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Computer Science Vs. Game Development (or Which Degree Should I Get?)
by Robert Walker on 02/13/11 02:32:00 am   Featured 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.


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Note: This is long, if you don't want to read it, skip to the bottom to get to the conclusion and summary.

Weekly blog post #4, go! This one has been on my todo pile for a while, so as long as I am in ranting mode, I might as well get this off of my chest. It is a problem that is highly prevalent on many game developer forums, and especially so on one I often frequent, Often, people will ask the question: "What should I do about college, is a game degree right for me?" Unfortunately, 9 times out of 10, the response is "get the 4 year degree in computer science, it makes you more marketable for non-gaming related jobs!" This answer comes almost as an automated response, as if the world has an away message posted just for this question.

As a disclaimer, please note that everything I am going to say and, for that matter, everything on this blog is my personal opinion. I am asserting that I am correct because it’s my blog and my opinion, but that does not mean that you have to agree with me. I will also preface this by stating that I have been to both a prestigious 4 year college and obtained a degree in Game Development from Full Sail, so I have experience with both sides of this argument. I have also worked several jobs, both in and out of the game development industry, so I can talk about the process of interviewing with non-gaming companies when you have a Game Development degree.

I'd like first to clarify a common misconception about game development degrees. The misconception is that game development = game design, and that game design = sprawling out some concept art, a story, a few stats, and having other people make your games. Or worse, some people believe that game development goes something like this. The position of "Idea Guy" does not exist unless you are funding the project or you are a proven developer with several successful titles under your belt. Even then, unless you are an indie or a huge name designer in the sphere of Miyamoto or Kojima, chances are you will not have full reign over the project you are designing, and that your personal game ideas will sit on the shelf, untouched until you either get enough money to fund your own project, or you learn to program and take up the reigns of creation yourself.

I don't say this to destroy anyone's hopes of being a game designer. There are more opportunities now than ever to design your own games, but they all require having a skill and being very good at that skill. So if what you are looking to do is go to school for "game design," I recommend you rethink your focus and go to school to obtain a skill that will let you -develop- games. You can specialize in programming, art, animation, sound engineering, or any array of things that float your boat, but you must have something to bring to the table or you will never even start down the path of realizing your goals and getting your dream game made.

So, what does all that have to do with the debate of Computer Science Degrees vs. Game Development Degrees? Mainly, I wanted to clarify the difference between "Development" and "Design." With a Game Development degree at any school worth its salt, you will be tasked with learning a good deal of programming, as well as many other of the technical aspects of game development. Sure, there is a little design to be had, but most good game design school focus on teaching you usable skills to bring a project from start to finish, giving you hands on experience and letting you get your hands dirty. With a Computer Science degree at most schools you will be given a battery of classes, ranging from various forms of literature to health to math to lots of computing theory. A Computer Science degree will expose you to an array of topics you may not have otherwise even thought about, though lack of specialization will leave you needing to focus heavily on doing things outside of class in order to have a greater usable skill set immediately out of college. I recommend doing things outside of class regardless of which degree you decide to obtain, so this is nothing different.

The major benefit of a Computer Science degree is -not- that it makes you more marketable to companies when it comes to getting a job. The benefit is just what I mentioned before: you get exposed to things you may not have otherwise thought about. If you are not quite certain which area of game development you might be interested in, going to a normal 4-year college and pursuing a Computer Science degree is a good way to start. Chances are that by the time you're done you may not even come out with a Computer Science degree, you may have decided that instead you like doing art more, or you may have decided that you enjoyed that one class you took in Japanese and went on to get a degree in International Business. The process of obtaining a Computer Science degree gives you the latitude to better decide what you really want to do.

