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My Child Wants to Design Video Games Part Two: What type of training or classes should they take?

Added April 2014:  I am pleased to announce the Grow a Generation Game Design Master series in Scratch Programming for kids as young as 8 and teens new to programming. Find out more. 

My fourteen year old took a game design class in his school this year, one semester long, that introduced him to Multi Media Fusion 2.  He had fun, worked on independent projects and ended up with something that reminded me of Commander Keen.  That was it. No additional classes. No suggestions to perfect the game for competition or portfolio. A grade and nothing more. The teacher had a degree in business and was learning the curriculum two lessons ahead of the kids.  He had no knowledge to share of where to go once the curriculum was used up. Rather than being inspired and curious to pursue more, my son’s reaction was “Been there, done that.”

Is Gabe Zichermann correct about the coming wave of Gamification, where over 50% of our industries, even education, will be integrating games to engage, educate and motivate students, costumers, and employees? If he is, we have a shortage of software engineers and designers to meet the need. Monty Sharma, the managing director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute says the global game sector is worth $56 billion and is expected to top $80 billion by 2015. This will drive employment in all parts of the sector.

Part II of my series on Designing Video Games focuses on the type of training and classes recommended by those in the field.  Joining me this week are two more co-authors:

Monty Sharma, Managing Director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) (a statewide center, designated by the Commonwealth, for academic cooperation, economic development and job creation across the Massachusetts digital and video games ecosystem)

Paul D. Cotnoir, P.E., Ph.D. Director of Design Programs a tBeckerCollege

and I thank again contributors to this series:

Heidi McDonald,  Schell Games LLC

Keith Leonard, , Schell Games LLC

Justin Sabo, Schell Games LLC

Phil Light, Electric Owl Studios

Nikki Navta, Zulama LLC

What type of training would a student interested in designing video games enroll in?

Overwhelmingly, our authors pointed to the need for a 4 year game-related program, focusing on developing a diverse portfolio, and specializing in at least two of the game-related professional backgrounds. Training is obviously dependent upon what part of game development someone wants to do….

  • Programmers (also referred to as engineers by some of the authors and considered in high demand) write the code that makes a game work. A 4 year degree in computer science, mathematics or a game development specific degree is pretty much a requirement now. It used to be that you could get into the industry with just a high school diploma and proof that you can actually make games, but now CVs without a 4 year degree are just ignored.
  • Artists create every aspect of the visuals, whether that’s numbers and buttons for the user interface (UI), character art, environments, backgrounds, textures, lighting, animations.
  • Designers are on the concept side (designing every aspect of the user experience or UX).
  • Writers  create dialogue, narrative, descriptions of everything in the virtual world, tutorials, lore, etc.
  • Producers are people-wranglers who track tasks and budget items, set up meetings with clients and focus groups, arrange, run, record, interpret playtests. Producers are usually people who have at some point been programmers, artists or designers first.
  • QA (Quality Assurance) mostly playtest the game, trying to break it and find bugs. These are often entry level positions with temporary assignments without benefits.
  • analysts,
  • managers,
  • even a few economists and psychologists.

The gaming sector is relatively new and is open to people with just about any background. Staff is regularly hired because the game developers see a player who produces great fan art or fiction or even posts intelligent comments about the games design on the game’s web site.

While pursuing a degree it is critical for the student to be as engaged as possible with the industry either through internships, building their own game or by being active in a game’s community. This experience will give them a sense of what it takes to put all of the elements of a game together and the difference between a cool idea and a game that will sell.  Next week’s blog, My Child Wants to Design Video Games Part Three: What are the best opportunities to practice? will discuss where to find the best opportunities to gain experience.


Middle School Game Design Programs:

The first priority is to study hard in the areas of math/science/creative writing (English)/programming/art with an emphasis on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.  Some teachers are flexible enough to allow students to carry out a portfolio assignment from a non-game design field within a game design format.

The next suggestion is to look for summer programs through places like CCAC and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Many introduce students to freeware that teaches children about animation and game design, specifically, Carnegie Mellon’s ALICE program and GameMaker, skills they can continue to develop.


