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Getting into Games through Education: Choosing your University

By Liyaan Hasan (stitchs) | Published Aug 06 2013 01:04 PM in Breaking Into the Industry
Peer Reviewed by (NightCreature83, Gaiiden, Prinz Eugn)

art design programming education science coding open day university

Now that you have decided what subject area interests you the most, it's time to start thinking about where you want to study. There is a lot of information out there; some good, some misleading, all useful in aiding your decision. It is a jungle out there, especially when searching the net, but have no fear! This article will ensure that you are searching for the right sources, locating the Universities most suited to you and asking the right questions when you visit.

Note:  
This article assumes you have selected your area of study (see previous article: http://tinyurl.com/cgz778r) and are now trying to decide which University is the best one for that course. It also looks at the best way to approach the Open Days, in an attempt to get the best information so you are able to make a sound, and informed, choice.


Making the right choice


Initial Research


The best way to start refining your list is to look for the League Table section on The Guardian website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013), which includes statistics such as teaching scores, staff to student ratio and career prospects. Separate tables based on the desired course subject area can also be found; IT for Games Programming/Development, Art & Design for Games Art/Graphics/Design. My personal recommendation is to look to the column which details the average number of UCAS points that a University requires, and form your choices around these matching them against your own predicted scores.

Note:  
There is no need to strictly bind your choices to these scores. They are there as a way for Universities to sift through the initial applications that might not be suitable. They help to measure the capabilities of a potential student as each subject grade is worth a certain amount of these points. The higher the grade is, the more capable that prospective student. I state that these are initial scores, you might have less points but don’t let that stop you applying, there is an interview process in which you can ‘sell’ yourself with a body of work, which might well make up and show your capabilities better than numbers can.


Don't go by Ratings alone


These newspaper ratings are not the be all and end all. Universities publish free guides yearly that provide brief descriptions of a University's facilities, departments, courses and achievements. Called a Prospectus, they are one of the best ways to pin-point information, without feeling swamped down by searching through numerous internet links. You can usually pick these up during college events; University representatives set up stalls to field your questions and even give out free merchandise. If you cannot attend one of these, you can send off for them directly.

Once you have made a list (I would recommend about 6-9 depending on how many you can physically visit) talk to a tutor at college and ask for their advice. They can assist in narrowing this list down into choices that match your potential. Your potential points don’t necessarily need to match, if you think you have a top-notch portfolio to show off, then select a couple of higher requirement choices. As always, double check with your tutors to make sure you don’t sell yourself short.

This would also be a good time to ask about the kind of time investment that your course requires. I was on a programming course myself and found that if you want to get the best out of your learning, you would need to read up and practice concepts in your own time, a lot of your own time. I also had the privilege of working alongside students from the Arts course and found that their assignments were very work-intensive; for example, 3D modeling would have numerous back-and-forth peer reviews until they were at a level of acceptability to be submitted. You have to be sure that you will be able to put in above and beyond the hours required, if you want to succeed.

Open Days


The next step is to book your selection of Open Days. These are times at which Universities open their doors to prospective candidates, to give them a chance to discover what University life is about, meet new people, and learn about your possible course. It is usually possible to book these through your application manager or your college. If these options are not available, or you are applying outside of college, the best thing to do is to contact the Universities by phone.

Preparing for your Visits


Now that you’ve booked your Open Days, you need to prepare to get the most out of them. If you haven’t already been offered or received one, request a schedule of events. This will tell you what time to get there for certain events; lectures, taster sessions, Q+A’s and, most importantly, your Interview (if yours is on the same day).

Note:  
A University will usually tie interviews to the Open Day in an attempt to cut down your need to travel there more than once. They hold more than one Open Day over the year, but Interviews happen in the 6 months before the academic year ends. There are exceptions to this, but it is usually if you have completed college education and/or have taken a gap year before applying. I will be covering the topic of Interviews in the next article.


You can use this to best time the things you want to see, where you will go, and what you want to do. Your aim is to take away as much information as possible so planning for face-to-face time with course leaders/tutors is essential. Even if you are only able to talk to them for 5 minutes each; that should be enough if you’re asking the right questions!

Accommodation


Something that I have yet to mention is where you will be living during your first year. I am highlighting it here as it is something that needs to be considered. It is just as important to research and set requirements for accommodation, as well as the area you’re moving too, as you do for your course. The first year of University can make or break new students and, if you are not comfortable with your living space, your work will suffer for it. This is true of the reverse as if you’re not completely satisfied with your course, you won’t enjoy the social side as much. It’s a delicate balance to strike and one I am not going to talk too much about; it could require just as many words as this article!

