Identifying a Good Game School

By Ian Schreiber and Lewis Pulsipher [03.30.10]

 "Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't." Pete Seeger

If you've decided to attend a college specifically to study for a game degree, how do you know which schools are good (the few), and which aren't (the many, unfortunately)? Here are some suggestions about what you should look for. Which of these are the most important? That will vary from person to person. As you read, think about your personal priorities.

Why Question At All?

Students choose schools for all kinds of reasons. At the community college level, it's often based on cost and proximity to home more than anything else. With four-year schools, it could be anything from geographic location to campus size to how pretty the campus looks to which school one's boyfriend/girlfriend is attending. It's easy to ignore the quality of the school.

Complicating things further, schools have a process set up where you have to apply to attend there, which immediately puts the prospective student in a position of perceived weakness. After all, you can't attend at all unless they say you can. If you are accepted, you should thank your lucky stars (because there's a line out the door and around the block of people waiting to take your place) and not ask any questions. Incidentally, interviews for game industry jobs can feel similar to first-timers.

If you're a student looking at game schools, it's worth remembering a few things:

Cost of the School

Question to ask: What is the total cost?

What to look for: In general, state-supported community colleges are the least expensive, and in many cases their classes transfer to universities in the same state (though the ability of credits to transfer is something you should check on ahead of time). The down side is that most community colleges will only offer a two-year degree at best, while most entry-level positions in the game industry will have you competing against others with Bachelor's degrees. The reality is that if you start at a two-year school you should plan to transfer in order to finish a four-year degree, and the community college should be up-front with you about this. Have an idea of what four-year school(s) you intend to transfer to, and check with those schools to make sure they accept credit transfer from the community college you are considering.

State-supported four-year schools are generally the next least expensive, especially if you are a legal resident of that state (out-of-state tuition is usually much higher). Even more expensive are private four-year schools, including for-profit privately-owned schools that are dedicated specifically to games. While the latter may seem like the most direct way to get a job in the game industry, they are expensive enough that it is important for you to be sure of what you're getting ahead of time.

What to do: Unfortunately, cost is a difficult thing to estimate. You can usually find current tuition costs by visiting a school's website, but tuition is often increased (sometimes substantially) while you are attending, so simply multiplying the yearly tuition by four may be less than the final cost. There are usually additional costs above tuition: books, lab fees, student recreation fees, library fees and other incidentals are not uncommon, and they may vary depending on what classes you take, making the exact cost difficult to estimate. Additionally, there are costs of living that have nothing to do with classes ("room and board") that you will have to pay, either to the school (if you live in dorms and have a campus meal plan) or elsewhere (if you have an off-campus apartment and cook your own food). Living off campus is usually cheaper but has a higher time cost, as you'll have a longer commute to your classes and you'll spend more time procuring and preparing meals.

Many colleges offer financial aid. Check with the financial aid or admissions office to get an idea of what loans, grants and scholarships you may be eligible for. Unfortunately, most of these involve filling out applications and you may or may not be accepted; some scholarships only cover your first year or two, while others are renewable each year but require that you maintain a minimum GPA, and still others must be re-applied for each year. The bottom line is that you will not know exactly how much financial aid you will get, but you can at least ask what is typical for the average attending student.

What to watch out for: If a school is not forthcoming with information about expected costs in one or more categories, that may be a signal that you'll be paying more than you expect.


Ownership of IP

Question to ask: Who owns the intellectual property rights to games that are created by students?

What to look for: Ideally, the students should own all copyright and other intellectual property ownership of the projects they create while they are students.

What to do: Decide if this matters to you. Some people don't care, because they aren't planning on selling anything they make as a student anyway. Some people care, but they're willing to compromise on this (maybe by just not using their favorite game ideas until after they graduate) in order to go to a school that is otherwise their choice. For some people, this is a deal-killer.

What to watch out for: Some schools explicitly state that they own all rights to all student work. Probably the most notorious example of this was Team Toblo (a good story to read for why IP ownership might matter to you as a student). Other schools do not have an official policy at all, which is a signal that they haven't thought about it yet in spite of it being a legal and public relations minefield.

In these cases, proceed with caution, because the rights may be legally unclear and the last thing you need as a student is to get involved in a legal battle. Still other schools have restrictions: they own the rights to anything you create using university resources (such as computer labs or printers), but a project you make on your own with your own equipment is 100% yours, so there's a way to own your work if it matters to you. Mainly, the important thing is to be aware of the official policy before it becomes an issue... and if you think the policy is suboptimal and you plan on attending anyway, consider taking it upon yourself to push for policy change.

