What Game Students Should Know Already

What Game Students Should Know Already

It looks like all those game-related degrees are starting to gain some respect from the industry old farts – which is to say those of us who entered the game industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before such programs existed. We had to make do with traditional degrees like computer science, art, English, journalism, history and interpretive macramé… uphill… both ways… in the snow. Now students are graduating from some of these programs and making immediate marks on the industry, with Portal (originally a student project before becoming a runaway success story) being only the most obvious example.

However, the people who watch over colleges have raised the warning that far more students are enrolled in game-related degree programs than the industry could ever hope to support. This has led to very interesting discussions as to whether some schools are callously exploiting their students’ dreams for a few bucks. (Okay, tens of thousands of bucks in loan money, but who are we to split that hair?)

The point remains, however, that creating games is the dream of almost all of these wide-eyed innocents. These schools give pupils three or four years of training in the main skills necessary to craft a game, but students realize quickly realize the catch 22 – that if all they do is the basic schoolwork, they (and their games) have little chance of standing out from the thousands of other graduates who receive the same training. The best students understand that they need to do far more than the basics, and they work like mad in their spare time perfecting their portfolios, making mods, networking and more.

But here’s the rub: I’m not sure if even that is enough anymore. I taught game design for a couple years, and have been a professional game designer since way back in ’90. The students who went beyond the base curriculum invariably proved the ones most likely to actually create games after college, but I noticed something more. Those who did the best, whether they were straight out of high school or had spent a few years working first, were those who had already taken the dive into game development before hitting college.

Having their teachers work on an existing foundation instead of having to build even that makes a dramatic difference. Students who entered with a decent skill set were not bored. Instead they had the opportunity to dig deeper into the subject matter than did their peers. The following list shows some of the main skills and accomplishments students should have before they hit college. I recommend that they try their hands at all of these and focus on the ones that most click with them.

  • Build a website – I don’t think anyone should be allowed to graduate high school without having built a web site, whether they are going to make games or not. This is such a basic skill now. Of course, in ten years it will probably be a completely outmoded skill only used by weirdoes and dinosaurs, but right now it is an integral part of society.
  • Play a wide variety of games – Most of the students I met had a favorite game that served as the catalyst for them wanting to make their own. However, far too often that game, and ones quite like it, were the only ones they really knew. This really handicaps developers later, as they miss valuable lessons other types teach. And by other types, I don’t just mean just trying strategy games if you are a Street Fighter fanatic. I mean board games, card games, miniature games, live action games, Rock Paper Scissors and so on.
  • Learn teamwork – The lone coder working in the basement is much less common now than in the 1980s, and even most of those have someone else supplying art, testing and so on. Learning how to work with other people is one of the key skills good game developers have, and no time is too early to start. By the way, having tried both team sports and role-playing games, I prefer D&D and Fading Suns (blatant plug) for developing my teamwork skills.
  • Put together a computer – Well, at least swap out a video card or something. I am still amazed at the number of students I saw who had never opened their computer and really had no idea how it functioned. Yes, I once set fire to a modem card this way, but it was a learning experience.
  • Playtest something – There are lots of open beta tests going on these days, and many companies provide special testing opportunities to fans who have proven themselves. Remember, testing is primarily about putting the scientific method to work, and you learned that in school, right?
  • Post to forums – And be sure to do so intelligently and politely. Companies read their forums and may respond to thoughtful, informed commentary. It’s never too early to start networking, and you can learn from others as well as share your own insights. Avoid the trolls and flamers and never become one of them yourself. That’s one of the easiest ways to ensure you won’t work in games.
  • Make a game – This does not have to be a commercial-quality video game. After all, if you could do that, you can probably handle most of what the industry would throw at you. Create your own card game, board game, etc., and get some friends to play it. Nothing teaches game production like doing it.

These last two require a higher level of commitment, but can be invaluable if you try them.

  • Code something – Even if you do not want to be a programmer, you should understand how software works. There are plenty of free programming tutorials online, books at the public library and so on. I don’t care if you program in C++, Java or FORTRAN (good luck with that last one), just give it a try and see what the computer does in response.
  • Make a mod – Lots of games offer ways to create mods, scenarios and the like. Do it. Pick a game you like that gives you access to its building tools and dive in. Not only will you have gained invaluable experience on making games, but I guarantee you will leave the experience with lots of ideas on what games should NOT do.

