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Should developers go to school?

Participants from across the industry offer eight different answers to one tough question

The barriers to entry in the game industry have never been lower. The Internet has provided aspiring developers with an abundance of learning opportunities, tools, and distribution methods, all for fees that are nominal or non-existent. At the same time, the world of academia has acknowledged game development as an attractive career field, with general secondary educational institutions and vocational schools alike having had some time to develop curricula specifically tailored to help students become developers.

That presents would-be developers with some difficult decisions to make on exactly how they go about achieving their dreams. To offer them a variety of different insights on that subject, GamesIndustry International sought out the help of a handful of people throughout the industry and asked each of them the same question:

What advice would you give aspiring game developers about seeking a formal education?

John Murphy, Designer, Young Horses

I initially went to college not really knowing what I wanted to do. I was good at school, and it was just "what you did" after high school. People my parents' age were all able to go get a good job so long as they had a college degree. It was simple (Hint: The world isn't like that anymore)! I got a degree in biology just quickly enough to decide that I didn't want to be a biologist. After a year being a college townie and playing videogames, I decided to go to grad school to make games. That's where I got involved in the extracurricular project that spawned Octodad.

"Making games is hard and tedious work, so you should be sure you enjoy it before devoting the time and money to school."

John Murphy

My opinion on formal education in general is that it is a tool. It has its uses, but you should use it only when you have a really solid idea of what you're going to get out of it. School allows you to surround yourself with people who are passionate about the same things as you, but there are other places where you can find those people. Indie game scenes are popping up all over the place, plus there's this place called The Internet where you can learn pretty much everything. On the other hand, game-making communities are really supportive, but sometimes people are preoccupied with their own work and only can do so much to "teach" you how to do things, so school's quality of being a sort of safe incubator for learning has its benefits.

In any case, learning happens by doing, no matter the context. You should be making stuff all the time, and you should probably have made some games before going to school. Making games is hard and tedious work, so you should be sure you enjoy it before devoting the time and money to school. You should go in knowing what kind of work you like doing (writing, building, performing, etc), but your secondary education, hobbies and curiosities should have given you an idea of the kinds of work you enjoy.

If you do go to school, you should be learning stuff that isn't related directly to games, so I suggest going to a school where you can get that experience. Go somewhere that feels really multidisciplinary, and where you are encouraged to learn about totally different realms of study. My game dev school experience was super programming-heavy, which misdirected me from understanding that design as a discipline (games, fashion, landscape architecture, etc.) resonated more with me. This was specific to my grad school experience. It seemed like the undergraduate program allowed people to get that well-rounded education, but most students didn't really seem to take advantage of that, thinking, "If I just play videogames for 5 hours a day I will become the next great designer." If you want to get good at making games, make a lot of games, reflect on your design process, and get help wherever and whenever you can get it.

Robert Kessler, Professor, University of Utah

In our experience, when a student comes to the Entertainment Arts and Engineering Program program for a visit, they almost always say that they want to be a "game designer" without truly knowing that that means. They seem to have a vision of dreaming up the next great AAA title game and then have a team of developers create that game making them fame and fortune. That just isn't reality at least in the AAA title world. A company isn't going to bet hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven talent. For the most part, designers already have game development skills (such as art, engineering, or production) which they are really, really good at. They get hired based on that skill and then over the years working in industry they show talent for design and start to get more and more responsibility, morphing into a designer job.

"Learning to be a game developer takes time and you must spend time perfecting your craft, whatever discipline you choose. A formal education gives you that time."

Robert Kessler

Another key element is truly understanding the interdisciplinary nature of game development. Game development often involves the creative talents of artists, engineers, and producers working very closely together, often on a daily basis. Having a deep understanding of what the "others" do to accomplish their job makes you more effective. When we first started our program, we talked to dozens of companies and they all told us that this was a key element new hires were missing. They didn't understand how to work with the other disciplines. EAE has been designed from its core at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to make that happen. Not only do we have the students working in teams together from their freshman year, but we also have each side take classes in the other discipline so they learn what they do and how they do it.