Questions


As the Open Day draws closer you need to think about what kind of information you want to take away. It is difficult being a prospective student as the only real sources you have are your college tutors, UCAS and/or people you know who may already be in the higher education system. This is where I step in; to take away some of the pressure and give you the highest priority questions you need to ask in order to gain information to sink your teeth into.

By now you’re asking, “What are these questions and which should I ask first?” Read on to find out!

How long has the course been going for?
As courses relating to Games are relatively young, they are all in a process of ‘finding themselves’; what works and what doesn’t, the modules they include, their assessment criteria and pass rates. A longer period of time is a good indicator that the course is better over these teething problems.

Who do they cater for - Beginners, Intermediates or Experts?
As the question suggests, is the course this University provides one that gets you to focus on the basics for a lengthy period of time, or picks-up straight from where you left college and gets into its stride quickly.

What are the main labs like where You and Your course will be working?
If you have not already been shown, ask to see what Labs/Studios/Theatres you will be working in and the kind of equipment they provide. For example, if you are looking towards a programming course, will you be working in dedicated Games labs, or are these resources shared with other courses, such as Software Engineering or Digital Media. Labs or Studios dedicated solely to your course/subject area won’t become overcrowded near the time of hand-ins.

What are the course pass rates?
What is the percentage of students that complete the course, the dropout rate after first and second year, how many of these leave with a grade 2:1 or higher and, have any been successful at breaking into the Industry.

Do they have any work placement schemes?
Find out if the course accommodates a placement year; effectively extending your time at University by slotting in between second and third, but offers a wealth of benefits. Does the University have any links to companies that make it easier to find these placements? This leads to my next two questions.

Links to major games companies?
If the course has links then this might mean they’ve been able to tailor their modules to meeting the needs required by the real world, which will help you in getting the most for your money and time.

Regular guest lectures?
If the University has links, then do representatives of these companies come in to teach additional lectures? This enables you to learn material that the tutors might otherwise not have the time/experience to teach.

Any of their tutor’s ex-industry?
If any of the teaching staff have worked in professional studios before, their experience might help you hone and refine your skills/portfolios to help you successfully complete your course and take the right steps afterwards.

Final Year Projects.
Ask what sort of Final Year work you will be required to do, how long is your Dissertation/Final Major Project? Will you be able to pick any subject area, or are you limited to things you did on the course? Are you able to see examples of work from students of previous years to gain an idea of how much you should do?

Passion! From the course lead.
This is more of an observation than a question to be asked. Pay careful attention to the person you talk to, especially if you are speaking to the course leader. If they give off the impression that they are passionate about teaching and what the course can offer you, as opposed to just answering your questions with ‘fact-sheet’ responses, then this can be just as important as some of the previous answers. You want tutors that are going to take the course to its limits and fight for your need for resources as well as changes to be made, if and where necessary.

Finally...
There isn’t a particular order to this list, and a lot of the time, one answer can actually overlap with others if the person you speak to goes into enough detail. As long as you are able to come away with a checklist of notes indicating they have all been answered, then you have made a successful and informative visit.

Conclusion


In this second article, we learned the processes for refining your list of choices and how to go about getting the most from your Open Day(s). These are only some of the things that you can do, but they are extremely important. You should speak to your current tutors in order to get more ideas to make an informed selection. They might be able to point you in the direction of extra resources and information that I have not been able to provide here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. In my next article, I will talk about what to expect when you are invited for an Interview. How you should prepare, what you should take along, information you need to gain and the impression you need to make; you need to make yourself stand apart!

Further Reading


UCAS (Universities & College Admissions Service): http://www.ucas.ac.uk/
Guardian League Tables: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013
Your selected University Prospectus and Website service.

Article Update Log


13 May 2013:
  1. Initial release
  2. Added article image; under licence from Ajari: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25766289@N00/3898591046/ , sourced from Wikimedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heiwa_elementary_school_18.jpg



About the Author(s)


Before completing my Bachelors in Computer Game Development, I went through two Universities, each playing host to a very different course. Even though these courses had similar names, they differed greatly in structure and content and this is where I started to realise that this incredibly interesting subject could be taught in an infinite number of ways.

