The Sausage Factory: Getting Schooled

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Welcome to The Sausage Factory, a new series on breaking into the games industry. These are, of course, purely my opinion. You may have a different one, but hey, that’s what is great about America, am I right?

Getting Schooled

I often get asked, Hey! You make video games right? You know, I love games. I play them all the time! My parents can’t believe how much I play them. Its my dream to make them someday. Do you hire high school kids as interns? What college should I go to? A regular college/university? A specialty school all about video games?

My answer is always the same: not Duke. I hate Duke. (Haha. I kid, I kid.) Then I tell them to get Mr. Howard his tall sugar free vanilla latte stat.

In my opinion, it doesn’t actually matter. Just pick a good school, one where you will learn. Ideally, pick one that has internship programs with companies like Electronic Arts. There are schools with good programs focused on interactive media and art, and they would be fine choices. But standard colleges and universities look just as good, if not better, on your resume.

I would say the choice of school is not quite as important as actually getting the degree. Yes, I went there. I don’t care how special your parents say you are, or how sweet that job at EB is. Get your degree. And by degree, I mean, a four year BA/BS/BFA. Sorry, but an Associates just isn’t the same.

There are exceptions. There are lots of folks working as game developers without a college degree. And the truth is, college doesn’t actually teach anybody how to do their job anyway. But why would you want to shoot for being an exception? That’s like saying you only play the lottery when the odds of winning get worse — 1 in a million? No way, I only play when it’s 1 in 100 million.

Sorry, but it doesn’t matter how much your grandma says it, you aren’t that special. Get your degree and you improve your odds.

Because the odds are against you. For every open position in the industry, there are like 500 candidates. OK, I think the actual number is more like 20 (the intraweb gods will grant us the correct number in the form of a comment, I hope.)

What should you get your degree in? If you want to be a programmer, a computer science degree is the obvious choice. But it isn’t the only one. Math or Physics will work, too. You do like math right? No? Not even algebra?

Well, can you draw? The caveat being – there are lots of artists in the industry who do not have good fine art skills but can create amazing 3D models and textures. But, we’re talking about you here. So do what you can to increase your odds…it would be best if you had a great portfolio. Getting a degree in fine arts can help you get that kickass portfolio. No? So you hate math and can’t draw?

Oh, you want to be a designer. You’ve got stories to tell, characters who speak to you in your dreams, and notebooks full of cool names for useless trinkets to make me fetch. Well, there really isn’t a degree that will get you there so just pick any degree.

Yes, that’s right. Pick any of them. But, wouldn’t getting a degree in English help, you say? Well, writing is a major part of being a designer. And if your goal is to become a better writer, an English degree would be great. What about history, you ask? Designers build vast tapestries of lore and that’s all about history right? Possibly yes. But a designer is a one of those jobs for which there is no silver bullet path. Not as clear as becoming an artist or programmer.

So what would help you to become a designer? We’ll talk more about this later For now, just trust me when I say, your college degree has little to no bearing on whether you snag that gig as a designer or not.

And yes, there are programmers with art degrees, designers with CS degrees, etc… Again, the odds. Stop thinking you are the exception – keep repeating to yourself: I’m not that special. I need every advantage I can get. Mr. Howard needs his tall sugar free vanilla latte every day at 3 PM.

There are, of course, multiple paths to becoming a video game developer. A college degree by no means guarantees you a job. And there are loads of other factors that will contribute more towards that breaking into the industry than where you went to school. All of which we’ll discuss later. But a degree can only help you and you need whatever advantage you can get.

Reader Comments

  1. Hey great post! I’m trying to break in as an artist in the field, and I know that *need* to work on the most is my portfolio. So my question is, what do you guys (Bethsoft) look for in a portfolio? Diversity of styles? Technique? The type of software/materials used?

    I ask this because even though I would love to go get a degree, I simply can’t afford it. I’ve tried reaching out to my family, but even then they either didn’t take me seriously, thinking that a job in gaming is a joke, or they just didn’t have the extra money themselves. So I am trying to be the exception, as I have no other choice but to work on my artwork in my spare time.

    Any more info you could give would be greatly appreciated, and I’m looking forward to this series of The Sauage Factory :D

  2. Typos and grammtical errors abound in my comment there.
    First paragraph: “…I know that what I *need* to work on the most is my portfolio.”

    and Sauage = Sausage

    haha forgive me, I’m sneaking onto the intarwebs here at work and I’m trying to be quick about it :P

  3. This is very helpful. Thanks Acheng. Really nice suggestions, but too bad for me. There are no schools dedicated to game-design in my stupid country.

  4. OblivionStalker – I think you may’ve missed one of the key elements in the article – “But standard colleges and universities look just as good, if not better, on your resume.”

    You don’t need a game specific school. As long as you have a college where you can learn what you need to learn, you should be ok. :)

  5. Hmm, I’m looking forward to article about becoming a designer. That’s what I really want to do.

    Anyway, good article, this series should be really informative, especially for us poor souls trying to break into the industry.

  6. I tend to advocate traditional degrees. However, the biggest disadvantage to getting a traditional degree is that it may be difficult figuring out what your bridge into the industry, on the other side. Nobody is going to hand-hold you through this process. It’s your responsibility to:

    A.) Make sure you learn the skills you need for the industry, even if you have to do it on your own time, and…

    B.) Develop contacts in the industry (who don’t think you’re a creepy, greasy fanboy freak from the ninth circle of hell).

    If that sounds like a lot of work, though, you should probably consider a different career. These are two things you are going to have to do throughout your career to stay in the game. Those who don’t keep learning new things and making friends will ultimately find themselves obsolete and out of a job.

  7. Do you think that if someone (apart from the deegre) knows c++ and the directx sdk (and hlsl and such things), and has made already one or two indie games all by himself would raise the odds of being hired as an games developer? What if someone knows such things from a young age (lets say 15 or 16) would contribute (well starting to learn things early surely helps because you can learn more things under less pressure)? Do you also think that the games development industry has any room for foreign (not American or English) people? And to end with, do think that the age of 14 or 15 is a good age to start learning such things (c++, directx…) ?

  8. @Stratos: me thinks that there is plenty of room for non-American people. There are games studios in several countries that have released good games.

    Building of Fliggerty’s question, how important is unofficial experience? Will 3+ years working at Tamriel Rebuilt get me a little boost if I’m applying to Beth? Or will that not matter at all? Obviously someone with an internship is probably getting a head start, so why not extensive mod experience (which, in many cases, is quite similar to actual game creation)…

    Great article btw :) very informative and hits all the right notes imho