Friday, November 16, 2007

Teaching Game Design in the Middle of Nowhere

Columbus, Ohio is not exactly a hotbed of developer activity, but we do have an official IGDA chapter. Michigan is in a similar state, and they sent a very interesting meeting summary to IGDA's Game_Edu list a few weeks back. The results of their meeting are relevant to teachers and students alike. To paraphrase:
  • Students living in locations with few (or no) developers should accept that they will need to move out of state in order to find work. (I would add: even students living in big game dev areas may need to move out of state from time to time, if they have trouble finding local work or if they get offered a dream job at a studio halfway across the country.)

  • Finding qualified teachers is difficult everywhere, but especially in out-of-the-way areas (most professional developers who want to become teachers would not like to move to the middle of Michigan for the privilege, especially when there are perfectly good universities local to you no matter where you are). Universities in out-of-the-way areas can offset this somewhat by paying to fly guest lecturers in on a regular basis, but this can get expensive. Many universities require their professors to have at least a Master's degree, which is rare in the industry, and just makes a difficult thing harder.

  • The industry can change quickly, obsoleting course material and even entire courses in the curriculum... but universities tend to move slowly when it comes to curriculum adjustments, which can be problematic in the medium term. Suggested way to deal with this: make course titles and descriptions general in nature so that the content can be modified on a per-semester basis as needed.

  • The often-asked question: is it more important for art students to know fundamentals or tools? (I would add that the same question applies to programmers and designers.) The unhelpful but still correct answer: both!

  • Game development is incredibly interdisciplinary, but most universities have these huge walls between departments. How do you overcome this obstacle? No easy answer, other than "design the program to address this issue from the beginning" -- suggesting that incremental additions (start with one game-related course, add a couple more courses next year, eventually expand into a full program) is doomed to be restricted to a single department and will not capture the interdisciplinary nature of real-life development.

  • As university programs get established, we want to start thinking about ways to push this further down the education chain into high school. Several universities reported success with offering one-week summer camps: they serve the triple purpose of community outreach, exposure of the field, and recruitment.

  • One of the hardest things when dealing with students is to convince them to work on small games and complete them, rather than working on a single huge sprawling mess that dies under its own weight. It's also hard to convey the 80/20 rule, that 20% of the work gets you the first 80% of the game... but getting that last 20% of the game (which is the polish factor) takes a lot of time after the game already feels like it "should" be done, and pressing on when you're sick of working on the game already is what separates the developers from the wannabes.

  • Interestingly, the bar for entry into the industry is getting higher because of the high quality of university-level instruction. Ten years ago, some modding experience and/or a single completed game was enough to set a student apart from the rest of the pack. Today, it's more like 2 to 3 games. I see this as a good thing (it means that at least some of the universities out there are doing their job). I also see it as implication that we should start requiring some business courses integrated into any game development curriculum... because we'll need more students to start their own game studios to make more jobs to soak up the excess supply of talented individuals.

  • Schools should give all of the rights to student-created work to the students themselves (sadly, not all universities do this). Schools should also have policies in place to determine IP ownership if a professor makes a game (or collaborates with a game studio in some way); ideally this policy should be very friendly to the individuals in question, to encourage industry/academic relations. In any case, work this out first, before it becomes an issue that must be solved on the fly.


David McGraw said...

Agreed on all points. I'm going to school at Kansas State University and we are just now starting to get courses that are geared toward game development since we finally got an instructor that knows about the discipline. Keyword: Finally.

Brian Shurtleff said...

Although I'm a university student myself, I teach game design and development to high school students at a summer camp program.
So your brief mention of such programs grabbed my attention.

Such programs are indeed useful to higher game education. Sure, it does indeed give the students at least a base of understanding about the field, which they can expand upon later in higher education.
But one benefit of such programs I realized is that they can act like a filter for students not cut out for a higher education in games.

As some of my fellow university students have observed, many students enter into game development university programs because they like games and need to find something to do with their lives, and, well, game development sounds fun.
Once they actually get started, however, some realize it's more work than they bargained for, or just not their thing.

So, not that registering for our camp is particularly cheap, but in a sense it's well worth the money because if they can find out in a two week program they're not cut out for the game development thing, then that's a lot of college money they save by not floundering in the wrong academic interest for too long.

That said, I love my teaching gig - it's about the next best thing to an internship for a university student in my position. Part of the reason for that is one of the other points you mention: the need for students in remote areas to move to game industry hotbeds.
Neither my home nor my school is all that near industry activity, but each summer I now get to live, work, and build a network of contacts in Boston and hopefully soon Atlanta as well.

Ian Schreiber said...

I hadn't considered the "filter" aspect of a summer camp, Brian, but you're right -- that's a great benefit to the student. I hope that the camp you work for includes that in their promotional materials: "Before you pay more money to Full Sail than you paid for your house, make sure this is really the career for your child. Send them to boot camp for game designers." Or something like that.

Ironically, some universities might not like that aspect of a camp. The good ones do -- they realize that they are judged by the industry on the quality of their graduates, so it's in their best interests to be selective. But some places just want big enrollment numbers to impress people or to justify the program, so you wouldn't want to tell these people that a summer camp might drive some potential candidates away :)

1301111y said...

hi, i like ur article much. i m an IT student doing my btech from india. i want to become a game developer/programmr/desngr can u plz tell me that whch universities in india offers me such education???