[Igor Hatakeyama reflects on his years of study in the field of game design in Brazil, giving incoming students an idea of what to expect from university projects.]
Before I start, I'd like to ask you guys not to take what I say as universal fact. This is simply my experience, opinion, and perspective on the subject.
My first contact with game design was in 2008, when I was just 16 years old. I went to a geek-oriented convention and there I saw a booth for a private school that offered a game development course (note that it wasn't in fact a Game Design course; it was a technical course on game development). As of this point, I had no idea that we had those kinds of courses here in Brazil, and for me, high school was almost over. In one year I was going to go to the University and by that time I still didn't know what major I was going to choose.
I was amazed by it. Sure, the guys promoting the course made everything seem more fantastic than it actually was. And yes, the course was expensive. I can say that the monthly cost of the course was the same of a cheap college (which for a technical course, is a lot). I asked my mother by that time if I could do it and she agreed, even though it was a little too expensive for us, she felt happy that her son finally decided what he wanted to do with his life.
My experience: When I had my first class at said course, I felt a little lost. Back then I didn't have any decent skills on anything -- all I knew was how to draw manga, and still I wasn't that good at it.
I was part of the precursor class of that specific course on that school, the first of many. There they taught me things like perspective drawing, clay sculpting and basics of level design. But I discovered what I wanted to be good at when they started teaching 3D modeling. As a technical course they didn't teach the concepts and inner workings of game design -- they taught us the tools and, as the kind of course implies, the technique.
I became relatively good at drawing, and then I started to study and perfect my skill in 3D Modeling. My hard work back then earned me some respect with my teacher and even the coordinator of the course. We also learned Unreal Engine 3 (UDK wasn't available by that time, it came out when we were in the middle of the course). I say that it's a poor choice of a game engine, as we were only beginning, and as many of you know, UDK is not a very good engine for beginners (or almost any group or team that isn't epic games or any major AAA company). Actually, it's because those Unreal Engine classes and some expectations the course gave me that I became the kind of typical Game Design drone that wants to be the lead game designer or lead 3D artist of those ultra-detailed and polished AAA productions.
I'm not saying that's a bad path to choose, I'm just being realistic: you need an excellent formation to even consider that path. You need a kind of education that is really hard to find here in Brazil, and if you do, you better have the money to pay for it. And then, you would have to compete with people from all over the world, from places where it's easier and/or cheaper to get a decent foundation on that. It's a pretty tough road to follow, and you're not guaranteed to achieve your life's goal. But then again, who is?
I think that it was a good course, for a technical one. Some things could be done in a better way, but I have no regret of spending two years doing it (one year I spent on high school and the GD course and after I finished high school I just focused on the course). I made good friends there, and learned some nice skills to be used in the future. It would be a bad thing to start a Game Development related course in college not knowing anything. Speaking of which, I found out what University I was going to go to, because some friends that I've made there were already doing it and told me about it. It was a bachelor's degree, four-year-long course in Game Design that to this current date I still study on.
My advice: Technical Courses are, in my humble opinion, the best choice if you only need to learn the tools to make a game. It's even better if you want to work on a specific area. For example, if you want to make Unity games, try to find a Unity course or at least a java or C# game programming course. The same goes to 3D modeling, 2d art and almost all areas of game development. Be wary of courses that offer too much of a learning experience, just like the one I did. If you realize that they are too desperate to make you study there, think twice before trying to do it. I'm not saying that the course I did was bad, but it tried way too hard to "buy" new students and that's usually a bad thing.
Bachelor's degree course
My experience: First of all I'd like to note that my experience in college is an ongoing one, as I still need to finish the course. Right now I'm on the sixth semester, and there's still one and a half years to go!
I couldn't wait any longer to start my Game Design course in college. In between these two periods of my life, I got rid of my "be an epic AAA game developer" life goal. Along with the birth of this new life of mine, Minecraft was making its way to fame , and soon, indie games were all over the place. I was fascinated by them. The thought of duos or small teams being able to make some money or even get rich by making games was overwhelming.
And my career and life goal change came in good timing, too, because the course encourages you to try to be an indie developer. Usually, if you say that you want to work at Blizzard, for example, people tend to give you that look.
To be honest, I became the guy that gives "that look."
Anyway, things got more serious when I started this course. It was a life change, for real. Living in a city relatively far from the city of São Paulo, I knew that I would have to live in a dorm (maybe that wouldn't be the perfect term to describe it in English, but I think it's a close one) close to the University so I could in fact attend classes.
This course was way different than the other. Here, we learned the tools and the technique, but most of all, we needed to focus on the concept and research part of game design. On the previous course we could make almost anything we wanted, as long as it looked good and functioned well. Now, we need to explain our decisions, and they need to be based on something. You need concept, theme, research... you can't make frivolous decisions. Why does that character have blue clothing? What does it mean? Why does he have that skill? Is there a solid and loyal connection to the proposed theme? This course is deeply based on that: themes.
Every semester we have to do a project (and I say project and not "game project" because it's not always a game design project) based on some theme and present it to an examining board of teachers at the end of the semester, where they ask questions and make comments on the presentation and the project (and of course, the students of each group have the opportunity to defend it with solid arguments, if they have any). That final presentation is worth half of the final grade of that semester. The grading system is peculiar, maybe, but I can tell that half of the final grade is A LOT, so basically, if you don't do a decent project and your final presentation is crappy, well, your chances of failing will be considerably higher.
And also you need to have a group. It's more necessary to have a group in order to survive than it was on the technical course. Usually the member limit for a group is seven. You can choose not to have a group and try to survive by yourself, but I would only recommend it if you are a major game designer, a skilled game artist and programmer, and also have a time warp spell so you can stop time at will. You get the idea.