Should You Go To College For Game Dev? Here’s My Experience.
In 2007 fresh out of high school as a senior, if you would have asked me if I was excited for college, I would not be able to contain the emotion in my face. Hell yes I was excited. I had knew that I wanted to make games since the day I finished the Halo: Combat Evolved campaign. I knew that very day that I was destined to create experiences as magical as this one had been for me.
Games were epic. They were the ultimate form of art. Sure I loved making music (used to be a rapper yo!), sure I loved programming, sure I loved storytelling. But games…games were all of the above. Games were my chance to create the ultimate expression of the fragments inside my head that wanted to badly to be understood. Games were everything great about every art form all wrapped into a single fun and interactive package.
So the only choice for me was to go to school for game development. Here is my experience.
It started out OK…err that’s what I told myself.
I was seriously so excited. I told all of my friends that I was going to school to make games. I had been actually making games since middle school. I had never released or finished anything, but I had made a TON of prototypes and bits and pieces. I had written software that I had sold online. I had messed around with a ton of engines. I was by no means a legit game developer at that point, but I was pretty knowledgeable on a lot of stuff.
The first 2 years, even though I lived them in anticipation for learning game development, absolutely sucked. I learned everything about anything I would never need. I was taught MLA format, and some basic grammar concepts about how you should never start a sentence with “But”. But they were stupid. Because I can do whatever the hell I want in my writing. I was taught some science I think. I don’t even remember any of that now, all I remember is how irrelevant it was to making games.
I get that we as a human race need to educate our young about some basic concepts like math, reading, writing, etc so that we as a species can grow smarter…but really, we live in a world where every single piece of information is accessible with the tap of your finger. Learning how to read and write makes sense…you’re essentially learning how to learn. But everything else like memorizing formulas, or understanding an atomic equation are really useless to all of us. Especially through a lens where literally everything was “Ok so how does this apply to making games?”
It was geared more toward a game development job than actually making a game
The thing that pissed me off though was how everything was framed as “Employers will look for…” or “When you get a job in the industry, you will need this.” Now if I wanted a game development job, some of that might have been helpful. But I did not want a game development job…I wanted to learn how to make games from the pros. Is that too much to ask from a college? An educational institution that is supposed to educate you in a skill or allow you to gain experience in a field?
I get that in the traditional system, you go to high school, you got to college, you get a good job, and then you stay there for 20-30 years and then retire. But that shit is dead man. It is. Going to college doesn’t mean you’ll get a good job anymore, and even if you do get a good job, that company can be out of business in a year or two. ESPECIALLY in AAA games. If you’re not one of the bigger companies that can survive losses, you can literally be one bad game away from bankruptcy. So there is no 30 year job security. Shit we don’t even know if video games will be a thing in 30 years…maybe they’ll be VR matrix-like experiences or shit you need more education for.
The point is, I went to school to learn how to make video games and they tried to teach me how to get a video game development job. It was a bait and switch. I didnt want a game development job. In fact, the only reason I even considered a game development job was for the experience and the fact that I thought the AAA game studios had some magical secret about game development that only industry insiders knew.
Turns out, no one really has any idea what they’re doing.
No game dev theory, no principles, no design philosophies
Look I don’t even know if this stuff exists but one of the things I expected when I took on this major was that I would learn the theories. I wanted to learn why games were designed in certain ways. Like I remember watching a video about how Bungie implemented radar into Halo specifically because it turned a boring experience of hide and seek into a non stop action shooter. The radar made players gravitate toward each other. That was awesome. So is that what you want to do when you make an FPS? Make players gravitate toward each other? Is a design pillar that you should keep in mind when you build an FPS?
I always thought there were theories, or principles, or things that you had to learn to design a good game. And over the past 10 years, I’ve picked up a few general ones. But I wasn’t taught any in school, and that sucked. I get that some of this stuff is a lot more subjective than I thought at first. I get that games really are forms of art, and because of that there is no right way to really design them or make them. But things like focusing on a user experience and designing that first…that should have been taught day 1!!!
I would play Halo all the time in the name of “research” and observe every little thing about the game and how it played. I spent a ton of time doing this with other games, observing how things worked together, or why developers made specific design decisions. This is the stuff I wanted to learn…the programming you can learn from anywhere.
None of my teachers were qualified to actually teach me.
I hate to say this because I don’t want to talk down about people that were trying to help people and spread knowledge, but my expectations were not set properly at all. I know that teaching is actually the best way to learn something. And I also know that you do not actually NEED to know something to teach it…you can research it, you can follow a book etc, and that works. But my expectations were that I would be learning from people that worked in the game industry or that had actually made games themselves.
Sounds stupid, but when I found out none of the people teaching me how to make games had ever made games, that really bummed me out. A few worked on big AAA titles that I recognized, but they had titles like “marketing” or “QA”…not really things that were relevant. They were just name dropping the big games.
