Friday, September 03, 2010

"Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently"

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide on 7 July 09. You can click on the article title for the GCG version. I'm posting my original text. While it was written with video games in mind, much of it applies to tabletop games as well.

Hundreds of thousands of young people want to be part of the game industry. Yet relatively few succeed. There are many reasons for that, but the most common one is, those people don’t prepare themselves properly or adequately.

I’m not here to tell you what to do, I’m here to make you aware of possible consequences of your choice of actions, based on my experience with aspiring game creation students. Some of what I have to say is indisputable fact, some is my take on “how the world works” and cannot be proved with available statistics or references. You decide what it’s worth.

While this is written primarily for people who want to “break into” the video game industry, especially as level/game designers, video game teachers ought to read it as well.

When you’re trying to attain a goal, you need to determine your intermediate goals: the things you need to know, the attitudes you need, what people expect of you. Here are three sets of three intermediate goals that ought to be important to you:

Three things you should want for yourself, for the good of your long-term future:
• Prepare yourself so that you can obtain non-game industry jobs as well
• If you’re going to a college or university—a good idea in most cases--get a real, and useful, degree
• When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production

Let's add the three things the video game industry wants from “new blood”:
• Ability to work in teams
• Ability to think critically (“critical thinking”)
• Understanding of the pipeline process

Finally there are three things every employer wants from you:
• Good written communication skills
• Good oral communication skills
• Ability to work in a team (yes, that again)

Finally, the tenth item, which may be the most important: develop a productive orientation.

I’m going to concentrate on the first three items and the last, as they’re the most specific to what you decide to do with your life in connection with video games. Let’s be as organized here as I hope you’ll be in your quest, and take these ten needs in order.

Three things you should want for yourself, for the good of your life:

1. Prepare yourself so that you can find non-game industry jobs as well

Ask yourself, are you certain this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, to work in the video game industry? Even if you say “yes”, I say, you can’t know that. On average, people stay in the game industry five or six years and then move on: why are you so different? Individuals tend to move through several careers, not just one. Heck, a great many people change their minds in college about what they want to do, before they get into the industry they thought they wanted.

So you need to plan for the possibility that you’ll move on to something else. This means you’ve got to learn skills that apply to other fields, and just as important, you have to have a degree that will help you get jobs in all those fields where degrees count for a great deal.

As many people have observed, you don’t need a degree to work in the game industry, yet degrees tend to open doors even there. Unlike most industries now, where a degree is virtually a necessity, game studios care what you can do, now what degree you have. If you teach yourself programming (as Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic, did), and can do the work, you can be hired. Yet a degree is quite desirable if you choose to move outside the game industry.

Widely-applicable skills
If you want to be a programmer, concentrate on learning programming, not just game programming. C++ is most commonly used in games and in general use, along with some C# and Java. Some university programming curricula now concentrate on Java, but Java is rarely used for games except on cell phones.

The ideal would be to find a “computer science” program (which is close to, but not the same as, computer programming) that offers a minor or concentration in game programming, as at NC State University in Raleigh, NC.

This means a four-year college is more likely for you than a two-year school, but remember that in most states you can start at a community/junior college and do better when you transfer to a university than if you started there. The important thing is to make sure you know which of your classes will transfer to the university, and which may not. My state (North Carolina) has this formally organized between the community college system and the state university system, others may be different.

A two-year programming degree is good if you attend the right school. Yet outside the game industry, people with four-year degrees are much more likely to get programming jobs.

A BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) is a recognized route for artists. Sometimes this is associated with, or primarily, a “design” curriculum (artistic design, not game design). Once again, a program that has a game-related concentration may be the most marketable approach. (An example is at NC State—no, I am not associated with that school!)

Yet art is primarily a matter of good practice. Artists draw, draw, and draw some more—and draw a variety, not the same thing (such as anime characters) over and over. If you don’t love to draw, if you don’t do it regularly, are you really interested in a job where you do art all day? If you love to draw, you may choose a two-year school and then, if you’re good enough, try to market yourself to the game industry.

Game Designer
If you want to be a game designer, there’s no direct “real-world” analog for it. History, psychology, physics, math, there are all kinds of degrees held by well-known designers.

