Originally written in March, 2003. Most recent update: March, 2018.
This article is primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This article is subject to changes and improvements.
As we mature and move through the world as independent adults, we often find ourselves faced with difficult decisions.
Choosing a college is not simply a matter of asking other guys (like me) to tell you where you have to go to school to accomplish a career goal. Choosing a college is entirely a personal choice. There isn't one school you have to go to in order to become a game designer. There isn't one particular degree you have to have, either.
Just the same, there isn't one school you have to go to, or degree you have to get, in order to become a game programmer.
And if you want to eventually own your own game company, you don't have to go to "the best" business school -- you should major in something that'll get you hired at a game company, and you could get your MBA online or at night school while working.
Most people who ask me for advice want to become a game designer. So a lot of the wording in these articles are geared towards aspiring game designers. But if you have some other game career in mind, a lot of my advice still applies to you (but you can skip down to "Start With a Big List"). Although there are "top game school" lists you can find (at Gamasutra or GameCareerGuide or the IGDA website, for instance), if you want to DESIGN games, your choice of schools is not limited to the four or five institutions of higher learning you might hear most about. Apologies that I have to rehash some things I've already said before. Those of you who want to become game programmers or artists or CEOs, please bear with me.
WHAT IS GAME DESIGN?
(Although this article applies to anyone interested in working in games, this portion of the article was originally addressed to aspiring game designers. If you are not one of those, skip down to "Start With a Big List.")
What is game design? It isn't programming and it isn't graphics. Game design is problem solving. Design problems arise in the process of taking a game from concept to reality. The design solutions are communicated to the development team in written, drawn, and verbal form. Although there are some studios that design without design documents, much of design (industry-wide) entails the setting forth of a series of documents that describe in detail what a finished game will be. It's like drawing a blueprint for a building. It's like drawing a road map of a cross-country SUV race. The purpose of game design is to communicate the vision so that a plan can be created, enabling the development team to create a game under a single vision.
WHAT IS A GAME DESIGNER?
What is a game designer? It isn't necessarily a programmer. And it isn't necessarily an artist. A game designer is an accomplished communicator who expresses the vision clearly through the written word, charts, graphs, sketches, and presentations to set forth the vision for a game in complete detail so that the programmers and artists will have their work clearly cut out for them. A game designer is also someone who is very well-read, well-spoken, and understands how worlds work. Because his job is essentially to create fun worlds. As I discussed in FAQ 3.
HOW DO YOU GET TO BE A GAME DESIGNER?
How do you get to be a game designer? You get a college degree and you enter the working world. You learn how to be a good worker, a responsible employee, and a professional. You get a job at a game company. Any job for which you are suited - Customer Support, Associate Producer, Level Design, Junior Scripter, Marketing, Quality Assurance, Production Coordinator, Mailroom Clerk... Any job. It is practically unheard of for a game applicant with no game industry experience (no matter what degree he holds or what college he went to) to be hired and given the title "game designer" right off the bat. First you have to have some sort of marketable job skill to get hired at a game company.
SO WHAT DOES THIS IMPLY IN YOUR COLLEGE DECISION?
If, then, "game design" is where you want to be eventually, you have to have a solid education and some game-industry marketable skills. In FAQ 3, I describe courses you should have under your belt if you want to DESIGN games. Those courses can be taken as electives to supplement the courses you take under your major subject. Your major is, of course, completely up to you. You know what you are interested in and what you are good at. I do not. You might major in computer science, consumer service, art & animation, writing & literature, business, marketing, psychology, management, information services, screenwriting, physics, or history... I can envision graduates of any of these subjects becoming game designers (some of them more directly than others, but you get the point).
START WITH A BIG LIST
The first part of your decision making process in choosing a college, then, is to think about your passions - your own likes and abilities. Then make a list of courses you want to take. If what you want is a college that will let you major in screenwriting and minor in art (so you can write game story dialogue and draw your own storyboards), then you need to narrow the search to schools that have good programs in both. That should eliminate a number of schools (including a number of "game design schools") that do not offer BOTH of these programs that you want. You'll probably wind up with a fairly long list of possible schools all the same.
NARROW IT DOWN TO A SHORT LIST
Starting with a large universe of schools, you will do your own research and go through a process of elimination. Eventually you'll whittle the universe down to a short list. You're now finished with the easy part, and you're now ready to tackle the hard part. And we've now gotten to the heart of what I've been leading up to since the beginning of this discussion. How to make a decision from among a small handful of attractive choices.
