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.

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Latest comments (12)

Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 3 years ago
I think it's valuable to look at the other successful vocational tertiary courses that have existed for quite some time. Take medicine, particularly as it has an element of constantly evolving (maybe not to the extent of the digital creative sector recently but still).

Medical students have the highest expectations placed on them across a broad range of subject from pharmacology to neurology to ethics and interpersonal skills. Their skills are tested regularly and sometimes by assessment by their professors (most of which are still involved in the practice of medicine) in a way that does not constitute tick boxes, just a "is this person up to being a doctor" judgement call.

This only constitutes the first part of that system to instil the students with the basics. During this time students usually also take a year doing a different subject to broaden their knowledge (not necessarily skills). And after that they do years of rotations around different departments of different hospitals. Purely vocational assignments after establishing a broad and expansive knowledge set. And with these latter years, they pick up the cutting edge information because they are working on the front line.

What if the games industry did that? What if it only took the best; gave them a level of expectation that the industry requires; trained them in programming, animation, design, audio, business, creative writing, publishing, marketing and then put them in companies for 2-3 years?

Hell there's a massive problem with students in gaming courses thinking that they want to be in the industry when in reality they only enjoy playing games not making them. Set the barrier to entry early and say "no" to anyone coming on those courses who hasn't made a game already. The information and facilities are there for any 14 year old to do so, so start there. Those kids are the ones the industry want to be attracting and putting together on courses in their formative years, not the kids who "like games" that can't/won't draw or refuse to program because they're "not artists".

Some games courses are doing similar things already but the standard across the board must be significantly higher and consistent. And the industry needs to open itself to be part of that training. As we said to many of our students "put rubbish in, get rubbish out".
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I dont think loading kids with debt for an education that may or may not be relevant is always positively necessary in the software industry. The greatest lesson I learned about business and software came from a chance encounter with someone I respected in the field in a bar of all places. He basically said, two words is all you need to know...he said... "re-occuring revenue" that is the secret to success in software, and damn if that wasnt the best advice I ever received...from a colleague in a bar.. costing me a round of drinks....

For sure coding and understanding systems and hardware architecture and so forth has to be learned somewhere, somehow etc.. but a formal education at a 4 year college costing you 200,000 bucks or more may or may not always be the only route. Everything is changing. Basically if your good at what you do, if you know what you are doing.. I dont care where you learned it..

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 18th April 2014 5:13pm

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Dan Lowe 3D Animator, Ubisoft Montreal3 years ago
Making games is hard, and it takes a lot of knowledge and practice. To me, getting better graduates is all about making the most efficient use of a students time over their 3 years of study. The biggest inefficiency that I see right now in games courses is that they're not targeting study towards the specific career that a student wants at the end of their course.

A student who wants to build indie games should be learning a very different skill set to an artist or programmer who wants to work in AAA. The issue I see in the course syllabuses is that a student that wants to be, say, a AAA animator, is required to also learn the basics of character modelling, environment modelling, game design, etc. It's one thing to provide a broad view of all disciplines, but that student is going to have to compete with other students from courses, or online schools, where all they do is animation.

To the point of the article; that students would benefit from learning fringe subjects: for sure, that can be a benefit to your career and potentially in your day to day life, but again, I think it depends on the student's end career goals. If their goal is to work in AAA and they have no interest in making indie games, teaching a deep understanding of business models is a waste of their time. On the other hand one skill that I think all games courses should teach is Soft Skills, which I underestimated before I got into the industry and is a hugely important aspect of game development.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dan Lowe on 18th April 2014 5:22pm

