BA in Game Design? Not as BS as You Might Think

February 14, 2011 Posted by E. Zachary Knight

There is a lot of talk about whether a game centric degree is worth the effort and money needed to get one. As a recipient of a Game Design degree, I take these conversations to heart every time I read them.

Since I was a kid, I wanted to get into game development and design. Never since I started playing games has there really been a time when I didn’t want to do this for a living. I liked to write out game stories, character designs, gameplay mechanics and everything else to do with design itself. I even dabbled in programming a bit while in high school. While I never made any full fledged video game, I still liked to create them on paper. I even designed my very own board game.

When I finally started college, I wanted to learn more about the nitty gritty of game development. For me, this was studying programming. After all, I knew that was the heart of a game. So I started on a computer science degree at the local community college. This was fun for what it was. I learned the basics behind programming, but I never got that game design feel I wanted.

I took two semesters toward computer science and decided that path was not for me. So I started looking around. I still wanted to learn some programming, but I also wanted to learn more specific game design skills as well. I looked at a number of local colleges but none offered anything that I liked, so I went out of state. Eventually I found Collins College in Tempe, Arizona. This private college offered a BA in Game Design. This is what I wanted. It offered courses in pure design, web game development in Flash, game art (both 2d and 3d) and level design. Your basic Jack of All Trades degree. This was it. I packed up and moved to Arizona to begin my real degree.

I won’t lie. I didn’t enjoy every aspect of the course, but I did enjoy almost all of it. Some courses were tough, others were a joke. But overall it was great. I learned quite a bit. A lot more than I learned on my own while going to the community college. I met some great instructors and made some great friends.

I won’t go into the specifics of the course work, but I will say that I learned enough programming both in Actionscript and C++ to get me started. I made my first Flash game while there and made another not long after graduating. both were very small, but they were pretty decent.

What I learned there that I struggled to learn on my own before:

  • The necessity of design before development. Before getting this degree I was obsessed with learning to turn programming into a game without really thinking about how that was going to work. I never thought of games as components of a whole and the need to design the different cogs before putting it all together.
  • How the art is constructed and what it takes to make a consistent direction for the art and aesthetics.
  • The importance of having a network of people that you draw from when needing specific talent. I worked with a number of great people to put together a game prototype. The game was never completed but it was a fairly original idea that in the end would have probably worked better as a Flash game than the PC game we were making it into.
  • The importance of using existing libraries for game development. In our course work we learned to program using Direct X and I was able to use that to learn to use a variety of other libraries such as Allegro and Irrlicht. Finding libraries like these helps to streamline the development process and keep you from going insane.
  • What it means to really be a leader. While I was there, I spent a lot of my time helping other students get through the programming classes. Since the degree was a general degree, there were a lot of people who needed help getting through because they were not programming minded.
  • The limitations of my own abilities. My artistic ability is limited. My audio design ability is pretty non existent. My level design ability is fair. My strengths are in design and programming. I learned that I need to rely on others to fill the gaps in my own ability and complete a project.

Could I have learned these on my own while working toward a CS degree? Probably, but I would not have learned them at the pace I needed. Some lessons might not have ever been learned. I needed this degree.

I know the question you are probably asking yourself at this point is, “Did I get a job in the games industry?” Short answer, “No.” Long answer, “I chose not to get a job in the industry right away.”

Why would I choose not to get a job? Family. My wife and I are both from Oklahoma and we both wanted to come back. Oklahoma has no game development scene. So the prospects of getting a job in game development are pretty slim here. I knew that and I chose that. So I started working in web development. That is what I have been doing since.

Could I have gotten a job in game development if I stayed in Arizona? Most definitely. I had pretty much bagged a job at game testing house D3, but declined when I made the decision to move back to Oklahoma. Had I taken the job, I would have been able to move on to any of the game development studios in Arizona if I wanted to try. But that was not the path I wanted to take.

Now I am working on striking out on my own. My brother is working with me to establish our game company and develop our first commercial game. It’s tough work but it is worth it. I am also working on building a network of game developers in Oklahoma. I believe my degree gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to begin in this path.

There are a lot more people working toward game development here than before I left. There are at least 4 schools that are offering game centric degrees. So the potential network is rather large. There is just a lack of strong development center.

I am just one result of this degree. One guy I went to school with graduated and immediately got a job as 3d artist. He is now a lead artist. Another person is now working in advertising. Several others are working in web development or web game development. Our final career paths are as varied as our origins.

In the end, I think the degree was worth it. I know many of the people who got the degree think it was worth it. Is it preferable to a specialty CS degree? Not for everyone. But if you feel that this is what you want to do, I will not try to talk you out of it.

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