Before I start, i'd like to ask you guys not to take what I say as a fact - It's simply my experience, opinion and perspective on the subject.
My first contact with game design was in 2008, when I was just 16 years old. I went to a Geek Convention and there I saw a stand of a private school that offered a Game development course (note that it wasn't in fact a Game Design course, it was a technical course on game developing). As of this point, I had no idea that we had that kind of courses here in Brazil, and also high school was almost over† - In one year I was going to go to the University and by that time I still didn't know what area I was going to choose.
I was amazed by it. Sure, the guys promoting the course made everything seem more fantastic than it actually was. And yes, the course was expensive. I can say that the monthly cost of the course was the same of a cheap college (which for a technical course, is a lot). I asked my mother by that time if I could do it and she agreed, even though it was a little too† expensive for us, she felt happy that her son finally decided what he wanted to do with his life.
My experience: When I had my first class at said course, I felt a little lost. Back then I didn't have any decent skills on anything - all I knew was how to draw Manga (not to disrespect any Mangaka out there, but I'm glad to have forgotten that art style), and still I wasn't that good at it.†
I was part of the precursor class of that specific course on that school, the first of many.† There they taught me things like perspective drawing, clay sculpting and basics of level design. But I discovered what I wanted to be good at when they started teaching 3D modeling. As a technical course they didn't teach the concepts and inner workings of game design - they taught us the tools and, as the kind of course implies, the technique.
I became relatively good at drawing and then I started to study and perfect my skill in 3D Modeling. My hard work back then earned me some respect with my teacher and even the coordinator of the course. We also learned Unreal Engine 3 (UDK wasn't available by that time, it came out when we were in the middle of the course). I say that it's a poor choice of a game engine, as we were only beginning, and as many of you know, UDK is not a very good engine for beginners (or almost any group or team that isn't epic games or any major AAA company). Actually, it's because those Unreal Engine classes and some expectations the course gave me that I became that kind of that typical Game Design drone that wants to be the lead game designer or lead 3D artist of those ultra detailed and polished AAA productions. I'm not saying that's a bad path to choose, I'm just being realistic: you need an excellent formation to even consider that path. You need a kind of education that is really hard to find here in Brazil, and if you do, you better have the money to pay for it. And then, you would have to compete with people from all over the world, from places where it's easier and/or cheaper to get a decent formation on that. It's a pretty tough road to follow, and you're not guaranteed to achieve your life goal. But then again, who is, right?
I think that it was a good course, for a technical one. Some things could be done in a better way, but I have no regret of spending two years doing it (one year I spent on high school and the GD course and after I finished high school I just focused on the course). I made good friends there, and learned some nice skills to be used in the future. It would be a bad thing to start a Game Development related course in college not knowing anything. Speaking of which, I found out what University I was going to go, because some friends that I've made there were already doing it and told me about it. It was a bachelor's degree, four year long course in Game Design that to this current date I still study on.
My advice: Technical Courses are, in my humble opinion, the best choice if you only need to learn the tools to make a game. It's even better if you want to work on a specific area, for example, if you want to make Unity games, try to find a Unity course or at least a java or C# game programming course. The same goes to 3D modeling, 2d art and almost all areas of Game Development. Be wary of courses that offer too much of a learning experience, just like the one I did. If you realize that they are too desperate to make you study there, think twice before trying to do it. I'm not saying that the course I did was bad - But it tried way too hard to "buy" new students and that's usually a bad thing.
My experience: First of all I'd like to note that my experience in college is an ongoing one, as I still need to finish the course. As of now I'm on the sixth semester, there's still one and a half years to go!
I couldn't wait any longer to start my Game Design course in college.† In between these two periods of my life, I got rid of my "be an epic AAA game developer" life goal. Along with the birth of this new life of mine, Minecraft was making its way to fame , and soon, Indie games were all over the place. I was fascinated by them. The thought of duos or small teams being able to make some money or even get rich by making games was overwhelming.
And my career and life goal change came in good timing, too, because the course encourages you to try to be an indie developer. Usually, if you say that you want to work at Blizzard, for example, people tend to give you that look.
To be honest I became the guy that gives that look.
