When game development programs started popping up at colleges and universities, I was skeptical. More than skeptical, I was concerned that these programs were a cynical ploy to separate people from their money; after all, if a degree doesn’t give you an advantage in getting hired, what are you paying for? It is both cheaper and more effective (in many cases) to spend your time and money teaching yourself the tools and pipelines while you actually build something. Not only is this a real development education, it helps you build a portfolio, and you don’t have to pay all of the overhead and profit margin for the schools.
Side-note: Espen Aarseth pointed out to me that I was being US-centric in this critique; after all, where you have socialized education, students aren’t paying for it, so game education programs provided a somewhat structured environment in which those students could explore their passion. Some ten years later, this wisdom still sticks with me.
Nowadays, there are a lot more game development programs, many of which have resolved my two core concerns: 1) that students were being taught by people who didn’t actually have experience making and shipping commercial games, and 2) that the degree was worthless in the marketplace. Here are some of the programs that rank high enough in my personal esteem-o-meter that I pay attention when they show up on a resume.
USC – Interactive Media & Games Division
The awesome Tracy Fullerton (@kinojabber) runs this program, and that’s a huge endorsement right off the bat. Fullerton knows game dev and especially design inside and out and built this program to give students real, hands-on experience pretty much from the word go. It has grown from an experimental, pilot program into a significant department within USC, and it has also added additional veteran talent from commercial development, like Richard LeMarchand (@rich_lem), another brilliant and passionate designer. Situated in LA, there are lots of opportunities for students to visit, intern, and work at both developers and publishers either while a student or after graduation. Fullerton and the other faculty also do a great job of supporting their students’ efforts to build and publish their own games while students, which is a huge head start. This program started off strong and appears to be getting better, so definitely a recommended place for students, especially those looking to learn game design.
Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
When thinking about major game development centers, Pittsburgh does not often show up on the list. However, the ETC program at CMU is a standout. Started by Jesse Schell over a decade ago, the ETC has expanded from being just a post-graduate program to also offering an undergraduate major. I’ve known a few people who went through the ETC and worked directly with one alum (who was spectacular), and they definitely rank highly with me. The ETC program pushes students to get hands-on and explore a variety of disciplines, so it turns out well-rounded junior developers: designers who can talk to programmers, artists who understand technical limitations, etc. In addition, Schell runs his own studio (Schell Games) in Pittsburgh, creating student and post-graduate opportunities for real world experience.
One advantage of both the ETC and the program at USC is that you’re graduating with a degree from an acknowledged top-tier university, so even for those developers who burn out and go looking for employment outside of the industry, they have a solid general degree to work with. A similar program is getting underway at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), with veteran developer and writer Lee Sheldon, but it’s too soon for me to say how ready for prime-time those graduates are going to be; I have great respect for and faith in Sheldon, but I haven’t personally seen the results yet.
Guildhall at Southern Methodist University (SMU)
The Guildhall program was also started by veterans of the game industry and continues to add talented and experienced staff with real world experience. I haven’t had any first-hand experience with their graduates, but I’ve heard that they’ve expanded from what was originally a kind of intensive training in level design for 3D shooters into a broader education in game design and development. The Dallas scene isn’t quite the center of the gaming universe that it was in id’s heyday, but there are still quite a few studios in the area. It’s a degree I would take seriously, but moreso if I were looking to staff level designers or if I were running a team that was building a shooter.
Located in what is currently one of the Meccas of game development, Seattle, Digipen strikes me as the modern-day equivalent of an apprenticeship program. Students dive in right away, making digital games in their first semester, and throughout the curriculum, they are working on game projects with other students. This is great training in team dynamics, scope and complexity dynamics, and the reality of development. I’ve worked with one person who came out of Digipen, and he is a stellar, talented designer. I take junior developers from Digipen seriously, but for prospective students, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of having this specialized of an undergraduate degree.
Located in central Florida, Full Sail has a much broader set of offerings than Digipen (catering to television, film, and audio hopefuls as well as potential game devs), but the game development program there has been growing steadily over the last decade. They have solid, experienced developers and writers in their faculty like Dustin Clingman and Wendy Despain, so they know what it takes to actually work and succeed in the industry. The studio scene in central Florida isn’t as robust as Seattle, but there are options there beyond Tiburon (EA’s giant soul-crushing game development institution of doom). Like Digipen, it’s a specialized degree, but there are opportunities for students to explore other media while learning.
So, that’s quite an improvement. There are now 5 distinct programs that rank highly (with me, personally), giving students more options that may actually be worth the money they’re spending. As I said above, there are more programs getting going now (Warren Spector is also starting up a new program), but it’s too early to know the results.
I remain highly skeptical/critical of the Art Institutes, Westwood, and DeVry, all for-profit universities that rely heavily on government-subsidized student aid and loans. The quality of these programs varies widely from city to city, depending on the faculty who are working there at the time, and in many cases, students would be better off teaching themselves and building their portfolios. I’ve known and worked with a number of people who went through some or all of the AI program, and almost universally, the feedback I have gotten is that instruction was technical (how to use specific tools like 3D Studio Max or Maya) and generic. I would still encourage students to either fund their own development or get a BA from a tier-1 research instituion rather than enrolling at these schools.
I don’t know anything about the education options available in Europe, Asia, or the rest of the world, but if you have tips about good programs out there, or here in the US, feel free to leave them in the comments section (registration is required to prevent spam; I don’t actually do anything with the e-mail addresses).