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Anatomy of a Game College
by Robert Madsen on 06/23/10 09:39:00 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.

 

Continuing on with my thread about game education, I would like to share my thoughts about a particular program that I am very familiar with because my son attended there.  This post is not designed to either endorse or criticize the program at Full Sail. Although I am very pleased with the education that my son received their (and he is, too), any student considering a program at or like the one at Full Sail should take the time to learn about all of the details--positive and negative--before making a choice.

As I have stated in my previous posts, attending a specialized game college has its advantages and disadvantages. For my son, the advantage was that Full Sail offered a focused, accelerated program that allowed him to get his degree in game programming in only 2 years (remember this point as your read on). He was not interested in a traditional four-year college because he didn't want to take four years to go through college. He also felt that a traditional program would spend too much time on material that had nothing to do with game development. At the time (2005), Full Sail was one of the few specialized game colleges. Interestingly, he was first attracted to Full Sail because of their music program, which is also considered to be very excellent. When his career focus changed to game development, Full Sail seemed like a great pick.

Short Cut?

Before I continue, let me briefly discuss my thoughts on traditional vs. non-traditional programs. It can be argued that traditional four-year colleges offer a better, more well-rounded education. Sometimes when I hear potential students (like my son) say that they don't want to attend a four-year college because they feel the general education will be a "waste of their time", I automatically jump to the conclusion that this person might be just using this as an excuse. Personally, I feel that the breadth of education offered by traditional programs is very valuable. Many employers may also feel the same, wondering if a student who opted for an accelerated program was looking for some kind of short cut to their education.

Having said that, I also realize that you can't force a square peg into a round hole. There are different kinds of students who learn or excel in different types of environments. Knowing my son, I could see that he would flourish in an environment like Full Sail but wouldn't necessarily flourish in a traditional program. As a student, you should take a hard look at your motivations for seeking a specialized program, and make sure that you don't somehow think this is the "easy way". I can tell you from experience that getting an education from Full Sail is anything but easy!

The Program

At the time my son attended Full Sail, the game development program was offered as a two-year degree. They had just upgraded the program so that the student actually earned a Bachelor’s degree by the time they were done.  This is very important because having a certified Bachelors degree is leaps and bounds better than just receiving a technical certificate of some kind.

Full Sail is a 24 hour, 7 day a week school. This means that your classes could potentially fall on any day of the week, at any time of the day or night. Realistically, most of the classes occurred between the hours of 8:00 A.M and midnight. Very few sessions were held on Sunday.

Students take 2 (count em - two!) classes each month. Each class takes a month to complete and typically meets three times a week. Each class session is 8 hours log and is divided between 4 hours of lecture and 4 hours of lab. The average student should then plan on at least another 4 to 6 hours per day outside of class to complete the required homework and projects. In other words, you will be investing at least 12 hours every day to your school work. This doesn't leave a whole lot of time for smelling the roses (or partying). Those who don't take this commitment seriously generally end up dropping out.

Attendance and Academics

One of the things that Full Sail recruiters don't emphasize enough is their attendance policy. Since Full Sail is so accelerated, missing class is not tolerated. If you miss one class session, you might be able to catch up. If you miss two class sessions, you are automatically failed and have to retake the class another time.

Again, because of the accelerated nature of the program, there isn't a lot of slack for missing or failed assignments. Basically if you don’t complete one or two assignments, or fail a single exam, it is likely that you will fail the class and be required to take it again.

Students can be put on academic probation. This means the Full Sail will require the student to take from 1 to 6 months off of school before they are allowed to return and continue their studies. Academic probation can be invoked for failing too many classes, attendance problems, or if your GPA falls below a certain level.

Retake Policy

Realizing that the accelerated nature of the class might scare away potential students, Full Sail recruiters are quick to stress that you can retake any class that you want to until you pass it. However, they may leave out the nasty details, such as:

  • Students are charged a retake fee (potentially over $1000) each time they retake a class.
  • Although students can theoretically take a class as many times as necessary, there is a fundamental limit on how many times you can retake courses because of the 3 year time limit put on completing the program (see below).
  • If you have to retake a class, this will generally delay your entire program. For example, let's say you fail 3D Programming I. Had you passed it, you would have continued on to 3D Programming II. But since you failed it, you can't take 3D Programming II, or any other course that had 3D Programming I as a prerequisite. The result is that you may only be able to take one class instead of two next month, and so on until you have a chance to repeat and complete 3D Programming I (which isn't guaranteed to happen the next month).

Time Limit

The Full Sail program is designed to be completed in 2 years. However, few students are able to accomplish this. It is almost inevitable that students will have to retake one or more courses. Furthermore, Full Sail enforces a 3 year completion time limit. What this means is this: if you do not complete your program in 3 years, then you cannot graduate and you will not be allowed to finish.

Failure became a real possibility for my son. He had to retake a few classes, and then this cascaded to delay future classes that he could take until he had completed the prerequisites. During the last six months he was faced with the possibility that if he failed a single class for any reason, it would be impossible for him to complete the program in the 3 year time limit. This means that you could spend over $50,000 dollars, invest 3 years of your life, and complete 90% of the program only to be told that you will not be allowed to graduate!