And when the programming classes started, they were super super basic. Like I would get assignments to program a function to return a variable. And if I didn’t know anything about programming, OK I get how that might be a good place to start. But my teachers would MARK MY ASSIGNMENT DOWN FOR DOING IT A DIFFERENT WAY. So they would tell us to pass a string to a function, and then have the function return a piece of it or something like that. They would have a tutorial on how, but their tutorials were always stupid. So I would find alternative ways to do what they were asking to challenge myself or improve the code…in several cases I would try to do it in a few lines, where their examples could be 20-3o lines. So I got punished for programming better than them. Great.
I learned more about making games from Googling “How to make games”
Seriously, I wish this want the case. Because I truly believed that the pros new some magical secret about game development that I didn’t know. That’s what kept me enrolled for so long, the fear of missing out on the secret. But the secret never came, because it never existed.
When I Googled “how to make games” way back in early middle school, I found a tool called FPS Creator. This tool allowed you to drag and drop objects to make an FPS game, which was MY DREAM at the time. I started with that, moved on to Dark Basic Pro, which was a basic language designed specifically for games. Then I moved on to web development, which led to HTML 5 game development, which allowed me to make web/PC/mobile games. The point is, that single Google search did more for me than college ever did. And that sucks to say man. Believe me, I wish I could tell you that I learned a ton, but that was just not true.
Especially considering the price tag.
It cost me $55,000.
Now maybe this was just my personal family experience. My parents were not financially savvy, and I did not have any role models or support systems in my life that could educate me on money. So I take full responsibility for my lack of understanding on this subject. However, at no point did anyone at my school or anywhere sit me down and explain to me the gravity of what I was doing. No one ever described in detail that I was borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for school. I had no idea what I was spending.
My school made the process so easy. All I did was fill out some paper work, and they took care of the rest. They told me they were a great school so they would do all the hard stuff for me. Well the hard stuff was charging $500 god damn dollars a credit hour, and $55,000 over a 3.5 year period without me knowing. Every time I talked to them they always made it seem like I was getting free money from the government to go to school. And yes that was being naive and not really thinking about it, but holy shit I felt robbed. Especially considering what I actually received for my $55,000. That could have paid all of my bills for 3.5 years and allowed me to just make games. That would have been so much better of an education.
So yeah, I’m stupid. But these people will make this process so easy and simple that you really have no idea what you are borrowing.
So I dropped out after 3.5 years
One day I got a call from someone from the financial aid office from my college and they told me that I was out of money. “What do you mean I’m out of money? What? You can run out of money?” Yeah so not only did they charge me $55,000 for 3.5 years of college, but some brilliant number cruncher somewhere failed to mention that because of their prices, I would run out of financial aid 6 months prior to graduation. Again, probably my fault for having no clue wtf I was doing…but it would have been fantastic if someone mentioned that.
They told me the only way I could continue with my education was to either pay out of my pocket or get more financial aid. I was living in LA at the time and covering my living expenses with my marketing company, but I didn’t have a whole lot of funds to spare, so I asked how I could get more financial aid. They told me that I either had to turn 25, or have a child. SO they thought a great life decision for me was to go get a chick pregnant to finish my shitty college that wouldn’t teach me anything.
If you’re reading this and I seem frustrated, you’d be correct. Because this was a super shitty situation. And I’m trying my best not to blame fault because I know that technically all of this fell on my shoulders. I just wish that rather than take advantage of my ignorance, they would have shown a little compassion and explained some of this stuff.
If you want to make games, then make games. Don’t wait for college.
I’m sure there are some great colleges out there. I’m sure there are some great courses out there that teach you how to make games in depth. But my experience was horrible, useless, and all around stupid. I learned more from the internet than college ever taught me, and I would say the same to you. You do not need college to make games, you can start right now with the device you’re reading this on. You + device + internet = game. It’s that simple.
Trust me on this. I know it may seem like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but no one in this industry really does. It may feel like there are some hidden secrets of the great game developers hidden away behind the doors of a college experience, but there is not. Everything you need to know to make a great game is already sitting on a server somewhere out in the interwebz. All you have to do is go find it.
So please don’t be like me and think that you need a degree to legitimize you as a developer. You are just fine and dandy exactly as you are. You don’t need a stupid piece of paper to tell you that you’re officially allowed to start. Start now, and make awesome games. Use your college money and time as an investment into yourself and learn the things that you want to learn.
Conclusion: College sucked for my game dev
Am I sure college in general sucks? No, not really. I can only speak for myself, but my experience was not positive at all. If I could do it all over again, I think I would have still went to college, however I would have picked a more social university, and my focus would have been building relationships with people, not learning. College sucked for learning. But the one saving grace of it was that you got to be around a lot of cool people. There were a few instructors that I liked talking to, there were a few fellow students that I made friends with. But that really was the highlight of my otherwise disappointing college experience.
If you want to make games and you are waiting for a degree, don’t. Start now. Make games. You will make bad games at first, there’s no avoiding it. But the only way to make better games is to start with the bad games. So start. You’ll thank me later.