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Why a Degree in Game Design Is a Bad Idea

By Dennis Redley | Published Jan 08 2014 02:37 AM in GameDev.net Soapbox
Peer Reviewed by (jjd, jbadams, CRFaithMusic)

game design degree opinion

For the thousands upon thousands of high school gamers all over the world, a degree in ‘game design’, ‘game development’, or ‘game art and animation’ is a perfect fit. With the sheer number of new degree programs relating itself to the booming video games industry, many students may not think beyond the title of the degree. Being a part of a company that creates the most amazing video games is within easier reach after obtaining that diploma. However, they fail to realize that this path isn’t the only way towards the goal.

In fact, many career advisers would convince you against trekking that one-way narrow path. Instead of shoehorning into a space where everyone else and their mothers are filling up, there exists other wider paths that actually lead somewhere.

A Games Design Degree Only Limits You


Acquiring a degree is supposed to open up new opportunities for employment. However, in relation to other courses, a BA or BS in game design wouldn’t help much in convincing target companies into hiring you. This is because there is less flexibility for a game design graduate to move beyond the scope of the field.

For example, someone who has a degree in computer science can easily get into the video games industry because the demand for top-notch programmers and coders never dwindle. On the flip side, game design graduates have a harder time getting both into a developer startup or big coder-friendly companies like Google or Amazon. The sheer amount of flexibility offered by a computer science degree severely outweighs anything positive about acquiring a degree in game design. This is a sentiment echoed by many game developers from Reddit in this discussion from over a year ago.

“Get a CS degree, and barring that, at least take enough programming courses (with an eye towards games) to know how to actually make a game, not just design it),” commented user Soviyet.

“Let me say it again to really drive it home. Get a CS degree,” pointed out independent game dev James Dalby from FrenchRoastGames.com. “What is a degree in game design going to do to help move you laterally into a similar industry? Not much,” Dalby added.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None


There is an underlying root for whatever reason we love video games. Whether it is the gameplay and mechanics, the lore and writing, the aesthetic design, or the sound – the passion to play and get inspired by games can be traced to a certain element whether we are conscious about it or not. It is better to find one’s true passion and spend four to five years of college fueling and honing that passion instead of studying about the other fields. It is important to create a holistic knowledge of the industry, but having no expertise has been the undoing of many graduates.

There are more specialized and well-rounded degrees available for each part of game development. Some examples are degrees in creative writing for concept and story development, media and visual communication for the community and design aspect, even finance and business degrees can possibly enter the scene with ease. The same cannot be said for a games design degree which dips a little bit in each part of the development spectrum without staying long enough to acquire mastery.

“Initially you may not know what area of games design you will be best suited to. Ask yourself these questions: What do I enjoy about games? Am I artistic? Am I good at problem solving?” advised Joshua Brown on his list of tips for aspiring game designers on How2Become.

A Strong Portfolio Weighs More than a Degree


The most important thing to note is that no matter how long your resume’s list of academic achievements is, if you can’t back it up with a strong portfolio then it’s pointless. One thing that game design school can help you with is to build a body of work. However, aspiring programmers, artists, and others can create the same with more focus on their field of expertise, which is more attractive to game companies.

Ultimately, someone who is dead-serious about a long career in the video games industry as a game designer or developer should just get a degree in computer science. What are your thoughts?

GameDev.net Soapbox logo design by Mark "Prinz Eugn" Simpson



About the Author(s)


Dennis Redley is a master’s student and freelance writer. He is currently doing research on human resources management in the tech industry.

License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments
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Nathan2222_old
Jan 07 2014 11:22 AM
Perfect

Question: What if you major in general computer science & minor in video game programming?  Or vice versa?

 

What happens then?  (Mind you, this is coming from someone who is planning on attending college next year but has already completed high school.)

I also strongly believe that portfolio is more then important, that is with "enough" theory or job experience (at least for bigger studios, why can easily choose and will take the lowest risk within reach)

Question: What if you major in general computer science & minor in video game programming?  Or vice versa?

 

What happens then?  (Mind you, this is coming from someone who is planning on attending college next year but has already completed high school.)

 

You're fine.  Even the latter is better than getting a degree in Game Design.  That's the crux of the article.  Game Design degrees don't mean anything, and don't transfer well outside the industry.

 

Game Programming degrees are better, but I still humbly suggest going with a good CS program (hopefully one that teaches C++ if you really want to do games), and maybe minoring in Game Programming.