Finally, figure out what kind of college degree you want to get. No, not everyone in the game industry has a college degree, but if you look at the job postings in the industry, you’ll see that the vast majority ask for a degree. While programming positions often require a computer science degree, other positions tend to be less specific. Game companies don’t just want you to have a degree to prove that you can drain a keg and still show up for 8am classes.

However you choose to tackle things, one thing you can take heart in though: Getting a degree is excellent proof that you can take a long-term project to completion – a critical skill in the industry that far too many people fail to develop. I don’t care if it’s a game design degree or a journalism degree. Go for the one that will keep you going to 8am classes even after you finished that keg.

About Andrew Greenberg
Andrew Greenberg, games designer, co-created the “Fading Suns” titles and was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade.” The co-founder of Holistic Design, he’s also director of the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo and is currently working on a new Tycoon game that will be announced in 2011.


  1. “This has led to very interesting discussions as to whether some schools are callously exploiting their students’ dreams for a few bucks.”

    I’d have traded a good chunk of my loans to have realized that beforehand.

    My own opinion, based on my experience, is that a Baccalaureate degree in ‘Game Design’ is not nearly as useful as a BA (or even a BS) in some more focused skill, followed by the application of that degree in a Game Design oriented Masters program. Of course, I went into college with my major in mind. I’m applying that same line of thinking here.

  2. Great Advice. I think that being a Gamemaster in a pen-and-paper RPG is great experience in Game Design. Not just the world-building and adventure creation, but the actual running of a game. The responsibility of providing content on a schedule, thinking fast to settle a rules question on the spot and dealing with players who seem dedicated to breaking your carefully laid plans all come into play during a day as a game designer more than ‘design theory’ and what-not.

  3. “This has led to very interesting discussions as to whether some schools are callously exploiting their students’ dreams for a few bucks.”

    They are. Not all of them, but most. I think I got lucky with my courses and even then I was the only one in my year to get into the industry. One guy the year ahead of me got in too. AFAIK I was the last one to make it in, a lot of other courses came on stream just as I was leaving. I’ve seen a LOT of students from a number of universities with good reputations for game courses walk out with a 1st and still be clueless and way below acceptable standards.

    I’ve a list of horror stories from students as long as my arm and I’m hearing new ones every time I start asking questions about new courses.

    A lot of universities have simply seen games as a way to save their failing CS courses, others as an easy way to boost attendence numbers. Many students realise whats happening after their first year or so, but by this stage it’s too late they don’t want to give up and write off their investment so far.

    I don’t understand why this elephant in the corner isn’t discussed more openly. Most of the people going into Univeristy are little more than children and they are being used and abused.

  4. To any students or potential students reading this . Yes a college degree is great and something to fall back on but the great thing about the game industry is that you can get in with no college degree . If you have an outstanding portfolio you will get in . I would never waste money on a college game program unless it was taught by nothing but pros working currently in the industry .

    I don’t work in games any more but when I did 90% of the people I worked with never went to college or if they did they did not go to learn how to make games. Go to college and learn something that you can fall back on if games don’t work out . Video games are a VERY technically and artistically challenging field only the best of the best get in with very few exceptions .

    I remember one time we had 2 guys come into interview for a junior artist position one with a degree from a game design program and one who had been doing stuff in the game mod community. The guy from the game program had a very average portfolio and really didnt know that much of the technical side of getting working models into a game . On the other hand the mod guy came in with a playable working game level with outstanding modeling and lighting. He could also do nice concept work …guess who got the JOB ??

  5. FlamingCreation

    Thank you! I’ve been searching for something, ANYTHING, to help me get a foundation in the game community. I just wish you had more about what kind of programming Developers use…

    I’m one of those “wide-eyed innocents” you talked about. Ever since I played Perfect Dark I’ve been making up games. It eventually evolved from imaginary games to card games. My friends and I now make our own cards and play with them, so when I read that section about making your own games I did a little victory dance around my room… which wasn’t hard to do… my room is a walk-in closet. x_x

  6. @ Joe Bob: I used to agree with you, but that is changing. Game Design degrees used to get no respect, but now that people with them are doing good work (again, Portal being the most obvious example), HR people tell me that they take them seriously.

    @Flaming Creation: C++ is still industry standard, but there are a lot more options now than before. Flash programmers are in demand, and Unity works well with languages other than C++. I recommend looking at some of the game industry hire sites and seeing what the postings for programmers mention. However, if there are kinds of games you want to create, look for the language that serves that the most. Of course, there is one language that all programmers use, and that is profanity 🙂

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