Another important element that we believe in strongly is that everyone should learn design. From a practical point of view, designers can come from any game speciality, so that makes sense. But we have found that by deeply understanding design, you are a better developer. It is easier to do whatever tasks you are faced with when you understand the design behind it and you can contribute your thoughts as the games evolve.

What a formal education does is it gives you the skills and the experience to become an effective employee in the game development world. Learning to be a game developer takes time and you must spend time perfecting your craft, whatever discipline you choose. A formal education gives you that time. We also have set up strong relationships with companies and they come to us when looking for interns and full-time hires. This means that you have a leg up on the thousands of applicants for a position when you have graduated from a well-known, highly ranked, highly respected school.

In closing, I'd like to add, how do you prepare yourself if you decide to come to a university and study game development? No matter what your background is, learn mathematics as much as you can. Mathematics is an excellent discipline for teaching problem solving. Iterative game development is all about constantly solving problems and so the more you practice problem solving, the better. Next, you should practice whatever discipline that you are going into as much as possible. Whether it is art or programming, practice, practice, practice. The more that you do, the better skilled you will get. Next, we would recommend that you start developing games. Even if you don't know how to program yet, you can learn to make games with GameSalad or GameMaker or similar tools. That will help you to start to see games from the inside. Finally, don't just play games for enjoyment, play them critically. Think about how things are done, why are they done, what could you suggest to make it better or more fun. Develop an eye for critiquing and that will help you build even better games by utilizing the strongest elements of games and avoiding those that don't work.

Raphael Van Lierop, Creative Director, Hinterland Games

I think you have to approach education for the sake of learning and the opportunity to deep dive into a subject you care about, supported by people who know something about that subject, and surrounded by peers who are also passionate about that thing. Do I think formal schools are the only place that provides an environment that is conducive to this? Absolutely not. I don't even think they are the best place to find that environment.

"When hiring junior developers, I can't think of a single time where their educational background has been a factor in choosing to hire them."

Raphael Van Lierop

I'm often asked whether I think aspiring developers should go to the game degree schools vs. getting a traditional education in a field like computer science or fine arts, and I always say go for the traditional degree, because you're going to get a much more well-rounded experience and it's more about building the foundational skills you need to problem solve, communicate, and apply critical thinking skills. But, I also tell them that their degree--whether from a game school or a traditional school--is not nearly as important as what's in their portfolio. So, if you're looking at the option to invest $25k in a 1-year game design program, vs. taking a year off to learn Unity and build a bunch of games and self-publish them, I'd always recommend investing in yourself first, and going with the self-study.

When hiring junior developers, I can't think of a single time where their educational background has been a factor in choosing to hire them. It's always about how eager they are and how their decision to invest personal time--often while balancing other commitments--illustrates their true passion for making games. You want to impress a hiring manager at a game studio? Make something. You want to show me how well you can collaborate with other people and be a productive part of a team? Make something with other people. Just keep in mind that the vast majority of the best developers in the world never went to school to learn how to make games. They learned how to make games by making them.

Dan O'Leary, CEO, n-Space

n-Space hires people based largely on their demonstrated capability to deliver high quality work. This often comes, in part, from a formal education, but that is not always the case. It also varies by discipline - art, engineering, design, audio, management, etc., are all very different skill sets and some benefit more from a formal education than others. There are good programs and bad programs available in each, and good candidates emerge from even the worst programs. The most important, most limiting factor in any form of education is the effort put forth by the student and their raw talent in the field.

"No matter what path you choose, expect to work very hard to build an impressive portfolio of work along the way."

Dan O'Leary

I cannot give a stock answer, as every aspiring game developer has different circumstances. Formal education certainly has its place, but it is no guarantee of success. If you think of it as an investment, the more specialized your degree, the higher risk it is. This makes game-related degrees particularly risky. Strangely, decisions about college education are often made with little or no consideration of the value proposition involved. I urge everyone to be very aware of the costs involved and to be realistic about the benefits delivered and attached obligations, as well as the reality of the current job market. Young, eager, invincible students often completely disregard the possibility of a negative outcome, sometimes with very unfortunate results.