And it is exactly on that point that I differentiate the two degrees, deciding what you want to do. If you know that you want to make games, that it's your one passion in life and you really don't want to do anything else, then go for the Game Development degree. You will come out with less knowledge of general things (which can honestly be picked up by reading a few books outside of class anyway), but you will come out with much more skill directly applicable to making your dreams into reality. You will also gain a hidden advantage: connections within the industry. When you are at a traditional school obtaining a Computer Science degree, you are surrounded by various types of students who all have aspirations to different careers, from making banking software to designing rockets. But when you are at a school learning game development you are surrounded by people like you, people who want to develop games for a living, who are seeking to enter your industry. A good portion of these people will succeed in getting into the industry at various companies. Some of these people will quickly rise through the ranks into positions of power at your favorite development houses. How much easier do you think it might be to get in at Bungie when you spent several years in school with the lead programmer? How much easier might it be to get your resume seen at Valve when you've done level design with someone who is already working there? Most companies hire people first by asking around internally to see if anyone knows anyone who could fill a role. During your years obtaining a Game Development degree, as you interact with your peers you are basically putting in your bid for these positions way in advance.

Conclusion / Summary:
Do what you want to do. If you want to develop games, pursue your passion. There's no reason to go get a degree in psychology if you want to be a texture artist. There's no reason to go get a general degree in Computer Science when what you want to do is game programming. The biggest rationalization for Computer Science over Game Development is fear of commitment and fear of failure. If you want to be a game developer, go get the game development degree. Period. If you want to be a computer animator, go get the Computer Animation degree. Period. If you are not sure what you want to do in life, go get the Computer Science degree, not because it makes you more marketable, but because it leaves you with time and experience to figure out what it is you want to do, and that will make you more marketable.

Anyhow, this has been a pretty long post and I could go on for days about it. Maybe if anyone has further questions or there's enough interest I will continue this conversation. Till then, I will see you next post! As always, leave a comment or two, let me know what you think.

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Jason King
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From my experience, a CS degree is relatively meaningless - yes, I have a CS degree. Though most (90%) people I've hired or been involved in their hire have CS degrees, this is primarily due to one reason... Until the last 4-5 years, finding someone with at least entry-level programming experience has primarily consisted of programmers who went and got their CS degree.

It is rare to find someone who has enough programming experience (as a hardcore hobby programmer) and basic understanding of programming concepts. But a 4 year degree is equivalent to about 6 months of 40hr/wk real-world programming experience. After 4 years, you know the basic computer science concepts and hopefully have gotten a pretty good feel for C++ programming. But it always amused me when a recent grad would claim to be an expert at C++ because only 1 time out of 10 would they have a greater than surface-level understanding of C++ development.

For me, the type of person that I would hire as an entry-level programmer is one who is motivated to be in this industry... who has about 1000 hours of programming on good size projects (this would not include hours working on weekly CS problems) under their belt... who has started to think about why C++ was implemented the way it is (as opposed to just think about how they can use it)... who has solid understanding of matrix math and trigonometry... and it wouldn't hurt to have a demo that can impress.

To me, the person who is more likely to have these traits is someone getting their Game Development degree.

Mark Taylor
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If you have the disposition, then go for a degree in maths or physics and study a modern programming language in your spare time. Programming is the easy bit.

Samuel Green
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I'm just about to start my first game designer role, as an 'idea guy' rather than through a CS development background. But I'm definitely in a minority and the games I will be designing are social games.

Generally I think there's just a problem with the way the industry thinks. It's ran by nerds, who recruit nerds. Like M C and Sherban Gaciu say, there's a traditionally ingrained 'you must have CS to be a game designer' rite of passage. Logically, this makes no sense. Yes, a designer must be able to know the limitations, time investments and potential of what the technical side can do, but that does not mean that the designer must know how to build it all themselves. Sometimes thinking outside the box, from people who aren't spawned from the inbred style game development family (with their identical degrees), can discover new ways to do things and new designs of gameplay.

I suppose this is why I got my chance in social gaming, since it's been created by non-gamers. It's also in China, so I can imagine I wouldn't get the job anywhere else at this stage in my career. You've gotta love China.