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Show all comments (12)
Lewis Pulsipher Game Designer, Author, Teacher 3 years ago
@Patrick. Only the most elite schools can contemplate the entry requirements you suggest, because schools are desperate for students, and game development in particular is an area where schools are trying to make up for lost enrollments elsewhere. Game development degrees often arise out of desperation as programming enrollments go down, a way to get programming students through games. Your suggestions make sense for graduate school, not for undergraduate. (I'm looking at this from the US point of view, but I think things are not much different in the UK.)
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Lewis Pulsipher Game Designer, Author, Teacher 3 years ago
@Dan. Specialization occurs much earlier in the UK than here in the US. In the US, college students often don't know what they target, and in any case, often find out when they graduate that they do something different from what they intended. Hence universities have to take all the game industry possibilities into account. All the students should understand indie, all should understand AAA.
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Rusty Buchert Executive Producer, WhiteMoon Dreams, Inc.3 years ago
This is dead on. The last two years I spoke at the Games Education Summit in the States this was my talking point to the various people running programs across the US. I had seen budgets from just graduated teams that had supposedly had some business education (1 class mind you) that would present budgets that worked out to 14,4k per man month because they didn't understand weighting a budget or other aspects of planning/budgeting. I don't know how many times I held "class" with them working over how to do a proper budget. It didn't matter to me whether or not SCEA picked up the project, I didn't want to see them basically laughed out of the room no matter how polite the other publishers may be about it. It kills their credibility

What is really irritating is that often their agents would let them walk into meetings like this.

This is something that needs to be covered as an undergrad simply because I saw so many teams coming out right after they got their bachelors and some teammates in their last semester. They are excited and have some great ideas to make but have no clue how to be a business or do fundamental planning and budgeting.

One last thing. One of the failed budgets I knew their professor for the "business" class and gave him an earful over it because they passed his class and somehow came away with the understanding that a 1.25 weighting entailed actually adding 1.25 to 1.0 and multiply the actual costs by 2.25. Maybe as a publisher or at a stretch a massive established AAA dev house but not a startup.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 3 years ago
Why should those people be teaching young people about business?

The people in the games business themselves don't understand busienss very much.

They're still stuck in the factory model. There's a whole other world out there called PROJECT-BASED FINANCE which they have stupidly left unexplored... It's driven the art industry for centuries.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 18th April 2014 7:44pm

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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 3 years ago
@ Lewis. Thanks for your thoughts and you do raise a good point, however in the UK because students take a loan for their fees and and a bit more, the barriers to entry are less heavily linked to socio-economic factors (although still present for other reasons).

The way you describe the games courses coming into being has been similar in the UK though, with some poor courses popping up that have been a veiled attempt to get bums on seats with a poor selection of staff (if any to a point). In the UK there is also a definite stigma from a parental point of view about the games industry still not being a "serious" option which means that the industry misses out on a host of extremely gifted students. By creating courses that have high requirements that already starts to attract a completely different class of student.
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Alex Darby Gamer Camp Course Lead - Technical, Birmingham City University3 years ago
To be honest, complicated though the bewildering variety of current business models, is I can't help but feel that this is a slightly short-sighted view of the problem.

Academic rigour (in the UK at least) insists that a course's content be re-validated every 5 years, so anything in the curriculum is set for 5 years from when it is validated, which invariably means at least a year or two after the rest of the world has already accepted it.

5 years ago, who would have been willing to stand up and say "middle tier publishers are dead - triple A or indie are the only viable choices"? Who would have imagined that free to play or early access alphas were going to be such a big deal? Indeed, if Notch had listened to the perceived wisdom of the time Minecraft might never have happened, and the game business might be different.

It's not the responsibility of HE courses to teach their students about kickstarter, free to play, early access alphas, or whatever.

There's no point teaching specific business models, because they change so fast because in our increasingly digital age they're increasingly less tied to the traditional factors that cause stability. The very act of clinging to "stable" business models has caused the music and film industries so much trouble during the ongoing physical to digital transition and we should be aware of that.

Presumably it can't be long before the game industry starts to move toward more subscription based services like netflix. Where does that leave all the current perceived wisdom about F2P and so forth? I certainly don't know, and wouldn't be willing to declare any fact - published in a real live book made from trees or otherwise - about the current business models as if it were unshakable gospel truth.

Even ignoring the fact that these models might not be around in a few years, there honestly can't be many - if any - university staff who have enough real life experience of success with these new business models to have a valid opinion! There are barely enough business people who have statistically had enough success with these new models to be able to say they are experts.

