Thursday, March 27, 2008

Terminal Degrees

Every field has its jargon. Game designers will happily talk about HUDs and avatars and positive feedback loops, oblivious to the fact that most people who haven't been doing this for the last few years of their career might have no idea what they're talking about. This is a particular danger when teaching, by the way, that you lapse into "designer-speak" without defining your terms, only to be met with blank stares.

People in academia do this too, and it can sometimes be confusing for the new designer-turned-teacher to keep up. A recent discussion on the IGDA game educators mailing list reminded me that one of the new terms an industry person is likely to run into is the terminal degree.

(Disclaimer: since I've only been doing this the last couple of years, I might get some details wrong. If you see any errors, feel free to post in the comments and I'll fix the post. Thank you.)

What is a terminal degree? The best description I can think of is a degree higher than Bachelor's, which is the highest degree offered, at the institution you received it, at the time you received it. Normally this means a Ph.D., but some fields don't offer one (the best-known are probably MFA and MBA) so those are referred to as terminal Master's degrees. Typically, a non-terminal Master's takes less time than a terminal Master's, which takes less time than a Ph.D. (in case you're trying to get an advanced degree as fast as possible).
Edit: Looks like I was wrong about this, it's just the highest degree offered in a field -- still, usually a Ph.D. but in some fields an MFA, or other degree. I'm not sure what happens at boundary conditions, such as if you get an MFA in Game Design (the highest degree offered today) and then one school decides to offer a Ph.D. in Game Design. Does that invalidate the 'terminality' of these other degrees?

Note that this means that if a new Ph.D. is offered at a university that previously only offered a Master's, whether the Master's is terminal or not is based on when the student enrolled; if you started before the Ph.D. was available, it's terminal. Timing matters.

Why should you care? Terminal degrees are important if you're planning to make a career of teaching. Having one means that you get paid more; at some places it's even a requirement for certain positions. If you don't have one already, think about getting one. Unfortunately, leaving a full-time career in industry to go back to graduate school is difficult for most people. Fortunately, once you do have a full-time job at a university, one of the more common benefits is being able to take classes for free or almost-free; if it's not practical to get your terminal degree first, it's quite possible to get it second.

From seeing a number of people going through graduate school, I also secretly suspect that it's called a "terminal degree" because it has a good chance of killing you.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Breaking Out of Silos

One problem that a lot of universities have is that each department is walled off from the others, and communication across departments is hard. (As you might imagine, communicationg with other schools is even harder.)

I think I may have accidentally discovered a way around this.

In my case, I teach game design classes that are typically dropped in some kind of multimedia department along with all the artists and animators, and finding an actual programmer in the bunch is like finding the needle in the proverbial haystack.

This quarter, I taught a class to programmers in their own department. (I did this for entirely selfish reasons: as an adjunct, taking on another course meant more pay. The fact that it let me speak to a room full of programming students so I could pimp my game design courses for next quarter was a nice bonus.)

The funny thing is, through the process of teaching this class, I met a lot of other faculty in the department, and they now see me as one of their own. I suspect the see me as "the guy who teaches Systems Analysis... oh, and he also does something with video games" rather than the other way around, and when they have students interested in games they know where to send them. This is not something that could have been done at the departmental level; it happened one-on-one, with me being right there in the trenches with the other faculty in a department that isn't my "home". I think I've built some bridges that just weren't there before, and I may try it again in the future.

By this time next year, I'll have taught classes at three different schools. It remains to be seen whether I can forge connections between them, but I'd like to. (This is especially important since my "main" employer right now is a community college, and we want to send our students to four-year schools when they're done here!)

Incidentally, this has another implication: if you're a professional developer considering a full-time switch to academia, having multiple skills (programming and game design, for example) is a huge benefit. It may or may not get you hired, but once you're in it might give you a foot in the door to teach one class in "that other department" -- and from there, maybe you can pull in a steady supply of interdisciplinary action right under everyone's nose.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Administering Exams as Game Strategy

I had my interactive final today in my Game Industry class, this being the fourth time I've given it. Nearly everything went wrong -- I couldn't connect the SNES's RF adaptor to the overhead projector, my PS2 suddenly died mid-exam with the dreaded Disc Read Error, and I forgot my Wii-mote at home which killed the idea of using that console at all. And yet, it ended up being a great experience, probably the best of any of the four times I've run the thing. What's behind this mystery?

I think the reason for this is familiarity: the same way that you learn a game at deeper levels by playing it multiple times. When you first start playing a game, you're dealing with very broad strategies: I want to go for the longest road bonus, I want to build a Necropotence deck, I want to play a Wizard. Or in this case, I want a collaborative final exam that feels somewhere between a game demo at the old E3 and a live game show.

As you play more, you start to see subtler variations in strategy and the tactics that support it: I should make my initial placement on Wood and Clay squares, I should tweak my deck, I should take the Toughness feat to make the early levels more survivable. In the case of the final exam, I notice that certain questions are frequenly misunderstood (and can be modified or eliminated), some questions can be asked of several games (so if I accidentally skip a question, I may be able to come back to it later), and some game demos can be simulated by finding a video on YouTube.

And that's what happened today, for the first time. I've given this exam enough that I'm now used to it, and I can make adjustments on the fly. I knew from experience that I need a few hours to set up all the equipment, so I arrived early. I knew to test everything beforehand, so I had enough advance warning to find gameplay videos online. I didn't expect a console to suddenly die in mid-exam, but I was able to adapt by eliminating one question and rewriting a couple of others in real-time. Small tweaks here and there, much the same as tweaking a Magic deck, or an RPG character, or a strategy.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Love is in the air...

So, two of my former students got married today. This was not a surprise; I don't think I ever saw one of them without the other for as long as I'd known them. (You can tell they were my students, because the bride walked down the aisle to the theme of Aerith. And the two figures on the top of the wedding cake were Tidus and Yuna.)

