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To school or not to school?
by Robert Madsen on 03/15/10 09:51:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Well, I've spent the last six weeks in crunchy goodness getting my latest game out. By the next time I post I should be able to let you all in on the name of the game. But not yet!

Today's topic is education. One of the most common questions I get from people interested in pursuing a career in the game industry is whether or not they should get a formal degree.

At first glance, this seems like an odd question. If you want to be an accountant, you'll get some kind of degree in accounting. If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, you'll have to get an advanced degree in either law or medicine. So, it seems like the answer to this question would be a resounding "YES!"

However, there is a decided split of opinion on whether or not a formal degree is essential to pursuing a career in game development. Those who favor an education point out the classic benefits of having a degree, while those on the other side see a degree as just another piece of paper, and stress the creative elements of game development that can't be learned in a lecture.

Once again, we can blame rock 'n roll.

After all, how many rock stars have music degrees? These people made it because they practiced their craft and pushed on with their dream. In the same way, there are legitimate stories of people who have made a great new mod (think Counter-Strike) or a great new game (think Portal), and then went on to game development glory without the hassle (or expense) of a formal education, right?

Actually, both co-developers of Counter-Strike graduated from college with formal degrees while the co-developers of Portal were all students at DigiPen. Somehow this point is often left out when these stories are told.

In the early days of game development, it was much more common for a brilliant game idea to be enough to ensure a bright future as a game develeoper. And there are people out there -- renegades of our industry -- who made it on sweat and blood more that textbooks and Cliff notes. Well, not to worry, even with a degree, you'll still have to put in the sweat and blood!

For the record, I am a member of the camp who strongly encourages newcomers in our industry to pursue a formal degree.  I'm not saying that it is impossible to get into the game industry without a degree, just that it is more difficult.

Now that the game industry has matured, the hiring practices have become more akin to those found in the corporate world. Scan the job postings on Gamasutra and count the number that require a formal degree. There are several key reasons why having a degree tends to make you a much more appealing candidate for any employer.

  1. A student with a formal degree has successfully completed a gamut of courses that have been analyzed and certified to effectively teach the material at hand. Schools, professors, and curriculum all have to be accredited by third parties for quality and relevance.
  2. As you go through school, your knowledge of the subject matter is continually tested and verified. All of this is rolled up into two significant marks: your GPA and your completed degree. While you could read all of the same books and do all of the same “homework” on your own, there would be no third party verification that you had successfully learned the material.
  3. Bypassing a formal education means you miss out on a significant part of the classroom experience: practical knowledge and mentoring from those who are professionals or educators in the field.
  4. Many employers see school as an analogy of the work environment. In school you have to show up on time, meet deadlines, and perform under pressure. The same is true in the job environment. The fact that you succeeded in school under such a structured environment is seen as evidence that you might also succeed at the job.

For many companies, a degree is a kind of litmus test. When faced with a stack of 100 applications for a single job, the first stage of rejections might simply be based on who has a degree and who doesn’t. This creates a catch-22 situation. While most companies ultimately hire based on “what you know” no matter how you learned it, it may be difficult to ever get the opportunity to show what you know if you can’t get people to take your resume seriously. 

That's it for this post! For those of you who have decided that it is in your best interests to pursue a degree, the next big question is what kind of degree or school is best? That's next time!


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Jed Hubic
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Great post. Not to mention the fact that a degree usually ensures a job even if not in the games industry (Computer Science/Software Engineering), so you can always make money and become a better coder/designer/etc. while you work on getting more skills or look for more opportunities. Pretty much a win win. I've seen lots of kids drop out of University too, so if you can't be bothered to understand how a for loop works, pretty good indication how you'd get on.

Dustin McBeth
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This is quiet disheartening. I've been keeping the dream a live for the last six years with the belief that "if you have the skill, you don't need the degree."

Robert Madsen
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I is certainly not my intent to dash your dreams! Skill is the determining factor, and if you can demonstrate that skill you still have a chance to break in. It's just that having a degree helps you get to the point where people want you to demonstrate your skills. Is there a particular barrier that stops you from pursuing an education? For example, had you started six years ago you would be done by now...perhaps spending the next few years to get the education is something you should consider. Of course, I don't know your circumstances, so there may be something stopping you from doing so.

Also, if you are trying to break in on the skills approach, what have you done so that potential employers can see your skills demonstrated? For example, you could build a portfolio website with sample of your work.

Don't give up the dream...but do more than dream as well.


