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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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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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