School Reputation and Quality
As Jill Duffy pointed out in “Does my School Suck” (, the reputation of your school is unlikely to matter to potential employers in the game industry. Game companies want to know what you can DO, not what school you went to.

However, in the long run the reputation of your school may matter to you. That long run comes if you decide to leave the game industry and go into older, more established fields. A college-accredited degree from a well-known school is going to get much more respect than, say, an online degree from one of the new schools that specialize in such things. And a game-specialized trade school degree may not count for anything at all (see below).

Remember also that school “ranking”, the kind of thing you see in magazines and journals, is probably based on either the opinion of the writer (which may be quite accurate, of course) or on the quantity of research done by the school’s faculty. That’s research, not teaching results or success of graduates. Research is easy to measure.

School quality is very important, but even harder to determine. Two schools can offer classes with identical descriptions, but provide two very different experiences. This depends on intent, on the skill of the instructors, on the administration, on the students, and so forth. This is such a large subject that it will have to be covered in a separate article.

Many people like to say, “college is what you make of it”. To some extent that’s true, but if you choose an unsuitable college, it will be as though you have one arm (and maybe one leg) tied behind your back.

2. If you’re going to a college or university—a good idea in most cases--get a real, and useful, degree

Accreditation. You can buy “degrees” from European schools with prestigious-sounding names, but what are they worth? Accreditation is what determines whether a degree is taken seriously by others.

A degree is useful only insofar as it is properly accredited. This is an obscure subject to the average student, but very important in the long run. I recall talking about accreditation with a game design and art student at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), which is accredited as a college, unlike many art schools. Had she been concerned about it? No, but fortunately her mother was, and so she’ll earn a “college” degree rather than a “trade school” degree.

So what is college accreditation? Regional accreditation looks at the educational institution (college or K12) as a whole, not at the game-related curriculum specifically. A school must meet standards in finance, health, faculty credentials, facilities, administrative processes, and more to achieve accreditation. There are six regional accrediting agencies responsible for accrediting institutions of higher education within their regional boundaries—look for one of these when you visit a college’s Web site:
• Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools - MSA
• New England Association of Schools and Colleges
• Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges - NASC
• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - NCA
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools -SACS
• Western Association of Schools and Colleges

These are private groups in this country that “accredit” schools, both K12 schools and colleges. Accreditation is voluntary, but the accrediting bodies wield a great deal of influence. See for the US government’s financial-aid-related take on accreditation. Chea ( provides a private umbrella view of accreditation.

It’s important to understand that there are different kinds of accreditation. Not every school that offers a degree is accredited, and a trade school accreditation is very different from a college accreditation. Accreditation matters when you see a job that “requires bachelor’s degree”, because this usually means “bachelor’s degree from a college accredited school”, not from a school like “Coastal California University”. The latter is “approved” by the state of California, but has no accreditation worth speaking of. Consequently, you can get a Ph.D. there, but to knowledgeable people it isn’t worth a thing (see and ) The name of the school means nothing. Any school can call itself a “university” with state approval, if that. Coastal California “University” is, once again, an example.

Specialized trade schools such as DigiPen and Full Sail are trade-school accredited. A degree from a trade school only counts in the trade it covers: it is not a “real” degree for many other purposes. (This depends on the potential employer’s standards, of course.)

A trade school degree definitely limits you in pursuing further education. Examples: SCAD offers a master’s degree in game design, and NC State has a masters in fine arts. In the world of colleges and universities, you cannot work on a master’s degree until you have a recognized (college accredited) bachelor’s degree, just as you cannot work on a bachelor’s degree until you have a recognized high school diploma or GED. Not surprisingly, then, I’m told by Professors Brenda Brathwaite and Tim Buie from the respective schools that students with degrees from trade schools cannot be accepted to those masters degree programs because they do not have properly accredited bachelors degrees. Period.

Is this “fair”? I’m not going to address the question, because reality is what counts, and those with a trade school degree cannot attain a college-accredited master’s degree—unless they go back to college first. You can’t say “but, but”. That’s the way it is. (Some trade schools now offer master’s degrees—but they’re not college-accredited, of course.)

Notice, I don’t say you’ll get a better education from a college-accredited school than from a trade school. Insofar as trade schools specialize, and prefer practitioners, they may offer more than most broad-based institutions. If you’re sure you’re going to work in the game field all your life, why not a trade school? But are you sure?