THE DECISION GRID
I find that decision grids are a very useful tool for making tough decisions. Decision grids come in three levels. Start with a level one decision grid first to narrow the factors down. Then go to the level two grid to start determining answers. Go to the level three grid to weight it with importance factors. Here's how.
THE LEVEL ONE GRID
Make a grid. You can do the first one on a sheet of lined paper - draw vertical lines down it. Across the top, write the names of the schools on your short list (the schools you're having a hard time choosing between). Down the left side, list the factors or criteria that need to be weighed in choosing between those schools. Here's an example, using made-up school names.
Okay, that was fun. You have figured out what factors are important to you. Not one of these schools has everything you wish it had. Ain't that always the way. Such is life. But something is missing. And that is, this grid did not add up to a decision. Not yet, anyway. Oh, and another thing is missing: I left out a potentially important decision criterion: proximity to industry (discussed in Level Three, below).
THE LEVEL TWO GRID
In the level two grid, you take your cutesy responses in the level one grid and convert them to either ones or zeros. A one means "acceptable." A zero means "unacceptable." At this point, you might want to switch from paper and pencil to Excel.
And most importantly, at the bottom you make a new row - in which you total up all the good points of each school. Now we're getting somewhere. As much as you thought the prestige of the Academy of Academia was attractive, it has to be eliminated from consideration since its score (as far as your personal needs are concerned) is the lowest of the bunch. And as much as your parents might like for you to stay home and walk to the local community college, its score is tied for second-to-last place with Hard Knox.
Your decision now is mainly between Universe U. and Purdy State. You could just tell your parents "I guess I'll go to Purdy State," but why not take it one step further, and do a level three grid. For now, why not continue to keep the two lower-scoring schools in contention.
THE LEVEL THREE GRID
In level three, you add in weighting according to what's important to you. The easiest way to illustrate this is by example...
Distance from home - although your parents have said they would love it if you stayed home and walked to the community college, you want to spread your wings. Hard Knox is so far that you would have to use an airplane whenever returning home from school, and that's an added expense on top of everything else. Universe University and Purdy State are both too far to commute from home every day -- wing-spreading opp! But Universe U. is less of a schlep for when you want to come home on weekends or holidays, and you like that, so it scores higher.
Tuition - your parents have set up a college fund for you, but it isn't a money tree that'll just keep sprouting bills forever. The lower the tuition, the less you'll have to pinch pennies, and the less your parents will have to continue coughing up dough - so the happier you'll all be. Family harmony is a good thing! Universe U. costs the most of the four (but it's just barely within your budget), so it gets a 1. Hard Knox and Purdy State both cost about the same (less than U.U., which is a good thing) - so those both get a 2. The community college is dead cheap (costing half as much, say, as the two category leaders) so it scores the most in this respect.
Scholarships - U.U. has a scholarship program but it's not as good as the one at Purdy State. So Purdy gets a 2, and U.U. gets a 1. The other schools don't do scholarships, so they get zeros.
Screenwriting - You feel a strong desire to major in this subject, and you really need a good program. So you weight this highly, giving a 3 to the schools that offer it. Maybe you ought to give it a 4, but you're satisfied that 3 is good enough. Don't ask me to explain why you gave this a 3 if you gave it such importance! It's your decision grid, not mine! (^_~)
Art - Art is important in your decision process, but not as much so as screenwriting. So you give a 2 to each school that has a good art department.
Mythology - This is only important to you because you read on some guy's website that game designers ought to know about it. You're willing to go along for the purposes of making a decision grid. You give a 1 to each school that offers a class in mythology.
Acting - Again. You read on some guy's website that animators (which presumably extends to those who draw storyboards) need to take classes in acting, so you give a 1 to each school that offers a class in acting.
Guitar - You had just thought it'd be cool to take some classes in guitar, but now you decide that this is a non-issue. You should have simply left this row out of the thing entirely, but you chose to put in a zero across the board instead.
Computer - After completing the level two grid, it occurred to you that computer classes are really important. REALLY important. They call'em "video games," but they make'em on computers! So you give a 4 to each school that has a good computer department.
Business - Your father pressured you to add in business classes to the decision grid. All the schools offer this, so you give'em all a 1 as a sop to your old man.
Rep - Not all that convinced that a school's reputation is all that much of an issue, you give a 1 to the two schools that have better reps than the others.
Responsiveness - It's nice if the schools are being nice to you before you sign up, but that isn't necessarily a sure sign that they'll be all that helpful to requests once they've netted you. Still, U.U. has been kind of a little snotty, while the other three schools have bent over backwards to help you choose them. So give those schools a 1 and U.U. gets a zero.
