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Thinking About Attending A Video Game School? Read This First

by Matt Helgeson on Dec 26, 2010 at 07:00 AM

If you watch any amount of television, you already know there are hundreds of schools offering video game education programs. However, many of these fly-by-night operations might fail to really prepare you for the challenging world of video game design, programming, or art.

We recently spoke with Raymond Yan, the COO of DigiPen, one of the oldest and most respected institutions teaching the game arts. In this interview, he outlines some of the common misconceptions students have about the industry and what it really takes to be successful in video games.

[Pictured above: DigiPen's campus in Redmond, Washington]

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because of all the ads for these dodgy looking video game schools on cable television – “Do you like playing games? Well you can learn to make games! It’s awesome!”

[Laughs] You don’t even have to mention the school, I can already guess.

There seem to be so many of these schools now. They are obviously marketed towards kids who perhaps don’t have a very strong direction in life. Knowing what I know about the game industry, I start to wonder what kind of education these people are getting for their money. What are your thoughts on those programs?

Yan: Well, I don’t want to pick on any school in particular, but our approach has been – when we’re talking to prospective students – pretty frank. I tell them that this industry is about making money. I used to be the head of art and design for Nintendo. There was no game I ever worked on that I considered a fun [experience]. We were told what to do; we rarely got to choose what we got to work on. The reason was that we have companies and publisher that are paying a lot of money to make these games. And, for good or bad, the players today are pretty sophisticated in terms of their expectations. I grew up in the arcades. If I wanted a game, I didn’t get much of a choice. It was in the arcade or the handful of games for the home systems. Today, they have umpteen consoles – they can play on their phone, flash websites, home consoles, and PCs. PlayStation 2 is ten years old. It’s an awesome platform and you can get triple-A used games for five or ten dollars. When we’re talking to the students we try to make them aware of that so they understand that this industry requires people that really have a deep level of understanding. The thing that we’re trying to do is come up with an innovative experience. I don’t care what field it is; innovation is not easy. When you’re trying to create a product that takes one to three years, you’re trying to anticipate what that innovation will be two or three years down the road.

What I don’t like about some of these ads is that it makes it sound like it’s easy. You’re a good game player; therefore you are a good game maker. That’s not the case. We really try to share that with the students so they get that this is a business. You make think that playing games is fun, but when you sit and make that game and work on it for three years, it’s not fun anymore. It’s just work. That’s where these ads do a disservice, because they are capitalizing on people’s interests. They often confuse the potential student with that idea that if you’re really good at playing games, you’ll be good at this. That may not be the case. You need to tell them that it’s very serious. If we could do it in a year or three month program, why would we or some of the other good schools out there force you to go through two to four years of study?

How do you try to make kids understand the difference between loving games as a hobby and making games as a profession?

First off, we encourage the students to do research. I think you guys do a great job of reporting – it’s not just “Wow, this game is cool, that game is cool.” The kinds of interviews you do in the magazine when you talk to developers actually gives people a pretty good idea of “Wow, this is a lot of work.” There are a lot of resources online like Gamasutra, where they talk about the industry. It’s not “Is Halo: Reach the greatest game?”, it’s about what it took to actually make this game; this is what we suffered through. We encourage students to look at that, and the great thing about this industry is that it’s readily available. It’s online. The other thing is to get them to try it. We run workshops for kids as young as middle school and high school. We offer programs for adults, too. We start with something as simple as Pong. It’s something you might perceive as simple, but let’s talk about what it takes to actually make a pixel light up, to make an object move, to determine if it actually hit the paddle or not. When they start to get a sense of that, they quickly think, “Wow, this is really cool, really interesting work” or “This is not my calling.” Those are the best things we can do. Because what can you really tell someone? Actually trying it is the litmus test for that individual. We’re not the only ones that do workshops; a lot of other schools have them. Some community colleges are offering classes like “Introduction to Art Production” or “Introduction to Animation Production” or programming. Those are great courses to take. If you’re talking about a semester-long course, that might cost you $1000 as opposed to committing to any school that the tuition can range from $20,000 to $30,000 a year. It’s worthwhile to do your due diligence. The resources are there.

Have you talked to students that have transferred from any of these less reputable schools? Do you have any idea about what kind of education they are actually providing?

