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Passing the gaming torch.
Posted on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 20:50:39 Eastern

Perhaps more terrifying than your first year at the Game Developers Conference or your first year at Game Revolution (Resident Evil: Duke Edition is scary) is being a game design student your first year beyond of the protective walls of the classroom. Your dream of becoming the next great Miyamoto or Suda-51, producing the next multi-million dollar success, is on the threshold. What now?

Well, hopefully, you already have your foot in the door: an internship. At least that’s what a panel at GDC, held this year at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, suggests. But this wasn’t your normal panel of hardened designers with heavy bags under their eyes from knowing “crunch time” a bit too well. Scott Brodie of Carbonated Games, Matt Highison of Cryptic Studios, Sally Huang of Electronic Arts, and Robert Smith of Shaba Studios - all were recent graduates discussing their first-year experiences transitioning from college into the game industry.

Invited by igda (International Game Developers Association), they answered a barrage of questions to an audience mainly comprised of teachers, lecturers, and educators-to-be. One such future game professor was Jin Kuwata (almost Kizama), a Masters student at the Teacher College at Columbia University. (A fellow alumni! What luck!) Spending money out of his pocket to attend GDC in all its five-day glory of serious geekdom, he wanted to receive first-hand experience of how to get into the lucrative game industry before becoming an educator himself. Teachers should have on-hand experience, no?

As such, how well were teachers preparing game students - or at least the four success-story panelists - for their actual day-to-day grind in today’s workplace? Every panelist agreed that providing opportunities for internships at game companies is vital - that’s how all of them received permanent job offers at those companies after their internships expired. Contacts through professors and the Career Services department of the university carried extraordinary weight. Furthermore, visiting recruiters ask professors who their top students are - and if you’re one of them, then you are almost guaranteed a free get-out-of-my-parent’s-basement pass.

The panelists found that the most useful information they received from school are the ability to think analytically given any situation and understanding the fundamentals of a game from the ground-up. Nearly every developer has their specific software, specific processes, and specific pipelines on how every facet of a game - the level design, the character design, the scripts, the programming, the music, the animation - fit together, where, when and how. Learning how to shift from one programming language to another, one style to another, one department to another, overrides the sole ability to know one aspect perfectly.

Looking back, they wished they had more interdisciplinary courses and team-based projects earlier in the curriculum. Knowing how each group of people - say, the developers for texture modeling versus those for in-game engines - think and what they need to complete the project, and just getting through daily meetings which ensure that no work by one department conflicts with the work of another department, is a part of the daily lifeblood in game-making. Also having the entire class play a game as an assignment, as well as each other’s projects, would have been helpful in having a fruitful discussion on the design critiques.

However, none of them feel that their education was a waste. In fact, Sally Huang is going back to school to take classes that she now realizes are important in understanding the bigger picture. Only a broader (and less expensive) education on the history of video games, fine arts, and iterative processes would have made the undergraduate learning experience stronger.

In any case, the doom-and-gloom stories they heard waking up at the break of dawn and sleeping after midnight has struck were hardly the case. Workloads are well-paced and done where they are needed as problems and needs arise. Peers like to share knowledge of how to work with the company’s game development system, and if anything, school has taught each panelist how to think on their feet, to take their skills and learn how to adapt them to a new environment.

Having too much impact on the game’s production, surprisingly, was their greatest fear: “Are you really giving that much responsibility to me? But I’m just a n00b!” Being surrounded by older, wiser, and often smarter team members, they feel an incredible amount of pressure, beyond just the common thought of failure. If you are in charge of ground textures - and they suck - not only do gamers think you suck, but the team thinks you suck. So, in other words, you suck.

Such pressure in other professions might force employees to quit out of sheer stress, but none of the panelists had any regrets. They were going to be in the game industry for life. With the common lifespan of a game developer at five years, this may just be the passion of a student newly wed to a special world - or maybe it’s just having the money to eat.

The academic journey for students in game development could be better, either instilling the passion of the medium to more of them or weeding out those that don’t really want to make games. Still, one thing is clear: The current system of education fosters passionate game developers, and passionate game developers make passionate games. And those are the only games I wish to play.
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