Consumers spend over $20 billion on video games, so budding programmers are eager to dive into the field. Meanwhile, universities across the country, who offer degrees in video game design, are just as eager to scoop up applicants. But as the Internet and mobile platforms continue to disrupt the gaming landscape, these schools are being forced to adapt. Can they compete with the speed and edge of a self-taught experience?
"Mobile is definitely a major change," says Doug Schilling, a former Microsoft engineer. He’s now a senior lecturer and the game design department chair at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington.
Only 26 years old and with a student body of just over one thousand, the private DigiPen Institute started as a computer simulation and animation studio, and gradually started offering courses in 3-D computer animation. It worked with Nintendo of America to establish post-secondary study in video game programming in the early '90s. Today, it’s one of the country’s leading schools that specializes in interactive computer tech.
"Another example is the shift from a traditional ‘full purchase’ or subscription model, to a free-to-play model for casual games and massive multiplayer online games," Schilling says. ("Free-to-play," or F2P, refers to games that charge customers little to nothing. Angry Birds Go! is an example.) So DigiPen is integrating solutions to these modern challenges into their curriculum: "Students are learning why these monetization techniques are of such interest to publishers, and how game design and development convert an F2P player into a paying customer."
And major universities across the country—MIT, Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, the University of Wisconsin, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and scores of others—now offer both undergrad and graduate programs in video game design and production of their own. The Princeton Review even compiles a list of America’s top gaming programs, and the updated list will be released next month.
Video games’ seep into academia has been a steady drip over the last decade, so their existence is nothing new. But the video game industry has exploded into a market that can outperform motion pictures, and several widespread technological trends have disrupted the way people play, build, buy, and sell video games.
For example, in today’s world of crowdsourcing, veteran and rookie devs alike can make a game in their garage, launch a funding campaign on Kickstarter, and then smack the world in the face with the next Flappy Bird. When success can come so easily to those in an increasingly crowded and competitive arena, does an expensive university degree in video games really matter?
Schilling says yes, and likens a big indie break on Kickstarter to winning the lottery. Universities also point to the argument that a college degree of any type, especially in an idiosyncratic field like video game design, increases the likelihood of success by equipping students with the necessary skills and contacts.
"The relationships they make while here form tight bonds that will last a lifetime as they go into the industry together," says Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California.
Doug Schilling points out that the games industry is "highly collaborative," and immersion in a team-driven environment arms students with the soft skills they’ll need in the real world. Plus, they’ll have that all-important portfolio to show employers a body of work from the get-go.
Another challenge is the fact that game design is such a specialized area of study, meaning it could be hard for kids to find a job in such a competitive field. That’s why programs encourage a multidisciplinary approach.
"It’s akin to going to a conservatory to study art or music," Fullerton says. "Students of game design are often also students of creative writing, art, psychology, technology, history, media theory, economics, and more."
The Princeton Review keeps the evolving nature of the video game industry in mind when dubbing 10 schools the best in the country for studying video games. These schools are "not only teaching students the core concepts of game design, but also how to write a business plan for that game, or how to develop a funding prototype," says David Soto, director of Content Development at the Review.
Good gaming academic programs introduce students to all the standard technologies: C++, Java, Maya, ActionScript, Unreal Engine, Flash, Unity, XNA, Torque, Processing, and Gamebryo. Applicants should also look for programs that have more recent tech at their disposal, like augmented reality devices (including mobile), Google Glass, Oculus Rift, Kinect, Leap Motion, and CAVE. The inclusion of all these in a school's program means the school has a grip on the industry’s shift toward motion-capture gameplay and virtual reality.
Tracy Fullerton says some of the most popular classes in USC games’ department are experimental game design and immersive game design, and points to wildly successful alumni like thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen, who’s turned the industry upside down with games like the award-winning Flower and Journey. Those games’ artsy presentation, Zen-like gameplay, and nature-driven mechanics snagged accolades and set a new creative precedent. Chen received an MFA in interactive media at USC in 2006.
"We don't teach technology for technology's sake," says Fullerton. "Games are an aesthetic form that can supercharge and elevate our human and social experiences, and that is reason we do what we do."
A couple of decades ago, the video game industry’s economic and cultural pervasiveness wasn’t what it is today, and video games as a topic of academic study certainly didn’t exist, at least as it does now. What started as a niche has morphed into a dynamic field with ever-growing challenges. "It’s nice to know that students today have a much more direct route into the industry," Schilling says.
If young programmers are thinking of getting a degree in game studies but are on the fence, the statistics are pretty convincing, if nothing else. The industry is changing, but having a degree in video game design gives you work samples and connections you wouldn’t get otherwise.
"Of our top 10 undergraduate programs, 75% of their most recent graduates worked on a game that shipped before graduation," says Soto. "And 82% of those students at our top 10 schools had a job waiting for them at graduation."