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  • Postmortem: Getting the Degree

    [05.21.09]
    - Dan Carreker

  •  What Went Wrong

    1. Overestimating a new program's ability to achieve ambitious goals.

    When recruiting, the school presented potential enrollees with a number of ambitious plans. The staff saw a great many possibilities for their program and was very eager to watch it expand. There were plans to have team-based projects which spanned several semesters, for graduates to have two completed game levels made up of at least 80% student assets, and for the department to match the job placement rate of the school's other programs.

    In reality, those things take time to develop. Asking questions before enrolling was a good start, but I failed to separate people's ambitions from what realistically could be accomplished. It wasn't that the school's representatives were deliberately trying to sell things they weren't going to accomplish, but as a new program, some of their goals were going to take longer to achieve than the few years I was going to be there.

    In hindsight, there were indications that a number of these things would take more time to implement than I had expected. There were still a number of senior-level classes that they had not hired instructors for, so it should not have been a surprise that reaching some of the goals would be delayed until the staff was in place. Also, these changes in staffing would inevitably bring shifts in focus, meaning some of these early goals would not necessarily be the priorities of the new staff.

    Overall, there was a sense of excitement about the new program, and it was infectious. In many ways, that was a good thing. I'd rather attend a school that is ambitious and excited about their program than one that isn't, even if that means some of the goals are not immediately accomplished. What I should have done, though, is tempered my expectations with some common sense.

    2. Not recognizing the school's direction.

    The school advertised its new program as Game Arts and Design. Coming from a background within the industry, Game Design to me meant such things as game balance, player progression, feature evaluation, and game theory. To the school, though, which had a strong background in graphic design, design was more of an element of visual art; e.g. color theory, principles of layout, and typography.

    Standard visual design is an important element for artists (and all other types of designers, for that matter), but many of the things which I had been passionate about and wanted to explore more in depth were given very little emphasis within the curriculum.

    It was only when I expressed to one of the instructors that I was disappointed with so little game theory being taught that I realized how differently the school interpreted the word design. His response was that it puzzled him why someone who wanted to learn game theory would enroll in an "art program." Obviously, there was a difference between my expectations for the program and the school's intent.

    Since the school was focused more towards creating artists such as 3D modelers and animators, much of their staff came from the teachers who had excelled in the school's other art programs. Most of the teachers they did bring in were, by and large, artists as well.

    So even though there were some excellent teachers in the non-art courses, generally the student's exposure to them was limited to just one or two classes. There was nothing inherently wrong with the school's choice of direction, but because no one realized each other's assumptions early on, it created some friction between students who thought the school wasn't acknowledging their concerns and staff who felt the students had unrealistic expectations.

    3. Turnover of administrative staff.

    Further complicating matters was the fact that the game program had changed department heads four times in the first four years. There were a number of reasons for the turnover, and none of them scandalous, but each time there was a change in leadership it had effects on the curriculum and on the staffing. While each new chairman implemented positive changes, having so many changes in that short of time period made things more difficult.

    With each turnover, it took time for the new department chair to get up to speed. This took time away from expanding the program and addressing issues and slowed down the overall progress. For example, in some classes pre-requisites were not set up right. This would be brought up each year to be addressed but, since it could be handled manually by petition, it was not a high priority. Each time a change in the administration happened, the low-priority issues were moved back and by the time I graduated, many of the minor issues like these had still not been addressed.

    It's no surprise that the changes also had an effect on the program's directions. Each new department head brought his own vision to the program, and four changes in vision took its toll. While overall many good changes occurred, it began changing both from the program that it started out as and the one the originally envisioned and pitched to new students.

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