Anyway, things got more serious when I started this course. It was a life change, for real. Living in a city relatively far from the city of S„o Paulo, I knew that I would have to live in a dorm (maybe that wouldn't be the perfect term to describe it in English, but I think it's a close one) close to the University so I could in fact attend classes.
This course was way different than the other. Here, we learned the tools and the technique, but most of all, we needed to focus on the concept and research part of game design. On the previous course we could make almost anything we wanted, as long as it looked good and functioned well. Now, we need to explain our decisions, they need to be based on something. You need concept, theme, research... you can't make frivolous decisions. Why does that character have blue clothing? What does it mean? Why does he have that skill? Is there a solid and loyal connection to the proposed theme? This† course is deeply based on that: themes. Every semester we have to do a project (and I say project and not "game project" because it's not always a game design project) based on some theme and present it to an examining board of teachers at the end of the semester, where they ask questions and make comments out of the presentation and the project (and of course, the students of each group have the opportunity to defend it with solid arguments, if they have any), and that final presentation is worth half of the final grade of that semester. The grading system is peculiar, maybe, but I can tell that half of the final grade is A LOT, so basically, if you don't do a decent project and your final presentation is crappy, well, your chances of failing will be considerably higher.
And also you need to have a group. It's more necessary to have a group in order to survive than it was on the technical course. Usually the member limit for a group is seven. You can choose not to have a group and try to survive by yourself, but I would only recommend it if you are a major game designer, a skilled game artist and programmer, and also have a time warp spell so you can stop time at will. You get the idea.
So, about themes: The projects, officially called "Interdisciplinary Project" (as in, a project that needs disciplines to be learned and mastered so It can be done) which students usually call Inter for short, are always based on a theme. We can't do any project with any idea. It need an anchor, a reference. So usually there's a theme for we to choose. A book? A movie? Mythologies? It depends on the project and the semester.
In the first semester the project is a board game. I don't know if it's still the same thing, but when I did it we had to choose one of the tales from the Brothers Grimm book. And on that semester we have disciplines like "Concepts and Processes of Game Design", to learn the basics of designing a game, "Graphic & Digital imaging", to learn skills used in making the art, cover and box of the board game, and some other disciplines like fundamentals of design and Art History. My group made a board game about the tale "The Four Skillful Brothers". It needed four players and each player controlled four character pieces, each one with a different skill. The goal was to get to the middle of the map and kill the dragon by positioning your pieces on specified positions. Basically, the game sucked.
The first final presentation is... Scary.
On the second semester, the Inter is a 2D animation, using Flash and/or Toon Boom Animate Pro.† So the disciplines we have are Animation, where we learn and practice the principles, technique and animation software, Storyboard and plot and from this semester onwards we started to have orientation classes, where a teacher would guide the groups' inters and give general advice and, well, orientation to the groups.
I think it's still the same to the classes starting that semester now - The theme must be a Mythology. So yes, we had to study about Joseph Campbell's Monomyth and our chosen Mythology. The funny thing is, some mythologies are A: Not on the list to choose from or B: Strongly discouraged to be chosen. Like the Japanese, Norse and Celtic mythologies, for example. You can probably wonder why.
These kind of people are a common occurrence in courses like this.
My group at the time chose the Egyptian Mythology. It was a good one to choose from, with some deep, not-so-known myths. The particular myth we chose was the Book of the dead, or to be more specific, the Judgment of the dead. The one where they weighted the deceased person's heart to see if it was light, free of evil intentions.
The animation itself kind of sucked, but it was a classical example of how to receive compliments on the final presentation by knowing how to justify your decisions. We were heavily criticized on the sound design in general, though.