My journey took me to my first University and at this time, admittedly, I went mainly with the social aspect as my drive. Don’t mistake me, I wanted a degree, but it took a back-seat for a small amount of time. It wasn’t until part way through this first year that I realised, I need to start again. I wasn’t even doing badly at my studies; every module was at an average pass rate of 50-80% and heck, in one of my assignments I scored 99/100. It’s just that I didn’t understand fully what I was doing. Maybe I wasn’t ready, or maybe it made me into the person I graduated as. So, I reaffirmed my wanting to do a degree in the first place, that I want to be a part of this thriving industry, to get back that feeling of excitement of when I used to imagine making games when I was younger.

At my second University, I made sure I did everything I could to be as involved as possible. I volunteered to be course representative. I attended numerous meetings with Course/Department heads to; raise issues and concerns from my peers, provide input on how the course could be changed (at this time it was only in its infancy, and there was a bit of fragmentation between units) and work closely with tutors to ensure that students were getting the most out of the course. I graduated with a First Class Honours overall and was one of the top of my class.


License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

Good article. The topic on the education for the gaming industry has gotten a lot of hits recently. In my humble opinion, at least as far as development goes, is that the best way is a degree in Computer Science, Software Engineering or IT with a good foundation. However that's only the first step.

In my mind, the University is the thing that gives you the ability to ask your questions and get the answers you need. However, getting your actual skills in is a matter that is in a very large percent up to you. I've known and worked with some outstanding developers through the years and some of them did not even have a degree. There was a guy I knew who was an outstanding .NET developer in the Enteprise world, who managed to do a 360 and go into game development. He is actually one of the best developers I've come to work with. And this is to a much bigger extend applicable for 2D/3D art. Here you need to gain the skills to work with the tools. From there on it's your artistic side. For someone who has the gifts to make outstanding game art, this shouldn't be a problem.

My main point is - the University is great, but what is even greater is putting that big ammount of hard work into your skills in order for you to get your love for games to that level you want.

 

Sorry for the rant, I just felt like talking a bit on the subject :) again, awesome article.

When picking a University for Games Development you should be looking at placement rates after people have finished their degree there. This will indicate who well employers respond to prospective graduate employees with that particular degree.

 

I did my masters in the UK at the University of Hull and they have a 90% placement grade in tripple A studios, I joined Codemasters after that degree. And I can only speak for the programmer path here but this is what I found:

It doesn't really matter whether your lecturers have worked for the games industry, what is more important is that they are amazing in the course they are teaching you. I ran through C++ in a 10 week course and in the first interview got told that I knew C++ better then some experienced and even senior programmers coming in for an interview at that company. My lecturers had worked for BAE systems and as such knew a lot about real time simulation systems which games pretty much are.

So what about institutions that focus solely on game development such as DigiPen or FullSail? Do you think that they are not worth the time or are not in the same league as traditional universities?

My main concern with this article is that it's not universal, its applicability and accuracy vary between countries. In the UK, for example, the quality of education markedly improved following the Next Gen study by NESTA. In the United States there's a great deal more competition and a more stable industry, so you can find quality institutions.

 

Move outside those countries, within the English-speaking world at least, and the quality of education shoots through the floor for game-specific education. In Australia, for example, there is not a single University I would recommend to study games, and I would hesitate to recommend any of the private institutions. As Ivan has already stated, a Computer Science/Software Engineering course is a viable consideration, but that brings me to my next concern.

 

The name of the article, I feel, is a little misleading. Almost no-one gets into the Games Industry through education. They can, if they have the initiative, build their portfolio and make contacts, but that's incidental to the education itself. There are two possible exceptions. I know some studios have hired programmers on the basis of their education, though I believe it to be a rather rare occurrence. The other being if you include 'Indie' game development as breaking into the industry. Once again, that comes from the incidental making of friends and contacts rather than the education.

 

One final note I will offer is with respect to Private compared with University education. The systems vary between countries, once again, so I'll try to keep it fairly generic. I can't speak for the quality of individual institutions, but here are some observances:

  • Universities excel at teaching subjects which have a large professional and academic base, such as Computer Science, for which there is a large body of knowledge that remains reasonably static. If the knowledge base is changing rapidly, you'll tend to get slightly outdated knowledge.
     
