Teaching the Games Business
It's not enough to teach students to code, draw or design; truly well-trained staff must also understand the commercial sides of the business
What role does the educational sector play in the future of games? On the surface, we might expect that any important, emerging creative sector - let alone one whose applications have been proven across many other fields, from military to medical - might expect to be well-treated by the educational sector. Yet in reality, this question opens up many cans of worms. It asks us what the goal of education is; what the role of tertiary education, specifically, might be; and what skills the game developers of tomorrow will actually need.
None of those are questions which have easy or uncontroversial answers. The first two, at least, are beyond the scope of a games industry website to answer - but at the third question, we might have a pretty well-informed stab. The games business has for many years faced a skills shortage, and this shortage has been not only exacerbated but vastly expanded by the rise of indie development and the remarkable success of small studios. It's clear that tomorrow's developers don't know everything they need to know; it's not entirely clear who proposes to fix this, and how.
Let me step back a moment. In the late 1990s, a number of universities and institutions established courses aimed at training young people to work in the booming games industry. Throughout the 2000s, these courses themselves boomed, with reputable and unknown institutions alike creating high-profile courses related to videogames. Universities courted varying degrees of industry involvement. The best courses tended to be run in close cooperation with developers and publishers, striving to turn out talent who could, at least, be moulded into genuinely valuable staff for game creators. The worst of the bunch ignored industry input and often turned out students with little more than delusions of grandeur to show for their lengthy courses.
"there is a true and not entirely unfounded concern that games courses might turn out would-be developers whose cultural knowledge starts at Final Fantasy VII and goes downhill from there"
Throughout the establishment of these courses, there was a concerned background murmur from recruiters and developers in the industry. The topic of concern was simple; games courses, they said, were too narrow in their focus. What the game business needs isn't "games programmers", but good programmers; people with a background in computer science, in maths and in physics, capable of tackling difficult problems in original ways, not just of using a DirectX library. Similarly, artists and animators needed training in a variety of fields, not just in someone's notion of "game art"; and as for designers, well, good design is largely a product of experience and inspiration, not study and classroom analysis.
In short, established developers felt that students who studied "games" - be that game programming, game art or game design - would inevitably end up being much too narrow in their focus. Games don't exist in isolation. They're part of a broader creative world, and must draw upon that reality to find their strength and their voice. Moreover, a student who studies games as if they exist in isolation will end up with a creative voice that's lacking in the rich tone required of a true creator. To speak confidently and compellingly in the interactive medium requires knowledge of prior media, of great creators who lived long before the joypad and of wonderful experiences that have not been encompassed by a screen. Most game creators get that, yet there is a true and not entirely unfounded concern that games courses might turn out would-be developers whose cultural knowledge starts at Final Fantasy VII and goes downhill from there.
All of this is a sound of caution, not of defeat. The reality is that the games business has grown to a point where it needs a hale and hearty university sector to feed its appetite for talent. It needs superb artists, programmers and designers to emerge in order to create a new generation of creatives, both to fill the talent deficit at existing studios and, inevitably, to build new studios of their own, infused with the vision and purpose of a new wave of creativity. The business needs educational institutions to work with it, to figure out what skills are required and to instil these skills into a new generation of young people - a generation for some of whom being a game creator seems every bit as cool as being a film star.
Yet being a game creator doesn't mean quite the same thing today as it did a few years ago. The rise of digital distribution and alternative platforms has blown the industry wide open in many ways. No longer do creators have to seek permission and green lighting from a publisher before building a great game. Self-publishing has elevated itself from the realms of egotism and self-aggrandisement to being a key strategy for releasing any game. Steam, the iOS App Store, Google Play and their ilk have blown the system through which games are delivered to consumers wide open. Of course, such things as development financing, marketing budgets and distribution networks remain relevant, but handling all of those things for yourself is no longer impossible. Self-publishing is no longer the last option for a creator rejected by commercial firms; it is the first option for any creator who does not find a specific need or relevance for a publisher or other partner in their process.
Moreover, that self-publishing process is more complex than we ever imagined. Not only must you choose what platform and distribution system best suits your game - you must also, from the very outset, decide which business model will best support your vision for the game. A bewildering range of business models now exist. Will you drum up pre-development support on Kickstarter? How about taking pre-orders or establishing stretch goals? Will you pay for important costs through preorders or selling rights? Will you work with a big platform holder or go it alone and release through Steam? Will you sell copies, or give them away free? Will you recoup costs by going free-to-play, subscription, or paid-for?
"For today's world, which demands games as a service, self-publishing and many other approaches to make game development pay reasonably, simply turning out a student who can code, draw or animate isn't enough"
It's sad, perhaps, but I don't think that a decent games-focused course today can legitimately turn out students who don't at least understand the issues raised by the questions above. All too many courses are aimed at creating programmers or artists, with no attention paid to the fact that the recent splintering of large studios into small, autonomous development teams has meant that more and more development staff find themselves confronted with business problems which were formerly solved far above their pay grade.
I was somewhat shocked last year to learn that a short book of free-to-play design rules which I had co-authored was being recommended to students by a number of game design courses in the UK. It isn't the worst text to recommend, I think - and I certainly hope that students found some value in its exhortations - but its success as a tertiary level text highlights a key problem. University courses don't know what to tell their students about the business into which they are entering. That's unsurprising, given how heated our own debates about the future of the business can often be. Yet it's also unforgivable; it risks sending students into the world completely unprepared for the challenges they will face.
Figuring out how to make a great game is one thing; figuring out how to make it pay for itself and earn a decent living is entirely another thing. Making games is a dream come true for many creatives, which is a wonderful thing to see. Yet I cannot escape the sense that university courses advertising themselves as semi-vocational courses in game creation owe so much more to their students. For today's world, which demands games as a service, self-publishing and many other approaches to make game development pay reasonably, simply turning out a student who can code, draw or animate isn't enough. Today's developers need to know how their annual salary comes about and what they can do to secure, or improve, upon it; they need to know how to read customer bases and market data, and how to build a game that will fit for the players they've got, not the ones they might have dreamed of when they first started developing.
It's great that so many universities and even schools are taking game development seriously as an academic and career path. I only hope that the next group of graduates they produce strike a difficult balance - understanding how to be the best in their chosen fields on the one hand, and also clearly working towards commercial success and stability on the other, even if those two sides often seem in conflict. Being an indie developer of note may seem like a purely artistic endeavour, but business is there from the start; overrunning the bad ideas and rewarding the truly great. If this next generation of creators can be as truly great as their role thus far suggests, the games business is in for an upheaval that's truly commercial as well as creative.