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  • Ten Survival Tips for Aspiring Game Development Students

    - Michael Prinke
  •  [Michigan State University grad and SCAD MFA student Michael Prinke takes us through 10 essential tips for students of game development programs, knowledge hard won over four-plus years of study.]

    1 - Know what you want to do

    The game industry is huge and has dozens of different career paths. It isn't limited strictly to art, programming, design, or writing; every one of these fields has a ton of sub-specialties. They're all appealing, but when it comes down to it you can't fill every position no matter how hard you try. When you get on a team you'll have one job to do and they'll want you to do it well, and when you apply for a position at a company they'll have one job that they're reviewing you for, whether it's character design, rigging, animation, engine programming, scripting, level design, quality assurance, or any number of other positions. Ergo, your abilities and portfolio should be fairly concentrated.

    Depending on where you go this may not be an issue. Some schools are purposely structured to guide students to finding their specific calling within the game industry -- provided said students' interests lie within a specific branch that the school specializes in, like programming or art. Others, on the other hand, will throw you into the deep end without warning. You'll suddenly find yourself on a team having never made a game before and having to make a game in four weeks. In either case you're liable to experience some confusion and may even find yourself doing a job you really don't like or butting your head up against a wall out of a misconception of what it is you really enjoy.

    The key to avoiding this is introspection. Think of the people and works that influence you most, be they in gaming, film, or any other medium, and try to narrow it down to a top three. Think about your other interests and what it is you like about them, too. These facts can all be very telling of what you should do with yourself.

    If you're an actor inside, you may be interested in character animation. If you want in on something visual but aren't much for figure drawing, level design or environment art might be up your street. If it's the other way around and you're just fascinated by the human form, then it's character design. If you enjoy solving puzzles a lot then programming could be your area of expertise as it depends hugely on good logic and problem-solving skills. If you spend lots of time making board games and tabletop role-playing games, then straight-up design is probably your thing. If the games you like most are all narrative-driven, then maybe you should be a writer.

    These are just a few examples of the different trains of thought you might have while thinking about this. In any case, whatever it is you see inside yourself, whatever it is that appeals to you the most about the games you love, try and connect that with some role in the gaming business -- a focused, concentrated role. If you don't know what roles there are, ask. You may discover jobs that are vastly appealing which you never knew existed. The sooner you get a handle on who you are as a game developer, the sooner you can realize your potential and be all that you can be on a team.

    2 - Don't overburden yourself

    Simply put, don't overload yourself with classwork. This seems so simple, but so many game design students -- myself included -- have made this mistake in one way or another. Avoiding it depends largely on the school you go to, what kind of classes they offer, which ones you have to take, and what courses you feel you need in order to pursue the career you want. The big killer here is full-time credit requirements, and let me show you why with a personal example:

    One semester I decided I'd take TC (Telecommunications) 445, 446, and 447 all simultaneously -- that's game design studio 1, flash programming and animation, and 3D modeling and animation in Maya, respectively. Three studio classes, each with huge projects due every week. On top of that I was taking TC 339: Digital Games and Society, a game history class that was high enough level to have a fair share of papers and presentations to put together. All of them added up to 14 credits -- with 12 being the minimum in order to be a full-time student, and the smallest number of credits for any of them was 3, so I was locked in. I couldn't drop any of these classes or I'd lose my scholarships and wouldn't be able to afford school.

    They were all fairly enjoyable on their own, but together the work was just way too much to handle. Never mind the lack of sleep, I simply wasn't able to focus on any of my projects nearly as much as I wanted to. As a result nearly all of them came out half-finished. I ended that semester without a single portfolio piece and looked like a lazy moron in front of my classmates. One of them even went as far as to say to me "if you were actually working in the industry right now you'd have already been fired."

    Well, I wasn't in the industry, I was in school, and as this incident proves you can make school ten times more hellish for yourself than any actual job. Really, this was the equivalent of working two or three totally different jobs, including an actual job that I was holding down at the worst dish room on campus for twelve hours a week and couldn't get out of. I left myself no way out and felt utterly defeated by the time it was over.

    It all could have been avoided, though, if I'd simply substituted one or two of these classes with some other, easier required class -- like a 200-level psychology course or something. As fate would have it, though, I left myself even less room than that because I'd already taken all the 100 and 200-level classes in a big lump a year prior to this incident, figuring I should get them out of the way for the real meat.

    As you can probably tell I made sure not to repeat this mistake the following semesters and tried to space out my high-level classes a little more. A friend of mine criticized me my last semester when I opted to take "Bowling I" to pad out my schedule, saying I should've done something more challenging, but between my capstone project, a big 800-level independent study, a 300-level ancient history course, and preparations for graduate school I decided I had more than enough to worry about.

    To sum this all up, figure out where to draw the line at project-based classes and try to space them out with easier, more lecture-based classes. Do research before you dive into a new schedule; credit hours scarcely reflect the amount of work you'll end up doing. This rule is vital, because when it comes to your projects, especially group projects, you want to be focused and you want whatever you make to be something you can be proud of.


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