The very first thing that I learnt, and what many people will learn first, about the games industry is the sheer amount of roles that make up a team. Strangely enough, that’s not something that many people will be aware of until they reach university or college – and, in many ways, it’s almost too late. Some courses focus on design, others on programming and then there’s certain courses that focus on the art and modelling side of things… in a way, it almost gives one the impression that those are the only three roles in the industry, and that can make finding your place in a team very difficult. Most academics kind of cram everything that (just say) programmers do: UI, multiplayer, physics, combat etc. into one branch called ‘programming’. The same thing can be said for design and art.
Most courses will teach you a bit of everything to increase your chances of finding any job in the industry; however, what they don’t necessarily teach you is how to distinguish between what you want to do and what options there are within the industry. For example: before I’d even left school, I started off wanting to go to university and learn design because I liked the idea of creating these worlds in my head and then bringing that to life on screen… so, basically, I wanted to finish my three year degree and then go and apply for the role of CEO at Rockstar or Bethesda…
Obviously, that’s not what I had in mind at the time- I just didn’t realise how to define the role that I wanted to take in the industry. Instead of thinking “I want to design combat” or “I want to design levels”, I just saw all the ‘design’ courses and wanted to learn all of it. So if there’s one thing I could have done differently, which would have made the start of my journey a lot easier, I would have investigated the individual roles more carefully, and I feel like this is something that all academic bodies need to teach and encourage in their system. Personally, I’ve always believed that game design/ development should be an option to take at A-Level, so that young adults have some kind of preparation before being thrown straight into university. The argument could be made that college would be a better alternative to staying on at school; however, I spoke to a friend who went to college and he said that it was more writing than anything and it didn’t really prepare him for university at all.
I remember when I first started university, one of the biggest concerns I had was about learning 3D and programming. I mean, let’s face it – most of us who turn up at university in their late teens probably don’t know how to use a toaster, let alone know the difference between call and invoke. It was always that sort of dark abyss – the unknown, fearsome-looking territory that nobody really knew about. I’d already done some block-programming for 2D games at school but that was about it.
There’s a huge difference between moving some colourful blocks around and entering some numbers, and then suddenly getting plunged into The Matrix where there’s this endless rain of numbers and words that just look like gobbledygook.
The key thing to remember here is that people my age (around their early-mid twenties and above) weren’t taught programming at school. There was actually this one point during my A-Level days where I asked my teacher about it and he said that the younger students were now being taught programming (something that I was quite jealous of at the time). So only students who were born about 2000/ 2001 will have experienced programming during their early teenage years at school.
It was only after enduring the absolute monstrosity that is the 2D Engine Stencyl, during my first year of university (and the amount of older students who insisted that I would love Unity 3D much more) that I actually started to consider that perhaps 3D and coding wouldn’t be so bad. And the funny thing is – they were right! Once I started 3D in my second year, I swore I’d never even look back at 2D again, but that was just my personal choice. I didn’t actually start learning programming until my third year, however, and that was purely because I was working on a team project and the programmers needed help to lighten the workload.
One of my biggest regrets was that I wasn’t able to learn some degree of programming before University. If I had seen that it wasn’t quite as intimidating as it first looked, then I definitely would have chosen programming over design and that certainly would have made it a lot easier for me to find a job post-university (more on that later!). However, I still remain adamant that, despite the new programming units at BTEC Level, schools need to have a game design/ development course at A-level or Level 3 BTEC. It’s the only way to educate children before they make the important decisions of going to University and investing so much into something that they don’t fully understand.
That being said, though, even if you’re not entirely familiar with programming (or 3D art/animation etc.), that shouldn’t prevent you from aspiring big and attempting to make games that push the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with. Before I started learning programming, I was struggling to put things together and I kept having to ask the programming students and the lecturers for help… however, a big part of that reason is that my university didn’t even teach us about the asset store until our third year, and even then that was because I kind of stumbled upon it and the mystery of my sudden genius spread.
I remember I was working on this one game and I accidentally clicked on the asset store and all this stuff came up, some of which was free… I asked whether or not I could use it and I was encouraged to ‘build my own game’ but I was able to use it. Considering that we were taught only the absolute basics of 3D art in the first year and weren’t taught programming at all, you can imagine how much of a nightmare it was trying to build games without the asset store. This only confused me all the more when I realised just how many Indie companies were using the asset store to full effect and achieving great results from it.
Even now, years after I’ve left, if there’s anything that I need in a game, I always check the asset store first. Whether it’s for props, landscape, code etc. You’d be surprised on what you can find on there for free – there really is more than enough to make a basic game out of it all and develop your skills.
That being said, there is one last thing that University did teach me:
It doesn’t matter how spectacular or pretty your game is… it doesn’t mean anything if your PC or memory stick dies and you don’t have a backup.
First year of University, first major project of the year… I’d been working on a 2D game in Stencyl for 3 months, enduring all the trials that gamedev brings. I promised myself I’d finish up on the Saturday evening and then hand in before the Sunday deadline… what happens?
The IT department decides that Saturday evening is a good time to reset all of the computers and restore them to default settings, to save memory… Not a problem, I have my trusty USB stick! I rebooted the computer, stuck my USB stick in and at that very moment, despite working an hour previous, my USB stick decided that now was the opportune moment to die on me.
I had about 19 hours left to remake the game that I’d spent the last 3 months making… or make a newer and much simpler one (which is what I did).
Now I always keep at least 3 backups, just in case of any further spontaneous USB combustion.
Back your work up, and then back it up again!
