Saturday, May 31, 2008

Choosing a School: Focus on Games

Question: Can I see a syllabus for some of the game classes this school offers?

What to look for: In the syllabus, see if the topics are specific to games, or more generalized to other media. If you want to make games, specifically, then you'll want classes that have readings and homeworks that involve games -- not movies, not literature, and not the World Wide Web. Of course, the reverse is true if you want game development to be only one option of many.

What to do: Look through the syllabi that you receive, paying close attention to the assignments (readings and projects). If there is a textbook, find it at your local library or book store and skim through it. If a syllabus is not available, ask some students who have taken the classes if they might have an old one; at the very least, ask them if the class is about video games or if that's only part of it. Also search the public website; occasionally you'll find that certain parts of a course are unrestricted access.

What to watch out for: A lot of classes (and majors!) have titles that sound like they focus on games, but then you find out that they don't. A few examples (feel free to post others in the comments):
  • Nonlinear Storytelling. This might be a class about interactive stories in video games. Or, it might deal with stories in other media that are told out of order, like the movies Memento and Pulp Fiction.
  • Digital Media Production. Could mean game production, in the sense of actually creating a video game. Or it could be game production in the sense of teaching you how to be a producer (dealing with scheduling and budgets). Or it could be either of those things for other media, like movie production. Or it could be special effects, like audio/video post-production for movies.
  • Introduction to Interactive Multimedia. This might be an obfuscated way to say "intro to video games" or it might be a class in Web page design or Flash programming.

In short, if you know exactly what you want from your program of study, make sure you're going to get it!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Choosing a School: Diversity

Question: How diverse is the student game developer population in this school, overall? How about the top 10% or so?

What to look for: Ideally, you'd like to see a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and demographics, but in most cases you won't. At least shoot for more diverse than the game industry.

What to do: Schools generally know the demographics of their student body. They also know who the top students are. Not all schools put the two together to see how they overlap, so you might have to do some detective work on your own. Grades of individual students are confidential (as well they should be), but you can see if the Dean's List is public, and then take a guess based on names and any other information that happens to be there. When you visit campus (you are going to see the place for yourself before you commit to spending four years of your life there, aren't you?), you can also get qualitative information from existing students.

What to watch out for: If all of the students in the program look like they were all cloned from the same genetic material, it could mean several things. It could be that the school is actively selecting people that fit specific criteria, which could signal that they're more interested in being a factory that churns out degrees than actually caring about you as an individual. It could be that the school has difficulty attracting women and minorities, which means you'll be less sensitive to diversity issues than you should be if you're white/male/straight, and you'll be feeling slightly uncomfortable (at best!) if you're not. If the student body within game development is diverse as a whole, but the top students are all white/male/straight, then that suggests the program is set up to reward certain types of students -- likely because the faculty look like clones, even if the students aren't.

In general, a diverse population means that a wide variety of people can succeed at the school. Without it, the implication is that exactly one type of student succeeds, the one who can Fit In Here And Be Just Like Everyone Else. If you feel like you'll fit right in, this might be okay... but take a Women's Studies or Minority Studies course anyway, will ya?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Choosing a School: Why Question At All?

Students choose schools for all kinds of reasons. At the community college level, it's often based on proximity to home more than anything else. With four-year schools, it could be anything from geographic location to campus size to how pretty the campus looks to which school one's boyfriend/girlfriend is attending. It's easy to ignore the quality of the school.

Complicating things further, schools have a process set up where you have to apply to attend there, which immediately puts the prospective student in a position of perceived weakness. After all, you can't attend at all unless they say you can. If you are accepted, you should thank your lucky stars (because there's a line out the door and around the block of people waiting to take your place) and not ask any questions. Interviews for game industry jobs can feel similar to first-timers.

If you're a student looking at game schools, it's worth remembering a few things:
  • You're paying an extreme cost in time (4+ years) and money (more than a new car, unless you have really expensive taste in cars). It's one of the largest expenses you'll have in your lifetime.
  • You wouldn't buy a new car without at least kicking the tires and taking a test drive. You wouldn't buy a house without taking a tour and getting it professionally inspected. Do your due diligence the same way you would for any other big-ticket item.
  • Screw this up and you'll graduate with a degree that makes you unemployable. Or you'll drop out and owe tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for no degree. Think about your next steps after you're done with school, and realize that your options change based on your school experience. It's worth taking the time up front to make sure you'll get what you're looking for.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Choosing a School: Student Projects

I've already given a few things for you to consider when choosing a school, but I think it's worth including some things you should not consider too much. One of the common themes of recruiters is to show off cool-looking student projects.

Be wary of student projects. At the DDAF, almost every presenter on the Education Panel showed a lot of work from their past and present students. The work looks impressive, and the implication is "we'll show you how to make something cool like this." But when I thought about it, it didn't really tell me anything about the school itself.

Every school has a few brilliant students who will produce phenomenal work, on their own, with or without faculty assistance. The work certainly reflects on the quality of that particular student, but may or may not have any correlation to the quality of the academic program.

It's also easy to get distracted by quantity. Some schools have large programs and lots of students, so they will likely have more student work to show than a smaller school. Take the size of the program into account.

Also be wary if the most impressive student work is more than a year or two old. Schools with quality programs and a steady stream of incoming students should be producing cool stuff every year. Showing one or two works from four years ago is an indication that the school just had a handful of outstanding students that year, not that they have a great program now.

Lastly, if the student work isn't similar to your area of interest, that should be a red flag. For example, if you want to be a game designer or a programmer and the only student work available is animated video clips (not playable games), you're probably dealing with an art/animation program that doesn't focus on games.

