Making games is awesome. Genuinely, it’s one of the most creative, fastest evolving professions and I’m proud to be part of this industry. It’s also very exciting that game development has gotten to a point at which we are reinforced as a pursuable career by the presence of game design college degrees. Almost all of these are very new, and most programs have been founded in the last decade. As great as it is, if you talk to students that graduate from these programs (I'm specifically talking about American schools here,) not all of them are working in the field. There are a lot of reasons for this, but in my experience, I’ve found that many to-be game students don’t know what to research before choosing a college.
Not all degrees are created equal.
I'm not here to point fingers at which institutions you should or should not go to, but I can honestly say that there are college degrees that are worth the cost if you put the work in and some that are definitely not, regardless of what you do. The for-profit colleges that you recognize from ads that are all over magazines and websites are not always worth it. Money for advertising comes out of your tuition. I’ve got some advice if you’re looking to get on the game train, and most of it revolves around research. A good portion of it can be done from the comfort of your home with one hand Googling reviews and the other in a Doritos bag. It’s okay. Don’t be ashamed. I do it too. Here’s what I have to say:
What a school’s faculty says about their own program is biased.
This is understandable. They need their program to be successful, so they’re going to want students to come. That’s natural, and it’s okay. But they’re going to speak positively about parts of the program that students won’t. Even if you don’t want to hear it, it’s necessary to learn both the goods AND the bads about a program so you can weigh your options before you put down $20,000 or $30,000 or $50,000. Not being able to find student work from a program is a huge red flag. If that college has work to show off, they will. This is guarenteed because it sells the school. Google reviews of colleges by folks who went there in the last 5 years. Look up graduates on LinkedIn or forums and ask about their experiences. Asking one person of their opinion is not enough, so try to talk to at least 3 or 4 folks from each school if you can, preferably folks who are now working in the field and know what it takes to make it.
Outplacement, outplacement, outplacement.
Talking to people that have graduated from that program is more important than talking to folks going in, but the numbers aren't everything. Don't trust a college that claims 80-90% job placement. When you’re paying for a college degree, think of it like paying for a product that you’ve ordered off of Amazon. This sounds like a stretch, I know, but that product is going to either work well, need some tinkering, or break as soon as you open the box. How do you find out which of those it’ll be? You read the reviews. Reading a review of someone who just ordered the product and doesn’t have it yet would be useless. “This looks like it’s going to be awesome!” is not helpful because that reviewer hasn’t used the product yet. The best reviews are thoroughly written by someone who has been using that purchase for a while now. They know if it does what it’s supposed to do. They know if it lasts more than a few days and then just falls apart. They know long term if that product will benefit you. If you read reviews before making a $15 purchase, why wouldn’t you read them before buying what might cost up to $100,000?
School costs money. Money is numbers. Numbers are math.
A lot of folks are going to tell you that college is worth the cost. I’m telling you right now that’s not always true. If it was, then I wouldn’t be writing this, but here we are. Folks going into college, especially those that are fresh out of high school, often don’t realize that you can do the math on different programs and compare that to the average salary of the position that you’re aiming for. There are a TON of options online that do a lot of the calculations for you, like at studentloans.gov and other similar sites. You can estimate your student loan payments before ever putting down a dime. Some things to take into account:
How much is the cost of living of where your industry is? If you want to go into AAA games, Irvine or Los Angeles has a different price point than Seattle or Vancouver.
What is the realistic salary you’re going to make? Just Google things like “Tech artist salary” or “level designer salary” and you’ll find a bunch of resources that show you salary by state. This also might change the exact job you’re paying for in order to make this all work financially, and that’s okay.
Statistics show that most college students don't graduate in four years. There’s a very good chance you’ll be paying for 5 years of college, which is perfectly normal. Most students either transfer colleges or change their major at least once. Take that into account.
There’s a good chance that you won’t get your dream job right away, and you might have to wait tables or do some labor while you buff up your portfolio for a few months.
There’s a slew of smaller things to remember: are you going to need to pay car insurance? What will your paycheck look like after income tax? How much financial assistance are you getting from family?
Going to college is like paying for a very expensive library card.
You’re paying for access to the books, not for someone to read them to you. A lot of folks go through game development degrees and don’t push themselves far enough, and then they’re confused why they don’t have a job 6 months after they graduate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it means there’s still more to learn before you can get in. Good schools WILL challenge you because that builds up your self-discipline and persistence.
Honestly, game design is hard. There’s a lot of technical and soft-skill knowledge required to do this, and the more that the college pushes you, the better. That said, you need to go above-and-beyond what most game dev programs are going to ask of you. This industry is cool as heck, so there’s a lot of saturation in the bottom half of folks going into this. My suggestion? Work your ass off. I absolutely believe that anyone has the raw potential to do this, but it takes a lot of mistakes to get it all right. Get messy, push your boundaries, and you’ll go further than you ever could have imagined.
Edit: Here's another fantastic resource on this topic. Please spread this link around to anyone that might be able to benefit from it!
If you ever have any questions or comments, feel free to put them below or reach out to be at @beccahallstedt on Twitter.