Your game portfolio is your greatest asset
A game design education is nothing without a portfolio to show employers - Neil Druckmann, Jesse Schell and Albert Shih weigh in
Games education continues to grow and evolve, as described in our last panel of video game professors, but what should students aim to get out of their education? How will they know if they're being molded into suitable candidates to be hired by leading game developers, or should they attempt going indie and starting their own studio?
GamesIndustry International tackles these questions and more in our panel below, assembled with the help of the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), including the dev running it, an alum made good, and a current student. Our participants are Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and professor at Carnegie Mellon University's ETC, Neil Druckmann (creative director on Naughty Dog's The Last of Us and Carnegie Mellon alum), and Albert Shih, current ETC student and designer on the student team making the museum of simulation tech.
GI: What do you think students should be getting from their education before they enter the games industry, and are they actually getting what they need today from most programs?
Jesse Schell: In my opinion, at a minimum, they should be getting a solid basis in craft, whether that be software engineering, fine arts, design, business, or what have you. Ideally, they are also learning interdisciplinary teamwork, since that is generally central to game development. In most cases, though, teamwork is neglected in undergraduate education.
"having solid technical skills and having a good portfolio is a huge concern for students"
Albert Shih: I agree with Jesse that having solid technical skills and having a good portfolio is a huge concern for students. I also think a big part of a game-based education is giving students a bit of direction in stepping into the game industry. It's hard to find out what you don't know, and a lot of students have the drive and passion to enter the game industry but are not quite sure how to get there.
In my opinion, getting into the game industry from the outside is a bit tricky - there are a lot of options but most companies look for very specific skills. Knowing which skills or portfolio pieces are worth spending time on is a difficult problem. Fortunately, a lot of programs help students gain a lot more visibility in the industry.
Neil Druckmann: First thing is that students need to figure out where their passions lie and focus on specializing. The game industry is very competitive, especially for students coming out of school, and a good candidate needs to demonstrate deep knowledge in a specific discipline. Having said that, the most successful leaders in our company tend to have a broad knowledge of many topics. This is important because a big part of game development involves collaboration between a myriad of disciplines. A good developer can understand the different needs of a programmer, sound engineer, designer, animator, etc., irrespective of their own specialty. It's also important to note that even if you specialize in one area, it doesn't mean that you can never transition into another area later in your career. I started out as a programmer, then shifted to design, started doing some writing, and currently I'm a creative director. I always followed my passion and that helped me do my best work.
GI: The games industry - like any technological industry - changes quite quickly. Should we be concerned that students may spend four years learning stuff that could be out of date when they graduate?
Albert Shih: As a student, I'm not too worried about learning things that will be out of date. Game programs I know usually don't focus on any single replaceable technology. For example, in our Building Virtual Worlds class we switch technology (Kinect, Oculus, Leap Motion) every two to three weeks to teach students to be adaptable.
Jesse Schell: Absolutely, this is a concern. There are programs that unwisely spend all their time teaching students the details of technologies that are soon to be obsolete. It is very important for any responsible program to do two things -- teach students that which is eternal, and to get them working in the media of the future.
Neil Druckmann: As Jesse mentioned, this definitely can be a concern - the more technical a role is, the more concern applies. A candidate that only works with a specific set of tools that a company doesn't use becomes a greater hiring risk - which could tip the scales for another candidate. That's why it's more important to focus on core foundational skills instead of figuring out the best shortcuts of a particular software package (although that's important too).
A few examples: when hiring a concept artist, we're more interested in seeing their understanding of drawing fundamentals (anatomy, perspective, use of shape & color, composition, rendering, etc.) rather than how well they use Photoshop. For level designers, we want to see their understanding of building a space (in whatever package they want) rather than how well they use Maya (a popular 3D modeling program). A character artist though, better have a deep understanding of the latest shaders that'll help push realistic skin and hair - for that role technical ability is just as important as artistic talent.
"Honestly, students are too well prepared for crunch. Crunch happens due to poor planning, and most students do not excel at planning, and are very used to burning the midnight oil to get their projects completed"
What I loved about Jesse's design class is that it never focused on technology. Instead we learned design fundamentals by creating and iterating on paper and board games. Those same principles are directly applicable in my day-to-day work on AAA titles (even though our engines and the tools change and evolve on a regular basis.)
GI: Crunch is very much a reality of the AAA games business still. Are students adequately prepared?