I'm not saying you should ignore student work entirely. But treat it the way a hiring manager at a company would treat personal references for a job. The applicant chose their best references so of course they're all going to say great things, so this shouldn't really persuade you. But if someone applying for a position can't even find a decent friend or two that can say something nice without reservations, maybe that's a signal you should be looking elsewhere.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Choosing a School: Job Placement

Question: What is your job placement rate out of all incoming freshmen? (This is tricky, and you might have to do the math yourself. Figure out the percentage of incoming freshmen make it all the way through the program and graduate, and multiply by the percentage of graduates who get jobs.)

What to look for: High numbers. What's good? I actually don't know. It's relative.

What to do: Compare the numbers of several schools.

What to watch out for: Schools that boast abnormally high job placement rate of their graduates... but only because their program is so obscenely difficult that only a tiny fraction of incoming students actually make it through. Or, schools that have low placement rates in the industry (indicating they aren't taken seriously by people who know how to judge talent and ability). Or, schools that can't tell you their placement rate because they don't track those numbers (indicating that the school might not care about you in the long term, as long as they get your tuition money today). Or, schools that inflate their job placement rate by encouraging students to start their own studios fresh out of college -- make sure their people are being hired by someone else, not themselves (I have nothing against starting your own studio, but if it happens too often at a particular school that's an indication that a lot of their graduating class couldn't get jobs at established companies that were hiring).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Choosing a School: Faculty

Question: Who are your faculty?

What to look for: Industry experience, doing work that is related to the classes they are teaching. Preferably at least one teacher who did the job that you want to get yourself some day.
What to do: Again, verify. Look up credits on Mobygames for games that were published. If a professor can't explain to you exactly what work they did on each title they worked on, find out yourself if you can, and view with extreme suspicion if you can't. Ditto if the school (or a particular professor) says they worked on "lots of games" but can't tell you which ones.

What to watch out for: There are a lot of "teachers" out there who are supposed to teach you how to make games even though they've never made one themselves. Would you want to learn how to cook from someone who's never been in a kitchen (no matter how many cookbooks they've read)? Would you pay money to take music lessons from someone who's never picked up an instrument? Would you take a skydiving course from someone who has never been in a plane? Someone with no experience can teach you the theory from a textbook, but they won't be able to guide you any further... and with so many bad textbooks out there, how would they know that what they're teaching is even valid?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Choosing a School

At the DDAF this week, I saw a lot of high school and community college students who were interested in studying games. I was actually a bit disappointed with the Education panel; great representation from six schools that have game development programs, but it basically amounted to each school giving a 15-minute recruitment pitch, with no one actually commenting on what to look for in a school or how to find the program that's right for you.

In fairness, "how to choose a school" isn't necessarily what the panel was supposed to be. But it struck me that a lot of students in the audience were skipping a few steps in the process, and would benefit from some more basic information, like what criteria are important in school selection, and even how to know if they should be considering a game school in the first place.

So, I was inspired to start writing a series of questions that are worth asking. If you're a student, I hope these will help you in selecting the best academic program to fit your needs. If you're an educator, give some thought to how you'd answer these questions, and if your program would stack up favorably. If you're in the industry... well, this might not be of much use unless you're on an advisory board for some college or university, but if you ever get asked by a father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate about what's the best school to go to, you'll have at least one URL to send back.

To start things off:

Question: What degree do you offer, what classes do you offer in that degree, and what jobs will that qualify me for?

What to look for: You should see a lot of classes, not just a traditional Art or Computer Science curriculum with a couple of "game" courses tacked on (this is assuming you're looking for a game-focused curriculum). You should see at least one course where you're working with people outside your major -- if you're an artist, you should be working with programmers. Obviously, the courses should be in your area of interest.

What to do: Verify that the school is giving good information. Check out the IGDA Curriculum Framework and see if the school's curriculum is in the general ballpark. Read the IGDA Breaking In website, and see if the courses you'd take are related in any way to the job you'd be doing.

What to watch out for: Some schools call their course of study "game design" even though it is actually a programming or game art curriculum. If the school does not know the simple difference between the various fields of game development, how valid is your education really going to be? Also, a lot of students haven't yet discovered their area of interest; they equate game development with playing games, or at least they haven't figured out that there are many fields of study. Know your own passion before you go to school for it.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Joys and Frustrations of Grading

Having just graded another midterm, I realized something.

My favorite part of grading is when I ask a question that I know is difficult (but meaningful), and I see a student just totally nail the right answer on the head. It makes me feel... validated, like here's someone who was paying attention, here's something that I was able to teach.

My least favorite part is when I see an answer that's totally unintelligible, like the student was answering a question that I didn't ask, and it's clear that they either misunderstood the question or else that I'm misunderstanding their answer. On the one hand, I teach game design, not communication, so if the student understands the question and has the right answer and just has difficulty communicating then I feel bad about taking off too many points for it. On the other hand, I can't justify giving points for an answer that I don't think is right. So, I have to dock the points and hope that if I'm wrong, the student has the guts to call me on it (which actually happens a lot less often than I imagined it would). But I just hate the uncertainty.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Speaking next week: DDAF

For once, I've got a speaking engagement at an event that I don't have to travel to. The event in question is the Downtown Digital Arts Festival in Columbus, taking place May 7-9, right on the campus where I teach.

In particular, I'll be co-hosting a workshop called Game Design Improv with colleague Brenda Brathwaite. I'll post a report on it here when it's done.

If you're in the area, stop by. And if you're a student, also check out the panel discussions about the game industry as well. I don't think we've ever had so many game developers in Ohio at the same time before, so take advantage of this opportunity while you can!