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Study Game Design

Should YOU Study Game Design?

Stephen Carr

Stephen has been an avid gamer since the days of Amiga 500+ and often wonders why we can't go back to the good old days of long loading times and Inserting Disk 2.

The short answer to that question is yes. Yes, you should.

About a month ago, before I started writing for GamesNosh, I finished a college course studying game design. One of the things I’ve taken away from it is something that I think more fans of gaming should know; if you want to make games, it is much easier to get started than you would expect.

I’m unsure how tutors on other game design courses teach their students but for us, a strong emphasis was placed on independent study and helping other students rather than hand-holding the class through tutorials. In a way, it was frustrating – the most knowledgeable person in the class was the one person who couldn’t help us with our work – but it was also incredibly motivating. As it turns out, deadlines and grades make for an excellent incentive to quickly learn new skills. Plus, it makes sense in a way; trying to get a qualification in games design means that you’re being prepared for work in the games industry. Working independently is a big part of that.

Fortunately for you, that means the same resources that we used to learn the software are at your fingertips. As you might expect, the internet is the best source for tutorials on game design. Youtube has a plethora of helpful videos for every aspect of game design and I feel as if everyone reading this right now could make their own visual novel in Flash after seven or eight videos introducing them to Actionscript. UDK (Unreal Development Kit) is a free download and there is an amazing series of videos by 3D Buzz that teach a lot about the engine. Plus, there are traditional step-by-step guides all over the web for 3D modelling programs like 3ds Max; no different from those for Photoshop and other artistic programs.

Study Game Design

I know from experience that the main hurdle to actually trying to make games yourself – aside from not having the software available at home – is feeling put off by how complex it all seems. Before starting college, I was instructed to download Unity 3D at home. I took one look at the interface and thought, “I’m never going to be able to pick this up.” It was the same with UDK and 3ds Max. If you’ve ever been in the same boat, be aware that it does get a lot easier once that first step is out of the way. Back in the days when I used to dabble with RPG Maker, there was a lot I didn’t understand about it but it was easy to pick up with experimentation. Professional software may look more complicated but it’s actually very similar, provided you have a bit of patience.

So if all of these tutorials are right in front of you, why would you study game design at college and university? Well, aside from the fact that you’ll need qualifications if you seriously want to enter the videogames industry, there’s the theoretical side of things too. Learning how to construct a game proposal, a treatment and a pitch, for example. You would compare your game idea to similar titles on similar platforms and try to determine costs of software, hardware, employees, etc. You would conduct market research and target audience research – you’d make questionnaires, basically – and write essays explaining what an API is and going through the steps of the graphics pipeline. If your course was anything like my own, you would learn about project management, storytelling for games and current trends in the games industry (piracy, microtransactions, audience diversity, etc.).

In short, there are good and bad parts to the theory side of game design. It sounds as if there are lots of fun topics to write about but for the most part, if you’ve ever written an essay, you know what it’s like. You also spend as much time doing preproduction work as you do working on games, which is stressful if you’re facing a deadline but have never used the software. On the more practical side of things, our first year had each student making a 2D game with GameSalad (a crash-happy 2D game engine), a 3D game with UDK, three environmental props and buildings in 3ds Max, textures in Photoshop and several pieces of music and sound effects in Ableton. Not too shabby. The second year was all Flash, with some film editing in PremierePro thrown in for showreels and the like.

Project Astral
A screenshot from “Project Astral”, a Flash game I programmed with my class acting as a development team. It was made in 2 weeks and won the college’s game jam.

Basically, studying game design at college will give you a more varied skill set. You might be interested in games but have no idea what you’d like to pursue or what you’ll be best at. Not only that but you’ll have access to software that you might not otherwise be able to get. You’ll be able to acquire a student version of 3ds Max and student pricing for Adobe products.

There are some downsides to studying game design though. I don’t know how things work in the US but here in the UK, there are certain restrictions about what can be taught. For example, there isn’t a unit that teaches 3D character modelling. There are ways around this, such as taking an open-ended unit and adapting it to game design, thereby allowing students to learn how to model characters without going against the unit guidelines. However, there are no guarantees that your tutors will do that if you decide to study game design. As it happens, circumstances with tutors leaving and being switched to different subjects led to character modelling and 3D animation both being scrapped for the two years I studied game design and replaced with a second 3dsMax-based class and the much less interesting “storytelling for games” class. Goodbye Zbrush and Maya, hello MS Word.

