What Game Students Should Know before Starting College

It looks like all those game-related degrees are starting to gain some respect from the industry old farts – which is to say those of us who entered the game industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before such programs existed. We had to make do with traditional degrees like computer science, art, English, journalism, history and interpretive macramé… uphill… both ways… in the snow. Now students are graduating from some of these programs and making immediate marks on the industry, with Portal (originally a student project before becoming a runaway success story) being only the most obvious example.

However, the people who watch over colleges have raised the warning that far more students are enrolled in game-related degree programs than the industry could ever hope to support. This has led to very interesting discussions as to whether some schools are callously exploiting their students’ dreams for a few bucks. (Okay, tens of thousands of bucks in loan money, but who are we to split that hair?)

The point remains, however, that creating games is the dream of almost all of these wide-eyed innocents. These schools give pupils three or four years of training in the main skills necessary to craft a game, but students  quickly realize the catch 22 – that if all they do is the basic schoolwork, they (and their games) have little chance of standing out from the thousands of other graduates who receive the same training. The best students understand that they need to do far more than the basics, and they work like mad in their spare time perfecting their portfolios, making mods, networking and more.

But here’s the rub: I’m not sure if even that is enough anymore. I taught game design for a couple years, and have been a professional game designer since way back in ’90. The students who went beyond the base curriculum invariably proved the ones most likely to actually create games after college, but I noticed something more. Those who did the best, whether they were straight out of high school or had spent a few years working first, were those who had already taken the dive into game development before hitting college.

Having their teachers work with an existing foundation instead of having to build even that makes a dramatic difference. Students who entered with a decent skill set were not bored. Instead they had the opportunity to dig deeper into the subject matter than did their peers. The following list shows some of the main skills and accomplishments students should have before they hit college. I recommend that they try their hands at all of these and focus on the ones that most click with them.

  • Build a website – I don’t think anyone should be allowed to graduate high school without having built a web site, whether they are going to make games or not. This is such a basic skill now. Of course, in ten years it will probably be a completely outmoded skill only used by weirdos and dinosaurs, but right now it is an integral part of society.
  • Play a wide variety of games – Most of the students I met had a favorite game that served as the catalyst for them wanting to make their own. However, far too often that game, and ones quite like it, were the only ones they really knew. This really handicaps developers later, as they miss valuable lessons other types teach. And by other types, I don’t just mean just trying strategy games if you are a Street Fighter fanatic. I mean board games, card games, miniature games, live action games, Rock Paper Scissors and so on.
  • Learn teamwork – The lone coder working in the basement is much less common now than in the 1980s, and even most of those have someone else supplying art, testing and so on. Learning how to work with other people is one of the key skills good game developers have, and no time is too early to start. By the way, having tried both team sports and role-playing games, I prefer D&D and Fading Suns (blatant plug) for developing my teamwork skills.
  • Put together a computer – Well, at least swap out a video card or something. I am still amazed at the number of students I saw who had never opened their computer and really had no idea how it functioned. Yes, I once set fire to a modem card this way, but it was a learning experience.
  • Playtest something – There are lots of open beta tests going on these days, and many companies provide special testing opportunities to fans who have proven themselves. Remember, testing is primarily about putting the scientific method to work, and you learned that in high school, right?
  • Post to forums – intelligently and politely. Companies read their forums and may respond to thoughtful, informed commentary. It’s never too early to start networking, and you can learn from others as well as share your own insights. Avoid the trolls and flamers and never become one of them yourself. That’s one of the easiest ways to ensure you won’t work in games.
  • Make a game – This does not have to be a commercial-quality video game. After all, if you could do that, you can probably handle most of what the industry would throw at you. Create your own card game, board game, etc., and get some friends to play it. Nothing teaches game production like doing it.

These last two require a higher level of commitment, but can be invaluable if you try them.

  • Code something – Even if you do not want to be a programmer, you should understand how software works. There are plenty of free programming tutorials online, books at the public library and so on. I don’t care if you program in C++, Java or FORTRAN (good luck with that last one), just give it a try and see what the computer does in response.
  • Make a mod – Lots of games offer ways to create mods, scenarios and the like. Do it. Pick a game you like that gives you access to its building tools and dive in. Not only will you have gained invaluable experience on making games, but I guarantee you will leave the experience with lots of ideas on what games should NOT do.

Finally, figure out what kind of college degree you want to get. No, not everyone in the game industry has a college degree, but if you look at the job postings in the industry, you’ll see that the vast majority ask for a degree. While programming positions often require a computer science degree, other positions tend to be less specific. Game companies don’t just want you to have a degree to prove that you can drain a keg and still show up for 8am classes. They want you to prove you can take an extended task from beginning to end, and that is one of the things a college degree does. The ability to take a long-term project to completion is a critical skill in the industry that far too many people fail to develop. I don’t care if it’s a game design degree or a journalism degree. Go for the one that will keep you going to 8am classes even after you finished that keg.

This article first ran on www.gametheoryonline.com

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About Andrew Greenberg

Andrew Greenberg, best known for designing computer games and roleplaying games, co-created the “Fading Suns” roleplaying and computer games, was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade” and is lead designer on "Haunted House Tycoon" (www.hauntedhousetycoon.com). Andrew has credits on more than 50 White Wolf products and more than 20 HDI books. He has also worked on products with other roleplaying game companies, including “Star Trek Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” His computer game credits include Dracula Unleashed, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Emperor of the Fading Suns, Warhammer 40K: Final Liberation, Merchant Prince II, Mall Tycoon, Dungeon Lords, The Virtual World of Kaneva, and more. His most recent computer game credits are Railroad Tycoon Mobile and the Global Agenda MMO. He serves as director of the Southeast Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo (www.siegecon.net), Playoncon (www.playoncon.com) and Faerie Escape: Atlanta (www.faeatlanta.com). Andrew blogs at http://andrewgreenberg.livejournal.com