Leveling Up Your Game Development Skills

People who play video games often think about making them for a living. And companies that make video games want to hire passionate tech pros with the right skill-sets. In theory, the university system becomes the intermediary that brings these two parties together, via degrees in game design and job-placement programs.

Formal study in game design did not exist when console-based games such as Pong first became popular in the 1970s, or even when Nintendo dominated television screens in the 1980s. But today, with people from all walks of life considering themselves avid gamers, and top-selling games out-earning even blockbuster movies, the need is there for educational programs.

With all that in mind, let’s explore how game studios source the talent they need.

Raw Material

Start with the incoming student.

Unfortunately for students interested in game design, skill at playing games doesn’t effortlessly translate into skill at building them. We spoke to professors who noted that, while some freshmen in their classes have some previous experience coding, many do not.

Fortunately, even students who have never typed out a line of code can still enter a game-development program—provided they’re willing to learn. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology will take students with no previous background in programming. But in that case, it’s a fast start. “They discover what it’s about in the first semester, taking a software development course,” said Jessica Bayliss, associate director of the School of Interactive Games at RIT.

The game design program attracts students “who like playing games and want to make games to play,” Bayliss added. They are less likely to have programming experience coming in, but the school will place the first-time coders in a separate cohort from their more experienced classmates.

“We expect you to see what it’s like, to see what the program is actually like,” said David Schwartz, director of RIT’s School of Interactive Games and Media. If a student struggles with programming, they will find out sooner rather than later and avoid spending tuition money on a fruitless pursuit.

At the University of Southern California, incoming students are advised to get some programming experience under their belts in the summer prior to arriving on campus, explained Michael Zyda, founding director of the USC GamePipe Laboratory and professor of engineering practice. Take a C++ class at the local community college, he suggested, or try the free online course offered by MIT.

Student expectations often run headlong into the unexpected, noted Jessica Hammer, assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University. “The most surprising thing for undergraduates is how much game design is not about being a programmer,” she said.

Within the graduate program, soft skills are key; students must learn collaboration, teamwork, reliability, good communication, and problem-solving. “This is the biggest surprise for our master’s students,” Hammer said.

“The exciting thing about game design is that it involves so many different kinds of skills, from computer programming, math and physics to art, animation, music and creative writing,” said Ben Chang, electronic artist and director of the Games and Simulation Arts Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“Game design is about writing code, and also about telling a story, inventing a world, understanding player psychology, and ultimately about creating something compelling and meaningful for players to experience,” Chang said.

Program This

What kinds of degrees do future game developers pursue?

It depends on the school: USC offers four degrees in game design: B.A. Interactive Media and Games; B.S. Computer Science (Games); MFA Interactive Media and Games; MS Computer Science (Game Development). Zyda, who originated the school’s gaming degree programs in computer science at the BS and MS levels, has one misgiving: there is no concurrent on-campus program to train artists for computer games.

Roughly 65 percent of USC’s gaming graduates go into game design and development; another 30 percent do game art, while the remaining five percent engage in gameplay design. In the 12 years Zyda has run the program, USC has sent 2,000 graduates into the industry, spread among 600 companies.

“The gaming industry is looking for programmers who know who to do game design,” Zyda said. “When they go into the gaming industry, they are ready to rock.”

According to RIT’s Bayliss, some “95 percent of our students in some kind of software development position, including the gaming industry.” There is a lot of skills overlap between gaming and general software development, as students in both arenas have to work in teams and demonstrate that they can build solid products.

RIT’s co-op program requires students to work in the industry before getting their degrees. While it is difficult to get a placement into a game design studio, it does happen.

“Our major, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, is designed to encourage students to dual-major in departments like Computer Science, which also gives students a broader range of career paths.” RPI’s Chang said. “Some other closely related areas include training simulation, visualization, UI/UX design, virtual reality and augmented reality application development, and the animation industry.”

Paving the Career Path with Capstones

At Carnegie-Mellon, there are two paths to the gaming industry: as an undergraduate minor or via the school’s Master’s Degree program. The undergraduate route requires students to work collaboratively and design a game with some sort of constraint (i.e., a limiting factor that requires them to think outside conventional bounds) in place.

One interactive project yielded a game where audience members in a theater used their smartphones to affect the behavior of the actors onstage, Hammer recalled. Another project required students to merge virtual reality with a board game in order to enhance play. Other students—and total strangers—offer feedback on the games’ mechanisms.

Carnegie-Mellon’s master’s degree, offered via the Entertainment Technology Center, is where the heavy-duty work of industry entry takes place. Students work in teams, and class projects can last three to four weeks, eventually ramping up to 40 hours a week working with an external client.

“We’re trying to show them what it is like to be a pro,” Hammer said. “Game jobs are competitive… We certify that if they can succeed here, they can succeed anywhere.”

USC’s program capstone is the Advanced Game Project, the results of which are exhibited at GamePipe Lab’s Fall and Spring Showcase events. The project is a yearlong undertaking wherein third-year students must form teams, then develop and pitch a game design. The lab will receive about 20-25 proposals, but only five or six are usually chosen to proceed to the Showcase.

The groups have to be “ready to go,” coming up with a game that’s playable for 20 minutes by the end of the first semester, and two to four hours by the end of the next semester.

A project is more likely to be accepted if the student is smart and sociable enough to attract teammates. Teams can vary in size from 20 to 60 students. One student heading a 65-person team went on to develop “Pokemon Go,” which attracted one million players. “I consider that pretty cool,” Zyda said.

A shy student forming a team of one probably won’t make the cut in terms of getting their project approved, Zyda added: “Even if it is a great idea, there is no team to build it, so it won’t go anywhere.”

As for showcasing at RIT, there is the International Global Game Jam, a 48-hour event that draws about 40,000 students from 90 countries. “The games coming out of that are extremely varied,” Bayliss said.

Within RIT, there is also the Experimental Gameplay Project. “It’s a weird, quirky, alternate way of looking at what games are,” Schwartz said.

Virtual and Actual

As every academic interviewed for this tory noted, schools tend not to emphasize a particular genre of creative design. Students have crafted puzzle games and narrative-driven ones; first-person shooters, although popular among the gaming community, aren’t the sole focus of students.

“Beyond specific technologies, game design requires agility, problem solving, intuition as well as technical rigor, and most importantly, interdisciplinary collaboration.” RPI’s Chang observed.

But even with those skills, breaking into the industry also takes a bit of luck. “Very few people get to design games,” Zyda said. The largest games—known in the industry as AAA titles—require armies of designers and programmers, but there are many independent shops where you’ll find a handful of tech pros working on smaller mobile games. (Examples of AAA games include “Titanfall,” glimpsed in the top image, and the “Call of Duty” franchise.)

Whatever their genre of choice, students should be visionaries capable of working on small, medium and large teams, added CMU’s Hammer.

Students may start out on this particular career path with a game controller and a dream. And in the end, they will be working alongside others who came down that same path, leveling up with every new challenge mastered.

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