 

A CS degree will go farther, and let you get your graduate degree if you choose to go that route.  That said, I haven't been unsuccessful myself with a 4 year game programming degree from DigiPen.  But I haven't tried to get a masters anyplace, I've heard it's difficult to get credit transferred over.

 

 

EDIT:  Also, I agree with the above poster, portfolio matters, and that's one of the good things about DigiPen, is that you will end your time there with several games under your belt, and probably some decent programming projects.

I essentially agree with the article. One thing I would say is that there is no one "right" way to get into the industry. There are certainly easier ways to get into the industry and in that regard I think this article is absolutely spot on. However, there are no absolute requirements for game development. There is no rule that cannot be broken. When people ask me what is one of the most important things for getting into the industry I say 'a portfolio.' But, I never had a portfolio when I got into the industry. I had a PhD in math and the team I applied to said,

 

"well we think that's pretty interesting and we like you but..."

 

"I will work for free"

 

"You're hired."

 

I'm not saying that you should work for free. What I am saying is that you should think outside the box, you should be creative. Getting a game degree or any degree is no guarantee of anything. It can help but it is not a golden ticket. One of the best examples of creative thinking that I have seen in a similar context is this - cookie bribery.

 

 

-Josh

IMHO: A degree isn't important. I went to college just for the "networking" (I did I.T. and CS). I quit the CS course because I was learning a lot more in my house rather the college. The course can open some doors (if you are really interested).
My advice (which applies to anything) is: if you want to learn something, you need to be motivated and spend some time reading about what you want.

Hi guys,

 

I really appreciate the comments. I read the cookie bribery article and found it entertaining. Thank you for your ideas.

(TL;DR version - Which degree you get is really not that important, what you learn is.)

 

My response to this is a bit too long for a simple comment, so instead I'll leave a couple of things I've already written on this topic: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RobertWalker/20110213/88888/Computer_Science_Vs_Game_Development_or_Which_Degree_Should_I_Get.php

 

Later, when I moved into the industry and people were still talking about it, I wrote more here: http://www.reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/15c6vq/computer_science_degree_vs_game_development/c7lef8a

If I would be 18 and wanted to get into game development business, I would get a basic cs degree, but also do a shorter game development course package. Mostly because it helps a introvert like me with networking and also because it would provide an opportunity to build a polished portfolio. 

 

IMHO: A degree isn't important. I went to college just for the "networking" (I did I.T. and CS). I quit the CS course because I was learning a lot more in my house rather the college. The course can open some doors (if you are really interested).
My advice (which applies to anything) is: if you want to learn something, you need to be motivated and spend some time reading about what you want.

 

Don't know why this got so many downvotes. Programming is one of the few fields where you really can master it without getting out of bed. A degree can teach you a lot, but they aren't for everyone. One good way of getting a job in any programming field is having a relevant degree, but also having a strong portfolio is just as valid for some companies.

I'd like to add a little quip to demonstrate just how worthless these degrees are now, at least in the UK, using some numbers and common sense.

 

There are a total of 9000 people employed in the UK Games Industry across all disciplines and levels of seniority. It is reasonable to suggest that a large number of these are not developers and work in tangential fields (business particularly, but also IT, human resources, web media etc) - let's assume 25%. It is also reasonable to assume that there are fewer juniors / graduates than standard level staff, as well as there being fewer seniors and leads than standard level staff. I would put the ratio at something like  1:8:2 (Junior, Standard, Senior).

 

Using these numbers, I could estimate that there are perhaps 600 positions for juniors or graduates in the UK at any given time. That number actually sounds excessive to my ears, but we'll run with it. The majority of those positions are going to be filled by someone.

 

In the UK, there are now in excess of 250 bachelors courses with a game development orientation (all fields) and 300 courses total. If each of those courses puts out only 10 graduates per year, you're looking at 2,500 new people every year, fighting for the same 600 positions, the majority of which probably already have someone sitting in them.

The situation is ridiculous, and as a result, a 'Game Design' degree is now almost completely worthless; a programming degree can at least help you get work in software engineering, but design leads nowhere as the skills are neither desireable nor transferable.

 

This is ignoring the fact that design is also a role people usually move diagonally into from other roles (programming, QA etc), rather than graduating into...

Ok, so lets see from my point of view. I have a Computer Sciene Master. I visited some lectures with focus on graphics and physics, but not on game development.

 

In the meantime I am doing normal stuff for bigger companies, which are not working with games. Now I will start the Game Design Master. I have no idea yet, if it will help me. But, Computer Science has nothing to do with Game Programming nowadays. If you want develop an engine, ok. If you really have to programm shaders, ok. But, if you are just a Game Designer, you need a 3D Graphics Programm and an existing engine, e.g. Blender and Unity. When you make Computer Sciene, you will not learn this. You will have a good eduction which will (at least today, lets see how it is in future) give you some job opportunities outside of the game industry.

