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For a Career in Gaming, are Game Design Degrees Worth It?

By Brice Morrison | Published Feb 03 2015 09:16 PM in Breaking Into the Industry
Peer Reviewed by (Gaiiden, Dave Hunt, jbadams)

students design

Many students and parents believe that if they are interested in a career in gaming, then the best thing for them to pursue is a degree in "Game Design", "Game Programming", or "Game Art and Animation". There is no shortage of schools nowadays offering these programs, and you see advertisements everywhere online. It seems to make sense, right? If you want to do games, then why not go ahead and have the word "game" in your major? It seems like you'd be a shoe-in for any job opportunity.

While a few of these programs can lead to a successful career in gaming, in my career advising with parents and students I actually recommend against them, at least at first.

Why would I not recommend seeking game degrees? There are a few reasons. First is the flexibility. If you are interested in programming and think you'd like to work in the games industry, then that's great. Engineers are in high demand and you will likely find it easy to land yourself a fun, high paying job. However, my first suggestion is always to try and get into a top-tier computer science program and major more generally in "computer science", not "game programming". With a computer science degree you have an enormous amount of flexibility with your career. Computer science majors can get you not only into any game company, but almost any technology company as well. Not only EA, Activision, and Zynga will be recruiting you, but also Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM, and a slew of others.

The key here is that you never know what the future may hold. If, for instance, you begin your career in gaming and then develop different interests, then you have the option of moving somewhere else in technology. But if you majored in "game programming", then you are locked in against your will, there isn't much you can do. So as a career advisor I can't recommend degrees that specialize in games as a first choice.

The second reason is the level of depth and expertise. You would think that majors that are focused on games would be in higher demand within the games industry than more general majors, but this actually isn't true. If you look at the new hires at the top game companies, then they typically have majors in Computer Science, Art and Animation, or Business/Finance, without the word "game" attached to any of them. One of the reasons for this is that the games industry is so dynamic, the rules change every year as we move from platform to platform, opening up new audiences and players. Thus, if you are taught specifically how to use Adobe Flash and Unity in school, then you may not be as much help when the next thing comes along. But if you know how to do art of all kinds or coding of all kinds, then you will be useful for decades to come.

Finally, students with game-specific majors, even if they are hired at top companies, often end up in "Associate" positions to start their career in gaming, instead of a higher paid position right off the bat. This is because of the reason above, the skills learned in a game degree are narrow, and so companies need to see these new hires prove themselves before moving them into a more general role that may require skills outside of what they learned. But a computer science or art and animation degree doesn't have these problems.

An Option, But Not the First


As I've said, these are all my first recommendations. However if other top tier schools in art or computer science are not an option for you, then a strong game degree can help you start your career in gaming and make your start. But it's important to realize the ways in which it may be affecting your future.

Best of luck!

This blog post is reprinted from The Game Prodigy, a site for students and parents interested in careers in games.

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Photo credit: Lou FCD



About the Author(s)


Brice Morrison is Lead Game Designer at Zynga and Career Advisor at The Game Prodigy.

License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

There's an alternative way to look at both this topic and schooling more generally.  While, yes, it is true that having a degree is often a good way (in some industries, the only way) to get a foot in the door in any industry, that's not the whole story.  A university education, be it at Harvard, a local State University, or a trade school, is there to give you the skills and knowledge to be of value to a business that will then pay you for that value.

 

In more established industries that have been around for decades if not centuries, there tends to be a better grasp on what a new worker in that industry should know, should be able to do, etc.  A engineering degree from MIT is valuable because MIT has a proven track record of turning out graduates who can not only do jobs, but excel in them.  Having that degree is kind of a shortcut to being able to prove your ability.

 

The games industry is young enough that there is no history of "proof" that a graduate with a degree in game design is much better at doing a job than someone without one.  In fact, the industry is in a state where many of the biggest success stories are those of people who taught themselves.  Thus, an employer looking to hire someone is much less willing to take it "on faith" that a candidate with a degree is necessarily better for the job than one without one. 

 

Now, I am not at all saying that such a degree is worthless.  Quite the contrary, I believe such degrees are very valuable, its just that, in this industry, the value lies in what you learn in the course of getting that degree.  Unlike the MIT engineering degree, the diploma itself doesn't neccesarilly impress anyone, but on the other hand, you did a lot of work to get your degree and presumably you learned a lot in the process.  That piece of paper isn't the shortcut to a job that it is in other industries, you are left in the same situation as the guy without the degree (ie, you have to prove your abilities as an individual).

 

But that said... I would say that the guy with the degree will generally be much better able to demonstrate those abilities than the guy without one.

I agree with dudeman21 but I am not able to up vote him due to some technical issue with your website.

Lock yourself in your bedroom and figure it out.

I guess I'm not very experienced, but I would question the credibility of a "game development" degree from anything but a proper four year university.  Considering most advertised game development degrees are from for-profit universities like Full Sail and cookie-cutter laughing stock trade schools, I highly doubt a degree saying you know how to make games will hold any water with an industry.  From what I know, most developers want a computer science or a computer engineering degree because it represents the ability to learn, problem solve, and code semi-competently, but not necessarily because it means they can code games.  Employers care more about your portfolio and your experience, I would imagine.  The last nail in the coffin for me is that very few self-respecting four-year institutions want to touch game development with a thirty-foot pole.

