Creating videogames for a living is the ultimate dream for many gamers. Who hasn’t finished playing the latest blockbuster title and thought of some way to improve it? Maybe it needed sharper graphics, or more interesting characters, or a better story? You may be full of ideas, but it’s one thing to want to work in the video game industry, and another to actually get to your goal of a career in gaming. It may not be immediately obvious, but playing games and making games are two completely different worlds.
With that in mind, certain colleges are starting to cater specifically to budding game designers with specialized degree programs. Full Sail Real World Education, located in Winter Park Florida , is one such institution. Full Sail has offered an intensive Associate of Science Degree program in game design since 1998, and has recently expanded that into a Bachelor of Science program that covers all the bases of game development.
Full Sail’s Game Design & Development Bachelor Program is an intensive 21-month long “boot camp” for those wanting to break into the gaming industry. Students spend an average of 40 hours per week in classes and labs designed to simulate real world production schedules. Throughout the program, Full Sail students are taught industry-standard development fundamentals as they learn to design, create, and code their own games from scratch.
Colleges like Full Sail are an invaluable resource for those trying to jumpstart their gaming careers, but what can an incoming student do to prepare for the intensive training that awaits them? Full Sail’s Game Design instructors offer their advice on a number of commonly asked questions from first-time gaming students looking for some insight into this exciting career path.
I hear that there’s a lot of math involved in making games, is that true?
There’s no getting around it â?? video games are dependent on math. Whether you’re keeping track of hit points or creating high-level artificial intelligence, mathematics govern the rules by which games are created and played. So it follows that a person with a solid foundation in traditional math fundamentals is going to be better prepared for both their education, and a career in game development.
“Math skills are critical,” says Arthur Johnson, Full Sail’s Course Director for C++. “We’ve been recommending that incoming students have gone through at least Algebra II. That gets them exposed to formulas and possibly some matrix multiplication and vector work – all of which are important in gaming.”
Having a good understanding of basic high school level math is a good start, but any extra effort taken to learn the more advanced concepts will pay off down the road. “Geometry and Trigonometry also help out tremendously,” Arthur adds. “Everything from character and object physics, to the simulation of gravity and collision detection will be much easier to tackle if you have been exposed to those classes. You’ve got to know how to create a 3D space and have things happening within that 3D space. Those factors are all dependent on math, so if you take it upon yourself to learn as many fundamentals as possible, it’s likely that you’ll be more successful in your game design education and beyond.”
What sort of writing skills will I need?
Writing skills play a vital role in the game design process. Before a single line of code is entered into the computer, developers spend months writing the design documents that the game will be based around. These extensive notes include everything from story and character elements, to game engine specs and coding standards.
“Effective writing skills are just as important as learning how to program,” says Rob Catto, Full Sail’s Program Director for Game Design & Development. “Having good design documents readily available keeps everybody on the same page throughout production and eliminates any confusion with the countless details that go into making a game.”
Even for dedicated programmers, being able to write well is a crucial development skill. “Programmers need to be able to write down and explain what they’re going to do before they program,” explains Liam Hislop. “With each programmer having his own unique coding style, extra effort must be taken to ensure that everyone sticks to the same coding standards. Most importantly, they also need to be able to spell correctly when coding, because one misspelled word can crash your entire game.”
Do I need any prior experience with programming languages?
Basic, Java, and C++ are just some of the programming languages used throughout the industry to create the games you play. While previous experience with these languages isn’t essential before entering into a college program, it’s a good idea to get a taste of the programming process before jumping head first into school.
“Even if they haven’t been formally trained with a specific language incoming students should make an effort to learn what programming is about,” says Rob Catto. “The more they come in aware that it’s going to be a lot of left brain logic – math and programming â?? the less likely they’ll be to have their expectations shattered. Some people find that they really aren’t cut out for programming, and that they might be better off working in the animation or design side of the industry.”
Many gamers who dream of making games for a living have little knowledge of the blood and sweat that goes into a typical programming session. 20-hour coding marathons are not uncommon in this industry, or at a college like Full Sail. This is something that incoming students should definitely prepare themselves for. “The sheer amount of work it takes just to get something simple on the screen can be a big shock to students,” explains Dustin Clingman, Course Director for the Structure of Game Design course. “There are a lot of basic skills you need to be able to understand and utilize before you can just plug into DirectX or OpenGL and start making your games come to life. Students are also generally surprised by the amount of patience and time it takes to find any mistakes or bugs in the code they’ve written. It’s a frustrating task, but all in a days work for a game programmer.”
I already make mods and design my own levels. Will that help me in my education?
Many popular games like Unreal Tournament and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater come equipped with design tools that allow users to try their hand at creating levels and game scenarios. Making use of this readily available software and becoming involved in the mod community is a great way for students to get an early taste of the development process.
“Working in the mod community allows you to get a better understanding of a lot of gaming essentials,” says Liam Hislop, Associate Course Director for the Gaming Project Course. “It not only gets you thinking about level design, but can also be a good introduction to the overall development process.”