While we might suppose that some schools are trying to protect themselves from frivolous lawsuits by this provision, they could do so in a much less draconian way. They could have students sign an agreement similar to many used by many publishers in the industry, stating that if the school issues a game similar to anything the student created while at the school, the student has no legal recourse. This leaves the student owner of his or her own intellectual property, and in cases of clear "theft" there is still an opening for a lawsuit.

Focus on Game Creation

Question to ask: Can I see a syllabus for some of the game classes this school offers? (Sometimes these will be posted online.)

What to look for: In the syllabus, see if the topics are specific to games, or more generalized to other media. If you want to make games, specifically, then you'll want classes that have readings and homework that involves games -- not movies, not literature, and not the World Wide Web. Of course, the reverse is true if you want game development to be only one option of many.

Are they offering game-related classes because they really like games and believe in the future of games, or because "games" is a magic word that really draws students?

What to do: Look through the syllabi that you receive, paying close attention to the assignments (readings and projects). If there is a textbook, find it at your local library or book store and skim through it, or see if excerpts to read are online at Amazon. If a syllabus is not available, ask some students who have taken the classes if they might have an old one; at the very least, ask them if the class is about video games or if that's only part of it. Also search the public website; occasionally you'll find that certain parts of a course are unrestricted access.

What to watch out for: A lot of classes (and majors!) have titles that sound like they focus on games, but then you find out that they don't. A few examples:

In short, if you know exactly what you want from your program of study, make sure you're going to get it!


Accreditation

Question to ask: Is the school accredited as a college, as a trade school, or as something else?

What to look for: You can buy "degrees" from European schools with prestigious-sounding names, but what are they worth? Accreditation is what determines whether a degree is taken seriously by others. A school must meet standards in finance, health, faculty credentials, facilities, administrative processes, and more to achieve accreditation. If the school is accredited as a college, your degree will "count" outside the game industry, and you'll be able to go on to graduate school if you choose.

What to do: If you're only interested in school as a means to learn skills and attitudes you need in the game industry, accreditation is irrelevant. However, a lack of accreditation means that the school has not had an independent review of its curriculum, so the chances are higher that the skills and attitudes you learn from the school will not be relevant to the game industry.

What to watch out for: Almost every school will say "we're accredited." Accreditation is voluntary and private, not government-based. But some accreditation bodies are recognized as the standard for colleges (and secondary schools). Others may be fly-by-night outfits. Anyone can set up an accreditation organization, after all.

It's also important to understand that there are different kinds of accreditation. Not every school that offers a degree is accredited, and a trade school accreditation is very different from a college accreditation. Accreditation matters when you see a job that "requires bachelor's degree," because this usually means "bachelor's degree from a college accredited school."

For more about this topic see Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently.

Quality of Teaching

"A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students." John Ciardi

"A teacher is never a giver of truth - he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst." Martial arts quote

 Question to ask: Are the teachers good teachers?

What to look for: Teachers who like to interact with students, and who care about students individually.

What to do: Find out what the student to instructor ratio is (the more instructors the better). What is the average class size (the smaller the better, of course)? Talk with instructors if you can. If there are official Web sites at the school that address students, what seems to be the attitude toward the student? Most important is to talk with current students.

Most schools have faculty-course evaluations (these go by many different names) that students fill out anonymously for each class that they take. A few schools publish this information publicly, or will give it to you if you ask. There are also independent websites students can go to, like ratemyprofessor, to rate the classes they have taken. While these evaluations are not always the most unbiased (does a student hate the professor because the professor is bad, or because the student was lazy and received a failing grade as a result?), in aggregate they can give you some idea of whether students enjoy their classes and feel they are worthwhile.

What to watch out for: Does the school offer lots of online classes? Do they teach classes that clearly ought to be "hands on," online? This could be a sign that the school is experimenting with modern methods of teaching, or it could mean that the school is trying to cut costs by reducing the use of physical classroom space. What percentage of their classes are taught by grad students? Some grad students want to be teachers. Most don't. What percentage is taught by adjuncts? Adjuncts may be very good, but many exceptionally good adjuncts want to become full time and ultimately do. Does the school hire recent graduates to teach? Although those people may be full of enthusiasm, they won't know much about teaching, nor will they likely have relevant work experience. The higher these numbers are, the lower the quality of instruction is likely to be.

Does the school emphasize the research experience of their professors and their school? Then those professors are likely to be less interested in teaching and more interested in research, because that's where they keep their jobs. At some universities the "publish or perish" syndrome means perhaps 70% of the instructor's "credit" or compensation comes from research, so teaching is definitely secondary and suffers for it.

Ideally, almost all classes will be taught by full time instructors.

Are the instructors teaching games because they really like games, or because they were forced to by their department?

