Postmortem: Getting the Degree

By Dan Carreker [05.21.09]

 The decision to get a degree in Game Arts and Design was one that came about somewhat unexpectedly. Originally, I had been studying programming at a community college when I had the opportunity to interview at one of the largest video game publishers in the U.S. Gaming had always been a passion of mine and I immediately accepted a QA position when they offered it to me.

The job was fantastic even with its long hours. It took up to five hours a day to get back and forth to work through the Los Angeles bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that was a small sacrifice for the chance to start working in the industry. Soon, I found myself earning more responsibilities, and the opportunity to provide creative input into the development process. Of course, this meant making an even bigger time commitment to the company, and it became obvious that there was no way to continue my schooling and still apply myself fully to the job. I made what was for me an easy decision: I withdrew from my college classes.

It was the right choice; I gained an incredible amount of knowledge about the industry and was able to see game development from the inside. Within a couple of years, though, my responsibilities had begun to drift away from making creative contributions to the projects. I realized that if I wanted to be involved more directly in making games, it would require me to change my career path.

I began interviewing for new positions but discovered that, while my experience was helpful, it wasn't specific enough for the positions I wanted. Recruiters were looking for evidence that I could handle the responsibilities of the new job, and without having worked directly with developers the only alternative was a college education. I decided I needed to return to school and earn a degree.

What Went Right

1. Getting the degree.

Many of the people who had entered the industry before I did had come in through varied and sometimes unorthodox means. At that time, there had been no standard path to breaking in; instead the important thing was just getting a job - any job - within a gaming company. Stories of custodial workers who joined design teams or receptionists who created levels in their spare time were often repeated.

However, by the time I joined the industry, game companies were just finishing their transitioning from small businesses into multi-million dollar corporations. As this transformation occurred, companies' hiring practices changed as well, becoming more traditional. They implemented dedicated human resource departments, hiring standards, and job requirements. Many of the jobs began listing a degree as preferred, if not required. 

Getting a degree makes sense, regardless of the industry it's for. The U.S. Census Bureau's figures show that in 2008, employees with a bachelor degree earned about 180% more than those with only a high school diploma1.

There are also the opportunities for career advancement that a post-secondary education presents, and evidence indicates that the more educate a person is, the better financial choices she or he tends to make. In addition, a degree shows potential employers that the applicant not only has received at least a fundamental amount of training but that he or she can follow through with long- term commitments, such as finishing college.

Originally, I returned to community college to finish off my Associate's Degree. Having a stronger idea of how I wanted to contribute to the game creation process, I shifted from programming to the arts. In order to develop my writing and directing skills I began focusing on theater and film courses and was considering going to film school for my bachelor's degree.

Just before graduating from community college, however, a former co-worker informed me he had been hired to teach programming and game design at a local four-year college. The school had developed a strong reputation for their Media Art program and was now branching out into a Game Arts and Design program. He went with me to the campus and I checked it out, asked questions, and did some research. After evaluating it, I made the decision and enrolled.

2. Exposure to a variety of disciplines.

One of the deciding factors for choosing to attend the school was the variety of successful programs they had already built. Besides the school's Media Arts program, which had placed students in some very impressive film and television studios, their Computer Information System program was strong, and they were also experiencing success with their business and telecommunication programs. It was the potential for a well-rounded education and their ability to have a multi-disciplinary approach which was a major attraction for me.

A central philosophy of the school was that, regardless of your discipline, an understanding of the collaborative nature of game creation was extremely beneficial to the students. Everyone learned, to some degree or another, programming, modeling, animation, audio design, etc. This allowed students to explore a variety of skill sets and discover talents they had been unaware of.

I saw 3D modelers amaze themselves when they found they had a knack for coding, or level designers who had hated English in high school become enthralled with the creative writing process. Even in areas they were not extremely proficient in, the students learned to understand the process and how to communicate efficiently with team members in that discipline.

There were also students who were unsure what specific area they wanted to get into, they just knew they wanted to work in gaming. One of the advantages of having such a variety of disciplines being presented throughout their studies was it gave them the opportunity to explore many different facets of the industry. They were allowed to discover which area their talents and skills best fit and to make their decisions based on this exposure, and not on the hype.

1US Census Press Release, "Census Bureau Releases Data Showing Relationship
Between Education and Earnings." April 27, 2009. US Census Bureau. May 3, 2009

3. Having a financial plan.

Going back to school is a huge financial obligation, and I knew I would have to plan things carefully. Before enrolling, I made sure I saved up some money, cut expenses, and applied for every loan and grant I could. I found ways to stretch my student loans by purchasing textbooks online at a discount, and verifying which supplies I would actually need before buying them.

In order to save on tuition I took most of my general education classes at junior college.  At these community colleges the cost per class was less than $150; at the four year college the same class would have cost nearly $1000. Many of them I transferred before I even started, but I continued to takes several classes at the community college even after I had started enrolled in the gaming program. Since each school has its own policy on which units they would accept as transfers, I was careful to check with the administration department before enrolling in any off-campus classes.

