Monday, August 11, 2008

The Importance of Keeping in Touch

I recently had a conversation with Alex, a former student of mine who made it in the industry (and totally deserves it, and I mean that in a good way). He's just finishing up his first project, so I took the time to get in touch with him and -- without having him break any NDAs -- did something of a post-mortem on his college education.

It occurred to me afterwards how useful our conversation was. As a teacher, I get some feedback during the education process but I get precious little after the students leave campus, so how am I to evaluate if my teaching is useful? An hour on the phone was worth a hundred end-of-course evaluations.

The biggest takeaways I wanted from the conversation:
  • Did he enjoy the job? What were the best and worst parts? (This gives me additional content for my classes, either with a real-life horror story or success story, and some people might actually know him so the stories are more credible.)
  • What was it like working on the project? (This tells me how obsolete I am. For now, at least, his experiences were similar to mine... so my descriptions of what it's like out there as a newbie are still valid for now. Whew!)
  • What were some challenges they ran into in the project? (This is also an obsolescence gauge, and it tells me if I'm teaching the right skills based on whether I have course assignments that mimic real-world challenges.)
  • What were some things that he encountered in the industry that I just totally failed to prepare him for? (The scariest question to ask but the most important.)

Anyway, I would encourage other professors and recently-graduated students to do something like this, especially at the time when the ex-students are just finishing their first project and have some time to reflect. Professors: initiate the conversation, as some students may be too busy or intimidated to just open up and start criticizing you after they're gone. Students: initiate the conversation, as professors tend to keep busy and have lots of things going on at once, and it'll be much easier for them to have this feedback if you open the door.

For what it's worth, my two big takeaways from this for myself:

  • What went right: the importance of learning a new genre. Alex had never even heard of the genre they were creating before (tower defense games) and he had to learn really fast! This is a common thing in the industry for new designers, and being able to research a type of game they've never played before is a great skill to have. I had my students create a user interface for a modern football game, given the (correct) assumption that most of them weren't that familiar with sports games... or sports, for that matter. There's even an entire chapter in my book on how to work with an unfamiliar genre (Chapter 12).
  • What went wrong: I didn't place enough emphasis on Excel in my classes. Sure, I said plenty of times that Excel is to game designers what Microsoft Visual Studio is to programmers and that students should do everything from keeping game stats to their checkbook and grocery list in Excel just to get familiarity with it... but how often did I actually give a game design assignment that required the use of Excel? Almost never. And I never gave any lectures on advanced features of Excel that are useful for game designers (like the use of RAND, RANK and VLOOKUP to create a randomly-shuffled deck of cards). I could probably offer an entire course in "Excel for Game Designers" but failing that I should at least have a few homework assignments that require it.


Darius Kazemi said...

I use RAND and VLOOKUP all the time. I did not know about RANK. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Excel for Game Designers

That is a book that would sell outside of game design, just for the novelty value.

Brian Shurtleff said...

Yeah, as a student I'd definitely recommend teaching some Excel. I took Brenda's try at a "Excel for Game Designers" class and it was a big help. I have a feeling that even that wasn't enough, though.

That class filled up quick too, so I wasn't the only student wanting to learn it...