Making the case for design school

New York Film Academy's Chris Swain explains the value of a degree and why designers should learn a bit of everything

The barriers to entry in game development are falling almost across the board. Development tools are getting cheaper and easier to use. Online development communities can provide aspiring creators with guidance and feedback. And once a game is made, there are more platforms than ever through which it can find its way into the world. Even in the world of consoles, where keeping a carefully curated selection of offerings was once a key part of the business model, the gatekeepers are relaxing, touting self-publishing for independent developers.

In some ways, the industry has returned to its early years, when a developer working alone in the garage could create a blockbuster and become an overnight success story. Between the greater accessibility of tools and assistance, the greater potential to actually have their games succeed, and the romantic allure of living the indie developer dream, one might expect the people behind gaming degree programs in traditional scholastic environments to be a bit concerned. But Chris Swain, head of the New York Film Academy's game design program and former director of the University of Southern California Games Institute, isn't terribly worried.

"Historically there was no classical training for game designers. The training was just by doing, and there was no academic grounding for this before the early 2000s."

Chris Swain

"Sure there are plenty of people who will become game designers who never take a class," Swain told GamesIndustry International, "but if you wanted to stack up the value of a game design education versus just working on your project? It's all about depth of knowledge. It's all about the mentorship and networking you get from being in the school, and all the relationships with fellow students. Given both those choices, I think there's a lot of people who are going to want to go the formal route, and there are still going to be people who do the informal route, just like for any field."

But even when would-be developers choose to go the academic route, Swain said the path has not always been clear. Art schools and computer science programs have been churning out artists and programmers for the game industry since before they had game-specific curriculum, but there hasn't really been a comparable work-around for learning game design.

"Historically there was no classical training for game designers," Swain said. "The training was just by doing, and there was no academic grounding for this before the early 2000s. You literally didn't have a book like Game Design Workshop or Rules of Play."

But even with those texts, teaching game design in an academic setting carries with it some unique difficulties. As Swain explained, his new students are coming in with widely varying technical abilities. Some may be skilled programmers already, while others could be relative neophytes to coding. With the NYFA design program, Swain addresses this in a couple ways. First, he puts an early emphasis on paper prototypes of games. Challenging students to create makeshift adaptations of classic board games allows him to provide feedback about basic principles of good design that could be applied to any project going forward.

Beyond that, every semester, NYFA also groups students into teams and puts them to work with a ringer, a professional programmer from the faculty. The ringer identifies each student's technical prowess and steps in to help when a task is too far beyond their skill set.

"Ultimately the game designer's job is to be the advocate for the player. This degree should teach you how to do that, and how to communicate with people in other disciplines to be a creative leader."

Chris Swain

"This system sort of alleviates that problem and lets them figure out how to express themselves and make a game even if they don't have rock-solid programming skills at that time," Swain said, adding, "It's the difference between not being able to get anything done and being sure to get something done."

While the system provides budding designers plenty of technical assistance, Swain doesn't want them to rely on it. NYFA encourages students to take technical classes, and Swain said it's helpful for designers to be a jack of all trades. Swain himself has a varied history. Going beyond his successful work as an educator (he served as thesis advisor for ThatGameCompany founder Jenova Chen), Swain has designed more than 150 games, and even run a business as founder and CEO of Cred.FM. He might not demand his students match that versatility, but Swain wants them to understand at least a little of every role on a development team.

"Ultimately the game designer's job is to be the advocate for the player," Swain said. "This degree should teach you how to do that, and how to communicate with people in other disciplines to be a creative leader. The practical side of it is you have to have some knowledge of the different disciplines in order to those different people."

If that's the designer's job, then Swain's job is to produce designers who have that well-rounded and versatile skill set. After all, that's one of the biggest reasons he sees for pursuing a classical education in design over bootstrapping oneself as an indie or going straight to work for an established development house.

"If someone worked in a company specializing in first-person shooters, the people in the company are probably experts at that particular genre," Swain said. "But if they had to switch from that genre to another genre or be flexible in creating an original play mechanic, that would be a challenge for them. If you had a classical education in playable system design, you wouldn't be in a niche like that. You would have an education about a holistic way of looking at playable systems, so you could fungibly fit in to all kinds of different projects and bring all that knowledge."