 

When you have a CS Master degree, you perhaps also can work in the game industry. But at this point I am not sure why a Game Design Master should be bad. Why have I learnt all this physics stuff and math stuff? I do not need it anymore, because in the meantime you get everything out of the box. I will know in 1.5 years if it was good for me or not.

 

But do not foget one thing. When you make Game Design, everybody else also makes Game Design! Its about relations and people which want to do the same etc...

Keep in mind that universities are generally "for profit" enterprises, and they move towards satisfying demand which is profitable, regardless of whether or not that demand is well placed. I imagine that a lot of people who enter the program realize that making games is work and very much unlike playing games as they imagined, and thus become disillusioned and wash out. The few that do pass through the gates with a cert will realize that they've painted themselves into a very small niche job market. If it is over saturated, they will have a very challenging time applying their credentials to a non-game job. Meanwhile, universities are more than happy to take your loaned tuition money and make happy noises about job placement...

Also, most people don't consider this fact: Most careers last 30 years, but most people spend 5-10 years in gamedev before moving on to something else. What do you do with your career when you're tired and want to move on... and all you've got is a degree in game design?

@Kudi - I think you're a little confused (as are many 'Game Design' degrees).

 

Design is a distinct field of expertise in it's own right and it is only tangentially related to game art. It usually has more in common with engineering than art, but can also be an entirely academic field. I've worked with large studios who employ game designers in an entirely theoretical vocation, where they do not directly handle any part of the development process.

 

A good route into design is to move in from something like level design or content scripting. Computer Science degrees also don't teach this. In my experience, Game Design degrees also actually fail to teach design and instead focus on art tools and game engines. This is an abysmal failure on their part, as game design is not dependent on either, only realised by those with skills with those tools (which could additionally be yourself, but it could also be other specialists).

A piece of paper says to some, you have the discipline and technical requirements to meet job expectations, but a proverbial checklist isn't a Midas touch that turns your projects into gold. Can you do the job? That's all that matters. 

A piece of paper says to some, you have the discipline and technical requirements to meet job expectations, but a proverbial checklist isn't a Midas touch that turns your projects into gold. Can you do the job? That's all that matters. 

 

Yeah, but when a company is getting hundreds or thousands of applicants, and mostly just resumes, the quick cull is to cull all the people without four year degrees of some sort.  

 

A portfolio is good, and needed for the next culling step after that.  Should we interview this person?  Well, let's look at his cover letter and his portfolio.

 

It's not always like this, and some people can show really great work and get hired directly from showing that work.

The quick cull is almost never the degree first, simply because at this point in time, it is likely the best candidates may well not have a degree at all.

 

There are also employers (I can't name names, but there are quite a few) who will deliberately filter out people who have game design degrees and it will work against the candidate - game design degrees often don't teach any skills to a level where the holder can actually employ them in an industrial setting, instead teaching a mish-mash of tool related skills to a very basic level, which is of no real use to anyone.

 

The vast majority of designers I have worked with do not have a games orientated degree. The most common would be English, Psychology or Computer Science, but even then, many do not hold one at all.

 

The first people who get culled looking for work in game design are those that have not submitted a portfolio. In a creative vocation, your portfolio is absolutely key, and this is what will predominantly be used to determine your value.

Sorry, I should have specified, by degree in my previous post, I meant a 4 year degree from an actual college.  A game design degree is basically worthless, and not a real degree.  Most of that is because there isn't any real quality control on those degrees. 

 

 

IMHO: A degree isn't important. I went to college just for the "networking" (I did I.T. and CS). I quit the CS course because I was learning a lot more in my house rather the college. The course can open some doors (if you are really interested).
My advice (which applies to anything) is: if you want to learn something, you need to be motivated and spend some time reading about what you want.

 

Don't know why this got so many downvotes. Programming is one of the few fields where you really can master it without getting out of bed. A degree can teach you a lot, but they aren't for everyone. One good way of getting a job in any programming field is having a relevant degree, but also having a strong portfolio is just as valid for some companies.

 

I like the portfolio point of this article, as well as these comments. Portfolio is a much better indication of your knowledge & worth. I'm a self learner, all my CS knowledge comes from home. I went to school for a degree (and to hopefully learn things I didn't already know or was doing in my free time; part of why I ended up not doing CS), which was in mechanical engineering anyway! The math and physics aspect of it even helped understanding game mechanics but it was mostly overkill for applying to games.