Working on a mod is not only good practice, but also an opportunity to get the attention of professionals in the industry. “The mod communities are starting to become a kind of ‘farm-team’ for the game industry,” Dustin Clingman comments. “Working on a mod is a great chance to prove yourself with an existing technology and show that you understand what makes a great game playing experience. Developers are interested in seeing what you can do with commercial grade tools, on both a technical and creative level. I highly recommend students work on at least one mod before getting out into the industry because developers really take the mod community seriously.”
I don’t enjoy working in a group, will that be a problem?
Like the film and music industries, creating videogames is very much a collaborative effort. It takes the combined talent and hard work of artists, animators, musicians, programmers, and designers to create the software sitting on the shelf at your local store.
Working within a group dynamic like this can be a challenge for many people. “Many students aren’t used to working in a team,” says Bill Galbreath, Program Director for Full Sail’s Digital Media program. “It’s a whole other world of project management than many people had initially considered when they were thinking about making a game. Having to share creative control and rely on other people’s input can take some getting used to. It’s not always easy, but being able to work effectively with many different people is exactly the kind of thing that employers want to see that a student is comfortable with. After graduation they can use their teamwork skills to separate themselves from the pack and get hired. The person that communicates best stands the best chance of getting hired and making the most money.”
Gaming is my #1 hobby, does that make it a good career choice?
Even if playing videogames is the most important thing in your life , it’s not always easy to turn your favorite hobby into a career. There’s a big difference between loving to play games and creating them for a living.
“When you take something you love and transition that into a career, there are a lot of compromises,” Dustin Clingman explains. “Just loving to play games is not enough to make it in this industry. You need to be completely dedicated to the rigors of the development process and be willing to rise to each challenge you are presented with. This means sometimes not getting to actually play the games you love for several days or weeks on end.”
“You’ve got to put your hobby aside for awhile and concentrate on learning, as opposed to playing,” Rob Catto adds. “You’re not going to be playing games for a living, you’ll actually be making them – and there’s a huge difference in sitting there all day long looking at text and debugging it line by line, as opposed to playing a game at home. You’re going to be looking at a monitor with text on it for 8 hours a day, not flashy graphics and sound. That can be a big adjustment for hardcore gamers. In order to make that sacrifice you have to be sure this is something you really want to do.”
Do my finely honed gaming skills actually make a difference?
You’ve beaten all the games in your collection two or three times over. You know the old Konami code by heart. You can wall jump to the top of the castle in Super Mario 64 and beat the game without collecting a single star. Does any of that thumb talent actually pay off when it comes to making games professionally?
Luckily for you the answer is yes. “A lot of students come to Full Sail with an armada of game playing in their background, which is a great thing,” Dustin Clingman says. “If you’re going into this industry you need to know something about it. You should be familiar with different genres of games, and have evaluated their gameplay. Knowing what makes a game good or bad can be a huge help when you start making them yourself. Students should also always be on the lookout for new games that they haven’t played before, even if they don’t think that the game would appeal to them. When you’re a pro, you never know what kind of projects you’ll end up working on.”
“Knowing a lot about games is helpful to game developers in the same way that knowing a lot about movies is helpful to film directors,” Liam Hislop adds. “Being able to draw upon your experiences with other titles can give you a unique perspective on your own projects. For example, you know how often you need to put in a save point so it’s not too frustrating to the player. Little things like that make those years spent locked in your bedroom playing game after game really pay off!”
What kind of study habits should I be prepared for?
Time management is one of the most crucial factors of a successful education. Being able to carefully balance your diet, exercise, family obligations, and personal relationships is essential to maintaining a stable educational environment.
For game design students working through 18 hour coding sessions, this is especially important. “So many students end up repeating classes because of rampant playing of MMORPGS and other new titles when they come out,” Dustin Clingman says. “Those games will still be around after you graduate. The sooner you let them go, the better. Time management is a key factor when preparing for this industry. You don’t have a lot of time at school. You’re going to have to realize that there’s a time for making games and there’s a time for playing games. I’ve actually failed people because of playing Everquest!”
Any final words of wisdom?
While game development is obviously not a field for everyone, there are plenty of opportunities for budding artists, programmers, and designers to pursue their dreams. Colleges like Full Sail offer students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of game development and be exposed to the challenges and rewards of this exciting industry.
This specialized training is an important and invaluable step toward a career in game design and development, as it provides a firm grounding in the skills needed to succeed, and a solid head start for building a career in a challenging and competitive field.
“Go into your education ready to learn,” Dustin Clingman advises students. “Don’t take your time for granted, and make sure you always keep a professional mindset in all of your classes. With the right attitude and approach to this industry you’re going to be successful in your education and in your career.”
For more information of Full Sail’s Game Design & Development Bachelor of Science Program, visit the school’s official website at www.fullsail.com