So a Video Game Design degree is your dream! However, can you make it into a source of income?
Anyone with a passion for video games and a desire to make their own is seeking a career in the industry these days. As teenagers who played video games in their spare time, these young people must have thought “This game is awesome! What if I can make something that great?” or “This game could have been better if…” With these questions in mind, they must have sought to learn all they could about game development, design, and production. One day, they learned of a fancy college offering a few video game-related curriculums that placed it high in the Princeton Review rankings.
Seeing this as a golden opportunity to start a career path, these aspiring game developers signed up to take various courses that taught the various game development and production disciplines relevant to their gaming passion, be it level design, 2D art, 3D modeling, programming, and production among other subjects. After 4 years of studying, they graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in their fields, dreamy visions of full-time employment in their minds, and confidence in their abilities. A few years later, they are stuck in their parents’ homes with thousands of dollars in unpaid student loans. Even after uploading their resumes to various job sites and LinkedIn profiles, they have yet to be employed by any company, let alone a video game company; they are stuck with their part-time jobs that aren’t paying them enough. A single word suddenly echoes in their minds: WHY?
That’s kind of what I can guess is going through the minds of most college graduates seeking to get a career in the video game industry. Of course, that’s just coming from me, an aspiring game designer seeking to break into the industry. My journey began in late 2011 when I read an October article of Business Matters, a publication of the Telegram & Gazette newspaper based in Worcester, Massachusetts, about the video game program offered by Becker College, also located in Worcester. Prior to that, I was studying at Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) with the goal of becoming a filmmaker. But then I realized I had more of a passion for video games.
I thought about becoming a filmmaker so I could make better film adaptations of video games than the ones that were being released up to that point, which tend to get a bad reputation for being inferior to the source material (they still do to this day). As further reinforcement to this fact, I bought myself a PlayStation 3 as a self-congratulatory gift for graduating from QCC in May 2011 with an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. Upon reading the aforementioned Business Matters article and given that Becker College is a 20-minute drive from my home in Millbury, I decided that I would take a shot at a career in making video games.
In early 2012, I attempted to sign up for the first year at Becker, but I got put on the waiting list because the game development curriculum got filled up given its popularity. After consulting Becker staff members and a few relatives with college experience, I learned that I could transfer the credits I earned during my time at QCC to avoid retaking some of the same courses again and take a couple of additional relevant courses at QCC in order to reduce tuition costs. So I took a couple of QCC’s computer-related courses online in late 2012 and an introductory drawing class on the QCC campus in early 2013. After that, I transferred all of my QCC credits to the game development and programming curriculum at Becker effectively slashing my tuition fees and graduation requirements by around half.
From the Fall of 2013 to the Fall of 2015, I placed a lot of effort into learning all I could from the professors about the various aspects of game development, production, programming, and design while getting various assignments done. I had to deal with various struggles during that time, including time management, meeting assignment deadlines, not being able to grasp programming in an understandable manner (which prompted me to change my degree program to game design during the Spring 2014 semester), being barred from campus twice for letting my self-talk get out of hand (once near the end to the Fall 2014 semester and the Spring 2015 semester), and working with teams on group projects during my final two semesters.
In spite of the aforementioned hurdles, I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Game Design with high grades, a few places on a couple of Dean’s Lists, and flying colors by the end to 2015. Since then, I’ve been spending my days improving my skills, conducting independent research on game development and design via the Internet, building up my video game collection as inspiration, attending as many game jams and meet-ups as possible, and creating some working prototype games.
Of course, I did make a couple of attempts to break into the video game industry during the second half of 2016. They didn’t work out. One employer had asked for assistance in making a VR game which I don’t know how to make and had no interest in. There was also a failure to communicate with a couple of the VR team members via Skype. I never got a response from any of them after just one message, making it impossible for me to work with them on what needed to be done.
