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Ask the Experts: 'Game Design Schools'

Ask the Experts: 'Game Design Schools'

February 5, 2007 | By Jill Duffy

February 5, 2007 | By Jill Duffy
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[In this week's Ask the Experts column from educational site Game Career Guide, contributing editor Jill Duffy consults Brad Macdonald from Large Animal Games and 20-year industry veteran Noah Falstein on a frequent inquiry about game design schools.

We're also running this useful breaking-in column on Gamasutra - please consult the Game Career Guide 'Getting Started' page for more advice on entering and progressing your career in the game biz.]

"Dear Experts,

I've been searching for schools that are good with game design and classes and that general area, but I was just curious know what kind of college or what college or school you went to just to get an idea. I'd be most grateful for a response. Thanks for your time.


Dear Ryan,

I get a lot of email asking about schools. “Where is the best program?” “Should I go to X Institute or Y Academy?” Many of these questions contain basic assumptions, including

1. Spending $40,000 a year on tuition to attend a game-specific school means a graduate will immediately have a job in the industry (it doesn’t).

2. Students with no artistic skills whatsoever can be trained through a 3D art department to work in video games (they can’t).

3. If one plays games 20 hours a week or more, it means one has the necessary knowledge, skills, and life experience to become a game designer (it doesn’t).

What I like about your question, Ryan, is that you’re asking for examples. Game designer and 20-year industry veteran Noah Falstein was kind enough to share some of his experience. Falstein is also the author of the design column “Game Shui” for Game Developer magazine. He has written for games, consulted in the industry, and speaks frequently at major industry events.

Falstein earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. His senior project, he says, was called “Koroni's Strike: A Computer Simulation of Mining and Combat in the Asteroid Belt.” His was the first computer game used at Hampshire College for that purpose, showing again that vital skill all developers have to make games even when it may not seem feasible to do so.

After earning his BA, Falstein says he took “a few graduate level or continuing education courses here and there in computer graphics, drawing, and various foreign languages. But virtually every course I've ever taken, from playwriting to mass communications to physics to geology has come in handy at one time or another in my design career.”

Bear in mind, of course, that although game development education has grown at least fivefold in the last 10 years, very few developers I’ve met who are working in the industry today came out of a game-specific program. Many of them created their own game-specific learning through projects and theses in other departments.

Brad Macdonald, on the other hand, attributes his success at Large Animal Games more to the diversity of his work and life experience than his formal education. Macdonald is art director for the New York-based casual game company. He admits that his background is “unconventional” for a game developer, but it still allowed him to become exposed a wide range of ideas that have influenced his ability to thrive in an industry that relies on the ability to adapt.

“I studied graphic design and tribal art at Western Michigan University but largely ignored my studies in favor of contributing daily political cartoons to the college newspaper,” says Macdonald. “From there I moved to New York and worked in animation at MTV and various other places until my wife and I started a small web design firm. We did that for a couple years and finally dissolved the company and started working for MaMaMedia, a children education/entertainment web site.

“There, I met Wade Tinney and Josh Welber and collaborated with them on a project. When MaMaMedia ran out of money Wade and Josh started Gamekitchen (now Large Animal Games) and I was their first employee,” says Macdonald. “Ultimately, my university education isn’t something I apply at all when designing games, but the cumulative experience of working in multiple industries and media greatly informs my work.”

If Macdonald’s educational background is atypical, then what is the more traditional route? For many, a degree in computer science is still a sure bet to help boost your chance of getting a job in the game industry.

Furthermore, for game designers in particular (who are often hired for some other job and work their way into design only after gaining a few years of experience working on games), knowing how a computer game actually works, on a fundamental programming level, gives them an added advantage to becoming designers. Another factor worth considering is what jobs are available in the industry. By far, programmers make up the majority of open positions.

Finally, in my experience, very few developers seem excited at the mention of a game university on a resume"unless that student emphasizes what games she or he worked on while in the program. Making games is more important than the name of your alma mater.

[Jill Duffy is contributing editor of and managing editor of Game Developer magazine. She has been a professional writer and editor for more than six years. Send her your questions about the getting into the game industry by emailing [email protected].]

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