Moving into the Games Industry can be a tricky minefield, especially if it is something you think you might want to do, but are not really sure where to start. This is where education can play a helpful role in focusing attention. You can start doing the stuff you’ve thought about, as well as some you may not have, all whilst being given a guiding hand by tutors. This series of articles aims to provide the best possible tools to ensure a smooth route through the process; from selecting a University establishment, all the way to day one of your course, and beyond.
Note: It is not my aim within these articles to ‘name and shame’ the best, or worst, Universities in the UK. It would be irresponsible to do so. In these articles, I am looking to provide a set of tools and reference points, which a prospective student can use to research the best University for them. Also, I am writing from the perspective of a UK Graduate and therefore I make reference to policies or organisations (i.e. UCAS; a UK Organisation dealing with student applications to University) that are part of the UK University system. This does not mean that the skills can't be extrapolated and applied elsewhere, I am just unfamiliar with the policies of other education systems.
Choosing your Subject Area
You might be asking yourself “Who is this person to give such advice, is it not just his opinion?” and you would be right to do so. Please see the 'About the Author' section at the end of this article where I provide a small background to myself, and the journey I took through University; detailing some of the pitfalls and mistakes I encountered, so that it might benefit the potential path of the reader.
Where to begin?
So you’ve decided that education would be the best way forward, now to select the area you want to go into. The best way to do this is to look at what you already know and enjoy, and ask yourself some questions. Do you like to draw in your spare time and want to get your designs on-screen? Are you technically able when it comes to computers and have a passion to go deeper? Do you sometimes look at the games you play and wonder “how do people come up with these ideas”? These are just examples but, asking the right questions early enough can really help narrow down the area you are going to have the most passion for, and excel at.
Types of Course
There are four major course types that one can take to give themselves a solid foundation to progress into the industry:
Computer Games Programming.Usually awards a BSc.
Computer Games Art.Usually awards a BA.
Computer Games Design.Awards either degree type, depending on specific content weighting.
Computer Science, with modules specifically tailored to Game Development. Usually awards a BSc
Note: There are also other courses that are concerned with Sound Engineering and the Business of Games that one could look into. I will not be going into these as it might dilute the article, but it is something that can be easily researched, should this be of more interest. I have also listed the types of degree (abbreviated) that these award, please see the Glossary for more details.
The first three are representative of significant areas that can be found in most, if not all, Game production companies. There is enough of a differentiation in the real world, that they can have entire syllabuses devoted to them. The fourth option is one where the aim is to teach Computer Science principles, such as Software Engineering and Application Development, with the option to do Games specific modules in the second/third year of the course.
Computer Games Programming
This type course will focus the majority of its attention on Computer Programming, Mathematics and Software Engineering, among other concepts, using the perspectives of Games Software Development as the focal point. Having previously done Maths or IT would be beneficial to this though, it is not uncommon to be invited for interview if you programme in your spare time and can demonstrate the ability/understanding.
Computer Games Art
This course will push your art skills to the limit. The curriculum for this type of course involves 3D modelling, conceptualising ideas using 2D techniques and software, as well as a lot of drawing (life, still object etc.). You will be highly unlikely to get into a course like this without previous background in some form of Art education, and an accompanying portfolio.
Computer Games Design
This course allows for you to conceptualise all those ideas you may have had when playing games yourself. You would find yourself looking into the design of levels, user-interfaces, characters and story-telling. You might also be exposed to the production processes that help take a game from concept, to final shipment. A background in a design based course would be advisable however, if you have a portfolio showing your capabilities, this might not necessarily be required.
Each of these is a great route and provides your particular interest with a focus in that area, allowing you to build on topics you may have studied at college; Maths -> Programming or Art/Graphical Design -> Games Art.
Note: It is not necessarily true that each of these courses is specifically isolated to itself and, more likely than not, you will be provided complimentary/optional Modules to delve into various aspects of the other, in a lighter way. For example, a programming course with an art module that allow you to put your own artwork, into what you code.
As I have mentioned, these types of courses might, and in some cases will, require specific A-Levels in that field to have been studied and completed with good pass rates (usually ‘C’ or above), as well as a solid number of UCAS points (points are obtained by achieving certains grades in each college subject you study). You might also be asked to bring along a portfolio of work, usually required by Art/Design courses, to demonstrate your skills. These are used to ensure that the prospective student is able to handle the workload presented to them on day one. In some cases, even if you don't have the necessary A-Level grades, a University can accept you if you present them with a strong body of work you may have done in your spare time. Examples of code or your ability to use a photo-editing suite proficiently are but to name a couple.
Jumping forward to day one; every course will have a period of a couple of weeks at the start to ‘break the ice’. This is where the students get introduced to their tutors, their fellow students and the work they will undertake. After this period the workload quickly ramps up. If a student is unable to show through their college work at interview that they are able to commit their time effectively, they are likely to fall behind and Universities are less likely to select them. It is a business after all and for each student not likely to fail, means one less bad statistic and one more tuition fee in their accounts.
Don't be scared of Rejection
Don’t look at the possibility of rejection before the interview as the be-all end-all... it happened to me! This is why you are required, by UCAS, to make a list of University choices so that you have other choices to fall back on. Even in the worst case scenario, other options become available that introduce new types of courses, different from what I have previously mentioned:
Computer Games (insert general Technology/Development Noun here); a course that usually has low, previous education requirements, covers all 3 of the major areas and is tailored to the beginner.
[Specific Area] Foundation; a pre-cursor to the course at your ideal University. It is usually a catch-up on what may not have been achieved through A-Levels and, as long as it is completed to a reasonable level, can get you doing what you want.
There are a number of Universities that offer the first option and, don't get me wrong, some can be good however, there are those that spread their subject area quite thin. Some try to cover too many areas and potentially brush-over subjects briefly that you may think are important. Some are an amalgamation of modules previously offered by the establishment and re-branded to represent games.
These sorts of courses can be handled in one of two ways. Either they are very good with a lot of industry links to ‘feed’ them, meaning you will get the same sorts of skills and education as in a speciality course or, they will make use of the low points requirement to pick-up the students that might not have been capable enough at their first choice. The main problem with this second is, if you do find yourself on a course like this, you might be completing all your weekly assignments with ease and wanting to learn more. But, more often than not, there will be students in that class who might be struggling with content from 3-4 weeks ago. Whilst this doesn’t affect your learning directly, it does take away the focus of the tutor in order to help them catch-up, and trust me when I say that said time with them is like gold-dust.
Commitment is the Key
An important point along this line of thought is that you will only get out of University what you put in. This is true of any course, Games related or not, and at its most basic level means don’t rely solely on lecture/tutorial time to complete your work or learn new topics. In fact, a core principal that lecturers instil on day one is that it is all about Independent Learning. They will introduce you to advance topics and set you assignments, but they won’t chase you up on late drafts/submissions as tutors in school would have.
If you want a degree you can be proud and be able to say “I absolutely did my best and made the most of my tuition fees”, then you will need to put in many additional hours, outside of the classroom. This links back to what I was saying about being competent to be able to handle the work load.
My aim with this article was to provide you with food for thought on how to approach the education route, for those that have been thinking about it, but don’t know where to start, or for those who didn’t know that this was an option. Either way I have only scratched the surface by providing some of the more popular routes and, with extra research; you can find more ways to go about it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. In my next article, I will talk about how to make the most out of an Open Day visit. What you need to look for, who you need to speak to, the questions you need to ask to find the correct establishment for your educational needs. After all, you will be there for 3-5 years.
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.