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Student Feature: An Academic Approach to Game Design: Is It Worth It?

April 13, 2006
 

Introduction

Much to the elation of the darkest underworlds of high school graduates desperate to break in to the game industry, game design programs have broken into the constructs of colleges around the country. And with the plethora of impressive games and an economic weigh-in well above nearly every other entertainment medium (and projections of it going even higher), there is hardly a wonder why.

The logic of the recent surge of such programs smell an awful lot like that of our historical film schools: give passionate and idealistic students experience in a specialized field that they would otherwise have limited access to, study the theories and history behind the industry, and try to better prepare students for a job after college than their competition.

A game design program is also subject to the same criticisms.  One of the biggest, and certainly the most highly debated, is that of utility.  What can you gain from a formal education in game design? Game design, much like film directing, or sculpting, or music, is a technical art form.  It requires a level of technical proficiency in the necessary tools, as well as creativity within the confines of the art form itself   Jack Emmert, lead designer for City of Heroes and City of Villains, has been quoted as saying, “Games are the product of talent, not training.”  Can you teach talent?  Can you teach creativity? 

A tough question. One that is the constant battle of film programs the world over, and already, the lines are being drawn in game design.

Below is an attempt of making odds and ends of the arguments for and against an education in game design, and (hopefully) some sort of conclusion. 

Tools of the Trade

As I had said before, technical skill is a very large part of game design.  Without question, in order to be a good designer, you need to know how games are made. It is not a matter of just having “a really cool idea” for a game. On some fundamental level, a designer must be able to understand whether or not a game is in fact feasible, and roughly understand what it will take to make it a reality.  

In a field such as film, the tools of the trade have undergone few and gradual changes in the 100 years of film's existence. Games change constantly; industry standards today become obsolete a month later. The medium itself undergoes radical changes as new consoles and sub-industries emerge seemingly every other year.

While this seems to render any sort of usable technical training useless, that is not necessarily the case. While learning the details of how to use the Hammer editor wouldn’t do you much good in the industry unless you ended up working on a Source-powered game (which may not even still be on market by the time you’re working anyway), practice and experience in the theories behind designing in a WYSIWYG world editor would cross over to many projects. Experience in the tools used in game design puts you in the right process of thinking. You begin to think in terms of objectives, balance and pacing. You can begin to see patterns in what is “fun,” and what is not. 

This idea extends beyond just experience in design tools.  Game design, perhaps more so than any other medium, is a collaborative art form. As a designer, you rely wholly upon your artists and programmers to help make your vision for a game a reality, and as such, must also understand their disciplines.  The goal of a game design education is again not to learn how to create efficient algorithms for 3d processing, but instead to learn how to communicate with those people on your future team that will do that, and understand, if only on some preliminary level, what they are doing.  Taking overview classes in art, animation, production, programming, and even business, which most game design curriculums provide, are a great way to begin building the vocabulary that will allow you to make the games you want to make in the future.

Historical Perspectives

Another unique point of contention in game design studies is that of historical and critical studies. Today’s wannabe game designers grew up on the games of the Atari 7800 and NES: but does studying those games help to create good designers in the world of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3?

 


Grampa!
Do games like Atari's Midnight Mutants hold the key to the future?

 

Games seem to undergo a complete redefinition every year. Realistic physics, photorealistic graphics, and multi-core processors seemed like comical proposals 10 years ago. Expectations for a game have risen at an exponential rate, and continue to climb. Can we learn about good game design from games like Super Mario Bros. and Pong?

Yes. 

One of the common misconceptions is that with higher expectations in the fields of graphics, physics, and the like, comes an ever-changing expectation from the designer.  Actually, the designer’s main role has remained constant: provide a gaming experience that is fun. Looking at the choices made by other designers allows you to begin to identify what made a game fun, and therefore successful, and what did not. 

Of course, along the lines of the continually changing game standards, “historical” studies in gaming should extend to contemporary games as well.   In this sense, you can see what currently successful designers are doing with the tools now available to them.  Also, since gaming is still very young, it is important to play unsuccessful (boring) games, as a way to give students the skill to identify the mistakes of the past, and (hopefully) not repeat them.