In another instance, one guy I met at a Halloween-themed game jam introduced me to a game company start-up via Discord. They were looking for a second artist that can make pixel art in a style similar to Stardew Valley. After I submitted my artwork, I was turned down because it was not up to par. So I found myself thinking “the hell with it” and resumed my days perfecting my craft alone.
In the span of more than 2 years since graduating from college, I have been engaged in a balancing act in leading a double life as a gamer and an aspiring game designer. I conjured up 38 game ideas and around 7 prototype games but I have yet to secure a profitable game development career. As of this writing, my only source of income is a 4-hour-one-day-per-week bagging job at a local supermarket. I attended a nearby job fair hosted by GameStop in February to apply for a position of retail associate at one of their stores located within the driving distance of my house. There has been no word from them since as to whether or not they would be willing to hire me based on my qualifications.
In the past two months, I received a couple of emails from recruiters who saw my resume on their associated job boards. They offered me positions (one was for an instructor at a STEM-focused summer education program for kids and teenagers held in college campuses located in Southborough and Boston like Harvard, MIT, and St. Mark’s School; the other was looking for a Social Media Evaluator who would rate social media ads) that would have paid well but were not exactly in my best interests.
Assuming you have read this far, you might be asking, “What’s the point of you going on about your time in college, continuing to study after that, and not being able to land a job in your field?” The point here is this: just because you went to college to get a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean that you will get a job with that degree in any field, let alone video games.
During my struggles to get my skills up to par, I slowly came to realize that just having a Bachelor’s Degree in Game Design doesn’t amount to anything. I confirmed this realization via a couple of my connections on Discord and LinkedIn. The main purpose of having a college degree is so that it would make it easier for employers in searching for job applicants. Given the fact that most businesses tend to be risk-averse, it would be extremely unlikely that a recruiter would be willing to go over the resume of an applicant who, while displaying evidence of hard work, has nothing in the education section beyond a high school diploma.
That is the unfortunate reality of today’s overall economic landscape. Unless you are able to perform the miracle of an underdog trying to make it big time, you’re out of luck in getting a strong source of income when you get into the video game business. If you’re convinced a college degree will help you in that regard, then you should be alright as long as you are able to pay off the student loans that go into it. But it would not be a good idea to just leave it at that.
Imagine that you took driving school in order to learn how to drive a car. While what you may appreciate what you’ve been taught there (various parking methods, what can cause accidents and crashes, etc.), you’ll find yourself faced with the realities of driving that the lessons may not have prepared you for upon getting a driver’s license. Confronted with those realities, you may have to unlearn everything that you were taught at driving school and actually learn to drive. When applying that example to getting a video game career, you may have to unlearn everything that you were taught at a video game college curriculum and actually learn to design, develop, and release video games. Just as you’re going to have to go beyond driving school to drive, you’re going to have to go beyond college in order to get a career in the video game industry.
What do you mean by “go beyond college,” you ask? What I mean is that there are limits when using college education to develop the necessary skills for video game design, development, and production. And they are not as obvious as tuition fees. One limitation depends on the way you process information within a classroom setting; it is a breeze for some while it can be a hurdle for others. I myself possess a unique way of processing information as a result of my autism. Since I learn differently than normal people, it was necessary for me to have accommodations like a tape recorder for some lectures and a separate space where I would take quizzes and exams.
In addition to one’s learning ability, another limit to a college education is that there is no guarantee that you’d be able to get as much out of professors as you would expect or even hope. Sometimes students and professors can’t communicate well with each other. Other times, some professors just can’t teach their students properly. Of all the professors I’ve met in my college years, the one I had my introductory drawing class with at QCC was what can best be described as…out of place. As I recall, he was a recovering drug addict who tended to be more of a preacher than a teacher; he sometimes spent on half of the class as the former and the other half as the latter. On one hand, he laid out various drawing techniques, encouraged the use of mixed media, and sought to have his students put in effort into the assignments. On the other hand, he deviated from the topics of drawing in order to preach what I would describe as the virtues of infidelity, get enjoyment out of prying into the trivial actions and personal lives of his students in front of the class when it’s not inappropriate, and even encourage a few of the students to get off track as a matter of social standing as opposed to learning how to make art. Overall, my drawing skills probably would have been better by the end of that semester had the introductory drawing class been fully committed to drawing.