Make sure you get the facts. Predatory, fraudulent practices in education are not unusual, especially from private for-profit schools. The ridiculous ads suggesting that you can get a job in the game industry and play games all day are examples. See for one.

See for a news report about a for-profit college being sued for fraud. (This school does have a game related department, though it was not mentioned in this newscast.) Every experienced educator has encountered at least one student who thinks everything will be handed to him on a platter, and that student will be a failure regardless of what school he or she attends. You never know, in lawsuits such as this, how much is student self-delusion and how much deception by the school. The point is not about this particular school, it is about the predatory and deceptive practices that most definitely occur in 21st century education, and your duty to yourself to be wary.

Costs of school
We might also note that trade schools are rarely state-supported; hence, as with all private schools, they are much more expensive than state schools. For-profit schools are yet more expensive. Further, community/junior colleges are vastly less expensive than four-year schools. Roughly speaking, one year at a state school for a resident of the state, including room and board, runs around $11,000-$15,000 not counting books and incidental fees. (State-supported schools are usually much more expensive to students from out-of-state, than to state residents.)

My advice is to never consider attending a for-profit college.

Online “education”
Schools that claim that an online education is the equivalent of a seated-class education are blowing smoke (part of the proverbial “smoke and mirrors”). Given current technological limitations, online classes are generally the equivalent of teaching yourself from books. The interaction that gamers crave is very limited in an online class. An MIT spokesperson put it this way several years ago:

An MIT education happens in the classroom, by interacting with
other students and with faculty, not by reading some Web pages or
downloading some materials, or even watching a . . . lecture.

The major result of an online degree program is a piece of paper, not an education. For game industry purposes, the piece of paper is relatively unimportant. What you need is an education, however you get it. If you’re going to mostly teach yourself, why bother with the obstacles and expense of going to school? In other words, why bother with an online degree? If you just need a stimulus to study, by all means try online classes. But save a lot of money and take continuing education (non-degree) online classes, such as those offered through many colleges by Ed2Go (Ed2Go doesn’t offer directly—check your local community/junior college).

When I was an employer, I strongly discounted online degrees insofar as I had no idea who actually did the work. Most online schools and teachers simply ignore the possibility of cheating, though there are exceptions.

Finally, there are many "degree mills" in the online world, including some that are college accredited--the accreditation people know how much money online education is worth, and money governs education in 21st century America, so many of the standards applied to seated classes are ignored as soon as a class is called “distance”. At a degree mill you pay your money and you do a bit and you get a degree, but it's not good education.

See for an example of the ridiculous advertising sometimes associated with online programs.

3. When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production

Many game creation schools perpetuate the confusion between game design and game production. They call their curriculum “game design”, but no one on staff has a clue about game design, and what they actually teach is programming and (perhaps) art. In large part this is because the instructors don’t understand what game design actually is (never having successfully created a good, complete game). In this context, game design suffers from a lack of respect. "Oh, that's just kids' stuff, anyone can do/teach that." But would you choose someone who does not play an instrument to teach musical composition? Wouldn't you want the teacher to be a composer? Would you let someone who doesn't sculpt teach sculpture, or someone who doesn't paint teach painting? Then why would you have someone who not only doesn't design games, but has not been a lifelong gamer, teach game design? Yet it happens all over the country.

Fundamentally, there’s a misunderstanding that you can learn to be a game designer by memorizing facts and discussing theories and analyzing games. Game design is a hands-on occupation, and learning it should be hands-on, from start to finish, not just halfway through (until you have an electronic prototype).

As an example, at one college the second-in-sequence “Game Design” class, taught by non-designers, requires student groups to produce five video games (using Gamemaker, a fine simple tool) in a 16 week semester. Students struggle in that short time to produce an electronic prototype, usually getting it to work a day before it’s due. Students learn only the outer layer of the onion of game design, and that poorly. Hardly any “game design” is involved, and because students must go on to the next game, they miss out on the most vital part of game design, iteratively and incrementally testing and modifying the game prototype to make it worthwhile. Further, whoever is doing the programming ends up doing most of the work, and the general impression of the students is that working in groups “sucks.” It is a low-quality game production class, not a game design class.