All that said, I wouldn’t trade my time studying game design for anything. You meet great students and tutors who love gaming as much as you do. You learn that game design isn’t as hard as you’d think. If you’re anything like our class, you might even get to use the Oculus Rift and, according to my tutors, making games for VR is going to be a bigger part of game design going forward. The one nagging flaw is that while game design is much easier to do than you would expect, the more advanced aspects of it will still feel just as out-of-reach when you finish studying game design as when you started. That’s frustrating but you’re going to run into roadblocks for years to come in game design. You can’t be Shigeru Miyamoto right off the bat.

Super Mario Maker
He’d probably bash your levels on Miiverse if he was allowed to

Finally, although I like to stay away from Twitter drama, those claiming that the games industry is a “boys’ club” designed to keep women out, I can tell you from first-hand experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Doomsayers, “culture critics” and scaremongering articles from gaming journalists paint the games industry as a “toxic” environment for anyone who isn’t a straight white male. Yet when operating as a development studio, each class was tasked with drawing up an equality and inclusivity poster. Entire “Understanding Industry” classes were devoted to critiquing female depictions in games and discussing women in the industry. The few sessions studying character design before the class was cancelled were devoted to breaking stereotypes about both male and female characters, not perpetuating them. It’s a stark contrast to the current narrative demonising this field.

If I had to sum up all of the above, there is nothing stopping you from going out and making your own games. Or staying home and making your own games. There are more options than ever before. On Twitter, I’ve seen the hashtag “#Solution6Months” crop up from time to time, basically giving people helpful links to resources that allow people to make their own games. They have the right idea. If you want to make games but can only devote your free time to it, should you? The answer is yes. Should you go to college to study it if you want to enter the games industry? Again, yes. Should you go to college to study it if you just want the skills and don’t care about a qualification? That’s a bit trickier. If there’s nothing else you want to study, sure. On the other hand, if you think there’s something that’ll put you in a better position for the future, I’d recommend studying that and pursuing game design in your free time.

One day, you might even have your game reviewed here on GamesNosh. We’ll be fair to it.

About Stephen Carr

Stephen has been an avid gamer since the days of Amiga 500+ and often wonders why we can't go back to the good old days of long loading times and Inserting Disk 2.

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  • Reptile

    Great article! My Digital Game graduation was like that but a lot more technical than theory. We spent a great part learning about 3Ds Max and Unity 3D (Which I think is wrong, we should see more tools, look at its similarities and etc). We were also put on our own, that is where most of the class failed and only 2 others graduated with me (there was a mess with classes merging and etc) on which one was from my group and the other a friend which I worked on previous projects but in this case he was in another group. The course itself wasn’t well organized, but in a way that was good to us because we learnt the hard way how to organize ourselves in the middle of miscomunications between teachers and coordinators.

    I was basically the only one who graduated and had a job at the area, I worked with educational games to public schools (Which our ‘great’ government didn’t paid for what we did, so the company almost filled bankruptcy -that is where our team was fired-) and it was there where I learnt the most, I had to learn almost everything alone as one of the most “skilled” programers ( it is true that I knew nothing, I was really noob) I had no one to ask questions but google, no one to seek for knowledge, it was like graduation, but much more harder because we were working with the real thing.

    When our team was fired, I had stabilished a network with my project manager who found me another job in a publicity agency, great, but I would be programming in PHP, JavaScript and .Lua, which I knew almost nothing, also it would be another world, the world of Web and App development, again, I’ve learnt a lot because of deadlines and lack of knowledge (the urge to know how to do in a short time).

    So today I am away from game development industry, but I still plan to pursue a job, I still study softwares like Blender and Unity3D at my free time. I also have a project inside the agency that is a game, sadly I’m the only one here with experience in the area so I’m the only one working on it, and we don’t have the resources right now to hire more people. It is hard and will take time (because of high priority projects), but you know what will be good at the end? Looking at this project finished and ready, looking at what I can achieve.

    It is good and refreshing to see an article like that, my answer is the same as yours: Yes, Study game design, but don’t expect someone to take your hand and teach you like a baby, learn to learn by yourself, that is the most useful thing you will learn.

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