Perks

On the positive side, all students in the Full Sail game development get a free laptop! Hey, if nothing else, you'll get a cool laptop for that fifty grand you paid for tuition! Other perks include:

  • State of the art equipment
  • 24 hour access to labs
  • An expansive technical library
  • Credible instructors who really know their stuff
  • Many connections with people inside the industry, including regular visits from recruiters and other reps

Cost

At the time my son attended Full Sail, the cost of tuition was around $56,000 (includes books). This is a lot of money, but not so bad if you compare it to a four-year program. For example, in-state tuition at a local college for four years plus books will run you about $8,000 per year (not counting housing and food). Out-of-state tuition will raise this to about $15,000 per year. So, the cost of attending a college in your state of residence will run about $32,000 over four years (just under the cost of Full Sail), while attending an out-of-state college will cost you about $60,000 in four years (about the same as Full Sail). Of course, these are just estimates and you should check the actual costs of any school you are considering. The bottom line is that the cost of attending Full Sail is about as much as it would cost you to attend an out-of-state college.

Career Placement

Full Sail does an okay job of helping students position themselves to get a job after graduation. But like any college, they cannot find a job for you. You will hear legendary stories of students who got their dream job offer before they even graduated (and this does happen).  However, these cases are definitely the exception. The reality is that you will be graduating with about 30 to 50 students (each month) and all of you will have to vie for whatever positions are available at the time. It took my son 9 months to get his first job.

The Bottom Line

Full Sail is a great school. My son feels he got what he expected, and has now been working as a game programmer for over 2 years.  However, his success was due to his dedication, and he came very close to not being able to complete the program. As an interesting side note he and two friends all began Full Sail at the same month. Only he completed the program. The drop-out rate at Full Sail is about this high.

If you are considering attending Full Sail, or any other specialized, focused, game college, keep these things in mind:

  • Make sure you understand how much time you will have to invest daily to complete the program, and be honest with yourself as to whether you are willing to invest that much time.
  • Really, really, really make sure that you are aware of all of the schools academic, attendance, and related policies.
  • Make sure that you understand that the college does not make the student. Any program you attend will require you to completely dedicate yourself to the task if you want to succeed.

One final caveat! This discussion of Full Sail’s policies is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate as of the time my son attended their program. It is entirely possible that some or all of these have changed since then, so make sure you find out for yourself!

That's it for now!

R


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Comments


Corey Holcomb-Hockin
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yikes. That sounds brutal. Guess it might fit some people though.

Robert Madsen
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Brutal yes, but then so are many actual positions in our industry! R

John Hillestad
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Great piece on the Full Sail experience from a different point of view then the usual admissions person perspective. I looked at going there many years ago for the music program but fate and finance had other plans that kept me in Wisconsin.



Recently I've been looking at a local college here in Madison that seems pretty good and offers a Bachelor of Science in Game Development in 3 years. If you have a moment to comment on it I'd really appreciate it.



http://www.herzing.edu/academics/game-development

Brandon Layton
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I'm currently a student at Full Sail in the Game Development degree. I just wanted to clarify some things because the information is 3rd party and some of it is outdated.





"Each class session is 8 hours log and is divided between 4 hours of lecture and 4 hours of lab. The average student should then plan on at least another 4 to 6 hours per day outside of class to complete the required homework and projects. In other words, you will be investing at least 12 hours every day to your school work."



On the schedule you are at school 8 hours a day, yes. However, typically lecture goes around 3 hours, giving an hour for lunch. More importantly there is almost never homework, expect during project months (in which case you will work till you can't work anymore). Most students that are working on homework are actually just working on lab assignments that they couldn't finish in lab.





"On the positive side, all students in the Full Sail game development get a free laptop! Hey, if nothing else, you'll get a cool laptop for that fifty grand you paid for tuition! Other perks include:



State of the art equipment

24 hour access to labs

An expansive technical library

Credible instructors who really know their stuff

Many connections with people inside the industry, including regular visits from recruiters and other reps"





The laptop is definitely not free. I believe they charged me $2100 for an HP EliteBook 8730w, which almost no software. Software can be downloaded through the Microsoft Student Exchange Program.



State of the art equipment applies more to other degrees such as Film and Recording arts.



The library is actually very small and I'd rather not even mention we have one.



Instructors are hit or miss. For instance last month we learned OpenGL from Richard Wright (author of the OpenGL Super Bible). Others aren't as note worthy, but I challenge a traditional school to show me a better group of game industry professionals.



Tuition rates also increase every year. For instance I started in 2009 and for Game Dev our tuition was ~$72,000, while for 2010 it has jumped to ~$75,000.





"Students are charged a retake fee (potentially over $1000) each time they retake a class."



The way it works currently is if you fail the class for grades you get one free pass to take the class again. If you fail again you have to pay for it. If you fail a class for attendance, then you have to pay for the class no matter what.



There are certain core classes such as Math, Physics, Programming I, II, III that if you fail more than twice you are automatically withdrawn from the class. And I'm not certain but I think you have to get supplemental education (i.e. community college) to get credit for the classes and you are on probation for a long while (1 year?). Either way, don't fail those classes if you can help it.



Most people fail for attendance in the beginning and the policy is pretty brutal. For instance if you get sick you still can only be excused for up to 2 classes, so if you get something serious you have to take a leave of absence or you will be paying a lot of money because you will fail for attendance rather than grades.



All that said, I have done the four-year college thing and even though I've only two semesters from a B.S. in Computer Science the education here has exceeded my expectations (after you get pass the core classes). They don't do very much for transfer students, almost nothing transfers by the way.

Robert Madsen
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Thanks for the update! R


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