Planning to work while in school was a bit trickier. The school schedule changed every 11 weeks, and while some classes were available at night or on weekends, they were less flexible and my goal was to graduate as quickly as possible. Students who worked regular jobs often had to take fewer classes per semester due to their work schedule. Instead, I relied on finding odd jobs which wouldn't conflict with my class schedule: doing freelance art work, transcribing film footage, and once even designing a wedding.

Even with my preparation, things got very tight. While unexpected expenses have a way of cropping up for everyone, to "starving students" on a tight budget, unanticipated events represent a real threat to finishing their schooling on schedule.

For me it was an unfortunate vehicle breakdown which meant I had to sell my car and rely on carpooling to get to school. A reoccurring billing error didn't come to my attention until my tuition was several hundred dollars overdue and had to be paid before I could continue to take classes. Thankfully I had friends and family who helped me out; without their assistance I would not have been able to finish school on schedule.

 4. Building a network.

A significant advantage of going to a game design school versus a more traditional school was the opportunity to create industry contacts. The game industry, despite its growth, is still a small world and having someone that can recommend you is a strong asset. Though the school from which I graduated was new, I was still able to build contacts with talented individuals, both those who were in my class and those who were underclassmen. Even after graduation, we regularly email each other potential leads to jobs and keep in touch.

Teachers can also provide a good basis for networking. While many of them do not announce their connections, they usually have had working relationships with people working in the industry. They also have former students who have gone out and joined the job market.

There was one potential type of contact, though, which can easily be overlooked. Schools often bring guest speakers onto campus, either to provide a glimpse into the industry or as a way to introduce the students to their company. These are often people with great deal of experience and insight into the industry and therefore are an excellent source on information about what opportunities are currently out there.

When a hiring manager for a local game developer came in to talk to us, I waited around afterwards and offered to take him out to lunch. During that lunch not only did he provide me with excellent advice on what he was looking for in an applicant, but he also gave me a tour of his studio and put me in contact with a designer who worked there. These are the types of contacts that can make a huge difference in starting a career, particularly during difficult economic times.

5. Joining a SIG.

There's the academic world and there's the 9-to-5 reality of the job. For students it can be hard to gauge how closely those two match. Having working professionals, unaffiliated with any school or curriculum, available to do "reality checks" and offer advice is an incredible resource.

The International Game Developers Association has several SIGs (Special Interest Groups), each one focusing on a different aspect of the industry. Joining the IGDA can be done online for free and, once joined, members can sign up to any SIG that interest them. Midway through my education, I joined a few that were of interest to me and started correspondence with people who were doing exactly what I hoped to do upon graduation. The members were amazingly gracious with their time and insight and provided much needed advice and occasional critiques.

Not only did their advice help me personally, but it also had a trickle down effect in helping other students and, eventually, the school itself. Advice on portfolio building from the members of the Writer's SIG, for example, was not only something I was able to apply to my own portfolio, but it also provided the school a basis for setting portfolio submissions standards for any of their students interested in narrative design.

 What Went Wrong

1. Overestimating a new program's ability to achieve ambitious goals.

When recruiting, the school presented potential enrollees with a number of ambitious plans. The staff saw a great many possibilities for their program and was very eager to watch it expand. There were plans to have team-based projects which spanned several semesters, for graduates to have two completed game levels made up of at least 80% student assets, and for the department to match the job placement rate of the school's other programs.

In reality, those things take time to develop. Asking questions before enrolling was a good start, but I failed to separate people's ambitions from what realistically could be accomplished. It wasn't that the school's representatives were deliberately trying to sell things they weren't going to accomplish, but as a new program, some of their goals were going to take longer to achieve than the few years I was going to be there.

In hindsight, there were indications that a number of these things would take more time to implement than I had expected. There were still a number of senior-level classes that they had not hired instructors for, so it should not have been a surprise that reaching some of the goals would be delayed until the staff was in place. Also, these changes in staffing would inevitably bring shifts in focus, meaning some of these early goals would not necessarily be the priorities of the new staff.

Overall, there was a sense of excitement about the new program, and it was infectious. In many ways, that was a good thing. I'd rather attend a school that is ambitious and excited about their program than one that isn't, even if that means some of the goals are not immediately accomplished. What I should have done, though, is tempered my expectations with some common sense.

2. Not recognizing the school's direction.

The school advertised its new program as Game Arts and Design. Coming from a background within the industry, Game Design to me meant such things as game balance, player progression, feature evaluation, and game theory. To the school, though, which had a strong background in graphic design, design was more of an element of visual art; e.g. color theory, principles of layout, and typography.

Standard visual design is an important element for artists (and all other types of designers, for that matter), but many of the things which I had been passionate about and wanted to explore more in depth were given very little emphasis within the curriculum.

It was only when I expressed to one of the instructors that I was disappointed with so little game theory being taught that I realized how differently the school interpreted the word design. His response was that it puzzled him why someone who wanted to learn game theory would enroll in an "art program." Obviously, there was a difference between my expectations for the program and the school's intent.