Co-eds - Your mother about had a conniption when she saw this on your earlier grids. Your dad took you aside and told you there are pretty females everywhere. He tried to hint that you ought to be spending your time on your studies and not thinking about girls, but you could see that he was just mouthing platitudes he wouldn't have been able to live up to when he was your age. But you got the point, and you put zeros across the board.
Climate - What the hey. This was a frivolous criterion too. You're going to be busy with studies, indoors, most of the time that matters. Zeros across the board.
Proximity to industry - This is a criterion I overlooked when originally created this FAQ. Raw graduates of university game programs face hurdles in getting hired right after graduation; your chances of getting hired are increased greatly if the university is in a hotbed of game development, where other grads have already gotten jobs and/or started their own game companies. It needs to be a line on your decision grid even if it isn't in the illustration above (which I'm too lazy to update).
Total score - Now that it all adds up, you see some things very clearly. You see that Santa Nelly and Hard Knox just don't add up to your personal needs. They have to be dropped from consideration entirely. Purdy State scores higher than Universe U. That kind of excites you and disappoints you, both at the same time. You had just always expected to go to U.U., and you'd kind of had your heart set on it. And until you did your research you'd never even heard of Purdy State. But now you see that it has a lot to offer that would be good for your personal situation and aspirations.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE RESULTS
The decision grid method used above helped you narrow down your final five candidates to one. And, importantly, there is also a clear second-place winner.
Apply to both your first and second choice schools. If you get accepted by your first choice, that's your school. If that school doesn't accept you but the second choice does, then that's your school.
The results of your decision won't make themselves evident until quite some time after it's been made. You just have to make your decision and run with it. At least you can't blame me if it turns out later that it wasn't the best decision - because I didn't make it for you. You made it yourself! Hah! Oh, sorry. That was supposed to be a thought balloon, not audible text. Anyway, to get back to my point... It seemed like the best decision you could make under the circumstances at the time. But don't blame yourself anyway, if it doesn't turn out the way you hoped. There's never any gain in the blame game.
That there are imperfections in a properly made decision is just a fact of life.
This world we live in is imperfect. Hardly anything in this world is perfect. The decisions you make are usually between different imperfect options. Choose the best option, the one with the fewest known imperfections, and move on with your life. Some people go through life kicking themselves over wrong choices that they made in the past. But you know what? The past is in the past. It can't be changed. Once a choice has been made and that road is taken, don't look back and wonder "what if." That's a zero-sum game. Every choice that you make will send you down a path of learning. You always learn something, and learning is always a good thing.
Besides, there's no certainty that this path or that path (or this school or that school) will prevent your ever getting where you want to go. If you are driven to get somewhere, take the path that looks good TO YOU. It will probably get you to someplace good. Maybe not exactly the place you thought you wanted to go, but if you like the place you wind up, then what's wrong with that?
APPLICABILITY BEYOND SCHOOL CHOICES
The basis of this decision process can be used in making any important decision in life. Choosing between two jobs. Choosing between two girlfriends. Whatever.
If you were expecting me to just tell you "Full Sail, definitely, not Digipen," -- or "you gotta go to Digipen, dude, Full Sail is fulla hot air," then I'm surprised you're still reading this. But if you're still reading this, then I hope you gained some interesting ideas from it.
IT'S ALL A GAME
Life is a game. There's randomness in the roll of the dice and in the shuffle of the cards. You have control over what cards you play, but none over what cards you draw. The trick in life is making the distinction between the circumstances over which you have control, and the ones over which you do not. You'll make good choices and bad choices. And other players will do things that affect your game. Like a Monopoly board, time is a one-way street. Choices that you've made, and actions other players made, can't be unmade, because they're in the past. All rules were meant to be broken (even this one), but you have to recognize when breaking one is the right way to go. Do the best you can with what you're dealt, the stuff that happens around you, and the choices you've made -- keep moving forward and no regrets. The game is meant to be enjoyed, not agonized over.
DIDN'T FIND THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION? I wrote more on this topic in FAQ 44.
In choosing a degree to pursue, does it really have to be a games degree? Is A Degree In Games the Best Way Into the Industry?"
If you want lists of game schools, there are links to such lists on my Game Biz Links page.
A new site that lets site visitors review colleges -- http://www.unigo.com .
Got a question about this FAQ? Just click here to go to the bulletin board. You'll get answers!
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© 2003, 2011, 2013, 2018 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.