Making the Most of U. Time: Academic Paths to Working in Games

By Brandon Sheffield [10.30.09]

[Originally written for Game Developer's Game Career Guide magazine in 2007, we speak to notable developers including ThatGameCompany's Jenova Chen and Portal's Kim Swift on their move from university straight into the leading edge of the game industry.]

 Planning your time at school should be like designing a game. That's the advice of Jenova Chen, co-founder of That Game Company, best known for creating the PlayStation Network title Flow. No matter what sort of school you've decided to attend, you need to set goals and determine how you can make the most of your experience.

Landing (and keeping) a job in the game industry requires dedication and drive. Your time in school is no different. Chen, who attended the University of Southern California's (USC) Interactive Media division for graduate school, took a markedly different path from Kim Swift, who studied at the game-centric DigiPen Institute of Technology.

But they both wound up with successful jobs in the industry that they love. Another young developer, John Edwards, made games in his spare time while studying at a more traditional university, and he found work in the game industry, too.

These three developers illustrate how different academic paths can lead to the same place, and the route that's right for one personality type can be entirely wrong for another.

Where to Go?

Jenova Chen attended the USC when its Interactive Media division was still in its first year. As a major university, USC offers solid all-around education, should a student decide to major in something unrelated to video games. In fact, Chen didn't necessarily intend to study games when he was accepted into the program, though he had made independent titles during his undergraduate education.

"When I was applying to USC, I was in China," he says. "I knew nothing about what interactive media would be in the future, but I did care that [the Interactive Media division] was in the cinema school, where I could learn film and animation. In fact, originally I applied to have animation as my major, but they said, ‘You have an indie game background, why don't you go to this new division? You can still take the animation classes within the same school.' So I decided to do that."

Portal co-creator Kim Swift got her start with a game called Narbacular Drop, which she and her team made while she was in school at DigiPen in Redmond, Wash. DigiPen has entire programs devoted to learning how to make games, and Swift knew what she was signing up for.

"When I was in high school," she says, "I decided that I wanted to work in the game industry. So I decided to go to DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond. I wasn't sure what role I wanted to play in game development, so I enrolled in the Real- Time Interactive Simulation program, which is DigiPen's fancy name for a computer science degree, to get a good idea of the technical side of creating a game."

Single-Handed

Can someone still get a job making video games if she or he attends a school that doesn't offer any game courses at all? That was the case for John Edwards, founder of Pistachio Productions, which created the Independent Games Festival (IGF) award-winning title Ocular Ink. He made that game, as well as earlier works, while attending college, but not using any of the school's resources. It was a true independent project.

Edwards now works with Chen at That Game Company, but previously, he attended a liberal arts school in Iowa called Grinnell College. It wasn't exactly the perfect place to make video games.

"I didn't go specifically intending to study games," Edwards admits, "and it certainly wasn't even an option there. I went there basically by default. I wasn't really sure that I wanted to go to college, but when I was deciding really late in the game that it was probably better than just sitting around at home, that's when I was able to go to Grinnell and just do something. I wasn't sure [that I even wanted to make games], and I realized Grinnell wasn't going to support that directly. I figured that I probably didn't need a degree in game making if I did it just in my own time."

The fact that the school wasn't supportive was not a deterrent to finishing his game, says Edwards. "When I was working on Ocular Ink, I was actually working on it so much that I was failing my computer science class," he says through a hint of nervous laughter. "The professor called me into his office and said, ‘John, do you want to pass my class?' and I said, ‘Well I've been working really hard on this game, and I'm the lead programmer on this game team.' He asked if I had been making any money on it. I said no, and he said, ‘Well, you'd better start turning in your homework.' I did get a C+ in that class, but it was just a totally separate thing. They're a traditional liberal arts school. Games are a bit out of their scope."


A Leg Up

Would-be game developers and game students often find that once they start their higher education, they find many other students who are in the same boat: They want to get into the industry, but don't know exactly how to go about it.

 In Jenova Chen's case, a fellow student and team member by the name of Eric Nelson became an advocate for his group. Nelson pitched the idea of a school-funded indie game to the higher-ups in the program before it was even game-focused, and got some funding. In part, it was a case of finding the right people at the right time, and sticking with them.

"They gave us a little money so we could work through the summer without dying of hunger," Chen says. "That [project] wound up being Dyadin."

Everyone on Chen's team was in the graduate department, meaning they had a little bit more experience than undergraduates. "We had made things like games before ... so we teamed up. Then, because of the success of Dyadin, the school started to see a lot of value in projects like this. So the second year, they actually used the money from EA [which gave a multi-million dollar grant to the school for game studies] and the Game Innovation Grant, and asked the students to pitch ideas and projects. Because of the success of Dyadin, our team was established and we won the grant." The grant-funded project became Cloud, which has since won an IGF award.

Valve's Swift took a more direct businesslike approach. She set out to create a game that would get her and her team noticed by the big guys.

"The main goal we had in mind when we sat down to design Narbacular Drop was to use this game as a showcase of our abilities to get us jobs," she says. "We knew the game had to be something new and different so we could get attention, and we knew that the game needed to be fairly simple and short so we would have time to polish our game mechanics. In the end, we settled on a design that was fun and original, and we accomplished exactly what we wanted: It got us jobs."

For Edwards, since he created his earlier games without any school support, he and his team had to push forward without assistance. Edwards says he had been reading the industry forum www.gamedev.net, which inspired him to write a project proposal and send it to four of his friends back home.

