Craft, art, and science: Three ways of teaching game design
How can educational institutions best teach prospective designers in a way that prepares them for work in the industry?
Disclosure: Toke Krainert is a level designer at IO Interactive and external lecturer at The IT University of Copenhagen. He is a former part-time teacher at KADK and collaborates with TGA in various capacities through his work as a designer. Work on this article has been done independently with the aim of furthering transparency and discussion on education in game and level design.
IO Interactive has approved the article prior to publishing but have had no influence on the contents apart from the participation of Marina Surdu as an interviewee.
While practitioners in many disciplines of game development have traditionally entered the industry from other fields or educations, there is now a myriad of universities offering more-or-less industry-specific degrees. In particular, education in the design of gameplay systems and levels is a newcomer, affording knowledge in a field that became truly prevalent only with the advent and proliferation of video games.
This spawns a question for all designers and educators: How can educational institutions best teach prospective designers in a way that prepares them for work in the industry?
"Education in the design of gameplay systems and levels affords knowledge in a field that became truly prevalent only with proliferation of video games"
To answer this question, one might look at the ways current game educators are going about their business. I had the privilege of working for or with three institutions offering education in game or level design in Copenhagen and Malmö: The Game Assembly (TGA), the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU), and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK).
Since the institutions are geographically adjacent and their educations topically similar, their graduates compete in the same professional environment -- which further merits a comparison between them as examples of strategies in the teaching of game and level design. As representatives from each were kind enough to assist me with questionnaires, this article will make such a comparison in terms of contents, formats, and philosophies, and contextualize the trends within the professional landscape.
The programs explained
The Game Assembly (TGA) is a Swedish vocational university founded in 2008. The institution offers educations in art, technical art, animation, programming, and level design, all specifically for games. It does not, however, encompass a program for gameplay design; rather, every student is expected to act as a game designer. Exactly 16 students are admitted into the level design education each year, and the goal of the program is to prepare students for jobs in level, world, or technical design specifically rather than the design of gameplay systems.
The IT University of Copenhagen (ITU) is a Danish university founded in 1999. Currently, the institution offers bachelor's and master's educations in IT business, design, development, computer science, data science, and games - the latter of which is a master's level program consisting of both tech and design tracks. The design track focuses on general game design and aims to let students develop their individual interests within a broad framework rather than restricting them to gameplay design, level design, or another specific discipline. 25 students were admitted into the design track in fall 2020 -- out of some 50 students across both tracks per year.
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK) is a higher education institution founded in 2011 as a merger of the Academy's School of Architecture, the Danish Design School, and the Academy's School of Conservation. Among a multitude of educations, several of which are in design, the institution offers a master's level program in Visual Game and Media Design, which teaches game design from a visual perspective. Approximately 20 students were admitted to the program in fall 2020.
Educational contents and formats
Apart from being located in the Greater Copenhagen metropolitan area, the three educations have a few things in common. They are all full-time studies, publicly funded, and open to international students under some conditions. Their contents are partially based on industry boards through which they gain input from the studios in the region, and they all make use of visiting professionals as guest lecturers. They assist students in putting together portfolios for potential employers through courses, meetings with educators, or collaboration with HR scouts from relevant companies. Perhaps most significantly, all three educations involve a substantial amount of group work on projects, although the extents and formats vary between them.
"All three educations involve a substantial amount of group work on projects, although the extents and formats vary between them"
Despite their similarities, however, the three educations differ widely on some essential points. For the remainder of the article, I will refer to the educations simply as TGA, ITU, and KADK -- despite the fact that each institution offers multiple educations, as explained in the above. Additionally, where no other source is specified, the following is based on email exchanges with Tommy Norberg, educator at TGA; Martin Pichlmair, head of program at ITU; and Jesper Juul, head of program at KADK.
Firstly, since the program at TGA is a higher vocational education, students need only a high-school diploma or one of the alternative qualifications to apply. Inversely, the educations at ITU and KADK are both master's level studies and thus require students to hold bachelor's degrees. Secondly, while TGA obviously involves courses in level design, and ITU and KADK include courses in general game design and development, the educations encompass different tangent fields to different degrees.