My rather long-winded example just goes to show that there’s no guarantee that you’d get much practical value out of the classes that you’d put your money, time, and effort into. The final limitation to consider is that the technology and software you used in the classroom is bound to become obsolete by the time you graduated. It would not make sense to learn something like Unreal Engine 3 in college and then go back to learn Unreal Engine 4.
Given the limitations of the college experience, there are ways in which you can develop your skills outside of college. Different people have different ways of going about this, but I find the following to be best for becoming better at making video games that can lead to a career in the long run:
1) Expose yourself to inspiration and keep track of ideas
Ideas don’t merely emerge in your head out of nothing. Just as you can’t make an omelet without eggs, you can’t make video games if you don’t know what they are going to be. Your video game idea can be anything you want it to be when you make it as long as you have sources of inspiration to work with. The sources can be the games you played; movies and TV shows you watched; novels, comic books and manga you read; whatever you do in your spare time. They can also come from various non-fiction books on topics like science, sociology, and history. They can also be news reports you watched and read. Even the most mundane things that you experience in life can lead to unique game ideas. But once those ideas have formed in your head as a result, it is a good idea to have them written down so that you won’t forget them while you’re busy with other things like your part-time job, family events, or working on a game that has been in development. I myself have a list of my ideas that I bring up to date whenever I found myself coming up with a new game idea. I even went so far as to sort my ideas into tiers based on likely difficulty in execution as well as make a graph to determine which game engines would work best with the different ideas.
2) Try out various DCC and game development software
Your game ideas may appear good on paper, but you won’t know for sure if they can actually be made to function right and sell well. Needless to say, the only way to be certain is to start building your games with game development programs and making additional assets using digital content creation (DCC) software. If you’ve studied at a college video game program, you may have defaulted to the software that you were using there. My time at Becker College, for instance, has familiarized me with Unity and GameMaker Studio 1.4 for game development, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for digital illustration, and Autodesk Maya for 3D modeling and animation.
Applying what you have learned with the software available at college is all well and good in the short term but at some point, you may end up hitting a snag as you continue working on your game. Perhaps the methods you were taught weren’t getting you very far. Maybe you’ll find yourself in a situation in which you can no longer afford to use some of the DCC programs because the license required to use it has expired. In my case, I cannot use Maya for 3D modeling and animation because the license to even use it expired quite a while ago.
The solution to this dilemma is two-fold. There are dozens of software besides the ones you’d find at college classrooms. Some game development programs can be purchased (sometimes after a free trial) and others can be downloaded for free. There is also DCC programs that can be downloaded for free without having to buy any license, with examples being the Blender (3D modeling software that works differently from Maya), GIMP (a digital illustration program that is basically a free version of Photoshop), and Krita (an illustration program with an emphasis on hand drawing). I highly recommend that you do research on various game development and DCC programs besides the ones you were exposed to at college. A solid starting point would be https://www.pixelprospector.com/the-big-list-of-game-making-tools/.
3) Continue studying game development online and offline
The tools necessary to make games are not very useful if you don’t know what to do with them. This brings us to the second part of the solution to the limits of the college-learned methods of game development: independent research. There are a lot of free tutorials across the Internet covering a variety of subjects ranging from digital illustration and programming to ways in which you use the tools offered by various game development programs when making games. I personally found the GameMaker tutorials made by HeartBeast and Shaun Spalding on YouTube to be very helpful in getting better at making games with GameMaker: Studio 1.4. When you follow along online tutorials, make sure to keep a lot of notes as a form of reference to fall back on. Doing research offline would also help. There are a good amount of textbooks on game development programs that would have something concrete to work with when you’re familiarizing yourself with the likes of GameMaker: Studio, Unity, and Unreal Engine.