"It was just for the sake of making games; there was no intention of publicizing it or anything," he says. "That informed a lot of the design decisions, since we weren't looking for accessibility or anything. It was only after we had created the first game, Mutton Mayhem, while I was in college that we heard there was this [IGF] student showcase thing -- and we just submitted it on a whim. We didn't expect it to get accepted or anything, but it did. It sort of snowballed from there. At that point we thought, ‘Hmm, we could get some recognition for this!' One of the people on our team, Stuart Young, it was his job to look around for opportunities like that."

For those keeping score, that's a second tick on the chart for having a dedicated advocate for your game and team's projects.

The More You Know...

The relationships you form and experiences you have at school can be just as important as the skills and knowledge you learn in class. That was the case for Swift, who says that even at an early stage, it's all about who you know. "It's really important to make strong lasting friendships and be supportive of others," she offers. "The people you are going to school with are going to be the next generation of game developers who one day might help get you an interview, or get you a great publishing deal, or in my case be fellow teammates working on a game together. The game industry is a tightly knit community, so build bridges -- don't burn them."

Since Edwards had difficulty enjoying his actual classes, he turned to extra-curricular learning. Many famous game developers are self-taught with no official training. While a formal game education is great, structured in a way to build specific skills, it's not the only way. As Edwards demonstrates, it's possible to go to college and major in physics, as he did, and still learn how to become a developer.

"A lot of it is just practice makes perfect," Edwards says. "I was big-time into Gamedev.net, and I read Gamasutra.com a lot, back when it published mainly technical articles. I'd also buy books from Amazon or get them from the library. It was a combination of all that. There certainly was a focus (for me) on the academic side of it, and I think that helped, but primarily it was from just saying, ‘How do I think games should work? How do I think games should be made?'"

Without formal structure, Edwards was left to his own devices. "No one was preventing me from making games any certain way, so I decided to just do it and see what worked. I tend to write down my theories, and I've looked back at a lot of them and they're largely ridiculous, but it's still on the path to improvement."


Headlong Plunge

There are multiple ways to get into the video game industry, and it helps to keep an open mind. Jenova Chen, for example, found that his educational experience started to shape his ideas for the future, prompting one hand to fall into game creation and the other into business. "I went to EALA to do internships twice," he says. "There are also a lot of industry people coming to the school to teach. In fact, a business class that was taught by Bing Gordon [of EA] had a big influence on me. That's actually how I believed that we could form our own game company and make our own games. If I didn't take that class, I wouldn't have even known that."

Edwards wound up joining Chen's team after college, through the magical power of networking and the indie game community. "It's basically all thanks to the IGF and Slamdance and those competitions," he says, "where we were actually able to go in-person to those competitions and meet other people. The intent wasn't networking, but it just happens because you're with all these likeminded people who love to make games."

Kim Swift, like Chen, was able to use her school's resources for her benefit, but in a much different way. "One thing that sets DigiPen apart is that they are really actively trying to get students involved in the industry and are very helpful in finding jobs for graduates. Every year DigiPen holds a job fair for seniors, where they invite representatives from many game studios to come in and take a look at the students' work and game projects," she says.

"Because of the job fair, my team and I were invited to Valve's offices to show our senior project Narbacular Drop to Gabe Newell and several other notable Valve developers. After watching our demo, Gabe hired us on the spot to create Portal, which still completely blows me away even though I've been working here for nearly two years."

Size Matters

 Ultimately, if you want to build yourself into a developer, you're going to have to knuckle down and start creating games. Edwards believes this is of utmost importance. "Make a game," he advises. "If you can't program, make a board game. When I was younger, that's what my friends and I did. But if you can program, or can convince someone to program for you, do that."

Another crucial element for beginners is scope. "Keep it small," says Edwards, "so you can actually finish something. For Mutton Mayhem I had all these guidelines for how we should finish the project and I think 95 percent of them were completely misguided and probably hurt our productivity in the end. But the underlying thing that I said was most important was that we keep the game small. And by doing that, we were able to get it out."

Swift agrees that making games is the only way to break in. Learn by doing, she says.

"If your school doesn't have a game class like DigiPen's, make a mod or a small game project with fellow students or friends in your spare time. Practice makes perfect, and chances are you'll fail a few times before you can make a game you're proud of. I know that we did! [Making games] will help you become familiar with working in teams of people. Game companies want to know that you can see a project through from start to finish, and the more finished products you have on your resume, the better."

Passion Begets Talent

Given his success story, aspiring developers sometimes turn to Chen for advice, and he mentions two major points he likes to share with them: "The first is that there's no natural born talent -- but there's passion, and if somebody cares about what they're doing, they'll spend more time thinking about it and more effort practicing it. As you think about these things and try to do them, the passionate person gets better and learns more than the person who spends less time. When that gap becomes bigger and bigger, that's when you start calling this person a talent. If you love what you do, you will be great."

His second piece of advice takes us back to where we began: design a plan for school as you would design a game. Chen is a believer in mapping out his aims and progress, laying out classes and short-term goals as though he were building stats in an RPG.

He admits that setting goals is difficult, especially for people who aren't sure of their direction, but "it's really important to start," he says. "You probably can't have a huge goal, but when you do, you need to be aware of the intermediate goals, where you are and where you want to go in the future. You should establish something you can accomplish today, or tomorrow, or next month, or next semester. That way you can feel progress and the rewards it brings. Also like a video game, you want to adjust the challenges before you with your current abilities ... That way it won't become too boring or too hard. Make sure you're having fun!"

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