Nurture Vs. Nature

This is the big one: can an education in game design teach you the creative talent involved in creating good games?

Jack Emmert, along with many designers, believe are that there are no real tools to teach in order to make a game from scratch, only to copy, that there are no tools that a student can learn that can predicatively create an innovative new game. The theory is that, at best, a game design education can only teach you to regurgitate and successfully copy preexisting ideas. Can you be taught innovation?

We are now in the heart of the conflict undermining all artistic departments of study. 

Here’s my take: no, you cannot be taught innovation. Innovation comes from sources and inspirations beyond an individual’s control, such as good timing and luck. 

However, talent as a designer (as well as any technical artist) is not solely based on your innovation. Your skill is defined by your awareness of the choices that you can make within the confines of the medium. Anyone can get lucky. But consistent quality comes from an awareness to the entire system of choices of game creation – from level design to writing to programming to art to sound design to producing. 

Innovation? Here’s an adage made popular in film schools around the country: learn the rules, so then you can learn to break them. It is about learning why certain rules and standards exist, how they affect the final product, and in what ways they can be bent, and at times, broken. Innovation is your own personal response to any of the choices presented when creating a game.

Here is a great case study: the 2004 release of Katamari Damacy, often called one of the most innovative games in several years. When interviewed, game director Keita Takahashi urges that this game was not meant to be innovative; he set out to bring back the concept of simple, silly fun to gaming. Was it innovative, or was it his own version of what made old school games fun?

It’s a question of nurture vs. nature. Surely, to say that a formal education in game design is necessary to being a good designer is laughable (I’m fairly certain that less than 1% of all game designers ever went to game design school). Conversely, though, it is hard to ignore the fact that USC’s film school has had an alumni nominated for every Academy Awards since 1973. School in an artistic discipline nurtures talents; it provides a format in which to enforce and guide students through their own research as they identify their interests and develop their talents.

Experience is King

But that doesn’t mean that they will get a job. In the gaming industry in particular, nothing can replace real work experience. As anyone who is reading this is likely to attest to, getting your first job in the gaming industry is nearly impossible (it took 126 resumes offering to work for free as production intern to get one job interview), but that experience is what will get you your next job.

Really, I believe that this is the hardest challenge in determining the worth of a game design education. Would you be better suited attending game design school full time, or would it be better to explore another, tangentially related field, and try to gain industry experience in an internship? 

Let me put it this way: the game industry is built on a bunch of designers and HR people who do not know much about game design degrees, much less favor them. As such, relying on the degree to get you your job as a designer is a strongly discouraged. However, if you really want to sharpen your design skills, so that when the opportunity arises down the road to design an actual game, you are better prepared, then going to game design school makes perfect sense. Just know that you are likely going to spend several years working in other capacities before you get that chance.

It is also fair to point out that game design programs are not solely theoretical, and when you graduate you’ll have more to show for your education than what “G.D.D.” stands for.  In fact, you will have the start of a portfolio, as well as the tools to do more. You may even have a finished game that would be presentable as another self-promotional tool. Any of this will certainly improve your chances at landing a job (though don’t ever bring in game ideas, which they cannot legally take a look at, and is not what they will be looking for from you).

A Conclusion of Sorts

So, in the end, is it worth going after a game design degree if you want be a game designer?

Game design programs offer people an opportunity to gain real experience and knowledge in what it takes to create a game, and will give them a good base from which to expand and become a good designer. But it depends on an individual’s goals and level of commitment to wanting to be a game designer, as well as their interest in other areas of study. If I had the ability to do it again, I would probably have gone through one of the programs (though I am a little biased, as I am a byproduct of UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, and I have always like the idea of poking fun at all those “real major” students). As for its utility; only time will tell. Keep a look out for the students out of these early programs a couple years down the road, and see what they are making.

Beyond that, the debate rages on. But bring it up next time you’re at the water cooler, and revel in the fact that 100 years from now, you’ll be having a similar argument with a barista who will huffily defend his “game school” education.

[Darren Guttenberg is an undergraduate at UCLA Film School. He describes himself as the "black sheep" of the department, having chosen a specialization in game design.]

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