For many that choose college it will be better to pursue a general degree in their chosen discipline - software engineering or management, for example - and specialize with their choice of electives and outside activities. This approach gives the student more options after graduation. Some may chose to further specialize in games or other fields via post graduate work, formal or otherwise. Others may choose to take a "day job" while pursuing their dream after hours. A few may be fortunate enough to land an entry level position in the industry.

No matter what path you choose, expect to work very hard to build an impressive portfolio of work along the way.

Dylan Cuthbert, President, Q-Games

I think if you are seriously interested in becoming a coder, a computer science degree is a must nowadays, otherwise you only barely scratch the surface and it will come back to haunt you when you are older and unable to learn as quickly! :)

"A degree... helps you travel around the world. Visas are a *lot* easier to get with a degree in your hand."

Dylan Cuthbert

If you are a game designer, go learn how to program first or do a computer art course of some kind, but don't study to be a "game designer." Definitely flesh out one of the two main disciplines that directly make things first. Game designing comes hand-to-hand with either of the main disciplines and you'll find it a lot easier to get a job, too (or to go indie).

A degree in media art is probably the most useful thing you can do for yourself if you aren't programming-inclined. It will teach you a ton of things that are on the fringe of game development, such as video editing/effects and manipulation of photography and art, as well as art installations and most media art courses are more technical than regular art courses, which is important.

A degree also helps you travel around the world. Visas are a *lot* easier to get with a degree in your hand.

Andrew Maximov, Technical Art Director, Kixeye

First of all, I think that most of the time the advice people give on this subject reflects their personal experience almost completely when they consider themselves somewhat successful (have a job). Sort of like a retroactive justification of past life decisions. And I might not be an exception, but I also am very involved with game art education in general and had the privilege to guest speak at numerous universities and schools all around the world.

The main question for me here is not why schools are good or bad. It's all about the students. And the question I ask them is: "What makes you different?" This industry knows thousands of great artists that were able to teach themselves (as in learn from people on the Internet) everything necessary for a successful and exciting career. What makes you different from those people? What makes you want to part with $15,000 or be in debt until your mid-thirties and spend the same amount of time if not more than people who chose to go at it on their own? Why are you different from those people? If you can justify that for you, then college is a viable alternative. A lot of people however do not realize that self-taught is an option.

"This not really about degrees or even skills at times; it's about having a passion and perseverance to see it through."

Andrew Maximov

This industry, or any other industry for that matter, is not really about degrees or even skills at times; it's about having a passion and perseverance to see it through. Everything else will come if you have these two. If they are missing though, nothing will help you. A self-taught person with a great portfolio calls for more respect in my book then the person out of school. If I hire him I can be more confident that he is going to keep perfecting his skills and that learning wasn't just an environmental factor.

But make no mistake. Learning on your own is brutal. So it's up to every individual person to know their strengths and weaknesses to make sure that they get where they want to be. The only mistake you can't make is to think that it's going to be easy. There's no substitute for hard work and unless you're going to sweat, cry and bleed for your art, no school or Internet community will be able to help you.

It is very important to note however that everything said here concerns game art education only. Talking to Richard Lemarchand and his students, for example, I was fascinated with the amount of creative freedom they have to experiment with game design concepts unheard of in commercial game development. We as an industry need that. These guys are going to be the breath of fresh air for all of us. So it's never black and white. The only thing you need to do to figure out if formal education is for you is ask yourself what makes you different from people that make it on their own. And the only thing we care about on the other end is how good your work and attitude are.

JP LeBreton, Designer, Double Fine Productions

Don't focus on any specific tool. The 3D animation package you're learning today may be unsupported and obsolete tomorrow, and lots of game studios use custom in-house tools anyway. Rather, learn the general concepts behind the range of tools you'll be using; any given UI is just an implementation of those concepts, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Also, this may be obvious but for something like art, developing good foundational skills--things like life drawing, rendering (in the non-digital sense), and composition--is critical, and no amount of software mastery will make up for a lack there.

