From AAA to academia: What industry veterans have learned
Many veteran games designers have recently joined the world of teaching, and more can be expected to do so. Prominent examples include University of Southern California's Richard Lemarchand, Warren Spector of the University of Texas at Austin, and industry power couple Brenda and John Romero, who both teach at UC Santa Cruz.
At GDC, the four got together on a panel to talk about what they've learned from teaching, the ways it's challenged them -- and the exciting opportunity to be closer to the kind of design work they most love.
Before Spector got into games, he figured he was on track to become a teacher. "It's a long, sordid story about why I ended up making games instead... but I always thought I would teach at some point," he says. "I just didn't think it would happen so soon -- it either kills you or keeps you young, making games," says the 30 year industry veteran.
Richard Lemarchand, formerly of Naughty Dog, longed to rejoin higher education ever since he graduated. He began volunteering at USC in 2004 and mentoring MFA students. Throughout all that time, he found himself drawn to teaching.
Then, one day, "I was ironing a shirt in [New York University's] Eric Zimmerman's hotel room, and I had the sudden realization that I was heading toward a crossroads in my professional life," he says.
"While I'd had the most amazing time working at Naughty Dog... I had this opportunity to pursue the love for games and play as art and culture that I always nurtured ever since the beginning of my time in games."
As a full-time game developer Brenda Romero recalls feeling envy for people who were able to continue taking classes and learn. "As a frontline lead designer, I envied my friends, the books that had been written that I had no time to read, or discussions about games at a level that we just couldn't do when we were trying to hit milestone after milestone," she says.
Working with students became an irresistible draw for her. Her favorite classes to teach are introductions to game development. "They've been told all their lives, 'you want to do what? You want to go to college for that?' And for them to see someone in the classroom who for the first time [is validating] that? ...That's a drug to me."
Her husband John Romero was invited to teach a class at UT Dallas in 2002 for a semester -- a cross-platform game development class. Afterward, he was invited to help conceive and hire staff for The Guildhall at SMU. "I needed to hire people at my company, and I wanted them to come from Dallas," he says.
Now he and Brenda work on the Santa Cruz's design education program together. "It's really fun," he says.
Brenda Romero says the "degree wall" holds a lot of people back -- developers who want to move into academia often are inhibited because they don't have certain advanced degrees, but that's changing. "I've noticed institutions willing to work with people who don't have the terminal degree," she says.
The salary difference between an in-demand coder and teacher can come as a shock, she suggests. But supplementing the income with consulting and other projects can help ameliorate the income drop-off for those who are worried about the difference.
There has definitely been some anxiety associated with the transition for the veteran designers. When it comes to the anxiety about trying something new, Lemarchand says it took courage: "I like to push myself, and try to be the kind of adventurous person I can be in the kinds of games I love to play," he says.
Adds Spector: "I never realized how much of my personal sense of self was tied up with 'I am a game developer.' Now, what do I put on credit card applications?" Says Spector. "That's been a surprisingly steep hurdle that I'm not actually over yet."
Learning a new profession can be challenging. Even though there are commonalities between teaching game design and doing it, there is a lot to learn when becoming a teacher, Lemarchand says.
Brenda Romero had fears before starting her new work as well -- "what if I don't know anything," she jokes. "But after 20 years in game development, one would have hoped I'd picked up something. It was all new to me, preparing lectures and giving homework, but it was still very rewarding."
Systems thinking helps, she adds: "I'm shipping students," she jokes.
Lemarchand has been pleasantly surprised by the commonalities between building a curriculum and a student experience and building a game. "We're developing systems and processes, and we get to iterate on them semester after semester." Spector tells his students on day one that they're "in beta" -- in six months, everything you know and teach could change.
"In a medium that changes so rapidly, I think recent experience is critical," says Spector. For example, he's trying to hire designers who have worked in games within the last three years.
Experience is more crucial than perceived expertise, the veterans agree. "If I'm working with somebody in industry, I want my lead to have lots of experience not because I feel she has done great things during that time, but with lots of experience I know she has seen things go wrong," Brenda Romero explains. "The value in a lead, to me is that she's seen things go off the rails, can spot it a mile away and is not going to panic about it."
