Academics for Game Designers

By Michael McCoy [03.08.07]



As our industry matures, so does the talent pool and the expected skill level of new employees. Gone are the days when you could walk off the street, show enthusiasm, and break into the game industry. With so many industry veterans out there and wonderful new schools dedicated to preparing people for game development, you’ve got to stand out of the crowd.

So, what should you study? Unfortunately, the answer is everything! Designers, both game and level, are jacks-of-all-trades and must know a little about everything in order to excel at their jobs. During my 12 years in the computer industry as a game designer, I’ve performed in the role of producer, game designer, systems designer, interface designer, level designer, scripter, writer, and even sound designer. Level designers must be competent game play designers, level builders, both model and texture artists, event and cinematic scripters, and extremely skilled researchers covering architecture, geography, historical time period, lighting and textures. If that’s not enough, small companies often require you to wear even more hats!

A wide variety of skills also makes you an indispensable addition to any game company and guarantees a place of honor in the Cockroach Club: a term derived from the fact that cockroaches can survive a nuclear blast… the occasional layoffs of the games industry. Don’t you want to keep your job when companies inevitably downsize and layoff personnel?


The talented designers I’ve worked with come from all walks of life, although the two most common backgrounds are history majors and “scroungers”. History opens your eyes to all kinds of possibilities and knowing the past, in my opinion is the key to the dealing with future. If you don’t know how countries and people reacted in different situations, how can you possibly create and maintain a believable vision of how they’ll react in your games? History also gives you a firm grip on writing, communication, and research, all of which are essential in design.

Scroungers, on the other hand, overcome their lack of formal education through sheer enthusiasm and passion. They get into a game company via any open door (testing, customer service, sweeping the floors, etc.) and then grab every opportunity to learn new skills and show off their abilities. While this course was common in the past it is becoming harder and harder to pull off today… hence the reason for this article.

I got into the industry via a little of both methods. I’ve been an avid military historian all my life, but got my formal education in physical geography and meteorology. After working in the environmental industry for three years, I answered an ad in the newspaper for a computer gaming company. Unbelievably I landed the job of Lead Game Designer based on my knowledge of history, team/project management, and technical writing skills.


 Non-Game Development Schools and Programs


So what should you study to become a designer? Anything and everything! Formal education always impresses prospective employers, but no one major is necessarily better than another. Find one you like and excel at it. The more you love it the better you’ll do so find something that clicks for you.

What is of immense interest is how you spend your electives. Most students enter college, pick a major, study their major courses intently, while choosing their elective courses without any overarching objective. They do so because they believe their major provides everything they need to succeed in the business world. Unfortunately, unless you major in game development, it’s your elective courses that make you a jack-of-all-trades, which results in excellent designers.

To that end, let's talk about a few of extremely useful courses taught at most major universities:

o Design – Most universities offer design related classes which provide the fundamental philosophies and methods used by almost every designer

o Philosophy/Logic – General philosophy is also indispensable, while thinking logically helps you avoid mistakes, converse intelligently, and avoid no-win arguments

o Psychology/Sociology/Anthropology – Why people think the way they do unlocks huge potential for designers

o Management – Even beginning level designers typically have modelers and textures working with them, with the designer providing the vision for the task. Good leaders equal good teams and high productivity

o Public Speaking – Designers often have to present ideas, concepts, and design documents to management and entire game teams. The more convincing you are, the better the chance of getting your concept approved

o Technical Writing – The majority of documents created by designers are technical in nature, meaning their main purpose is communication. You’d be amazed how many people have problems getting their ideas across on paper

o Creative Writing – While definitely the minority of designer writing tasks, you still need to be able to write box copy, manuals, intriguing storylines, and convincing world/scene backgrounds

o Drawing/Art Creation – Try to get your ideas across to an artist via writing is infinitely more difficult than drawing a picture…it’s the way they think

o Computer Programming – Just as drawing is essential for communicating with artists, programming helps get your points across with programmers. Whether discussing bugs and gameplay ideas in a little pseudo code, or scripting real time cinematics and events, computer programming can make all the difference and really set you above the crowd

o History – Knowing how and why things happened in the past is the key to the future

o Physics – Physics are becoming more and more popular every day and knowing a little about it puts you in a great place to take advantage of this emerging trend

o Algebra/Trigonometry – Not only is mathematics essential for system designers and scripters, it’s extremely useful for other designers as well

o Geography/Geology – By analyzing planet Earth you gain valuable insight allowing you to design believable, immersive game environments

o Photography – A great tool for collecting and analyzing the world surrounding us

o Film/Theatre – Designing a level is very similar to designing a set…you only want to build as much as is necessary to sell the scene

o Music – Music and sound offer direct lines to player emotions and help the intrepid designer flesh out their game worlds. Music is also a blend of logic and creativity, which is essential for all designers

o Mythology – What did others believe before us and why is essential to creating believable cultures and worlds

o Astronomy – Creating a space game? A good knowledge of our universe and the anomalies within definitely helps

o Game Development Classes – Well duh!