TGA includes several courses in 3D art and technical design and touches on a multiplicity of disciplines from a level design perspective. More broadly, KADK introduces students to a number of subjects including visual design, 2D art, 3D art, storytelling, animation, programming, playtesting, and entrepreneurship. Like KADK, ITU includes a mandatory course in programming, but also theoretical courses in game studies and data-driven design, and students choose two electives out of several additional theoretical and applied courses.
The educations are equally discrepant on the subject of learning activities. While ITU makes use of both traditional lectures, workshops, group work, and paper writing depending on the course, KADK focuses more consistently on projects done in groups. TGA avoids lectures and rather favors workshops and individual mentoring, in addition to the dominant individual and group-based projects. ITU and KADK both end with a semester-long individual or group-based thesis project which respectively may or must involve a media product -- while TGA concludes with a mandatory internship at a game studio.
Even within the apparent commonality of group-based projects the educations differ widely. TGA involves several cross-disciplinary group projects of 15 people for around eight weeks, in addition to smaller one-man projects; inversely, projects at KADK are always done in groups of two to eight people, and students at ITU will spend about a third of their time on projects but rarely if ever in groups of more than six people.
Additionally, the focus in the grading of projects differs between the institutions. At TGA, projects are judged primarily on the production output, sometimes supplemented by an oral presentation, whereas all projects at ITU and KADK conclude with a written report and oral examination. Being a university, ITU always has a theoretical component to its teaching, and KADK "[emphasizes] method in the evaluation," in the words of head of program Jesper Juul.
"It is no surprise, then, that the subjects of theory and empiricism are differently represented in the educations"
The frequency of grading also differs. Students at TGA are graded after each individual and group project for a total of five times per semester -- not including the internship period, during which no grades are given. Inversely, students at KADK are graded just once per semester, and students at ITU are graded after each course for three to four grades per semester. The exception for both ITU and KADK is the fourth semester, during which students receive only a single grade for their thesis project and defense.
A different pattern emerges on the subject of educators. Level design students at TGA will have only two main teachers, while KADK has a "core team" of four to five teachers for its game design students, and ITU employs a corps of ten full-time educators for its games program. Additionally, while the teachers at TGA are industry professionals, the educators at ITU are academically educated, although some have worked on commercial games. Teachers at KADK have a mixture of academic and industry backgrounds, and the in-house educators at both KADK and ITU are supplemented by external teachers and lecturers from the industry (including yours truly).
It is no surprise, then, that the subjects of theory and empiricism are differently represented in the educations. TGA emphasizes mostly the applied and applicable, such as color and composition theory, while the material at ITU spans a wide range depending on the course. Similarly, KADK draws on a mixture of academic game and media studies on one hand and game design literature on the other. In terms of empiricism, ITU includes a mandatory course in data-driven design and development, during which students are taught principles of empirical data. KADK teaches methods for playtesting and managing external users and stakeholders, and requires students to conduct test sessions while some projects involve said external factors. Unlike the others, TGA relies more on reference material and feedback from teachers and peers than user research; in the words of educator Tommy Norberg, the aim is for students "to become free thinkers and learn from their mistakes."
Lastly, the programs differ in the rigidity of the curricula; while students at TGA and KADK choose which game to develop for each project -- within the confines of the project brief or subject -- the educational structures are locked. At ITU, on the other hand, students are free to choose the contents of a third to half of the education through exemptions and individual specializations. Additionally, they have the option to take a semester abroad.
Goals and philosophies
Having compared the specific contents and formats of the three educations, let us examine how this correlates to their individual teaching goals and intended student profiles.
Tommy Norberg, educator at TGA, describes the primary learning goal of the education as developing a "deep understanding of what makes a level and game work" as a foundation on which to build expertise. He sees his students as future level, world, or technical designers, and describes TGA as "very production focused" compared to other educations, producing "good problem solvers and creative thinkers."
Martin Pichlmair, head of program at ITU, sees his graduates as "autonomous, creative, cross-disciplinary collaborative experts of a field within games [that] can bring their abilities to a wide range of projects." Comparing to other educations, Pichlmair emphasizes that "ITU is an academic institution," and that the aim is to teach general more than specific skills.
