Extract: Breaking Into The Game Industry

By Ian Schreiber and Brenda Brathwaite [08.16.11]

 [In this extract from Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber's Breaking Into the Game Industry: Advice for a Successful Career from Those Who Have Done It, professional game designers offer some advice on how to pursue an education in game development.

Question: Lots of stuff I learn in school seems like it has nothing to do with actually making games for a living. What classes did you take that were the most useful on the job?

Ian: In other words, you want to know what you should pay attention to, and which classes you can safely ignore or sleep through. If you are just taking classes to get a piece of paper, or if you are the kind of person who tries to do just the bare minimum to get by, you will probably not enjoy working in the game industry. It's an industry where you are expected to be passionate and go above and beyond the minimum on a regular basis, so this would be a good time to consider a career change.

But that's not what you want to hear. You want to know, with so many subjects competing for your attention, where do you put the effort so that your time is used the most effectively?

First, whatever your major is, concentrate on the core classes that form the major requirements (art classes for artists, computer science classes for programmers, and so on). This is your primary competency, so you want to be competent. That much is obvious.

Second, pay attention to the classes that are relevant to other fields of game development. If you're a programmer, take art and design and audio and production classes if you can find them, for example. This gives you an appreciation for the work that your teammates do, lets you speak and be understood even across departmental lines, and lets you do your own job in a way that makes things easier and more efficient for the rest of your team.

Third, pay attention to your electives that seem like they have nothing to do with game development. Sometimes they are shockingly relevant if you just look at it the right way; a class in World History might seem useless until you find yourself working on a historically-based game, for example, at which point that history class suddenly becomes the thing that gets you hired. The more random little tidbits there are about you, the better your chances of accidentally falling into the perfect position.

There are two other reasons to pay attention to your elective classes. First, the technology in games moves so fast that no matter what you do, you're going to have to learn new tools and techniques, so you had better have a passion for learning. Taking classes in random subjects that interest you helps build (or maintain) learning skills and passion. Second, as cliché as it sounds, it will make you more "well-rounded" as a human being, and the fact that you have other interests outside of game development will be of interest to employers during the interview (if nothing else, it gives you something to talk about to make you feel a little less nervous).

So, pay attention in everything. For every class, try to find some way to relate it back to games (your professor will probably not do this for you, so making connections is up to you). Take classes you enjoy, and work hard on them because you love them. Work hard in the classes you hate, too, because just being able to get through something you dislike and doing it well is something you'll have to do at work, too.

Question: How much weight do studios put on the major or college attended?

Brenda: Although certain schools are known within the industry-and that matters in certain ways-the rounded answer is, "not a lot." A great school and a great GPA will not save anyone from a poor coding test or a subpar portfolio. A school is only one part of the equation. Great employees come from poor schools, and train wrecks graduate from schools we know and love. Think for a moment. Odds are, you had such a train wreck and a superstar in your own class.

It's true, however, that certain schools have a reputation within the industry for producing some consistently good students year after year. This accolade is the result of good teachers, their own networking within the industry, and a selective admissions process that makes sure that the cream of the crop they graduate were already pretty damn close to cream when they entered the program. You can recognize the programs by their professors-they are involved, making games or contributions that matter, and are known within the game industry.

All major game companies have employees whose job it is to reach out to colleges, establish relationships with key departments (programming, graphic design, digital art, game design, and so on), and in many cases, visit the colleges to interview students. With literally thousands of schools out there, these university relations folk can only visit so many schools in a particular year. So, it's important to realize that choices are being made by companies, and those choices may matter to you. When interviewing schools, ask which companies have visited in the last year and further ask about recent student placements. Many schools can trot out a list of students who have been hired by one big firm or another, but that list of ten students may be out of thousands. Ask about recent trends.

As much as these companies are hitting particular schools, they are also posting opportunities on their job sites, so that alone shouldn't be a deciding factor. As far as a major goes, it's a more challenging scenario. Traditional degrees in programming offer truth in advertising. With game degrees, though, the waters get muddier. Some are such a mash of programming, art, and design that the resulting student is likewise a mix of talents, and such a person hasn't developed the level of proficiency necessary for even the lowest level gig in the industry. Think of the degree and the school as two variables in a larger equation that includes practical experience, your social network, your portfolio, the way you present yourself in an interview, and a bit of luck.

Question: Is a graduate degree (such as an MFA or Ph.D.) useful for getting a job in the game industry?

Ian: It depends-useful for what?

In grade school, your education is well-rounded, as you take a variety of courses that give a thin foundation in just about everything. As an undergraduate at a liberal-arts university, you grow this foundation with general education courses, and also for the first time, you start specializing in one area (this is your "major"). A Master's degree (such as an MA or MS) makes this specialty deeper. A "terminal degree" (MFA or Ph.D.) brings you right up to the boundary of the field, and earning this degree involves contributing to the field by stretching or advancing it beyond where it was previously. This is a profound experience that leaves one changed for life. In the sense that you will never see the world in quite the same way, graduate degrees are useful for changing how you think. But that is probably not what you wanted to know.

If your career plans involve not just working in the game industry, but eventually entering academia and becoming a university or college-level teacher yourself, a graduate degree is eventually going to become a necessity for you. Most schools are accredited, which is what gives their degree any kind of meaning; accreditation requires, in most cases, that the people teaching all have advanced degrees. Therefore, an awful lot of schools that might otherwise love to hire you will not even let you apply if you're lacking this degree. For this career path it is not only useful, it's critical.

But of course, this is a book about the game industry. Is a graduate degree useful for getting a job working at a game company? The answer, as with most everything: "It depends." The game industry is largely a meritocracy; people do not care about your title or degree nearly as much as your ability to contribute to making a great game. If you find a program that will have you making great games or learning how to make better ones, in the long run this will be useful to you, and I know of plenty of students with advanced degrees who have jobs in the industry. That said, if you are merely going to graduate school as a way of "hiding" from the world because you are afraid your skills aren't good enough . . . well, let's just say, be prepared to justify your decision in an interview if you're asked why you went to graduate school instead of making games.

Brenda: See what I said in Question 3 with this one caveat: A graduate degree gives you a controlled opportunity to spend a long period of time on a single project. So does the game industry.

David McDonough (2008, Producer, Firaxis Games): It can be, but it's certainly not a guarantee. An undergraduate degree is usually advisable for any kind of advanced field, including game development. A graduate degree is a much more specific course of study, and in many cases, may not provide more value toward making yourself ready to join the professional industry. But it can provide you a great deal, if you get into it for the right reasons.

Graduate programs are intense, accelerated, and highly tailored to the individual student. They usually focus on preparing the student for more advanced study, research, or teaching in the field at the college level. This kind of study doesn't always overlap with the kind of professional skill training you would want to get noticed by a professional game company. A couple extra years of study in college can mean more time for you to hone those skills or develop yourself toward becoming an attractive potential hire, but those years could also be well spent working up from a lower-level position in a game company, gaining valuable experience and on-the-job training. University programs can only approximate the real industry, and in the end, there's no substitute for active employment to teach you the trade and help you build your professional game development career.

However, a game development professorship can be an attractive alternative to the professional industry. Many game developers have found the academic world to be fertile ground for exploring the art and craft of game development without the industry's commercial focus or pressures. And with the explosion of game departments in colleges around the world, there's an ever-growing demand for new college professors. If you're at all interested in becoming a professor, seeking a graduate degree is vital to opening up that career path.

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