In addition to formal education, there are also a number of informal training opportunities. First, play lots of games. While this may seem obvious, you’d be surprised how many people lose sight of it. Others focus solely on video games, when all games offer valuable information. Collectable Card Games (CCGs) simulate complex encounters and environments via simple two-dimensional (2D) cards and rules. Board Games of all kinds can broaden your understanding of systems design. Miniature and Hard Core Simulation Games such as those offered by Avalon Hill use table driven mechanics very similar to the combat and artificial intelligence design of video games. Finally, “mod”ing, making alterations and additional content for existing video games, allows you to practice and perfect your craft before you enter the industry. Mods also impress potential employers by highlighting your capabilities, enthusiasm, and work ethic.



 How to Pick a Game Development School


So you’ve made the decision to attend a school with a dedicated game development program, but how to choose the right one? It’s a difficult task, but not impossible. First and foremost: Ignore the hype and do your research. Many new and/or untested programs pour thousands of dollars into slick marketing campaigns to draw the uninformed. Your best defense is knowledge.


Is the school accredited? If you want your education to have long term-value, make sure your school is properly accredited. This ensures that the program is of sound value and administered by professionals. Think of it as a guarantee that your money is well spent. Go to the schools website and search for “accreditation”. Contact the school by phone and ask them directly. Finally if all else fails, go to the United States Government Accreditation Website and search for the school (


Is it an undergraduate or graduate program? This is a great indicator of difficulty and intensity of the program. Undergraduate programs move at a slower pace than graduate programs and usually last 3-4 years. Graduate programs, on the other hand, are shorter (1.5 – 2 years) and generally more intense.

Undergraduate programs cater to students directly out of high school as well as those with additional education. Graduate programs cater to students with education beyond high school, but are not always exclusive to that type of student (do your research and find out if you’re eligible for enrollment…don’t assume anything). Students entering graduate programs directly from high school will most likely have difficulties with the workload and intensity. Students enrolling in graduate programs with a Bachelors degree can earn a Master’s degree upon completion of the program.

Finally, degrees from graduate level programs have more weight during interviews than those from undergraduate programs. Don’t get me wrong, both are extremely valuable, it’s just you usually get a little extra credit for attending a graduate level program.


What’s its reputation and placement rate? A quick search on the internet should give you a general idea of a schools reputation. Call schools and ask them where their graduates are working. If possible, talk to former and current students and ask their opinions. Many schools have public forums that facilitate this.

How successful are the graduates from the school? What’s the placement rate of graduates? Make sure the school is committed and capable of placing you in the industry once you graduate or you’ll face the tough road on your own.


Is it industry or academia driven? What is the driving force behind the school? In my opinion, the best way to learn how to succeed in an industry is from those who work in it. They not only know firsthand how to make games, but also have valuable contacts that can help you battle your way into the industry.

Other questions to ask are “How is the games industry involved with the curriculum? How often do they review it? How involved are they?” Any school isolated from the industry can only stay current from a very brief time. What you want is a school that continually adjusts it’s curriculum in conjunction with changes in the industry.


Does it stress team game work? Lots of schools educate programmers, artists, and/or designers, but do they stress team game production? Working in teams is an essential element in the games industry and is an essential part of game development education. In order to accomplish this task the school must include individuals from programming, art, and design.

During team game projects, you observe how the myriad of different specialized workers function in a game team and learn how to work with them. Secondly, your initial team experiences occur within the safe school environment, where you learn from your mistakes instead of paying dearly for them. Finally, when you graduate, you’ll have a couple of team projects/games under your belt giving you valuable titles on your resume.




With the arrival of dedicated game development schools, breaking into the game industry is proving ever more difficult. The number and quality of applicants increases with each passing year. Whether you intend to roll the dice and dive boldly into the industry or take the methodical, more surefire approach, of attending a game development school, courses like those listed above, better prepare you for the task ahead.

Study, excel, join the Cockroach Club! I look forward to meeting and working with you!


Michael McCoy teaches Level Design and Programming for Level Design at The Guildhall at SMU. His titles include iF-22, iF-22 Persian Gulf, iF/A-18, Shadow Company, Batman Gotham City Racers, Dukes of Hazzard I and II, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and Rainbow Six 3 Xbox.

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