Similarly, if you’re learning game design on your own, don’t get bogged down learning game production. It’s widely known among designers that you much more efficiently learn game design if you start with non-electronic games (see "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning" If you try to make electronic games, you’ll spend your time struggling to produce a working prototype instead of learning how to design games.

(Having said this, remember that hardly anyone is hired as a game designer, or even a level designer, right out of school. You probably need to have other skills that can get you a job in the industry. Time spent learning game production isn’t wasted, it just isn’t learning game design.)

[[This might be a good place to divide the article into two parts.]]

Now let's add the three things the video game industry wants from “new blood” such as school graduates:

4. Ability to work in teams

Before 1990, video games tended to be created by one person. Now, with very few exceptions, such games are created by teams, from half a dozen people for a casual game to more than a hundred for a AAA list game. The really big games are “designed” by committee, with contributions from everyone; the designer tends to be a person who gets everyone to work together and keep the original “vision” of the game in mind, rather than someone who comes up with all the ideas and solutions for changes and improvements.

If it’s a relatively small video game, and the designer has a strong personality, he will have a stronger influence on the game result than otherwise.

See Jill Duffy’s discussion of teamwork at, including the comments.

Students tend to dread working in groups in a classroom setting, and it’s certainly true that if everyone in the group isn’t on the same page, the result is unlikely to be good.

Student groups DO tend to make awful teams, because of lack of commitment: students aren’t always serious about their “work”, and they cannot get fired (at least, not until it’s too late for the team to succeed).

Voluntary groups are more likely to be successful, but if everyone isn’t being paid, and isn’t ultimately in jeopardy of being fired, there still can be a lack of long-term commitment.

Yet even in a game studio, some of the people you work with will be less than “stellar”. Yes, you will work with some outstanding people, but you can’t rely on that to get you through. You have to learn to work with “average” people. Yet this is no different than what anyone experiences in other industries, or in team sports. We all have heard that the team with the best teamwork, not the most talented players, usually wins. And we’ve all heard of star players who score a lot, but whose teams suffer for it.

On the other hand, one of the most bogus phrases heard in a typical businessplace is “he’s not a team player”, because it often means, “he won’t do what I want him to”, or “he won’t do some of my work”, or “I don’t like him”. Often the person making the accusation is the one who isn’t the team player. You have to learn to navigate through sometimes-choppy waters.

The key to any team is a “collegial” point of view, that the members care primarily about the success of the team, not about individual accolades or rewards.

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say "I." And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say "I." They don't think "I." They think "we"; they think "team." They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but "we" gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done. --Peter Drucker

5. Ability to think critically (“critical thinking”)

Critical thinking is a slippery idea, and Wikipedia will do as well as any other definition:

“Critical thinking consists of mental processes of discernment, analysis and evaluation. It includes possible processes of reflecting upon a tangible or intangible item in order to form a solid judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense.”

“Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual criteria that go beyond subject-matter divisions and which include: clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness.”

So “critical” here is in the sense of inquisitive and evaluative, not in a negative sense of criticizing someone. Much of game creation, and especially of the iterative process of incrementally improving a game to make it worth publishing, requires strong critical thinking. The process of testing and modifying a game is much akin to the scientific method, controlled experimentation, hypothetical solutions, incremental results.

The game designer needs to have his brain in gear all the time. When playing games, he should be thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. He must keep his mind open to ideas at all times. He must think about how to improve his game even when (if) he enjoys playing it. The game can always be improved, we just come to a time when the improvement we can get isn’t worth the time it will take (the law of diminishing marginal returns).

“Fanboys” (or girls) will never make good game designers, as they typically praise a game or genre uncritically. Self-criticism is especially important. If you can’t recognize that your favorite mechanic just doesn’t fit, or just isn’t needed, then you won’t design good games. Self-indulgence is “verboten”.

6. Understanding of the pipeline process

The “pipeline process” is the stages a video game passes through on the way to completion. Books have been written about this (e.g.,

This does vary some from company to company, but is fundamentally the same. It’s hard to truly understand these stages unless you make games and complete them. That means, make small games, because you won’t have the manpower or variety of skills needed to make and complete big ones. (Will your little group produce more than 100 man-years and millions of dollars of professional effort? Certainly not.) Any game that takes a small fraction of a semester may not teach you enough about the process, because there cannot be much detail to it, while any that you think will take more than a year is far too big.