Schools more and more are going to the "cheap labor" model of instruction, using graduate assistants and adjunct faculty, both far less expensive than full-time teachers.

We'd say that of the professional game developers we've worked with, somewhere around 90% of them have a passion for their work and are more than willing to put some extra time in if it'll improve their project, or if it'll give them a chance to improve their own skills and hone their craft.

Teaching is different. Of all the college teachers we've met, maybe 10% are passionate about teaching, so very few are going to willingly put in the extra time unless forced at gunpoint. And the thing is, with both teaching and game development, the quality of the final product is roughly proportional to the amount of work you put in.

Ultimately, though, the problem is all the teachers who don't want to be teachers (or don't want to be game teachers). The fun in teaching comes from talking with the students; if the teachers don't like talking with students, or if they don't like students despite so many of the students being screwballs and their own worst enemies, you probably won't like them as teachers.


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.


 Community

Question to ask: Is there a community of game students/developers at the school?

What to look for: Is there a game club at the school (for game players; there may also be a game development club)? Is there a listserv or other means such as Facebook that the school uses to communicate regularly with all of its game students? Is there a place all students can post to? Are student activities encouraged? Is there some diversity at the school (in particular, what is the percentage of female and minority students)?

Most "Millennials" (those up to about 27 years of age) thrive on community (MySpace, Facebook, MMOs, etc.). They expect to work together, and to share experiences, even simple things like the high scores they get on video games. Does the school encourage this, or try to suppress it?

What to watch out for: It would be astonishing that a school that has a thriving game development program has no game club. This is one of the best venues for an instructor to get to know students, of course, and vice versa. This can include an official, educational, "game development" club, or a club where people have fun playing games voluntarily. Lack of either can imply either that the school does not support students learning outside of class, or that the students are kept so busy with work that there is simply no time for recreational activities, or that all student organizations require a faculty advisor and none of the faculty have the time or interest. None of these things bode well.

If you visit the school is there a large (4 by 8 feet) unlocked bulletin board outside the most commonly used areas, where students can communicate with one another and faculty can communicate with them?

Does the school communicate with all students via a listserv or Facebook account? Or are students mostly "in the dark" about what's happening? Announcements on course management software (e.g. Blackboard) don't qualify.

What about the Web site for the department? Here teachers are severely constrained by school support, and that support appears to be quite poor in some cases. Often the site is out of date and dysfunctional. Perhaps there's an unofficial Web site (perhaps for the club) that is much more interesting.

You can also ask if there are blogs, forums, or other kinds of media support for communication among students and faculty.

You're going to be at the school for years. Do you want to feel "on your own," or do you want to feel like you're part of a group of fairly like-minded people striving for success?

Quality of Student Projects

We've already given a few things for you to consider when choosing a school, but we think it's worth including one thing you should not consider too much. One of the common themes of recruiters is to show off cool-looking student projects.

Be wary of student projects. Some schools will gladly show off impressive-looking work from their past and present students, and the implication is "we'll show you how to make something cool like this." But this doesn't really tell you anything about the school itself.

Every school has a few brilliant students who will produce phenomenal work, on their own, with or without faculty assistance. The work certainly reflects on the quality of that particular student, but may or may not have any correlation to the quality of the academic program.

It's also easy to get distracted by quantity. Some schools have large programs and lots of students, so they will likely have more student work to show than a smaller school. Take the size of the program into account when evaluating student work.

And when you watch a demo that you don't control (as at a conference), you can only judge by the flashiness of the game. It may look good and work well yet be a lousy game. If the game is intended to show off artwork, or perhaps programming, looking good and working well are what you want. If it's intended to show off game design, it's really hard to judge even if you can play the game for a while.

Also be wary if the most impressive student work is more than a year or two old. Schools with quality programs and a steady stream of incoming students should be producing cool stuff every year. Showing one or two works from four years ago is an indication that the school just had a handful of outstanding students that year, not that they have a great program now.

Lastly, if the student work isn't similar to your area of interest, that should be a red flag. For example, if you want to be a game designer or a programmer and the only student work available is animated video clips (not playable games), you're probably dealing with an art/animation program that doesn't focus on games.

We're not saying you should ignore student work entirely. But treat it the way a hiring manager at a company would treat personal references for a job. The applicant chose their best references so of course they're all going to say great things, so this shouldn't really persuade you. But if someone applying for a position can't even find a decent friend or two that can say something nice without reservations, maybe that's a signal you should be looking elsewhere.

Resources

There are anonymous contribution Web sites that rate schools, like StudentsReview. As with Internet anonymous forums generally, such sites tend to bring out the negative and nasty side of people. Nonetheless, you can find food for thought, questions you should ask, and so forth. And it can be especially helpful when comparing several schools.

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