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Video game designer education – it’s in electives

game design

In an increasingly saturated video game programming market, how does a developer distinguish himself enough to stand out of the crowd? The Game Career Guide has recently published Michael McCoy’s feature on Academics for Game Designers, reflecting on 12 years in the computer industry as a game designer, and suggesting academic pursuits for a career jump start. Two word summary would be: “study everything”.

I’ve performed in the role of producer, game designer, systems designer, interface designer, level designer, scripter, writer, and even sound designer. Level designers must be competent game play designers, level builders, both model and texture artists, event and cinematic scripters, and extremely skilled researchers covering architecture, geography, historical time period, lighting and textures.

Of course the usual contradiction here is the split requirement between broad experience desirable in small teams, and narrow specialization sought after by large game development studios.

Michael, who landed the job of Lead Game Designer based on his knowledge of history, team/project management, and technical writing skills, is naturally of the wide variety of skills camp. He suggests getting into a game company via any open door (testing, customer service, sweeping the floors, etc.), and picking up every skill in reach, while simultaneously showing off learned abilities.

The article fails to distinguish between different available majors of study (personally I recommend a degree in Computer Science), but brings up an excellent point of the importance of elective courses. Some exceptionally useful courses are:

  • Design — Most universities offer design related classes which provide the fundamental philosophies and methods used by almost every designer
  • Technical Writing — The majority of documents created by designers are technical in nature, meaning their main purpose is communication. You’d be amazed how many people have problems getting their ideas across on paper
  • Creative Writing — While definitely the minority of designer writing tasks, you still need to be able to write box copy, manuals, intriguing storylines, and convincing world/scene backgrounds
  • Physics — Physics are becoming more and more popular every day and knowing a little about it puts you in a great place to take advantage of this emerging trend
  • Astronomy — Creating a space game? A good knowledge of our universe and the anomalies within definitely helps

That last point is of a specialized application, but carries a very important idea – you have to be passionate and unique. I would also add programming or sketching, whichever one is not in your major. Well chosen elective courses could very well round you off into a better candidate.

Spore the game

One can have the best of both worlds by specializing in the area they are passionate about, and at the same time broaden the skill set with elective courses of interest. At the very least, it is a unique mix of knowledge to draw inspiration from (just think of Spore – that game draws from Biology, Astronomy, and many other fields). Any comments on more inspirational elective courses?

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  1. Posted by Keith Casey | March 9, 2007, 2:50 pm

    This one isn’t specific to game development, but I recommend that *anyone* studying technology take a class or two on public speaking, drama, etc. Being able to comfortably stand up in front of people and articulate an idea can do more for your career than anything else.

    No, some people will never get to the “comfortable” part, but lots of people can get to the “able to do it” point… which can easily make you stand out among your peers.

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  2. Posted by Tony | March 9, 2007, 3:04 pm

    Good suggestion Keith. Ideas are often judged not only on the content, but presentation as well. Being able to comfortably present your ideas during meetings or presentations is crucial on many levels.

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  3. Posted by Tony | September 14, 2008, 1:16 am

    I haven’t heard about courses targeting students that young; and most books assume at least mid-teens as their audience (and likely at least some experience programming). Though I could be wrong.

    While there are many ways to get into the industry (art, animation, design, story, music, etc), ultimately programming still makes up a bulk of the product, and is vital to tie all the parts together in an interactive manner.

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  4. Posted by Jon | April 1, 2009, 10:13 am

    Hello all,
    I am new to game design and was wondering, there are a lot of mixed reviews on what a Gaming company looks for in an individual for hire. What schooling should I take if I want to come up with game concepts and draw and/or animate in 3D. If I want to work with game concepts does that mean I should probably obtain a 4 year degree (What kind of Art degree specifically). I believe this is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. I would appreciate help from anyone on the subject.

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