HE courses need to teach their students the underlying principles of our business - profit & loss, supply & demand, how to manage risk & build creative products cost effectively, how to engage with their consumers and improve their products - and then give them opportunities to apply this knowledge to observing the world around them, how to break down their observations to find the information they need, to draw their own conclusions and to find new ways to sell people their games.

All we can be sure of is that the business model will change, so maybe we should teach them how to adapt rather than try to teach them in great detail about what is about to become the newest old business model?
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Dan Lowe 3D Animator, Ubisoft Montreal3 years ago
@Lewis: I appreciate your point but if that's the case those games graduates are going to find themselves hard pressed to compete with graduates who major in fine arts or computer science, where they've been allowed to focus on one discipline.

I did a games degree with a broad set of subjects and by the end of it, when I was starting to apply for animation jobs, I'd probably only had about 3 months solid animation experience from a full 3 year degree, because of that split focus. When I compare my animation ability at the point that I graduated to the work that graduates produce from dedicated animation programs like the one at CalArts, or from online schools like AnimationMentor or iAnimate, it's night and day, and things are far more competitive now than they've ever been.

If someone asked me right now if they think a games course is a good idea or not, I'd say "only if you want to be a game designer". For every other discipline I'd point to more specialized courses.
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Abhimanyu Kumar Associate Product Manager, Zynga3 years ago
@Dan: Completely agree with you there. For a "game designer", a gaming specific course would be a great option. For other roles, the industry has matured to such a great extent that the kinds of problems that a big/small gaming company has to solve are very close those in regular software firms. And I am talking about problems that exist in the programming, production, product management, art, UI etc. departments of gaming firms. Therefore, I do believe that a gaming specific course would definitely narrow your perspective a little too much, and may not even be a good safety net degree to have in the long run. What happens when a student who has spent 3-4 years in a game programming specific course does not enjoy making games? Will other companies consider him with the limited industry specific knowledge that he has?

At the same time, I don't think a gaming specific course is all bad. For people who know right from the start that the gaming industry is where they want to be, I would recommend taking up a gaming specific course because it shows passion, focus and consistency to recruiters. Like many people have commented on this article, I really don't think the problem is with the gaming specific course, but just the way the course is designed. Some ideas in which a gaming specific course could adapt to the rapidly changing environment -
- Regularly update the course curriculum to stay up to speed with the rapidly transforming industry
- Focus the first year of the curriculum on teaching foundation courses (basic programming, business, game design, UI etc.)
- Have a mix of foundation courses and electives in the remaining years
- Transform course structures in such a way non-industry specific programming or business theories are taught using gaming industry examples

Most of the first year foundation courses will not be industry specific, and this will help build a long term safety net for the student, if he was to not enjoy working in the gaming industry at some point. Further, exposing the student to all these fields in the first year itself would present to him a varied set of tracks that he could decide to learn thoroughly through electives in the remaining years. And finally, since generalized theories will be taught in the courses through gaming industry examples, the student will be prepared to take up a job not only in the gaming industry, but in any industry of his choice. Moreover, he will be able to learn from other industry examples, and apply that learning in the gaming company he might eventually work for.
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 3 years ago
Every time I'm telling my students that they're producing a product I get these looks from them. And I know what they're thinking. The same when I was in their place back in my student years. "Gosh, all I want to do is make a fun game!" ... Yeah, but if you want to continue doing this for a living you have to get it into your head, that your game is a product. A fun product of course, that's the design of it after all. Like a car is product that enables you to travel easily.

I gladly go to a food store or a butchery and buy stuff and I don't regret spending the money on it. And as a game developer and want my customers which buy my game in a marketplace of their choice to be glad about their purchase and make them want to return again. A good product deserves a good price. How are we going to pay our bills if we give our hard work out for free or for less than its value? And we ourselves are a product as well which deserves its fair price. I'm looking at you artists!

This topic has such a wide range of effect for every industry, if you remember all of the game companies which went bust in the last decade, you should realize its importance by then.
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