High School Game Design Programs:

The first priority is, again, to study hard in the areas of math/science/creative writing (English)/programming/art with an emphasis on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Refer to the later discussion on what to look for in game design classes to evaluate your high schools programs.

One experienced game designer recommended that this is a good time to learn Adobe Flash in and out because many games and apps are Flash-based.

Another suggested camps at the high school level students that provide and introduction to programming. Regardless of a student’s interest in being a programmer in the long term, they should learn the basics of writing software. This will give them a much better understanding of what is involved in animating or lighting the art that they draw.

An exciting Video Game Development Online Certificate Program has been created by Zulama.  Developed in conjunction with the Entertainment and Technology Center of CMU, they created a program that teaches cutting-edge-game-creation technology to groups of high school students over the course of several years. Parents and school board members can advocate for their school to adopt the curriculum.


Technical school Programs.

Traditional 4 year degrees are valued above the two year certificates. The programs that were recommended by the co-authors who were those that prepared transferable (to 4 year colleges) skills in visual arts and animation.

Community College programs  that develop a game design program connected to a four year program were also recommended. For example, students in Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts can enter Becker College as a junior.Becker College has an award winning four year degree in game design.

One designer mentioned that Pittsburgh Technical Institute has a good program for visual arts and animation which teaches good transferable skills for gaming. Another suggested that artists can consider the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or a 4 year college art degree are great starting points.

Students in technical schools or community colleges are advised to focus on working with the fan community for the games they care about. This is the best way to learn by doing and to showcase their skills. They need to develop experiences broader than the course work. Students at this level should engage with the local game development community and attend as many events as they can to gain perspective needed.


College and Graduate Work

The Princeton Review lists the best game schools in the nation every year – check the list!

There are currently not any undergrad classes in game design in the Pittsburgh Higher Education Consortium. At the Masters level there is the Entertainment Technology Program at Carnegie Mellon, which is world-renowned, excellent, and extremely expensive.

It is recommended that you specialize in two fields. Undergraduate programs that can help you apply for game design jobs include;

  • Art: Fine Art, Figure Drawing, 3D modeling, 2D digital painting, Animation (2D/3D), Digital sculpting (z-brush/mudbox), Photoshop
  • Math: Calculus, Linear algebra, Differential equations, Physics, Discreet mathematics, Probability and Statistics
  • Programming (emphasized!), Graphics, C, C++ (by far the most used programming language in game development), scripting languages such as lua/python/c#, artificial intelligence, data structures, network programming.
  • Liberal Arts: English, Psychology, Sociology, History, Language, Literature, and Philosophy

Critical! When looking at colleges inquire about connections to industry and other groups that will help students connect with professionals.

Critical! Game students who graduate with art degrees will need absolutely killer digital portfolios to be noticed in the field. Again, unless we are talking about an individual with the talent of a Leonardo, there must be shipped games or demo reels to show.

Recommended: Business and Entrepreneur classes. There are more low-cost tools and development kits now than ever before. A college degree that includes business and entrepreneurship classes is very important since starting your own game company and making your own indie games is most definitely a viable option (especially if you can live with your folks for a few years after graduation).

Advice for Recent Graduates: you will get better and more varied experience at smaller companies/studios. Your pay will be commensurately less and you may not have benefits, than what you could get at a larger company.  Don’t discount the independent game market. Don’t be married to the entertainment side of the video game business, look carefully and prepare for opportunities in the serious side of games: government, military, training, education, medicine, etc.


Adult/second career

One of the designers responded: “This is exactly how I got in. I went to school at age 39. I obtained a paid internship at Schell Games (which just turned full-time/permanent for me), having no prior gaming experience. What I had was that I am a gamer who could discuss games intelligently, including what I like and don’t like about certain games and why. I was able to discuss current developments in the industry (reading blogs and articles as above), knew the release dates of the hot games coming up. I had twelve years experience as a freelance writer, for online and print periodicals. Part of it, I recognize, was timing; I was looking to do game writing at the same time they happened to need one on a specific project. I tell people all the time it was 20% pester and 80% luck.”

