Thursday, August 27, 2009

college vs real world

An excellent article from gamasutra on the benefits of both college and real world experience:

Coursework vs. The Real World
- Matthew Baxter

There has been much discussion in the gaming press about the merits of game courses that teach a lot of theory compared to those with strong industry links and an emphasis on industry ready skills. I went and spent thousands of pounds on the former, and have since had periods of regret and also periods of being glad I did such a course.

These types of courses have received much criticism from leading industry figures, most of whom continue to make uninspiring shooters and alien based games. What many people do not realise is that to create experiences that people want to connect with, you need to understand humans as much as C++.

Practical skills learned at university are of course important, and this could have created many problems for me when moving into the commercial world. My course, at London South Bank University, is certainly easy to ridicule. For a start, it's called "Game Cultures" but unfortunately has nothing to do with fish cultures.

It is also a proudly media theory-heavy course, and is placed within the university's media and humanities department. We spent much more time learning about Michel Foucault than mathematics. But this difference in strategy has given me a mindset that allows me to consider the player in interesting, and sometimes new ways.

After learning about people such as Foucault and Freud, the topic of semiotics became a topic of great interest and eventually became the basis of my dissertation. So, what is semiotics, you ask? Well, consider the word "mum". This has literal meanings such as "female with children". But it also has connotations, such as "caring" and "loving". But of course these connotations are different for certain types of groups or individuals. So, while some people may associate the word "mum" with "good cookery", others may associate it with "uncaring" or "bossy". This kind of study has changed the way I design games, and is something others on similar courses should also embrace.

Using semiotics as an example of what can be learned from these types of game courses, there are many ways that these can be useful in the real world. Every time you create an element in a game you need to consider important theoretical points. While these examples are simple, studying such topics speeds up the design process and allows for more things to inspire the design. Games such as Flow come from the mindsets that theory-heavy courses sometimes create. These courses push students to move away from creating generic games, such as shooters, and consider new ideas focused on real human aspirations and feelings. So, more games that make you think about politics, and less where all you need to think about is your ammo levels.

So there is much that you can learn from a theory-heavy course. At first the topics can seem pointless and unrelated to video games. But games have obviously been around longer than videogames, and there is much interesting analysis of play. Often learning about play before videogames can also allow you as a designer to imagine simpler and more approachable interfaces, gameplay and art styles. Back then they had no controllers with more than a dozen buttons, so there is much to learn from the past. For example studying social games of the past and their rules can help you to evolve them for the digital age. The rules of these century old games have been adapted over many years, more than videogames could have, and from this much can be discovered about what makes a good game or bad game.

As mentioned, throughout such a course it is strongly advised to do work outside of the university. Taking what you have learned at university and transferring this to a mod team is a good example. The number of practical assignments, which produce playable games that an employer will find of interest, will probably be limited. So unless you create something superb and award winning as your final year project, you may come across a dead end when applying for jobs after university.

So, there are many options such as working on flash games or XNA games for the Xbox 360. Doing more than testing in a commercial setting in-between university is also immensely useful, as much of the above will be learned before you enter the real world after university. I was lucky to be taught by the owner of a small, local game developer. I worked hard, impressed him and got a job in the summer. Without this my resume would probably just been filled with testing positions, and in the future this experience will be very useful if I am on the hunt for a job.

So what can be learned at more liberal courses will be of benefit. But from this what will you need to learn on the job? And will the lack of practical skill based lectures create any problems? Well, the answer is a big yes, if you do not take the right steps. And a bit of luck also helps.

But doing any sort of work in the summers between terms and planning for work placements as early as possible is also extremely important. Even if this is as a tester, the contacts you make will be of importance. This could be a gateway to a job after university, as an employer will know you, they will hopefully understand how much of a hard worker and quick learner you are! From this you will have made a great reference on your resume, or you will be given a big boast getting a full-time job at the company. If you don't come from a well known games course, such as DigiPen, then this can really help. Especially if your courses name or topics do not evoke much interest or respect from prospective employers.

If you are successful in getting a job after university, whatever type of course you did, there will be a huge amount to learn. The most interesting is the new tools to learn. Other media students have it easy, as there are only so many photo or video editing techniques and pieces of software that students will go on to use in the real world of commercial development.

Therefore, experimenting with many different engines and creating actual finished games with them during university is of huge importance. Many students focus on one engine, often Unreal, but you need to be prepared in case certain engines or types of engines become unpopular in the real world. Or the companies using them go bust, as is the case these days.

Also, if you are prepared before and willing to stay a bit later during your first few months at a company then new tools will not be a problem. Often companies will have heavily modified engines or their own specifics tools for the games they develop. Therefore you will have to persevere and push through this challenge. As some of these developer tools may be for internal use only, the documentation will probably be lacking and the interface may be unfriendly. So it is up to you to get through without making too much trouble. You want to look positive and excited when starting, so it will be easy to get past your jobs probationary period. But never be afraid to ask questions about the new tools or development methods. This will show you are interested in establishing yourself at the company and will allow your skills to more quickly develop.

The always fun task of writing documentation will also change. While at university, students will be writing for people with knowledge of these subjects. While in a commercial setting you may be creating documentation for everyone from a publishers PR team, an external sound contractor or a financial partner. Using words or terms such as "gameplay" and "RTS" may be too difficult for them to understand. You may need to re-consider the way you write and read through everything, imagining you are not very knowledgeable about the games industry. Or if you are dealing with a company outside the industry, just write like they know nothing about computers. They may misinterpret something (sometimes on purpose!) and further along in the games development this may create problems for you and your company. So, you must be as clear as possible, and leave nothing to false interpretation.

If you are on a theory-heavy course and you are worried, stop worrying. Get out and active in the amateur community, send your resume to every company you can, bug your contacts for any work you can get and be honest to yourself about any holes in your skill set. If you do this, there is a great chance, even with this awful economy, that you will get a great job. Plus, you will have all the theory knowledge from university to enhance your influences as a game maker. Game courses are already breeding a new generation of game designers. I could never imagine something like Portal coming from a middle-aged, burnt out game designer. It is too fresh and ignores too many design stereotypes. I believe that as game courses develop, we will continue to see a new generation of really exciting game makers. I can't wait to see what else the new generation will come up with.

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