(PS: I'm not trying to imply that game designers are inbred cajuns! I just think the industry, especially in the UK, is very closed off and closed minded at early stage recruiting.)

Rey Samonte
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I think there's another side we have to consider. I can vaguely remember an article a while back that states that the average length of time a developer stays in the industry is around 10 years or so? It could have been less I could be wrong, but I remember thinking it's not very long compared to other industries. I think it was due to burnout and developers starting up families and the demanding schedule was too much. I'm not sure how much of that is still true today.

The question is, what happens after or if that happens? Usually, they will probably move into a different industry and how much weight will that game development degree have? In my opinion, that CS degree will go a long way and it doesn't keep a person from learning how to make games.

Gabriel Quinto - D'Angelo
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I don't really like to bump old threads/posts on any sort of forums connected to a site, but this to me is something that I feel is worth it.

For one, let me start off by saying that I completely agree with you.

As much truth as there is in all the information that was stated above, an individual must still take in consideration the type of industry they are joining. For one, the gaming industry is very dark-sided when it comes to the treatment on their employees from what I gather. Often times, people have to relocate constantly in order to keep themselves employed, and starting a family can be tough challenge if the individual is not very well settled in a company. For example, I recall reading an article that one of the developers for Halo Wars (@Ensemble Studios) was working with the company for 5 years and was layed off due to the budget cutting; and since designers make around 60k+ a year they are prone to being layed off.

In addition, starting a family can be very challenging as well should the individual want to settle down. There's plenty of stories with companies closing despite how successful they may look to public view. Irrational games for example (creators of Bioshock) closed after a long time of developing their franchise. This is probably a high reason for employees getting burned out of the industry and why a CS degree might not be a bad idea. Computer science may not teach the individual all they need to learn about game design (not that it couldn't be learned through reading anyhow) but it will at least give them something to fall back to should they be faced with the challenges of life.

In the end, no matter how glorious your passion may seem, it isn't always a peachy creamy experience.

Christopher Totten
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I recently read through "Game Design Workshop" by Tracy Fullerton and in one of the sidebars a famous game developer stated that he believed that a liberal arts education was the best thing you can have as a game designer/developer/whatever. I would agree with this. A 4 year college degree gives students a much more well rounded knowledge base and a much broader outlook than a narrow career-based degree. Students in the 4 year schools also seem more independent and able to solve problems on their own, rather than having to have design answers given to them (variable values to fill in in a game script for example.)

As someone who teaches "game art" at a career focused school I try to implement broader and more abstract topics in my design lessons. I give them background information and concepts then leave them to apply these things in their projects. Yes, this often ends with me lecturing much more than the career school student is used to but's're supposed to listen to lectures.

To my knowledge there are several very successful game design programs at schools like USC that DO focus on game studies in a traditional college environment. Also, schools like the University of Maryland are increasingly using games in their existing departments. I am hoping that as the industry grows and gains steam in the academic world, we will see some new game degrees (that work with the CS and design departments) with the backing of a traditional 4 year education.

Leon T
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My vote is for a computer engineering or software engineering degree. You will learning programming and get exposed to many other topics with both.

I didn't like CS programs because most are not hands on enough. GD degrees were not around when I was going to school, but many do look too one dimensional. CE is a lot harder than a SE, CS or GD degree though. You will learn a lot of math, circuit design, machine code , and of course programming. You will also need to take a few art, history, and science classes.

SE is the easier option to learn programming and also get exposed to many other topics. You learn a ton of programming and scripting. It is also very light on math. Unlike CE there is no circuit design or machine code courses. You have to take as much art, history and science as you would in CE.

Kenneth Barber
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I got my BSCS initially for the specific purpose of writing games. It seemed to me to be the thing that I needed to have direct specific training on. As I was already adequate with sound, music, and art. Problem was that while I was getting my degree I kept getting offered better and better dev jobs outside the game industy. Im OK though. I like that game development is still for me something I do on an Indie basis with small group of friends and our own ideas. Professionally I manage a medium to large team of software engineers. It's like herding cats no matter what project we are working on.

