. You still have a long road ahead, and lots of things to learn and try in the world, before a "this is what I want to do with my life" statement could carry any weight. The halls of Google are littered with people who at harbor a love of games and at one time aspired to create them. I can't recall where I saw this, but there is a wall with a large whiteboard, where someone wrote the question: "What inspired you to become a programmer?" The list was dominated by video games. So my first caution is to not cage yourself into a single field; many people who like games find other places to fit in.

Secondly, the halls of EA are littered with people who were like you previously. And their HR departments are swamped with the resumes of people trying to "break in" to the industry. Meaning, the pay sucks and you have no leverage. And worse, the pay sucks in places with high cost of living. And the working conditions suck. "Crunch time" is a fact of life, poor managerial planning and Christmas. It's no longer alive on the net, but fatbabies cataloged some interesting insider stories the recruiters won't tell you.

Finally, you mention you want to be in "design". Statement least likely to be heard in a game studio: "I can't think of any ideas for a game!" Design is a senior level activity. Meaning the guys at the top of the company get to decide which games to make and which ideas comprise the game (i.e. theirs). Your only hope here is to start your own company, and do most of the work yourself. And do it twenty years ago when Carmack and one other guy could just write a hot title by themselves on an open platform without applying for and passing a testing certification from the console manufacturers.
posted by pwnguin at 6:50 PM on October 9, 2009

Maybe UCLA Design and Media Arts program would catch your interest?
posted by baserunner73 at 11:08 PM on October 9, 2009

I'm not employed as a game programmer (actually I work in a completely different, non-IT-related field) but I write games in my spare time as a sort of a hobby and sometimes read sites like indiegames, shmup-dev, tigsource and things like that. The impression I get is that you're much better off really mastering a specific skill not necessarily linked to games (coding, animation, 3D modelling etc) than focussing on game development or, worse, trying to get in as a generalist "designer", which is probably impossible even if you're brilliant. And I've never heard anyone say anything good about Arts-based game design courses which teach theory or analysis instead of applied technical knowledge.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:03 AM on October 12, 2009

The only thing I have to add is expect really, REALLY crappy hours, especially during game deadline push. A friend of mine had a sleeping bag at the office. No joke.
posted by stormpooper at 12:27 PM on October 12, 2009

I lecture on the BSc Computer Games Development three-year course at the University of Westminster.

The best way to learn about game design is to make games, but what a degree course will teach you is structure. It'll introduce you to the whole subject, from design to programming, animation and sound design... but more than that it'll show you the full design process, how to work in a team with people you may not get on with, how to put together game-design documents that other people can understand, and how to deliver prototypes to deadlines. These and many others are important professional skills that you won't learn on your own. It'll also give you three years of feedback from a tight peer-group, which is a very useful thing to have. And if the course is any good there will be a lot of encouragement to make contacts in the industry and preparing you to find employment in the games business when you leave.

The big PC/console market demands people who are specialists in their areas (David Braben has a story about interviewing a graphics guy from one of the big games companies who'd spent the last two years modelling footballers' noses), but the smaller houses, indies and web-dev shops require people who have a wider set of skills. Find out what you're good at and what you enjoy, and focus on that.

There's a lot to be said for teaching yourself, but you risk ending up with a narrow view that's full of holes. For example, I spent my spare time in my school and university years working as a freelance journalist. Then I did a postgraduate course in journalism and was amazed how much I'd been missing, how much easier my life could have been and how much more money I could have made.
posted by Hogshead at 6:15 AM on October 15, 2009

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