Thursday, March 13, 2008

Random Tidbits from GDC 2008 for Students

To add to my notes from last year, here are some random bits of conversations I had this year that students may find interesting:
  • Game projects that actually solve a social problem rather than merely being fun will get you more press, because most student game projects don't have any practical value to the player. If you provide some, you will stand out. Note that in the case of a game that raises awareness of an issue, the call to action can be the reward for beating the game!

  • Evaluate lots of game authoring tools, from Game Maker to DarkBasic to Torque. Reviews listing the strengths and limitations of each would make for an excellent post on your blog if you have one, and could be of great help to professors who might be considering some or all of them but who have no time to evaluate them. This will also give you great practice at getting up to speed with a new tool, something you will probably have to do from time to time in the industry.

  • If you go to GDC, don't drink. I know there are tons of great parties with open bars, but just don't do it. Think: how much did you pay to go to GDC? Probably $1000 or more. How many free drinks would you need in order to make the cost worthwhile? Too many. So, use your time at parties productively: network, meet people, find out who's hiring. Once you have a full-time job, you can buy your own drinks.

  • Tip from Brenda: a great way to get promoted at a game company is to find a stressed-out lead and ask what you can do to help. This is also a great way to get noticed as a student if you find a stressed-out professor who used to work in industry.

I also found some interesting advice specific to student game projects, courtesy of the games that won this year's IGF Student Showcase:

  • For student projects, keeping the scope small and focused should be your number one priority. Nearly all of the student IGF winners this year only showcase a single game mechanic; then they build the entire game to support it. If your proposed game is large enough that it requires the inclusion of mini-games, it is too big for you to finish. If your proposed student project is a mini-game, you're probably on the right track.

  • You can make a better student project if you learn and use good tools. This year's IGF students used a wide variety of tools: Anim8or, Photoshop, Cubase LE, XNA, Adventure Game Studio, Aftereffects, Source, Visual Studio, 3DSMax, SVN, MS Project, Excel, Panda 3D, Python... you name it. These can save huge amounts of time. Learn at least a few of them early on in your college career, so you'll have the time to use them on projects during your final year.

  • Rapid prototyping with iteration is your best friend. If you can't have your student game project up and running in some form in a week or two, it's too big. Use a steady stream of testers who have never played your game before, and keep modifying to make the new-player experience as solid as possible.

  • If at all possible, work on team projects rather than working alone. The game industry really cares about whether you can fit in to a team, and if you can only create projects on your own it will be much more difficult for you to get hired... no matter how brilliant your projects are.

  • Enter your project in lots of competitions. Many students reported that the pressure of competition forced them to keep their scope small and their quality high while still making regular progress.

  • When coming up with a name for your game, make it something pronouncable. It just annoys people when they have to say "Narbacular" or "Poesysteme" or "Synaestheste"...

  • Make your game extensible. If your game ends up being really great, you may want to continue working on it after graduation to make it into a full, commercial game.

  • If working on a project for a class, do as much preproduction work as possible before the semester begins. If your team enters the class already knowing what the concept is, you'll have that much more time for iteration.

  • Some game concepts are not particularly challenging for programmers or artists. If you are working on one of those teams, you may be tempted to make things more complicated just so you can show off your skills. Don't do this. Do what's best for the game, not what's best for the developers.

  • The best Producer for a student project is someone who's really good at details. When the game has a thousand small tasks (and reasons why half of them need to be there), it's great to have someone on your team who can keep track of all this stuff, and it's even better if that person is the producer.

  • The best game designers for student projects aren't the ones with the best game design skills, but the best people skills. Game designers are going to be telling everyone else on the team what to do, and being able to order your peers around in a way that encourages buy-in and good feedback and communication is absolutely critical if you want stuff to get done. If your "best designer" is a programmer, he or she can still contribute to the design (and will happily do so).

  • If you finish your student project and it's something you're happy with, consider incorporating as an LLC. It's cheap, it's easy, and it means you all now have a shipped title at a professional game studio.

4 comments:

david.mcgraw said...

"If you go to GDC, don't drink*."

*Unless you're a programmer and/or are really shy... Drink 1 to relax. ;)

It helped me tremendously, and I rarely ever drink. I didn't need to, but I did and it helped.

Just don't be stupid. 'Think'

bbrathwaite said...

Funny you should post this today:

"Tip from Brenda: a great way to get promoted at a game company is to find a stressed-out lead and ask what you can do to help. This is also a great way to get noticed as a student if you find a stressed-out professor who used to work in industry."

I literally just did this yesterday with a student!

And what do you mean - *used* to. :)

Anonymous said...

Some good sound advice, but I was wondering about this one:

"Some game concepts are not particularly challenging for programmers or artists. If you are working on one of those teams, you may be tempted to make things more complicated just so you can show off your skills. Don't do this. Do what's best for the game, not what's best for the developers."

If you are a group of students working on a project, then I think it would be important for the whole group to be challenged by the project. It is an oppportunity to show "the world" what they can do. I think you have to make a trade-off between a happy project leader (game finihed on time) and a happy programmer (challenging/timeconsuming programming)

Ian Schreiber said...

David: Fair point, although in my experience so far there's not nearly as much a danger of a typical college student not drinking enough, as the other way around.

Anonymous: This is a generalization, but as a whole, game companies care about one thing above anything else -- can you work in our team to help us make great games? The best way to demonstrate this is to make great games as a student. If you make a game that's technologically advanced but absolutely no fun, you've just shown that you're a brilliant programmer with no sense of game design, which is a potential red flag: does this mean you hijacked the project from your designers just so you could show off? Were you unable to function as part of a team, so you just ignored everyone else and did your own thing? Not necessarily, but these are possibilities. But if you make a great game, even if there's nothing special about it from a technical perspective, it'll get you noticed.

There's another bonus to this. If everyone on the team is trying to just show off their own skills, it's really hard to function as a team when two people come into conflict. You just can't be an effective team in that environment. But if everyone agrees up front that the top priority is the game rather than the team, it solves arguments before they start. Your programmer wants to spend time on a new shader algorithm? Your artist wants to add new lighting effects? Great -- justify how that makes it a better game. If you can't do that, then spend your time on something else.