 

How do you make a degree for an industry that is constantly changing?  A game is a joint effort between programmers, artists, musicians, and the creative nuts who don't fit in anywhere else.  Games are influenced by all of these people.  There is no magic formula or special degree that can teach the creativity and ingenuity that extends from placing a hundred completely different people in the room together and telling them to come up with an awesome game.

I don't know if I would say the industry itself is constantly changing. Sure the tools are changing and the quality of the models and textures improve as the hardware gets better, but under the hood everything has stayed fairly constant. Coding has been in C/C++ with Assembler for possible speed gains (mostly in consoles and portable devices). Artists still do concept art and make textures. All the jobs are basically constant with only changing minutely as tools and hardware makes it possible to have more detailed models, textures, better sound quality, etc.

 

I think the problem with degrees is that they would have to be set around a certain set of tools and if the tools are constantly changing then it makes a degree a little harder to be useful. When I did my BS degree in game and simulation programming at DeVry University, we learned to use Torque and its tools, but right after I graduated I found that they switched from Torque to UDK then heard they changed to Unity. Guess that is why so many other degrees are considered more viable because not everything else is fairly standard.

There are some changes such as new apis , the shift from single to multithreaded games and OO to entity based games. Obviously not all apply to everything if ant.

I have to wholeheartedly agree with the original author. You don't know where life will bring you, and limiting yourself to one particular profession in one very specific industry, no matter how much you want to work in it, sounds a little short-sighted in my opinion. Personally as much as I like making games I don't feel like I need to lock myself up in that industry to be competent, and as a programmer I find it a little empowering to have options beside one single industry. For example, I don't mind longer work days in general (most of the time anyway) but if one day I become father I might prefer a more typical 9-5/no friday job, and I doubt I'd ever get that in the gaming industry. I feel that having a generalist software engineer degree makes it easier for me to opt-out of the game industry if I wanted to. (Although I'm sure that a programmer who has worked on games for 15 years has picked a lot of skills about generalist programming.)

 

A generalist degree also made me realize that on top of making games I also have a lot of fun with very low-level programming, like "kernel" programming, driver I/O, robotics, or programming directly on a chip. I wouldn't have discovered that field of interest if my degree was focused on gaming, gaming, gaming and more gaming. Also, when I was in college pretty much all the boys in programming class 101 wanted to be a game programmer, but by the time the degrees were handled the majority found interests in other industries. (Mostly Web tech for my "batch" since we graduated in 2004.)

 

I don't think you're screwed whether you picked a game-specialist or a generalist grade, but my 2 cents would be to recommend taking generalist programming/softengi classes and then specializing in gaming/multimedia/interactive systems. I find it just more enriching for the intellectually curious.

What do you think about this university? HTW Berlin: http://gd-bachelor.htw-berlin.de/en/

This is a complex question and I believe it reaches outside the scope of a comments field, so for this reason all I will say about the subject is I think it's good you're playing the devils advocate to give young people more perspective and a better chance at making an informed decision about their future.

 

The main reason I choose to leave a comment is your use of the word "gaming". Reading the title I fully expected this article to be about professional players and e-sport. If you are looking for a career making games, you are not looking for a career in "gaming". You're looking for a career in "game development" or possibly just "games", but not "gaming". I also believe changing the words used would make the title even more interesting and confrontational.

 

Either way thanks for sharing.

SubsonicGames
Feb 07 2015 04:58 AM

I don't know. I guess I can't understand why you wouldn't take somebody with a degree tailored towards game design if that's truly what you want to do. I myself am a self taught programmer, but I decided to go to college just to get the pretty sheet of paper. I know my way around the keyboard and a few languages, so I knew what to look for in my degree plans. Believe it or not, but the community college I am going to teaches more advanced programming concepts in their Programming Visualization (game) course, then their standard CS degree. They also teach multiple languages to keep you more well rounded: C++, C#, Java. Even most of the CS courses I have to take are not focused around gaming, but around CS priciples. Each semester there is only 1 game related course, if any. It is only in the end when you have to create your final project, a full game, that you really hone in on the gaming stuff. They teach Unity at the school, but they also give an intro into engine development if you wish to go that route.  

 

Thing is, I still feel as though the course teaches anough fundamental programming stuff that you should be able to survive in other areas. I know not all schools are like this, I toured full sail, but still I think it is wrong to discredit the degree entirely as long as it is taught in a broad manner. The CS part is obviously still way more important to this school then the game stuff.

I did a computer games programming degree.  However my degree was pretty much programming for everything with very little in the way of "fluffy" game design topics such as story telling.

Even though my degree had "Games" in the title I found it very easy to make the transition into what I do now which is writing large scale financial trading and stockbroking software when the UK games industry was decimated in 2008 - 2009.

Also the university I went to had very good ties to games companies with every student doing a year in industry before graduation.  It was all but guaranteed that everybody had some king of games job to go to after they finished.

Of course this isn't always the case and there are some degrees that are almost worthless.  The only way to tell if a degree is right for you is to investigate it by yourself and find out what previous graduates are now doing.

I agree with the main point of the article, even as a guy who has a gaming degree (DigiPen), I'd push my own kids to a more general CS degree.  (And I actually had no difficulty moving to non-games)

 

That said, some nits:

Guy with gaming degree gets pushed to associate:  Uh, every new hire with a CS or other degree is pushed to associate.  I don't know of anyone who comes in to a company with a 4 year college degree going straight to senior.  Maybe someone with some amazing projects to show off could get hired as a standard developer instead of junior, but at that point its much more about individual ability combined with the ability to interview well.


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