You get the idea of the semester and project division. To make things short, I'll summarize the contents of the following semesters: on the third semester it's our first electronic game, as we need to make a 2D Flash game programmed on Action Script 3.0. We learn, of course, basic object oriented programming on AS 3.0, illustration for game design, level design and some other disciplines. On the fourth semester we have to make a basic 3D game focused on the level, based on some places-themes (Alcatraz Island, Chernobyl, Titanic, and some others), using Unity, with no NPCs and AI. Two of the important disciplines we have are C# programming in Unity and 3D modeling in Autodesk 3DsMax. It was a fun semester for me, because before that I knew only 3D modeling in Autodesk Maya. I felt so comfortable using 3DsMax, and it's† now my favorite 3D modeling software. And then we have a really difficult semester, the fifth one, where we have to make a 3D game using Unity, now with AI and NPCs, based on a movie. We had some movies to choose from a list, the one we chose was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I say it's a difficult semester because we have to learn a lot of new things (things that aren't exactly easy to learn).3D Rigging & Animation or AI programming for example (the former being something I had some knowledge and practice on - one of the advantages of having done a technical course two years before going to college). †After that we have the semester that I'm currently on - and it's the most peculiar semester of all, as we have to make a project along with another course - in my case it's the Game Design and Architecture courses. It can be up to three courses - a friend of mine from another class, for example, is in a class along with the Architecture and Graphical Design courses.
It's probably the second least "Gamey" semester, the first being the animation one, as groups usually don't get to actually make a Game. The focus here is Social Inclusion - We need to do projects focused on people with Visual or Auditory impairment or Physical/motor disabilities (yes, that would be our "themes"). And the hard part is, the project need to have both Game Design and Architecture elements (in our case)!
Doing it wrong.
I can't tell much about this semester as my group is still on the earlier stages, but I can tell it will be an interesting experience. Among the classes we have now are advanced 3D animation, advanced programming and Ergonomics. Anyway, after this semester comes the two final semesters: the† Course conclusion project. As it's a longer, more complex project, we have a whole year to do it. And we have more freedom with the theme now, we can choose almost anything as long as it's something related to a game design problem. The group chooses a problem and then asks the teacher orienting the project if it's viable to do it. We have less disciplines per week, and the only one I know for certain that we will have is the Marketing discipline.
My Advice: This kind of Game Design course is the best one if you want a degree in game design (duh). If you apply for a game company, maybe it will give you an edge over people who don't have a degree, but if that person spent as much time making small games as you spent on education, †then maybe that person will have way more chances than you, especially if their games are better than your Inters. A portfolio is worth a lot more than a degree. I mean, as far as I know most of the students from my course usually graduate with nothing but their Inters, and sometimes not even that. How can they compete a job opening with people who took their time participating in jams, making lots games and game design experiments?
Similar to the technical course advice, I say that it strongly depends on what kind of career you want to follow. The bachelor's degree course I did is very good, don't get me wrong. We got pretty good teachers there, that specialize in the areas that they teach. But don't think that you'll leave the course being the master of 3D Modeling, Programming and Sound design - The objective of the course is mainly to make good game designers that know at least a little of every area of production. This course makes (game) designers. If you want to master a more specific area, then I advise you to choose a more specific course on your desired area.
You also have to make sure you'll not feel uncomfortable with bootlickers. Yes, they are everywhere, and they are annoying. I mind my own business, but what usually annoys me is the simple fact that some people seem to be† willing to do anything to befriend teachers or coordinators.† Some people even feel amazed when a teacher simply know them by the name. What's the point, really? Yes, it's always good to have a nice student-teacher relationship, but sometimes it gets too absurd. I heard about a student giving every teacher some expensive christmas presents. The good thing is that as far as I know, the teachers where I study aren't† that corruptible.
Also, in this kind of course, you need to have a good group. It's no use being a competent game designer and 3D Modeler, for example, if your group is full of lazy programmers and people who doesn't know how to work as a team. This kind of course is cursed with that typical kind of people who thought they would have to play games all day by choosing a game design course, people who are not prepared to endure things like deadlines, quality demand and teamwork. So If you plan on doing any course that requires groups to be made in order to do a project, choose your teammates wisely. If you feel that the person is there because he or she likes to play video games more than to make them, don't choose him/her!
Brazil is certainly not the best place to try to get a game development education. If you have the chance to study abroad, then just do it. There are way more options and overall quality of education in the United States or in Europe, for example. If you really plan on Sutdying Game Design in Brazil, then you need to apply yourself - making games is NOT for the weak of mind and will. Do your best, and don't let failures get to you. In fact, fail a lot, because by failing we learn what mistakes not to make again next time. The Brazilian Game Designer path is an unforgiving one, but if you really apply yourself and work really, really hard, you will be rewarded accordingly. Hopefully.