There are three things every employer wants from you:

7. Good written communication skills

Everyone in industry needs these skills for making pitches and proposals, understanding contracts, dealing with email and everyday announcements, and the like.

Most video games must be made by a team, not an individual. The game designer must communicate in writing and orally everything about his game, in a manner that enables the artists and programmers to reproduce it. This is much harder to do than you might at first think.

Non-electronic game designers can make the prototypes and write the rules themselves, but still must communicate well with playtesters to improve the game. Moreover, since the rules are not enforced by computer, it’s especially important to write rules that are clear, concise, understandable.

8. Good oral communication skills

You need to be able to speak clearly, whether informally or in presentations. You’ll have to help your supervisor understand why something will or will not work, help the game designer understand how the game might be improved, help the potential funding people understand why your game concept is worth the expense. Everyone, but especially game designers, make oral “pitches” in the video game industry.

A class that makes you speak formally in front of a group of people is a Good Thing, not something to be avoided.

(Pedantry for the day: “verbal” means “with words”, so applies to both writing and oral communication. It is not a substitute for “oral”.)

9. Ability to work in a team

Yes, that again. It’s true for all industries, though especially in the video game industry where big teams create the big games.

10. Develop a productive orientation

I recall one student, 27 years old, who said after a three-day break from classes that he’d played games for forty hours during that break. That may be fun, but it won’t help you get where you want to go—in a practical sense, it’s a waste of time! I encounter far too many people who think that playing games is a path into the game industry.

Making games is quite different from playing games. Yes, you need to know games, you need to be enthusiastic about games, but playing games that others have devised is productive only in limited ways, especially if you play four hours a day. I’ve known way too many students who define their self-worth through game playing; unfortunately, in the real world game playing, unless you’re good enough to make a living at tournaments, counts for nothing. Make no mistake, the game industry is part of the real world, however extraordinary it may appear to be.

To be an adult, someone who can be a good employee, you must be responsible and productive. When you’re learning your skills, your responsibility is to yourself, to do what needs to be done. And that is to be productive. If you want to design, you need to make games, not play games (unless you made it), not talk about games, not analyze games, but to make games.

Whether it’s a non-electronic game (the best way to learn), or a level, or a mod, or a game you make with a simple engine like Gamemaker, you must make games. Don’t be disappointed that you can’t make a AAA list kind of game that requires 150 man-years of effort; make a small game that is nonetheless a good game.

If you’re interested in art, then draw by hand, draw on the computer, learn 3D modeling programs, and so forth—and use your art to help make games. If you want to be a programmer, then write programs, study programming, experiment with game engines, join with others to make games.

Build a portfolio so that, when a chance comes to get a job, you’re ready with proof of your best work.

Make something, don’t just talk about making something. If you do that, and you have some talent, everything else will fall into place, sooner or later.

1 comment:

MrBCut said...

Thank you very much Dr. Lewis for this article. I am currently pursuing a career as a Gameplay Engineer. I am fortunate to have found an opportunity as a QA tester with a very well known 3rd party publisher, so I do have the benefits of talking to other engineers and directors, however find that breaking in is still difficult. I know the first thing I have to do is complete my bachelor's in Computer Science before I am even considered serious by a development team. Then from there, its a matter of opportunity and chance and demonstrations :). But I just want to say I appreciate your point about online game design courses because I was considering supplementing my degree to show my seriousness of this goal, so I appreciated your comment about online courses being a "stimulus to study, " - this is a very appreciative viewpoint as it made me think twice about if this is beneficial for me or not - still deciding. For example, ed2go offers a game design and development course that offers some good courses for game development, but considering the cost and most importantly if the certificate is valuable or not, I am debating.

This article was so resourceful, accurate and thought provoking I decided to print it out because I have found truth in it from my experience and I am hoping that it will continue to be valuable and sound as I continue with my career goals.

A whole hearted, thank you once again Dr. Lewis :) I really appreciate.

And for anyone reading this, take it from me an experienced game tester at a major third party publisher trying to get into game development, who is currently working on his BS in Computer Science: this article contains a lot of truth and great advice!