 

Anyway, I just landed a job as a developer without a CS degree. I'm not sure if having any degree in general had an influence, but they were mostly interested in my programming knowledge and portfolio. Don't wait for classes to teach you something so easily accessible at home; by time you get your degree, whatever it is, you can have a nice portfolio as well! =]

Funny thing is... Im still doing my School as a IT Specialist Software Development. And  i was thinking of doing such a school to become a Gamedesigner with a Degree. Funny thing is... after i read this Article ....I don't really wanna do the School anymore... I mean seriously giving out 40 000 Francs(45 000 USD) would be stupid for a Degree in game design.

I like the portfolio point of this article, as well as these comments. Portfolio is a much better indication of your knowledge & worth. I'm a self learner, all my CS knowledge comes from home. I went to school for a degree (and to hopefully learn things I didn't already know or was doing in my free time; part of why I ended up not doing CS), which was in mechanical engineering anyway! The math and physics aspect of it even helped understanding game mechanics but it was mostly overkill for applying to games.

 

 

Anyway, I just landed a job as a developer without a CS degree. I'm not sure if having any degree in general had an influence, but they were mostly interested in my programming knowledge and portfolio. Don't wait for classes to teach you something so easily accessible at home; by time you get your degree, whatever it is, you can have a nice portfolio as well! =]

 

 

I would be willing to bet that your mechanical engineering degree was a point in your favor.  A portfolio is good, I don't want to downplay it, but someone with a technical degree is a plus.  I've seen new programming hires with math degrees and even a programmer with a linguistics degree.  

 

 

EDIT:  Which sort is the point I'm getting at, a standard degree in something is a better indicator of what that knowledge is.  A CS grad should have some programming knowledge, a math or statistics degree should mean the person has a good grasp of those things.  

 

But Game Design is really a grab bag of other skills, and all the different Game Design degrees out there teach different things, at varying levels of quality, often taught by instructors with little or no game titles under their belt either.  So it holds much less weight than a real degree.

Everything matters, whether it be a degree in game design or computer science, they can both open doors.  I don't think you can say for a fact that one is better than the other, a degree without a person is just a degree in both scenarios, what you do and what you make after that degree is what truly counts.

 

The important part of landing a gig in a gaming company or as an Indie developer is to love what you do, and learn something new all the time.

 

Also, since when did we ever benefit from learning something from a teacher...I would say it doesn't happen often.  Most professors don't have the needed benefit of working at company's and being able to teach students what really matters, most of them read off the same slides that they've had for 20 years; technology changes every day, so you can imagine how too much school could be non-beneficial.  I remember 10% of what teachers try and teach me, its the side projects and staying up late to try and tackle some crazy problems that truly stick to me.

 

Therefore, I dont think its right to say one is better than the other, unless of course this is factually proven and you can reference these proofs somewhere. 

Everything matters, whether it be a degree in game design or computer science, they can both open doors.  I don't think you can say for a fact that one is better than the other, a degree without a person is just a degree in both scenarios, what you do and what you make after that degree is what truly counts.

 

The important part of landing a gig in a gaming company or as an Indie developer is to love what you do, and learn something new all the time.

 

Also, since when did we ever benefit from learning something from a teacher...I would say it doesn't happen often.  Most professors don't have the needed benefit of working at company's and being able to teach students what really matters, most of them read off the same slides that they've had for 20 years; technology changes every day, so you can imagine how too much school could be non-beneficial.  I remember 10% of what teachers try and teach me, its the side projects and staying up late to try and tackle some crazy problems that truly stick to me.

 

Therefore, I dont think its right to say one is better than the other, unless of course this is factually proven and you can reference these proofs somewhere. 

 

Your teacher's sucked =)  I had people like Bruce Dawson and Prasanna Ghali as instructors at my school.  And Ghali was still working at Nintendo at the time.

The way I've put it; take a degree in something completely unrelated. If you're really interested in games, you'll learn all that game stuff on your free time anyway.

 

A person who has a degree in, say, social psychology, would have a major edge over a person with a "game design" degree, when it comes to actually designing interesting games.

I still got one Questione though. Im doing a IT Software Development apprenticeship. I got one more Year and then im done. Then again im not sure where i should head from there. I see that the CS is important for Game Development. But can't i just make a great portfolio and enter Industrie without doing the CS Degree? Or is there like no way around the fact that i need the CS Degree to be a Game Developer?

 

Im pretty curios if someone would know this. Since i don't wanna give out money before knowning what i have to do to achieve my goals. 


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