Jesper Juul, head of program at KADK, describes the primary learning goal as "creating well rounded, visually focused designers, who can make ideas come to life." He sees his students as creatives who can implement and develop their ideas into functional games, and emphasizes the education's broad media outlook including storytelling and film.
"Each gravitates towards a particular perspective more than others -- namely craft, science, and art"
This reflects a more general difference in the institutions' perspectives on game design. TGA emphasizes core skills in or around level design, focuses heavily on projects and production output, is structured around individual mentoring and workshops over lectures, and ends with an obligatory internship; as such, it embodies a perspective on game design and production as craft and apprenticeship. Inversely, ITU's mandatory courses in game studies and data-driven design, open structure, consistent theoretical components, and conclusion with a master's thesis embodies a perspective on the subject as a field to be studied scientifically, if not a science in itself. Lastly, KADK -- with its broad spectrum of skills taught, interweaving of practical and theoretical approach, and inclusion of non-game media -- assumes the artistic perspective, treating the subject as an artform or creative medium to be scrutinized and challenged. That is not to say each institution perceives the subject in only one way, but rather that each gravitates towards a particular perspective more than others -- namely craft, science, and art.
Given that the three educations are found at respectively a craft school, a university, and an art school, this is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the degree to which the philosophies and perspectives manifest in the educations' contents and formats and, even more so, the correlation it has with the industry.
TGA's craft-centric approach of experience over empiricism, for example, leans towards practices in AAA studios, while KADK's emphasis on prototyping is more akin to the experimentation of arthouse and indie developers. Similarly, TGA's specificity of subject lends itself to the specialized roles in larger studios, while KADK's multifaceted approach equips students for generalist roles in smaller ones. ITU is the odd one out here, allowing students to specialize to variable degrees while imposing at least a minimum of theoretical work.
As such, if TGA can be likened to AAA, and KADK to indies, ITU is perhaps best described as the overlap between design and analysis: the space from which students could naturally move into either game development, research, or journalism. This is by no means to say that the alignment of the educations preordains the paths of their students, but it does affect the aptness of their skillsets as entry-level professionals.
The industry perspective
In order to get the local industry's perspective, I reached out to studios in the region:
- IO Interactive, an independent AAA studio with offices in Copenhagen and Malmö
- SYBO, a mobile studio in Copenhagen
- Sharkmob, a Tencent-owned mid-sized studio in Malmö
- Logic Artists, an independent mid-sized studio in Copenhagen
All four employ entry-level gameplay and level designers, either hiring juniors right out of school or offering internships and subsequent employment.
When asked what skills and experience representatives of the four studios sought in entry-level designers, one qualification recurred in all replies: some experience making games as a hobbyist or student. In the words of Martin Hultberg of Sharkmob, for example, they value students who have "made games and levels from start to finish, together with a team of people from different disciplines."
Three studios listed portfolios among the factors considered when hiring interns, three listed collaborative skills, and three stressed the importance of communication skills. Particularly, Jonas Wæver of Logic Artists looks for designers who can "communicate well and clearly" and ideally "have some leadership potential, as designers will always end up with some kind of leadership role." In terms of personality, Hultberg looks for "nice people [that are] easy to communicate with", and Marina Surdu of IO Interactive says she needs them to be "ambitious for their craft, but humble in their interactions."
"If TGA can be likened to AAA, and KADK to indies, ITU is perhaps best described as the overlap between design and analysis"
Lastly, three out of the four studios look for designers with experience or talents within the specific genre of games or the workflow the company employs. For instance, Benedikte Hayes of SYBO seeks "a passion for developing enjoyable mobile games" and considers whether applicants' "portfolios match [the studio's] design style."
Regarding the educations, all four studios have experience with TGA; Martin Hultberg of Sharkmob goes as far as stating that they "have a tight collaboration with The Game Assembly first and foremost." Additionally, IO Interactive and Logic Artists either employ or have employed entry-level designers from ITU. None of the studios, however, report employing or having employed entry-level designers from KADK -- although both IO Interactive and Logic Artists have KADK alumni among their management, and SYBO has hired both KADK and ITU alumni with prior experience.
