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

    [10.30.09]
    - Brandon Sheffield

  • 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."

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