  • Most Universities focus on research, and research is how they assess the performance of their staff. In some cases teaching is not even considered a performance indicator. As such, Universities are often poor and, at times, uninterested in teaching more specialised or creative fields. They often employ teaching staff with little interest in the field, who would much rather be researching trends in contemporary architecture.
     
  • Private institutions are more likely to employ teaching staff that have practical industry experience. They tend to respond more rapidly to changes, but don't have the effective 'bulk buying' power of Universities to address well-established fields. Staff can vary widely in their teaching ability, but do often have a better knowledge of and passion for the field.
     
  • Private institutions do not, typically, engage in extensive research programs and are held more accountable for their teaching standards. As such, education tends to be their focus.

Those are things I've noticed over the years, trying to improve the quality of education in Australia.

Hi guys,

 

Sorry for a lack of reply to this, I have only just come back into the country after being on holiday with no net access. I have given these comments a skim-read and look to fully respond in the next coming days. Need to unpack, get back to work etc.

 

Thank you for your feedback so far and I will get back to you!

 

Stitchs.

Now I've had the opportunity to review the comments, I hope to be able to respond to each of them:

 

@ivan; thank you for your compliment. Regarding the point whereby it is down to the work ethic of the individual, I totally agree! You will not get nearly as much from University unless you take what you learn from each lesson, and research/investigate more about the topic raised, in your own time. This is something I raise in my first article, which I link to at the top. Maybe I could make it clearer that this article exists. It is intended to be read as a series, but I also try to encapsulate each as much as possible based on the article guidelines of GameDev.net.

 

@NightCreature; I have looked into the Masters degrees at Hull, when I was near the end of finishing my degree, I have read a lot of good things. I do agree that whilst an ex-industry tutor is not the be all end all for a course, it can help to put a level of trust that that course has input. Maybe that particular article point can be refined to make it less vague. I totally agree that non-games ex-industry is also a very good positive for the course. Any kind of real-world experience will help a student start looking at the real world with a different perspective than just an academic. On the point of placement rates, I can look into this and edit the article as required, I agree it is an important point to know that your course has the power to get you employed.

 

@Alpha; I have not tried to discount any institutions from my article series thus far. Yes, I do talk from the perspective of a UK Graduate, so my advice can only stretch as far to the education system here. I do make this point clear in my first article. I try to write in a generalised manner where I hope the skills can be extrapolated, I apologise if this is not the case. If I had the time, I would research and write about every possible aspect, to make it as fair as possible, from every Institutions perspective. However, this would turn the series into something that I am not aiming for it to be. Once again, I apologise if the series so far is not meeting expectations, but I really do want to help potential students gain an understanding from a first-hand POV.

 

@NathanRunge; thank you for your input, there is a lot of information to digest here. I will respond fully in the next couple of days to all your points. One quick thing I would like to note is that I do state in my first article of the series that this does come from the UK perspective. I have not had the privilege to study outside the UK (a dream I do hope for one day) and can therefore not write about it with a truth that wouldn't be based on Internet research. The point about the name, I do agree and disagree with. I do spend time after writing the articles to keep the names consistent, so they can be recognised as a series, and trying to tie them to the content that they are mini-summaries in themselves. I think the problem lies with the section they lie under but, this was a section recommended to me when I initially joined the Crossbones+ movement. I think it would be a very different situation if there was a section for "Games and Education", and I do wish there was. I hope not to mislead, it might just be back luck with the combination of the Title and Section Name.

 

As a general note: I do try to place emphasis on the fact that the University route is only one of the ways to get there. I try to write from the perspective of someone who went in with very little information himself. I hope to give a new student a better idea as to whether they are making the right choice of Games and, what they can do to maximise their chances of degree completion. Maybe I can note a disclaimer at the beginning of each article that states this fact, in an attempt to further encapsulate each article. Any more feedback, as well as ideas, are most welcome and I hope we can make this article as well received as the first!

 

Thanks all,

 

Stitchs.

I think something indicating this is more UK-specific should be included in the title, otherwise it looks good.

Oh, that was actually mentioned in the previous article, but yea since they are loosely linked perhaps the author should include a note in all of them

Hi guys,

 

Thanks for the comments, and the updates on peer review. I have been inactive for a bit due to relocation, but the next in the series should be up in the next couple of weeks.

 

I will also take on the advice and add a disclaimer to each article that it focuses on UK applications.

 

Many thanks,

Stitchs.


Note: Please offer only positive, constructive comments - we are looking to promote a positive atmosphere where collaboration is valued above all else.




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