I'm confused about the whole game school thing. I've seen new game degree programs open up all over the place, and I've heard stories about graduates making cool games that win awards and get them jobs, yet you and other veteran developers keep advising young people like me to get non-game degrees. I've even heard a rumor that there are game companies that immediately discard applications with game degrees on them. I see that you yourself teach game courses, so none of this is making sense. Care to clarify?
Soon to matriculate
There most certainly are some good game degree programs out there (including, of course, those at the school where I teach). Someone who takes one of those programs should be in good stead to get a job at a game company after graduation. Maybe not immediately after graduation, though, and maybe not in the graduate's desired position, with the graduate's desired job title. Regardless of what school one goes to, or what degree one gets, it's important to have realistic expectations.
Game degrees are not all created equal. Some programs are better than others. The ones with obnoxious TV commercials give a bad image to all of them. Degrees that are misleadingly named also add to the overall image problem. Some employers may have had experiences with graduates of game schools that led to their having a bad opinion of game schools in general. In my opinion, it's wrong to mark the whole barrel bad after finding one bad apple.
In general, I believe that if one wants to be a programmer, a computer science degree is the very best place to start. Some schools that offer game-specific computer science degrees may not supplement the degree with other important mainstream topics like English and psychology - it's important that the education be well-rounded. After getting that degree, the person could get additional education at a game school (if he can afford it), or he can jump right into mods or indie projects.
A lot of game schools rush their students through in just two or three years. Short degrees don't look as good on the résumé. I like to see a four-year degree; it shows that the applicant can stick it out through a long effort. That goes for artists, too. There's nothing wrong with starting out with a couple years of low-cost community college to get through required courses, before transferring to another school to get the specialized degree.
One of the common arguments against game degrees is that they aren't applicable outside the game industry. Depending on which game degree you get, that might be true. Those wham-bam two-year degrees, for instance. But if it's a well-rounded four-year degree, then it's as applicable as any other. In life, it almost doesn't matter what degree you get, as long as you study something you're interested in. The world is full of people who've studied one thing and then wound up in a field completely unrelated to what they studied. It can happen both ways, as regards to games -- people with non-game degrees get game jobs all the time. People with game degrees may well find themselves working in a non-game industry ultimately.
Some young people think the only ticket into the game industry is through a game school. It's only one option, and it isn't the best one for everybody.
Hey Tom, I was reading your June 2009 column on game schools, and one detail struck me, as I am currently accepted in a second cycle university program in Game Design.
You mention the length of the degree as a (general) measure for its quality.
I just finished a 3 years bachelor's degree in communications (interactive media -- not really game related) and I'm starting a games design specialized certificate in september, a 1 year program, with internship after. Would you say that kind of program is not well recognized in the industry ?
I could have expressed the thought a bit more clearly, I suppose. I didn't mean to convey the impression that a short degree is inherently bad when considered by itself without regard for any other information about the applicant. A degree has to be taken in context. Many masters' degrees are done in just one year, or two. That doesn't mean that I regard masters' degrees as worth less than bachelors' degrees - quite the opposite, in fact.
My comment was meant to address that desire on the part of many to get the quickest education possible--a two-year degree, for instance--so as to hurry up and get into the game industry sooner rather than later. I fully approve of game school as postgrad study. Too many kids think they should go to a two-year game school instead of a regular four-year school, and I don't approve of that. A two-year community college, and then a two-year game school? Great! Perfect! See, two plus two equals... four years. Or, as you did, a three-year program plus a one-year program. Four years. That's what I was talking about.
By the way, a "game school" that is also a regular school? That is to say, a school where you get a complete well-rounded four-year education. That's not what I'm talking about when I use the phrase "game school." Especially when I use the phrase in quotation marks. When I use the phrase "game school" in quote marks, I'm usually talking about one of those schools where they have a two-year degree. A regular school that offers, among regular degrees, a game program is not what I'm talking about when I say "game school."
I've written before about the criteria that someone should use when deciding whether or not to take a degree program. That you should use multiple criteria. As far as I'm concerned, the school's "reputation" or "recognition" shouldn't be your deciding criterion (see my November 2005 column). Don't worry so much about what other people might think of that school. You get out of it what you put into it, so you can come out a winner from a despised school, and you can come out a loser from a respected school. Cost and passion should be your two biggest criteria. If you can manage getting an education from a school that you really want to go to, then go for it.
If you want to get a game degree, if that's your passion, then go for it. If you later decide to leave the industry, or even if you never get into the industry, you won't have screwed yourself. A lot of people wind up pursuing careers in fields other than those they studied in college. A lot!
I understand that your advice is to get a college degree. But I've been looking at the cost of game schools' tuition, and holy cow, I would be in debt for a really long time! I checked out this year's salary survey (http://gamedeveloper.texterity.com/gamedeveloper/2010cg?pg=19#pg19) and no matter how I figure it, the debt load is a very heavy burden.