Jerrad Zonna
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What advice would you give to someone that is getting a degree but thinks it won't be enough to get into the industry? I've been studying and trying my best but when I look at the jobs it just seems like I'm not up to par with what their asking in an programmer like myself. I want to get better and show that I can do the job but to me I know there are others who are better than me anyway. I feel like getting into the industry, which has been a dream of mine since high school, seems to grow ever further away from my grasp. As my graduation creeps around the corner I feel disheartened to even apply when I know where I am at compared to others. It's easy to say to yourself I'll learn this and that but doing it is a different story. I've sat down and looked over tutorials and tried making a few games using XNA for a start but it seems like thats not nearly enough. I have some goals set to make a simple game in XNA, Torque engine too, start learning DirectX, and pick up a few scripting languages like Lua and Python. When you read this what kind of advice pops into your mind that would be great for a very ethusiastic programmer trying to get into the game industry?

Robert Madsen
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First of all, keep doing exactly what you are doing. Both your work toward a degree and your work on the side learning the various tools are equally important. As I have already said, finishing your degree goes a long way toward showing that you are capable of finishing what you start.

The next most important thing would be to take one of your game ideas and turn it into a fully completed game. By this I mean that it has all the things you would expect from a game: a front-end, two or more complete levels, HUD, credits, etc. The idea is to have a complete mini-game with the empahsis on complete. The reason I empasize this is that it's easy (and glamorous) to create just the gameplay, but turning this into a polished product means you have to go the extra mile and do the "boring" stuff, (menus, etc.). However, "complete" doesn't mean that you have to create the next Halo.

Finally, don't get intimidated. I understand the sort of hopeless feeling you might get when you scan the job boards. It seems like everyone is looking for people with impossible skill sets. And there are a lot of those. Right now there are so many people out of work that prospective employers can afford to be very picky. Nevertheless, there are still companies willing to hire people at an entry level.

Here are my "pracitical" tips fro when you do start looking for a job:

- Target entry level positions.

- Lower your expectations - this might sound odd, but just realize you're probably not going to get a job working on the latest AAA title for the newest console. Your first job might be programming casual games, web games, or something less demanding. And that's not to say that these types of games don't take a lot of skill (hey, that's what I do!).

- Start networking now. Get an account on LinkedIn and start adding people that you contact in the industry to your network.

- Build a website to show off you work.

- If you get a chance, attend an any industry events you can get to, especially a Game Devleoper Conference where there is almost always a career pavillion where you can meet prospective employers.

Hope this helps. Feel free to email me and otherwise stay in touch.


Senthil Kannan
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very informative!! I was always skeptical about the fact why one must acquire a game development degree before breaking into this fraternity as it demands more practical exposure rather than subjecting a student into some stringent academic vigour in order to get him trained. But you have projected the employers perspective quite efficiently with your enriched experience.

Timothy McColgan
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Great article. Im currently pursuing a degree in CS with hopes of breaking into the game industry. Early on i was a little meloncoly about it for the same reason that Jerrad had. Whenever i talk to a professor about my goals in the industry i was usually told that the game-dev industry is a cut throat industry that takes an extreme level of dedication, discipline, and talent, and even with those traits a position would be very hard to attain. Ive only had one proffessor who really encouraged me to chase that dream. After 3 years of education ive come to this conclusion: I would love to be a game-dev and i have to put my heart and soul into programming in order to get a foot in the door, but if im unable to get a job in the industry out of college or ever for that matter I have a degree in a lucrative field with tons of room for advancement. The fact that i worked harder than the other people in my classes and took specialized classes will make me a more desireable candidate for non gaming programming positions.

Robert Madsen
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Although it may be difficult to get a job, or "break-in" to the game industry, the truth is that is difficult to get that first job in almost any industry, so don't let the stories of "how hard" it is to break in stop you from pursuing that goal. As far as I can tell, game companies will always need more and more people to develop those games (hey, us old-timers are gonna die sometime!). I also think that it is wise (for a programmer) to get a computer science degree because that prepares you to be a programmer, not just a game programmer.

Also, the idea that it is harder to get a job in the game industry that in the general industry may not be totally true. For example, when I was laid off last year, I applied to hundreds of jobs both in the game industry and in general IT. The only companies that I ever got a bite from were game companies. My theory on that is that there are a lot of general programmers, but game programming is a specific and highly desired skill. Of course, it might be hard to get that first job, but after that it might actually be easier to get another job in the game industry.