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Latest comments (6)

Jeffrey Kesselman Professor - Game Development, Daniel Webster College4 years ago
As a 25 year game development veteran and professor of game development, I agree with Professor Swain that a formal education can be extremely valuable. The New York academic environment in particular has done an admirable job of combining practical skills with academic decomposition in settings such as NYFA, NYU and Parsons. I am actually looking at pursing an MFA in Game Design myself to compliment my 25 years of real world experience.

Having said that, there is a prevailing fiction among the common people that being a Game Designer is an exercise in abstract writing. To quote a recent prospective student of mine "I can't program or do art. But i have ideas and I can write them down!" As i bluntly told him, this is not enough. To quote one of the Game Industry's most accomplished designers, Raph Koster (designer of Ultima Online, Ever Quest and former Chief Creative Officer of Playdom.)

"There is no field on earth in which just being imaginative, able to think creatively, and come up with ideas is worth anything.
Ideas are cheap. Execution is hard.
Ideas from people who don't know how to execute are usually unimplementable."

So to be clear, although studying design is a worthy goal, it is not enough. You must also have the skills to realize those designs in a tangible product. The only people who get paid to just write about games are journalists or academics.

Most of the New York schools do teach those skills as well, and I know Professor Swain also mentioned it in his article, so I really just wanted to make sure that message was clear.

For more on this topic you can see a blog I wrote awhile back:

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Kesselman on 9th October 2013 6:49pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
The game designer's job is not to be the "advocate for the player". That is pretentious... as if the player were subordinate to games and needed game designers to "empower them".

Players will choose their own experiences. Including to not play your game if they don't want to.

The game designer's job is to give people a new experience. And the only way to do that is to design a game that THEY - the desigenr - want to play. That is the western tradition of art.
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Jeffrey Kesselman Professor - Game Development, Daniel Webster College4 years ago
I do agree that you could read some attitude in that statement that I hope isnt there.

It is the job of ALL the parties to making the game to think in terms of the player's experience. Which is part of what
can make the title "Game designer" itself problematic as game design truly arises out of the cooperative efforts of all parties.
Like film making, it is a highly cooperative effort and everyone should have creative input in their own area of specialty.

HOWEVER the other way to view this statement, that I would agree with, is that the game designer is the one person on the team
who has a high level, holistic view of the process. Everyone else can and will get bogged down in their own parts the deeper it gets into development.

This is why it makes sense for the game Designer to be the steward of the Design Document.
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Show all comments (6)
If we in the US were like some other countries and provided free or even affordable higher education then I would tend to agree with this article. But in reality, Im not sure a kid should go 100+k in debt for such a degree. Its almost criminal whats happening in the US, we put punishing loads of debt on kids barely in the 20s who only wish is to be educated. I think kids are better off just buying the text books themselves, learn and create themselves, volunteer, join communities and learn that way, all without the debt.
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Jeffrey Kesselman Professor - Game Development, Daniel Webster College4 years ago

You make a good point and in fact, in the course sequence I designed at DWC the very first course I have them take makes it clear that game development is real work. I disabuse them of the notion that they can "just be a designer" and make them both write light code and do some light art work in Unity3D. I teach them the fundamentals of the technology on a conceptual level and test them on it.
Ofcourse this is because I actually came from 25 years in the industry and understand what its really all about.

The two slides of the last lecture are "you have a choice in the game world... take the red pill and be an artist, take the blue pill and we'll show you just how deep the rabbit hole of code goes... or get a business degree and be a producer (picture of Darth Vader))."

But yes too many high schools are using "game design" as another way to sell creative writing to their students, and too many art colleges are trying to teach "Game Design" as if it was just another application of art design. One of the big problems is that we do not yet have an accrediting body in the US that really understands game development education and can vette programs. In time, that will chnage.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Kesselman on 10th October 2013 4:15pm

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Christian Slater DevilBliss Games Consultancy 4 years ago
"The game designer's job is to give people a new experience..... The game designer's job is not to be the "advocate for the player". "

But why should these two notions be mutually exclusive?
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