"Don't focus on any specific tool...Rather, learn the general concepts behind the range of tools you'll be using."

JP LeBreton

The Disney animator Walt Stanchfield said, "We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out, the better." This is true of any discipline, and the only way to get that experience in a school setting is to work on short projects with small teams of peers. You'll be able to "fail fast" in a low-risk environment (compared to a project that's burning real-world money), and you'll build valuable social and communication skills. I can't stress that last part enough: even if you're super talented, if people don't enjoy working with you on a team, you've got hard times ahead.

Compare the "student projects" sections on the websites for schools you're considering. It's an incomplete lens, but the higher the average quality of a school's student projects, the better it might be for getting that working experience.

Kain Shin, Owner, Ring of Blades

It is okay to learn production, game design, and "leadership" in school, but do not let that become the focus of your education. Become hireable based on WHAT you know instead of WHO you know. Do not let your educational institution trick you into relying on networking to get your first job; that is the exception rather than the norm.

Make sure your formal education will qualify you as an entry level programmer or artist. The best possible education you can get is one that gives you the ability to make a game by yourself with modern technology. After you graduate, the learning does not stop. The most important ability you gain in school is the ability to solve problems by absorbing new information from many different sources. Your career as a game developer is where meaningful evolution happens as a designer and leader no matter what your official job title happens to be.

Why not focus on leadership education? Leadership is akin to the art of parenting. There are classes you can take and books you can read on parenting, but there is no universe in which a parent will feel comfortable letting you babysit their child for 24 hours if you don't have any childcare experience to draw from. Leadership is such an undefined skill that the methods and techniques you learn in the classroom from a professor may not be fully trusted by veterans who have their own belief system based on their personal bias and experiences. In other words, trust is a commodity that leaders do not gain from a classroom.

"It is okay to learn production, game design, and 'leadership' in school, but do not let that become the focus of your education."

Kain Shin

Why not focus on game design education? By game design education, I am specifically talking about the creative side of design as opposed to the use of level editors. It is good to learn the creative side of game design in school because game design is the most important leadership of all. However, job openings for creative directors and design leads are few and far between with candidate priority often weighed by experience rather than educational background.

In contrast, job openings for level designers who already know how to use modern development tools such as Unreal Editor or Unity3D are in much more demand. When I was interviewing game designers, I did not make any distinction between modders, students, or hobbyists; the decision to grant interviews from the resumes of game designers was based purely on the evaluation of their portfolio. The best level designers I have worked with either came from the modding community or made a lateral transition from the art department.

Statistics on Producers after 10 years I repeat: Do not bet your tuition on getting a job as an associate producer when you graduate. You will be outclassed and outmaneuvered by those vying for the same position from the QA department or by the throngs of unemployed veteran game producers out there frantically seeking employment after the last studio shut down.

In preparing to write this, I did an analysis of my LinkedIn connections from students and former coworkers that have connected with me at a time when they were either in the games industry or trying to get into the games industry. None of my contacts who majored in Radio-Television-Film or finished their graduate degree in any leadership training program are currently employed by a game company. More than 80 percent of the producers I have worked with in the first 10 years of my career have left the games industry. Discounting luck, the most stable producer careers I have observed tend to fit these archetypes:

1. System Designers who are entrusted with producer scheduling/ScrumMaster duties. They are designers first and foremost, but they are now trusted by both creative directors and accountants. These valuable archetypes come from QA/Design/Programming/Art as much as they come from graduate programs, and they know enough about each discipline to empathize with their concerns.

2. A person who transitioned from their previous discipline into production for the purpose of taking producer duties for that department. (i.e. the Art Outsourcing Manager who was once an Artist)

Leadership and game design are the two most deciding factors to a studio's survival. You can make a profitable game with bad code and crappy art, but the best code and most beautiful art cannot turn bad ideas into profitable ideas. For this reason, the trust that governs design and scheduling decisions bubble up to those with experience, and veterans do not expect to have an entry-level person straight out of college as their boss.

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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.