I am pursuing a career in game development. I'm considering attending a university geared toward acquiring a degree specific to game development.
Can you tell me if there are any benefits or drawbacks to obtaining my bachelor's degree from this type of school as opposed to a traditional university?
I'd very much appreciate your feedback on qualities and education you look for in potential candidates.
Thank you very much for your input.
Dear School Hunter,
Yes, there are both benefits and drawbacks to attending a game development-specific university for your primary higher education.
The primary benefit of attending a game-specific institution is that you will be surrounded by people who understand what it is you're trying to accomplish.
The instructors and faculty at these facilities know that video game development is a viable career, and they are also experienced in helping graduates find job. Some of the big game schools are strategically located near major game development houses, and the faculty cultivate relationships with the hiring departments. It's not uncommon for a game student to have a job offer a few weeks before she or he formally graduates from the program.
These schools and the people who run them are also tuned into the major trends of the industry, so they'll be familiar with some of the standard software; game-specific universities sometimes have relationships with software providers, and at least one receives development kits from Nintendo (for GameCube, if I'm not mistaken).
Similarly, your peers at schools of this type are likely to become your first networking group inside the industry. As you all find jobs, you can stay connected and tell one another about different opportunities that open up around you. And if a job comes up at a studio where some of your former classmates work, they will be able to act as references and vouch for your ability to work on team projects. All these connections are extremely valuable in the game industry.
Finally, the coursework you complete at a game institute will very specifically train you for some aspects (but not all -- there are some things you can only pick up through real-life experience) of game development.
There are a few disadvantages to attending a game-specific university, and people will quibble over them endlessly. Not all of them may apply to you, but I'll tell you as objectively as possible what those arguments are.
First, and probably most importantly, game-specific schools do not typically provide offer a comprehensive undergraduate education. Some game programs, as well as art schools, will actually encourage young students to go elsewhere for their undergraduate education and return to game school for more advanced training. I've literally heard that out of the mouths of art school faculty: Go get your bachelor's degree at a traditional university, then come back and apply to art school after you've learned a little more about the world. And while it's true that not everyone is cut out for a traditional education in the humanities or sciences, many many people who initially fight it find it invaluable after the fact.
Another drawback to attending game-specific school is that it could limit the kinds of game development studios where you might work. I've heard from a few smaller game development companies that say they simply do not hire game school graduates. Their stance is that game school graduates churn out the same work as all their peers; for example, 15 students from the same program could very well have nearly identical demo reels. Small companies often prefer to hire people who have casts their nets wider than video games and have a variety of interests and skills. And while going to game school doesn't necessarily mean you lack a wide and varied knowledge base, it's certainly less interesting on paper than having a bachelor's in sociology, a master's in interactive media, and six months studying abroad in Costa Rica.
What I mean is this: If the only thing you've done is gone to game school, chances are small game developers will see your experience as being too limited for their line of work. Small game development studios need employees who can do a little bit of everything and whose experiences will bring new information and ideas to the table. They fear that game graduates -- especially those who went directly from high school to game school -- have little to no life experience and work experience, and are in essence a bit parochial.
If your primary education (meaning your bachelor's degree) is in game development, it could also limit the available job paths you might want to pursue should you ever decide to leave the game industry or if you have trouble getting that first game job and need something else to tide you over. This is a major concern of parents: How will my child get a job in any other field if the only training they have is in making video games? Fortunately, there is a lot of cross-over work in sister industries, such as computer graphics, software development, project management, interactive web sites, and so forth -- but then why not go for a BS or BFA at a traditional university or community college and move your way into the game industry rather than out of it? If you or your parents feel concerned about having a Plan B or Plan C if games don't pan out, take this point into consideration.
Finally, there's the cost. Game school is expensive. State universities and community colleges are affordable and come with many more funding options.
Our bottom line on education at GameCareerGuide.com is this: Choosing an educational path is a very personal decision. When we say or hear of maxims about education ("For most people, X is true"), we completely acknowledge that game developers are a different breed of people who often don't fit the norm. We encourage our readers to evaluate their personal goals and criteria -- including cost -- and speak to as many people as possible, including other enrolled students, guidance counsellors, and working game developers.
Good luck, Hunter!
Jill Duffy is the editor of GameCareerGuide.com and the senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine. She was an English major, and proud of it!
Related story in the archives of Gamasutra.com: "Siggraph: Art School or Trade School?"
Please note that GameCareerGuide.com does not give advice about specific universities or institutions.