Since the school was focused more towards creating artists such as 3D modelers and animators, much of their staff came from the teachers who had excelled in the school's other art programs. Most of the teachers they did bring in were, by and large, artists as well.

So even though there were some excellent teachers in the non-art courses, generally the student's exposure to them was limited to just one or two classes. There was nothing inherently wrong with the school's choice of direction, but because no one realized each other's assumptions early on, it created some friction between students who thought the school wasn't acknowledging their concerns and staff who felt the students had unrealistic expectations.

3. Turnover of administrative staff.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the game program had changed department heads four times in the first four years. There were a number of reasons for the turnover, and none of them scandalous, but each time there was a change in leadership it had effects on the curriculum and on the staffing. While each new chairman implemented positive changes, having so many changes in that short of time period made things more difficult.

With each turnover, it took time for the new department chair to get up to speed. This took time away from expanding the program and addressing issues and slowed down the overall progress. For example, in some classes pre-requisites were not set up right. This would be brought up each year to be addressed but, since it could be handled manually by petition, it was not a high priority. Each time a change in the administration happened, the low-priority issues were moved back and by the time I graduated, many of the minor issues like these had still not been addressed.

It's no surprise that the changes also had an effect on the program's directions. Each new department head brought his own vision to the program, and four changes in vision took its toll. While overall many good changes occurred, it began changing both from the program that it started out as and the one the originally envisioned and pitched to new students.

4. Taking classes out of order.

Transferring classes from other schools definitely had its financial benefits, but it did create some problems as well. The curriculum was laid out with the idea that students would follow a natural progression from one class to another. Even though none of the units I had transferred in were directly related to my major, I had to adjust my schedule to make up the general education classes I had already finished in order to meet my loan's full-time requirement. This meant I would sometimes end up taking classes in a different order than the school envisioned.

Even in classes that did not have requirements in order to enroll in them, the instructors at times assumed exposure to certain material from their earlier classes. In these cases, I'd often find myself struggling to get up to speed with certain concepts and material only to have them explained during the next semester, when I would take the "earlier" class.

5. Not starting career research soon enough.

The whole point of going to college is to provide a launching point for a career. At my school the final two quarters were heavily focused on "exit" classes which were geared towards setting career goals and developing strategies to achieve them, largely through portfolio work. I knew that six months would not be enough time for me to get everything I wanted in my portfolio finished, so I started researching a full year before graduation into how to get my portfolio where I wanted it.

What I had failed to consider was that in doing the research I might be exposed to ideas and advice which, if had I wanted to take advantage of, would require changes to what I had already planned. Sure enough, some of the assumptions that I had about what would best represent me weren't right. So, despite having started earlier than most other students, I was faced with the realization that I wouldn't be able to get everything that I wanted into my portfolio in time for graduation.

There was a lot of good advice I came across, and had I started my research earlier, my portfolio could have been much stronger. Starting even one year out was not enough time to make a lot of major changes considering that I was still maintaining a full load of classes. (Since most classes in the last couple of semesters had little to do with the work for my portfolio, I didn't have the luxury of killing two birds with one stone.

Again, had I looked at the class schedule more closely and realized where the emphasis of work was going to be, I might have anticipated the need to start planning sooner.) The key here is it's never too early to start planning.

Lessons Learned

The decision to get a degree in game development (whether arts, programming, or design) should be taken seriously. For anyone with plans to get into the industry, then yes, having a degree will almost certainly help but that doesn't mean that the degree has to be specific to gaming.

There are pros and cons of choosing a college of game development over a more traditional school, and each school has distinctive features that separate it from others. It is important that every student evaluate these differences to see realistically what kind of fit it would be for her or him. Though ultimately a lot of this decision will depend on what resources are available locally, it serves students well to spend some time examining not only what potential schools' aims are but how well suited they are to achieving them.

There were things I could have done better and paid closer attention to which would have helped elevate my educational experience. I should have asked more questions and, more importantly, asked a wider variety of people such as administrators and instructors, those questions.

Had I done this, I would have better understood what the staff's direction were and within what time frame they might achieve the goals they had set. I really would have liked the opportunity to have participated in some of the more ambitious projects the school had originally planned.

Would I have decided to go elsewhere if I had known those projects wouldn't be available right away? Probably not, but I might have waited for the school could to work out some of the kinks and get closer to implementing their plans before enrolling. It's also possible that had I addressed these concerns before I enrolled, they may have also been willing to begin incorporating some of their projects sooner as a way to entice potential students into their new program.

For me, going to a school that offered a gaming curriculum provided unique opportunities and was, overall, successful. I may have been somewhat disappointed by some of the choices the school made but, at the same time, it's hard to imagine that a more traditional curriculum would have been as relevant to me. Above everything else, college was exactly what it was suppose to be - a learning experience.


Photos by David Goehring, Josh Parrish, and gadgetdude, used under Creative Commons license.

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