Albert Shih: I think most students from game programs are quite familiar with crunch. At the ETC (and from what I hear, Digipen) staying late and getting only a few hours of sleep is common, if not expected, for some of the classes or projects that the students need to take. However, I think a more valuable [skill] is to be extremely productive in a short amount of time. If you can only work on game development for 6 hours a day (as some indies do), you need to be super efficient.
Jesse Schell: Honestly, students are too well prepared for crunch. Crunch happens due to poor planning, and most students do not excel at planning, and are very used to burning the midnight oil to get their projects completed. It is my hope that as time goes on, more schools will start to teach responsible techniques for project management that avoid long-term crunch.
Albert Shih: It's funny that I've never seen it this way, but that's absolutely true. Students crunch a lot because of poor planning. Often it's even a badge of honor to have worked overnight and students who go home early are thought of as lazy or unproductive. I think getting enough sleep and good long-term planning are more important in the long run.
Neil Druckmann: It probably depends on the school, but the hardest I ever crunched was in my first year at the ETC at Carnegie Mellon. I think I stayed up for two days straight trying to finish a project for our Building Virtual Worlds class.
While I don't see crunch going away, it's important for developers (especially newcomers that feel they have to prove themselves) to find balance in their lives. Without that balance you run the risk of not only creating sub-par work due to exhaustion, but also of burning yourself out and losing the passion that made you pursue this career in the first place.
GI: How has the rise of the indie scene in recent years affected how game design programs are structured? What changes have been made or do you think need to be made?
Albert Shih: I'm quite unfamiliar with how game design programs were in the past, but it seems that more and more students are less interested in large AAA projects and are more leaning towards creating indie or mobile projects.
Jesse Schell: It has made things far easier. We presently are in a period where students have access to the same tools that professionals do -- this was not true 7 or 8 years ago. However, it has become more necessary for schools to teach about business realities, as the idea of a student finishing school and trying to make it as an indie dev has become a reality.
Albert Shih: We still haven't seen a lot of examples of students directly transitioning into indie devs, so I'm slightly worried on that front. However, it's true that there have been a lot of examples of hit indie games being made in rather approachable tools. Game Maker was used to make Spelunky, Risk of Rain, and a lot Vlambeer games. A lot of indies have shown that it's possible to find an audience by being creative and a bit unorthodox in game design. It's very positive to see that it's theoretically possible for a small (and rather inexperienced) student-sized team to make a commercially successful or well-known game.
Neil Druckmann: The fact that students have the means to create a full game from scratch is huge. Nothing quite prepares you at making videogames than actually making a game. Showing a finished game also happens to be the strongest portfolio piece.
"I know I leveraged my professors' contacts when securing a handful of interviews while I was still in school, but ultimately it was my portfolio and the project-based experience I gained at the ETC that helped me land my internship at Naughty Dog"
The indie scene also opens doors for students to pursue the kind of games that aren't being developed in the more traditional AAA space. There are now more and more examples of students coming out of school with a strong game (or a strong prototype) and starting their own successful indie companies.
GI: Ultimately, what impact do you think someone's education has on prospective employment at game companies? Have you noticed a change in the way companies view potential hires?
Albert Shih: I think having a game-related education definitely helps getting your foot through the door but it doesn't automatically translate to a job at a coveted company. The games industry is still an incredibly competitive place especially for entry positions, and companies will often hire from regular, non-game programs. However, working together with people who are interested in the same area of game development and being around people who are familiar with the industry definitely increases your chances of getting hired. Graduating from a games program isn't a golden ticket into the games industry, but it probably gives you a better chance than anything else.
Jesse Schell: I think good education helps in several ways. First and foremost, it gives a student a chance to build a solid portfolio, which is what studios care about most. It gives experience working on teams, and one of the biggest risks for a studio hiring someone new is whether they will fit in on the studio's team. Finally, it also gives access to an alumni network, which can be tremendously helpful for getting a foot in the door at a studio.
Neil Druckmann: As certain programs prove that they can produce a large number of great candidates, companies take notice, but for the most part we place more emphasis on a candidate's portfolio than the pedigree of their school. That's why it's important for a student to maintain and update their portfolio with their latest and greatest work.
Like Jesse said, a school's connection can play a big part in getting your foot in the door. I know I leveraged my professors' contacts when securing a handful of interviews while I was still in school, but ultimately it was my portfolio and the project-based experience I gained at the ETC that helped me land my internship at Naughty Dog.