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

    [10.30.09]
    - Brandon Sheffield
  • [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."

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