What University doesn’t teach you
That being said, anyone who knows me will know my saying ‘Learning how to make games at University is like learning how to drive a car- it gets you out on the road safely but true knowledge comes from experience’. There are plenty of things that I’ve learnt over the years that University doesn’t necessarily teach you.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve focused on my social media following and realised that there are plenty of studios who still work on 2D games and the market can be quite ripe in certain areas. That being said, you don’t need university to be able to make games. There are other options available, whether it’s online courses, tutorials, trial and error…
A huge part of university is what you take from it. I’ve spoken to many people over the years who said ‘You only went in three or four days a week- that’s not full-time education’. However, what a lot of people don’t understand – including students themselves – is that universities give you that free time not just to complete essays and finish projects, but to go out and learn new things by yourself. This is where those tutorials come in and you start to learn programming, 3D modelling, animation – whatever it is that interests you and bulks up that CV. Going back to what I said in the very first section – that is your time to research the different job roles and focus your time into making sure that you have a clear path ahead of you.
Again, my course was all about design and writing – there was barely any art or programming mentioned at all. I was speaking to David, here at indiegamdev.net, the other day and he said to me something along the lines of “I was once told that all game designers start off as programmers because that’s the only way to get into the industry”. That might sound like a notion that’s outdated, but as someone who has only left university in recent years, I would fully agree with that statement. I have told many former colleagues and contacts that I’ve met through social media that you have to have either programming or 3D art in your skill-set. No company is going to pay one person to think of ideas and another person to make them a reality when they can pay one person to do both and save half the money.
So, for those like me whose course focuses on design, I would strongly urge you to start learning programming or 3D art in that free time. If you’re still at school and you’ve got the choice, I would strongly discourage you from even doing a design course, especially if you don’t have a background in programming. It is much more important to get support with programming while you have the resources available to you because a lot of the online material is outdated and it’s hard to find somebody who can help you when things go wrong.
That being said, another regret of mine is that my course didn’t teach me Unreal Engine. At the time, I was taught to believe that this wouldn’t be necessary – design is design, right? What’s the difference?
Most employers out there will not employ you unless you can prove that you’ve had at least a year’s experience with an advanced engine like Unreal or Frostbite etc. Why? Because those engines aren’t necessarily more difficult than Unity, they are just very convoluted in nature and they require a high degree of competency in programming to fully understand them. Again – back to the programming argument.
Once again, this isn’t the end of the world, however. There’s still the option of choosing to learn programming yourself and learn Unreal Engine in your spare time. It’s just something that I wish I had done sooner, while I had access to those greater resources.
No matter which way you look at it, it comes back to what I was saying in the first section: it’s very important to know exactly what you want to do in the industry, know exactly what various courses are planning on teaching you and to know exactly how you’re going to go about putting those plans into action. Because, given the current system, schools and universities simply don’t teach you those things.
Lastly, I’d like to wrap up this section with the most important thing that I learnt outside of university…
You can have a near perfect CV, with top academic results, references and experience… but all you are to any employer is just a piece a paper until they meet you face-to-face… and that’s assuming that a very tired and underpaid intern hasn’t already thrown that piece of paper in the bin.
The saying: ‘It’s not what you know- it’s who you know’ is just as important in the games industry as any other.
Whether you go out and meet people at gaming events, via LinkedIn or the International Game Design Association (IGDA), you’d be surprised how more confidence you have when you’re discussing work over a coffee or lunch, instead of over a desk that makes you feel like a suspect in CSI. A key thing that I’ve learnt is that people are always more than willing to help you because it gives them a buzz and gives them the self-confidence of knowing what they’re talking about. So if you don’t know what you’re doing or you need help with something, find someone in the know and ask them.
Is Game Design School Worth It?
Here’s the big-one, which I always get asked… Was it worth it?
Is a £30,000+ debt, 3-5 years of your life and several thousand pot-noodles worth a degree in games design and story development?
But that, to me, is where the answer resides… ‘is University worth it?’. I would argue that the true value of what you get from education isn’t in the type of qualification or the score – it’s in the quality of the course.
I know several people who barely passed university at all, who are now in a much better position than me because they simply had a better course – a course which taught them more of the essential skills needed to succeed in the games industry. It is for that reason that I would refer back to David’s statement in the last section and say “unless a course teaches you a high degree of programming (C#, Java and especially C++), as well as an advanced engine like Unreal, then that course is about as useful as having a monitor without a PC, mouse and keyboard”.
In the years since I’ve left University, I’ve actively discouraged pretty much everyone that I’ve met to not go to university, and I can honestly say that I don’t know a single person of my age who has disagreed with me.
However, that bias comes purely from frustration in the amount of time that I’ve spent unemployed and by the fact that most of what I learnt at university is now long-forgotten.
In reality, it would probably be very difficult to find a job in the gaming industry without a degree. However, it is just as important to find a course that teaches you everything you need to know. The same can be said for any course, even college or one that’s online. In my experience, I feel like 2D block-code games are something that should be taught in school and remain in school. The perfect course would be one that jumps straight into Unity, teaches C# and Java in the first year, and then moves on to Unreal and C++ in the second and third years. Design theory and the history of games design are great… but your half-borrowed theories don’t earn employers money and knowing a dozen different quotes from Csikszentmihalyi won’t teach you how to make a compelling game that will have all the CEOs swooning.
So whether university is an option or not, the main thing that matters is being able to bring your designs to life with programming or 3D art, knowing your way around an advanced engine and ensuring that you know the right people, build a reputation by socialising with the community and by building your portfolio.
You’ll never know if that person standing at the bar is the head of a department with a vacancy, unless you get talking to them.
Robert Bushell is a former Games Design and Story Development student at the University of East London. He is best known for his writing but still remains active in the gaming community via social media and is always willing to lend a hand. You can follow him on Twitter @R_H_Bushell.
Be sure to read Getting Games Done in 2020 and How to Write a Game Design Document.