It was a strange feeling, being part of that. I certainly never would have dreamed of inviting any of my professors to meet my family when I was an undergrad. (My wife, who tried to get to know some of her professors outside of class, was repeatedly told that it was somehow "wrong" or "inappropriate" or "unprofessional" for reasons that I've yet to understand.) Yet, the whole thing doesn't make me feel weird or freaky. It makes me feel pretty special, actually.

I think this kind of thing might be specific to game professors, and maybe a few other professions. I'm teaching people how to go after their dream jobs, and part of that is learning about what their dreams actually are. Students don't typically seek game jobs for the fame or prestige or high pay; goals and hopes and dreams are always on the surface, and these things are very personal. So, I suppose it's much easier to know students on a personal level if you're teaching in this field, as opposed to teaching calculus, or quantum physics, or signals and systems.

At the same time, there was another strange thing I didn't expect: I didn't actually know anyone in the room. I saw these two students outside of class a lot of the time, so I figured I'd spot at least a few of the people I saw them hang out with. Instead I was in a room with a hundred strangers, and it made me realize just how much I didn't know about them. And I realized I'd felt this way before when I was a student, when I'd see one of my professors in the bathroom or the grocery store or something, and it was like "whoa, they're an actual human being with a life outside of the lecture hall?" And now I see the same thing in reverse -- whoa, my students have actual lives outside of my classes that I don't actually know about! (I used to think this was because there were all these formal barriers between students and professors that the professors put in the way intentionally; now I think it's just a by-product of seeing a person on a regular basis for only a few hours a week, so that you "know" them but only in a narrow context.)

So, for those of you in the industry who are considering teaching, this is the kind of stuff that I hope you have to look forward to. And yes, since I know you'll ask, the cake was delicious and moist.

Good luck, you crazy kids.

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.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Progression of a Student Developer

Most students start in the same place: "I love playing games and I think making them would be really cool, but I don't know anything about the industry and I don't know where to begin if I wanted to do it myself." (Let's call this Experience Level 0.)

Students level up the first time when they learn the reason why they didn't know where to start: games are made by teams of specialists these days, and knowing programming and art and design and production and audio is just too much for a single person unless the scope of the game is really small. This is around the time they realize there is a community of game developers, and that there are resources like Gamasutra and GDC. At this level, they can try to make their own game, or team up with a few other students on a small project.

The second time students level up is when they actually attend their first GDC. There is a shift in thinking, from "game developers are these legendary people who make these amazing games and I could never hope to be a part of that" to "wow, these developers are real people, just like me." And then the students are suddenly able to talk to professional developers without making fools of themselves. (I do my best to prepare my students for this before it happens, to varying degrees of success.)

The final level-up happens when students have been through a complete development cycle on a game (either at a professional studio as an intern, or on their own student project). At this point they can talk with professional developers at an equal level, contributing to conversations with their own experiences. And then they are truly ready for industry.

As you might expect, one of the joys of teaching is seeing this progression (which, naturally, sometimes doesn't happen at all... and sometimes happens out of order).

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Teaching on the Fly

I suppose it had to happen eventually, and the miracle is that I've been teaching for a year and a half before this happened to me. I'd be horrified if this had happened, say, a couple weeks after I'd originally started.

I'm talking about forgetting my class notes, not realizing it until five minutes before class starts, and having to run a two-hour lecture entirely from memory.

I'm one of those people who likes to plan stuff in advance. I'm more comfortable when speaking to a crowd if I've already written down and rehearsed what I'm about to say. I'm much more comfortable if I have my notes in front of me, in case I get lost (which I often do). From talking with other teachers, this is something of a rite of passage. (Some day, perhaps, I'll take this to the next level: showing up for class without having prepared a lecture in advance at all, and just saying whatever occurs to me at the time. But that day will not come any time soon if I can help it -- I was never all that great at improv.)

I realize that not all teachers are like this. Some don't do any planning in advance at any rate, so this is the norm. Others rehearse things so many times that they've got it memorized, so they don't need any notes. I'm somewhere between the extremes, and for me it was really scary.

The thing is, I survived. And I'm not even sure my students noticed. I suppose it helps that I've taught this particular class three times already, so I had a pretty good idea of the general topics. After I got home, I reviewed my notes and found that I covered most of the major points, and I mentioned the rest in the following class as an aside. So, no harm done.

But I'm not going to try it again any time soon, all the same.

Monday, March 03, 2008

GDC: Breaking In to Academia notes

This year at GDC, I hosted a roundtable entitled Breaking In to Academia. Brenda has been kind enough to post notes of the session, for anyone in the industry who might be curious what it's like to teach (or anyone in academia who would like some additional insight on the mindset of those in industry who would like to teach).

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Crediting Standards on Student Projects

Getting proper credit in a game matters. As a professional developer, a large part of your ability to get hired is the list of projects you've previously worked on; if you aren't in the credits, it becomes much harder for future employers to verify.

Many professional developers don't realize how important it is (until they get burned by it). This makes it rather important to at least mention it briefly to game development students, so that they're aware before getting burned.

As of just recently, the IGDA Credit Standards Committee released a beta version of a standards document. Several very large teams are putting this through its paces on real projects, to see where the problems are. (The document itself can be found at the link above.)

For those of you teaching a class in game development, especially one such as a "capstone" that involves students working on teams to make working games, consider making your students comply with the credit standards. If you have a student working in the role of Producer (or else Project Lead), you can make that an assignment for the student to ensure proper crediting of everyone on the team.

If you do so, be sure to let the Credit Standards Committee know how it goes. I don't think they've got anyone testing out the standards on a small-team project yet, and it'd be nice to know if the standards scale down properly.