So don't you think it makes sense to teach myself instead, even if it takes twice as long?
Short on money
I stand by my advice to get a college degree. Numerous reports have clearly shown that college grads have better earning potential than high school grads. You can find those reports easily using Google.
It's true that in the game industry you'll wind up earning a bit less than you would if you were working for a triple-A Silicon Valley company. But you can still manage to pay your college loan off in reasonable time, as long as you choose a college you can afford.
You stomped in here demanding that I justify the cost of game school, but I'm not the one who said you should go to "game school." Just the opposite; see my June and July 2009 columns about "The Whole Game School Thing" - http://www.igda.org/games-game-june-2009 and http://www.igda.org/games-game-july-2009. Numerous news reports recently have made it clear that for-profit schools are more of a risk for the student, since the schools have to make a profit, and they have to do it from tuitions. I highly recommend that you Google those articles, too.
Choosing a college means considering numerous factors, as I described in FAQ 25 on my website (http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html). There isn't one industry-required school you have to go to. There isn't one industry-required degree you have to get. You can go to any accredited college or university, study what interests you most, and get a perfectly suitable education for working in games. Then after graduation you have to build a portfolio and live in the right "location, location, location" (see my July 2010 column -- click Archives above). So when choosing a college, you want to find one that offers courses you're interested in, and is a manageable distance from your home, and is affordable.
"Affordable" doesn't mean "free" or "cheap." You still might have to take out a student loan, but go for one that you can reasonably pay back. Software development blogger Robert Walker agrees with me that you have to pick a school within your means (not just the school you think others require you to attend). See http://robwalkerdme.blogspot.com/2011/02/cost-of-education-or-computer-science.html.
And I do not recommend trying to teach yourself instead of going to college. Ask yourself: "am I trained as a university professor?" You aren't, so you aren't qualified to teach yourself. You need the organized, disciplined approach to education. You need the exposure to subjects you wouldn't bother to teach yourself. Yes, there are guys who've managed to become top game developers without the college degree. But they are the exception, and times have changed. You have to live in the present, and you can't count on being an exception to the rules. Pick a good school that you can pay for... and get a good education.
I've been reading your articles, well most of them anyway, and I've got a dilemma. I went to trade school after high school, and I've been working at various odd jobs (none of them anything remotely connected to the game industry), but what I yearn to do is work in video games. Here's the dilemma: I've read your advice to get a four-year degree at minimum, but that's just plain impossible for me. What is possible for me is to study via one of those online schools. I realize I'd have to work harder to make that kind of education work for me, but I'm determined and I'll definitely apply myself to it diligently.
So the problem now is that I don't know which (if any) of those online schools is well regarded by the game industry. I don't want potential employers to laugh at me when they see the school name on my resume, see. So - my question for you is, which online school is best respected by the game industry? Please don't tell me none of them are, because this is the only option open to me, given my life circumstances.
Waitin' and hopin' for a helpful response.
Hello Wait Hope,
An online education is perfectly valid, if you truly can't swing the brick-and-mortar campus education. Or should I say, it's better than not getting a formal education at all. First best: brick-and-mortar education. Second best: online education. Third choice: teaching yourself. Actually, if you go the online education route, or even if you go to the real life campus, you'll need to teach yourself on the side anyway, but it sounds like you already knew that.
But you mustn't worry so much about appearances. The education you can get is the education you can get, and as long as you work to fill in the gaps yourself and to build an excellent portfolio, that's all anybody can ask of you. Nobody ever laughs at school names on resumes. Trust me. That does not happen. Especially if you present yourself well and have a strong portfolio.
It's possible to matriculate at the best university and still be a lousy candidate. It's possible to get your education at the lowliest online school and still be an awesome candidate. Whether you get the job is up to you, and you alone. No school name on your resume is going to guarantee or deny you a job offer.
So stop worrying about appearances. Choose the school that most closely fits your own needs and situation. And I'll see you at some future game industry gathering.
My advice above about degrees applies to young people with no work experience. Thirtysomethings with no degree but a decade of work experience don't necessarily have to go get a degree. If you're a little older and you don't have a degree, build a portfolio. Do the smart things (FAQ 27) and don't do the dumb things (FAQ 24). Switching into the industry (FAQ 41) is a real option for the older aspiring game person.
Note: Not everyone in the game industry agrees with me that college is necessary. this April 22, 2014 article on GamesIndustry.biz expresses a variety of opinions on the matter.
"Game school" or no, a 2014 study reveals that college grads earn on average US$800,000 more over a lifetime of working than high school grads. AND...! That factors in the cost of college, and the four years spent not working. $800,000 is a damn good amount of money, let me tell you!
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