Another responded: “I’d recommend targeted classes for the discipline of interest or a grad school course such as the CMU entertainment technology center. Trouble is that these may be more of a $$$ investment than is strictly necessary. Keep in mind that entry level positions in game development are relatively low paying.  There are substantial amounts of material online of adults to get a sense of what is involved in game development and to try their hand. Companies like Unity 3D provide free access to tools and training material. Other products like Game Maker or Game Salad let adults try their hand at making games without much programming. In many cases some basic familiarity and strong skills in other areas are enough to get a job in game development.


Things to look for in game design classes and programs:

  • Look for instructors who have practical knowledge rather than purely theoretical. Do they have any titles on their resume that released? What were they?
  • Look at classes not just in design theory and mechanics, but also in level design because level design itself is branching out into its own career path right now.
  • If you’re looking to be an artist, definitely learn Adobe Flash, Adobe PhotoShop and AutoDesk Maya, and Z-Brush; learn these as well as you can.
  • Look for classes that teach the fundamentals of game design. You need a vast understanding of the basic components and the better classes teach these rather than, say, how to make a first-person shooter. The game design class I was enrolled in taught concepts through dice, board games, cards, and even physical activities. This gave me a wide range of understanding in crafting fun experiences, regardless of the platform. Trying to learn game programming on top of the fundamentals isn’t recommended.
  • These are relatively new animals. Historically, game designers came from other game development disciplines and were not a separate thing. This remains true in a lot of companies but some companies are shifting to hiring people specifically for “game design”. I would look for schools that dissect existing successful games, focus a bit on psychology of the player and also make you create things.
  • An emphasis on game concepts, not technology. Game mechanics and principles are much faster and easier to test with things like dice, pencil and paper, imagination, and the like. Making good software, by contrast, takes HUGE amounts of time; if you haven’t done it already, you probably have no concept of what goes into it and will underestimate the time and cost involved by a couple orders of magnitude.
  • The key element is the mixture of theory and practice. Game design is one of the fastest moving industries in the world – every game has to be better than the last one, each new innovation is absorbed, tested and enhanced in real time. For students this means connecting with industry and working on games not just parts of games. The experience of taking a game to shipping is one of the most important questions hiring managers ask “What have you shipped?”
  • Look for game programs that are focused on the leading edge of development, in today’s market that is mobile development using Unity or HTML 5. If a game program is teaching these things (as part of the curriculum not the entire curriculum) then it is up to date.
  • Look for a program that offers internships, reverse sabbaticals, instructors with game industry experience.
  • Fun!


Things to avoid in game designer classes and programs:

  • A good game design course will organize students into teams. In practical terms, there are very few people who can perform the entire game creation pipeline themselves. I’d stay well away from any game design glass that is done individually.
  • Avoid classes that are survey/overview courses which will not provide you with anything concrete to show for having been in the class. If you will have finished products that you can use for a portfolio at the end of a class, that’s a good class. If it’s a class that’s about game theory where you don’t actually get a chance to design anything, that’s a bad class.
  • Avoid trying to learn just one genre or platform. Games of the future may be played anywhere on anything–think big!
  • Be wary of schools that are tied to a specific technology such as Unity or Unreal engine. Concepts are more important than implementation details, but you do learn a lot from actually building stuff in any engine. It’s best to do work in a couple of different technologies to be well rounded.
  • Avoid a course that tries to do too much. A game design class needs to presuppose that you know how to code, or draw, or write, or whatever–or it needs to be a writing course which happens to use a video game project to supply context.


Part III, next week, will focus on ways to grow a portfolio and explore the possibility of designing apps. Comments are encouraged for other ideas you want to share!

Go to:

Part One:  Are there jobs out there?

Part Three: What are the best opportunities to practice?



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  1. […] My Child Wants to Design Video Games Part Two: What type of training or classes should they take? » […]

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