It depends on the direction that an individual wants to go. If someone says, “I want to be a game programmer”, the thing we’re always looking for is people with mathematics. Especially with 3D games, there’s a tremendous emphasis on things like trigonometry and algebra. You want somebody who’s going to have that background. If they want to do art, clearly if they’ve had some exposure to that – and I’m not just talking about sitting in a high school art class that’s effectively a study hall, but someone who’s taking a structured art program where they’re really being brought down a time-tested approach to art skills. It’s how that artist looks at the world. Certainly, coming to a school is where they’re hoping to define that skill set. So, for an artist, if they’ve had a chance to do art classes and explore different mediums, it doesn’t have to be digital. In fact, it’s even better when it’s not digital, because those tools get in the way. It’s much easier to do something on paper instead of open some software. For game designers, the thing that I find is really important is that they are really good communicators. The game is going to be built around what the designer’s vision is. If the designer can’t communicate that very well, that’s going to be a problem. A designer is an experience designer; it doesn’t mean, “Oh I know how to use a mod tool.” It’s about designing an experience. How do I entice someone? How do I explain what the game is about and how to play it? How do I measure, as a designer, how the player understands the basic mechanics before I move them on to something more complicated? It’s education theory, or the cognitive sciences and psychology.

What is DigiPen’s placement rate?

I can send you specific numbers, but anecdotally, the computer science program is over 90 percent. The game design degree is new, so we just had our first graduating class this year. Art is close to 80 percent. Overall, they are quite high. I don’t think that’s a measure of the fact that the person got a degree at DigiPen; it’s a measure of the fact that the person really had those important skills in order to execute a technical or creative process. That’s what the employers are looking for. The best thing DigiPen can get a graduate, in my opinion, is the reputation. We have a reputation as a tough school and being demanding.

How do you formulate your curriculum?

Well, we’ve been around for quite awhile. When we started, we sat down with Nintendo. There’s a requirement from our accrediting body, the Higher Education Board, that we have a program advisory committee. These are people that come from the industry. They come in, we present them with what the program structure is; we show them the courses and the results – some artwork that was made or a game that was made. We rely very highly on the committees – we have one for every program – to tell them what they like and don’t like. There’s no such thing as perfect.

Who makes up the advisory committee?

Well, I just had one this past Friday. I’m the program director for our Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I had one person from a company called Architect Studios; they do medical imaging visualization work. We had a technical art lead and another art lead from Microsoft Games. I had three guys from PopCap. Those are just the guys that can come; we have people from Nintendo, Monolith, and others. That’s just the art program. We’re very fortunate to have a large game development community here in Seattle. So, it’s easy for me to tap into these companies. Almost all of them have hired from us at some point. I think you would find any reputable school would have advisory committees.

Do you know what the curriculum at some of these more suspect schools is?

I look at schools like Carnegie Mellon and USC. These institutions have had a lot of success, and I think the common theme is that their curriculum is not based on learning a specific tool. It’s not “If you learn Photoshop, you’ll be a fantastic artist.” They focus on foundational knowledge and skills. Our computer science degree is computer science. It’s math, it’s physics – those types of topics. When you’re making a game, it’s a simulation. You can’t get away from the fact that math is involved. The machine you’re writing to only understands 1s and 0s. So, if you’re only focusing on learning a certain software tool, it’s not going to have a lot of depth. Those programs are very shortsighted. I think it’s focused on getting the person one certain job, and I think those people are going to find themselves unable to move very far. They have limited knowledge. It’s the same thing with artists. In most good programs, it doesn’t even matter if they are going into games. The good schools are focusing their attention on foundational art courses – art, animation, and lighting techniques – things that will help them as an artist. The technology itself is secondary. You won’t see in our promotional materials things like Autodesk certification or Maya. The tools today are actually relatively straightforward to use. It’s not how you use the tool but what you do with it.

What’s your final message to prospective students?

Is there a great career in this field? Absolutely. For those people that love to problem solve and put things together, it’s awesome. But to only share that one side of it is disingenuous. You have to tell people about the challenges of today. The opportunities are there, but they should go into it knowing clearly that this is not for everybody. When you have a school that’s just accepting anybody, that’s a problem. It’s disingenuous to me; they are trying to take advantage of people. They just want to make a quick buck and bring everybody in. You end up with a lot of unemployed people, and that’s not good –especially with the cost of education today.