I always had this idea that I should be able to do it all. Design, prototype, implement, and market. Now that I am comfortable with the entire process I can tell you that for anything but the most intimate of indie projects you are going to need a team. A team full of diversely educated fools who are willing to look failure in the face at 2 am half crazed on Dr. pepper and oreo cookies. You need that above all else.

chris cowan
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i live in peterborough ontario and im intersested in getting my computer science degree for the purpose of programming games the closest university is trent im just wondering about the credibility of schools and how much they impact ur ability to get a job in this industry . basicly im wondering if a degree is the same quality from other schools . if someone would be able to tell mme which school i should attend to have the best chance of succeeding that would be reallly helpful thank you . i am willling to rellocate for school but if possible i would like to stay in the toronto gta because i have a son .

Adam Proctor
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Chris, personally I'd say go to Waterloo if you can get in, but there are plenty of good schools in the area. I went to Guelph, and it's got a fine program. Also, we've had good luck with people who have gone through UoIT. I don't know enough about the program to say for sure if it's because they had a good school, or were just amazingly motivated to learn on their own, but it's worth looking into.

No matter where you go though, i highly recommend you build games in your spare time on the side, and build up a portfolio. It will count for a lot.

Domenic Cella
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I think your opinion is a little warped because you went to Full Sail. You apparently don't seem to realize that there are other schools that don't do what Full Sail does. I go to Champlain College in Vermont and they are a traditional four year school that gives you for lack of a better term, the best of both worlds. There is the Core curriculum and specialization classes, essentially how you describe a "traditional" school with a computer science degree will give you. Now I'm not gonna say that I'm gonna get a job right off the bat out of school, but do I think I'm getting a good education? Hell yes. We actually make games starting sophomore year, originally with Flash and then with Unity, UDK, XNA, etc. and do all our other Core classes and/or electives. You do have good points in some areas, but I think you need to do your homework a bit more personally.

Adam Proctor
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I think it's hard to go wrong with a proper CS degree. While good game development and design schools exist, it's hard for both students and employers to know exactly which ones they are.

Personally I don't really care too much about what school applicants attended (if any), but more whether they're a talented developer. And what can tell me that more than their degree is a portfolio of projects.

Roger Hanna
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I don't think any of the lead programmers at Bungie have degrees from a game development school.

Additionally, most colleges either have game development extracurriculars where one can network, or it's a great opportunity for a proactive student to start a new student group.

Robert Walker
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I'm kind of impressed, 2 years later and this post is still getting comments. For the sake of future-developers, I will respond:

As of the time this post was written, the Development Support Lead Programmer at Bioware, the Senior Engineer at Turbine, and the Lead Producer at a smaller company called Midwest were all guys I did student projects with during my time at Full Sail.

Tarsus Arciga
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Alexander J. Velicky, creator of the expansive Falskaar mod for Skyrim, is an Associate Designer and Bungie now and, if I recall correctly, has not even been to college yet. Goes to show.

Clayton Weaver
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I'm not sure what to think on the matter. I went for a BS in a game programming program. I got into programming to become a game programmer, but after 12 years of contradicting advice and not learning anything I hadn't already learned in articles before college severally damaged my confidence and drive for it. I don't think college matters, but what matters more is getting help from those who aren't going to mislead you. I was misled and then when I started getting depressed over not going anywhere everyone claimed it was my fault. I was ambitious, but joined the wrong community and was quickly put down for my ambition. I think the right community matters more than any degree.

Friends have tried to build my confidence back, but like the saying goes "It takes 1000 attaboys for 1 put down." 19 years of programming (2 years BASIC, 17 in C++) and I can help beginners, but completely shut down when I try to code anything myself now. So basically, degree no, good community yes.

Ellie Henderson
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Is games programming the same as games development?