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  • Identifying a Good Game School

    [03.30.10]
    - Ian Schreiber and Lewis Pulsipher

  • What is the faculty's game experience?

    Question to ask: Have the faculty actually made games?

    What to look for: Industry experience, doing work that is related to the classes they are teaching. Preferably at least one teacher who did the job that you want to get yourself some day. However, recognize that programming is programming, and art is art, quite apart from games. Someone who doesn't have commercial game-making experience can still make games for themselves to get some experience, and teach game programming or game art.

    Can someone who has just learned, say, C++, teach it the same way another person would who has years of experience using C++? No, not unless you somehow force the second person to keep that experience inside and ignore it. Similarly, can someone teach game design who has not designed games, the same way the experienced person can? Of course not. And which possibility would most any student choose and (other things being equal) benefit from most? To be taught by the experienced instructor.

    This is not to say that every faculty member must have ten years' experience working in the game industry. In fact, a diverse mix of faculty backgrounds (including some "career academics") can be a benefit - especially if the student might consider other careers some day, such as teaching. However, if the school has absolutely no faculty with any practical experience whatsoever, that could be a signal that the program is ill-equipped to meet the needs of the industry. Contrariwise, if every faculty member is arriving fresh from a job in the game industry, you are likely to see a program that will only be useful for a career in the game industry... which could be dangerous if you ever decide to do something else later on down the road.

    What to do: Verify. Look up credits on Mobygames or BoardGameGeek (for non-digital game designers) for games that were commercially published. If a professor can't explain to you exactly what work they did on each title they worked on, find out yourself if you can, and view with extreme suspicion if you can't. Ditto if the school (or a particular professor) says they worked on "lots of games" but can't tell you which ones.

    Does the professor have a Web site that is, in effect, his or her portfolio for game-related employment, showing what he has done and can do to make games? If not, why not? Even though they may not be looking for a job in game development, they ought to provide an example for students.

    What to watch out for: There are a lot of "teachers" out there who are supposed to teach you how to make games even though they've never made one themselves. Worse, some are not even lifelong avid game players. Would you want to learn how to be a professional cook from someone who's never been paid to cook (no matter how many cookbooks they've read)? Worse, would you want that person to be someone who has never tried to produce something interesting in a kitchen, especially if they told you they didn't like to eat much? Would you pay money to take music lessons from someone who's never learned to play an instrument, especially if they don't even like music?

    Someone with no experience can teach you the theory from a textbook, but they won't be able to guide you any further... and with so many bad textbooks out there, how would they know that what they're teaching is even valid? Do they even play games? Are they lifelong gamers or johnny-come-latelies who are trying to take advantage of the popularity of games? Again, some teachers can do an excellent job of teaching even if they have no relevant experience, particularly if they can bring in parallels from their own field, and if they have support and guidance from others in their department who do have the relevant experience. But if the entire department is operating in the dark when it comes to games, understand that your education may not be what you were hoping for.

    Job Placement

    Question to ask: What is your job placement rate out of all incoming freshmen? (This is tricky, and you might have to do the math yourself. Figure out the percentage of incoming freshmen that make it all the way through the program and graduate, and multiply by the percentage of graduates who get jobs.)

    Keep in mind that no matter what the numbers, there are never any guarantees. Whether you, personally, find a job in the industry is not determined by a roll of percentile dice, but is rather a function of what you do while you're a student, what kinds of projects you work on (both in and out of class), what locations and conditions you are willing to accept for your first job, how well you integrate yourself into the industry social network (through attending local IGDA meetings, conferences like GDC, etc.), and a plethora of other details which are mostly under your control. The purpose of this question is not to figure your "odds" of success, but rather to get a sense of the school's overall reputation within the industry and whether it is taken seriously by game companies.

    What to look for: High numbers. What's good? We actually don't know. It's relative. Moreover, you only have the school's own statistics to rely on, and those can be manipulated (or downright false).

    Another related piece of data you can ask for is a list of game studios that have hired graduates within the last year. The list should be long (lots of graduates going only a few studios implies the school has made partnerships with those studios, which is a good first step, but also implies that the school is not taken seriously elsewhere). The list should include studios from outside the area (it is harder to find work that is not local, so lots of graduates finding non-local work means they are generally stronger job candidates). The list should include at least a few game companies that you have heard of, and preferably some that you would like to work at yourself some day (hint: check to see who makes the kinds of games you love to play).

    What to do: Compare the numbers of several schools. You will probably see some that are significantly higher or lower than the others.

    What to watch out for: Schools that boast abnormally high job placement rate of their graduates... but only because their program is so obscenely difficult that only a tiny fraction of incoming students actually make it through. Or, schools that have low placement rates in the industry (indicating they aren't taken seriously by people who know how to judge talent and ability). Or, schools that can't tell you their placement rate because they don't track those numbers (indicating that the school might not care about you in the long term, as long as they get your tuition money today). Or, schools that inflate their job placement rate by encouraging students to start their own studios fresh out of college -- make sure their people are being hired by someone else, not themselves (we have nothing against starting your own studio, but if it happens too often at a particular school that's an indication that a lot of their graduating class couldn't get jobs at established companies that were hiring).

    In other words, this can be a really difficult question to successfully answer.

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