"Our students just hit alpha... and just letting them know that somehow alpha will happen, and the world will not catch on fire and you're going to be thrilled when you get there... not that when we're shipping, we don't feel the same way," she adds.
We try to bring the structured methodology for our students that we've learned in the industry, that we had to struggle to get to grips with," says Lemarchand. "I think it's really valuable to make yourself vulnerable to the students -- 'let me tell you about this one time, on this one project, where we managed to pull it out of the fire at the last minute.'"
"Freedom to fail is critical," says Spector. In the industry, if you fail too much, you get fired. In education, "I actually want to engineer failure into the program, because every failure is a learning opportunity, and it's safe."
"In a way a big failure is a better learning experience than a big success, when you're just starting game development," Lemarchand agrees.
Romero says pushing innovation constantly is a high bar for students to hit. "They hit the failure point they recognized, and then they get to fix it -- in crunch mode," he says. He also says it's important for students to learn about IP ownership and similar elements of the industry before they enter it and before mistakes would do harm.
The educators are studying the role of crunch in the academic environment. It's a tragedy that crunch causes people such harm to work life balance, because it drives talent out of the industry, in Lemarchand's view.
Even though the industry has been trying to address its quality of life problems, "we have the opportunity as educators to have really frank conversations about this," Lemarchand says. "I'm a fan of working hard in a sustained way to achieve excellence at a certain critical stage of the project, but I work to encourage people not to 'crunch', to their detriment."
Brenda Romero's thoughts on crunch are conflicted. She works with, reads about, talks about, plays and works on games from nearly the moment she wakes up til the moment she goes to bed. "This is my life, and this is quality for me," she says. "I also recognize that's not for everybody."
"There are times when crunch is really cool," Spector agrees. "It's bonding and it's energizing... and there are times when it's not. What we have to do is communicate to our students when it's too much, why you want to do it, the values and the damages. The University of Texas shuts its buildings down after 11 o'clock at night. You're not allowed in the building, and I'm like, 'wow, that's so not like game development.'"
"Everyone will take their laptops outside, then," John Romero laughs.
"That'll happen," Spector agrees.
Helping teach about scope is an important role for educators, Lemarchand says, so that students don't over-scope and then internalize the idea they'll have to work to escalating degrees to try to pull their project off in time.
"I try to make sure I work really hard at the beginning of the project, with my students, to make sure that their projects are well-scoped," Lemarchand says.
Developers as a community will need to work together to learn and establish best practices for education, the designers agree. They agree on some advice from their experience: "Just because you are a game developer doesn't mean you have the foggiest idea how to captivate a room full of people," Romero says. And having to actually change someone's life by telling them they've failed a course is an enormous task she sometimes struggles with. "I wished there'd been a boot camp for... working with students," she reflects.
"If you're thinking about it, start now on getting your resume and background together," Brenda Romero continues. "If you're preparing a 'I'm heading into academia' CV, that's a massive deal. If you don't have [a bachelor's or a masters] you will have to justify all of your experience on paper."
"If you're thinking about it, I would do it," Brenda adds. "I love working with students so much... and I have the freedom to pursue projects that nobody in their right mind would ever publish, and I'm working with students who are so incredibly excited... the happiness that I saw among them was enough to power me through GDC."
"You may have heard teachers say 'the students make this experience so meaningful,' but it's absolutely true," Lemarchand adds. "The energy and enthusiasm of the people we teach is the most sustaining thing."
Institutions who are interested in hiring high level game designers and prepare the situation for success can do their best to remove bureaucracy ("and I thought Disney had a lot of bureaucracy," Spector jokes. "Whew!"). John Romero says professors need to be able to work on the side, and UCSC allows students to own the IP they create in school so they can publish it afterward.
Lemarchand says universities have an amazing opportunity to attract veteran talent who might be longing to have a space to create, experiment and discuss. "I'm working on an independent design research project right now -- and doing things I always tried to get started when I was working as a full-time professional AAA developer that I just couldn't do, because my mind was full of whatever I was working on."
"But being in education is like being at GDC every day... that's a freedom we have in the academy."