Given that TGA, ITU, and KADK accept around 16, 25, and 20 students per year, respectively, graduates from the latter seem comparatively underrepresented among entry-level designers. Inversely, the omnipresence of TGA's graduates is remarkable as its program accepts the fewest students. This is mirrored in the general opinion among the game studios; while each studio expressed their own opinions on each of those institutions with which they were familiar, three out of four studios had a mostly positive experience with students from TGA.
That having been said, the overrepresentation of TGA students may be partly due to the internship structure; as the internship is part of the education and thus not necessarily paid by the studio, there is a financial incentive for companies to accept interns from TGA -- which may result in a lesser capacity for interns from other educations, as well as a lesser capacity for junior when the interns they accepted graduate to that role.
As my empirical basis is obviously limited, I reached out also to Vision Denmark, a creative business alliance representing Danish games, animation, and film. Here, managing director Jan Neiiendam told me that students from TGA are generally highly valued in the industry on account of the focus of the educations they offer, and the number of games produced during the course. He adds that studios, regardless of size, tend to value students who have made games more than those with academic knowledge, and that there is a general preference for craftsmen above academics. As such, he emphasizes that the organization currently recommends the introduction of more practical game-related educations in Denmark, following the model of TGA.
"Three studios listed portfolios among the factors considered when hiring interns, three listed collaborative skills, and three stressed the importance of communication skills"
To get a quantitative angle, I attempted to compare employment rates across the educations. Due to various uncertainties, however, the results were inconclusive. TGA maintains statistics of employment for students across the entire institution, but did not have any data specifically for their program in level design. Similarly, ITU does not differentiate between its design and tech tracks, and KADK conflates its design educations at large, meaning the most accurate data available pertains to some 100 graduates per year.
Additionally, Statistics Sweden, the Swedish government agency responsible for such statistics, declined my request for corroboration of TGA's numbers with reference to the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act. Reaching out to the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, they were able to share statistics for ITU and KADK but, like the institutions themselves, did not differentiate between tracks and educations, respectively.
Additionally, I should make explicit that this article has not investigated the success of graduates as entrepreneurs -- and that the less discipline-specific approaches of ITU and KADK may better equip students for this than TGA.
At the end of this writing, I brought a draft to each of the three educational representatives, asking for closing remarks. While Tommy Norberg of TGA and Jesper Juul of KADK did not have any comments, Martin Pichlmair of ITU had two points to make.
Firstly, he sees a need for both practical and theoretical educations in games; in his words, "I don't think that the games industry would be helped by having only craft-centred educations -- but it's a thing that is missing in Denmark. I think it works better for craft-like disciplines like game art, animation, and level design, than for programming, game design, and production, though." Of course, this categorization of crafts and non-crafts is up for discussion, but it is certainly a valid point that some disciplines require more practical training than others, and that educations may benefit from reflecting this.
Secondly, while Pichlmair finds the comparison of educations to studio environments "makes sense," he argues that ITU is "far more indie than KADK"; "a lot of small studios come out of ITU (Other Tales, Napnok, Game Swing, Die Gute Fabrik, Logic Artists, to name a few). I think we're not bedroom coder indie but small studio-centric. And that sets us apart from TGA as well as KADK." While relevant, however, it remains beyond the scope of this article to investigate which education produces the most founders of (successful) new studios.
Clearly, TGA, ITU, and KADK represent very different approaches to education in game and level design; they embody perspectives on games as craft, science, and art, and range in alignment on practices and skillsets from AAA to indie. While the most fundamental demands of the industry appear to be met by all three educations, there is a generally positive attitude towards TGA -- not least from the creative business alliance in Denmark. There is also a tendency to accept more entry-level designers from TGA, although this may be affected by the education's advantageous internship structure.
Lastly, as Martin Pichlmair of ITU points out, the heterogeneity of roles in the industry means there should be room for both practical and theoretical educations on the subjects. Despite their differences, then, the three educations have coexisted and may well continue to do so, just as the perspectives on games as craft, science, and art will -- hopefully! -- coexist for as long as there are games for us to make and play.