There are also books that specifically cover individual topics like video game writing, game industry entrepreneurship, and video game programming. You can find such books easily on Amazon or in any bookstore if you know where to look. The catch with this approach, especially when it comes to the game development programs, is that computer technology and software continues to advance at a pace faster than around 60 years ago when early computing started to emerge. When I was starting out at Becker College, the old version of GameMaker (now referred to as Game Maker: Legacy) was in the process of being obsolete in favor of GameMaker: Studio 1.4. Today, GameMaker: Studio 1.4 is in the process of being replaced by GameMaker: Studio 2. Fortunately, some of the methods featured in the game development program books still hold up today but it would take a bit of problem-solving to get the featured tutorial games working with the most current software. The trick here is to be flexible in learning both online and offline, being able to adapt to constantly updated technology and software while being firmly grounded in game development fundamentals.
Your creations may end up becoming better than you would expect, but they will not generate a source of income if they don’t get attention from the public. That is where networking comes in. In addition to getting a degree on your resume, being in college also presents an opportunity to connect with other people who are along the same career path (in their own ways, of course). You might find yourself connecting with your colleagues based on similar interests and even making friends with a few of them. Some of them may end up graduating from college before you do and even land internships or jobs at game companies, big or small. There are also meetups and game jams in which you can hang out with your peers as well as get to know new colleagues and friends. The takeaway here is that you build up connections to increase your career prospects. You can establish them by a variety of means: phones, emails, Skype, Discord, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. By using these communication channels, you can exchange all sorts of information regarding the video game industry as well as various things you’ve been working on like games, art pieces, and blog posts. If you’re lucky, at least one of those connections might refer you to a potential employer or propose a joint project venture.
5) Experiment to make creations worthy of a portfolio
By using your independence from college to your advantage, you can use what you have learned from college and your own research to make experimental non-commercial projects. You can use whatever assets you want as placeholders in order to compensate for your current level in areas that you are least skilled at such as 3D modeling, illustration, and sound design. Most online and textbook tutorials include links to premade assets for you to use when following along in making the tutorial projects. You can use those to experiment with your own projects once you get used to the game development program the tutorials in question cover.
Unity has an online store in which users with a Unity account can download pre-made assets, some of which are free. There are websites like Sprite Database and The Spriters Resource to download assets ripped from old games so you can use in your experimental projects (as long as you don’t release them commercially, that is).
You can also use search engines like Google and Bing to look for non-copyrighted images to use as well. I myself plan on using art pieces I found on the internet in addition to screenshots of movies I made to see what I can do with Ren’Py, a visual novel creation program before I make my own works of art to use once I make my own visual novels.
Let me put it this way: say your practicing martial arts and climbing the ranks in your school/dojo. As you learn new moves and techniques, the focus is placed not on speed but technique. By focusing on improving technique, you'd be able to use punches, kicks, and throws more effectively. By becoming more effective at the technique, you'd be able to do those moves faster. By applying this mindset into improving your strengths and shortcomings in game development, the focus should be placed not on the content that you use, but on the methods in which you use the tools offered by your software. When learning to use Unity, for instance, you should just use the premade assets in order to learn how to manage your project better if you're making your game in Unity. When using images found on the Internet to learn Photoshop, you should focus on learning how to better use the tools to edit, combine, manipulate, and create images before you'd be able to make your own from scratch.
Once your game development abilities are up to par, you can use what you have learned in your experiments to make your own games. You'd be able to use your own art assets without the copyright issues you’d face if you continued to use premade outside assets in your games, especially if those assets are recognized as someone else's. You should also be able to create games that you can market and sell without being labeled rip-offs or knock-offs of other more popular games. Like placing technique before speed in learning martial arts, you should place method before content in learning to become better with your tools in order to reach that point.
By applying everything you have learned via the approaches I just described into making your own games, you’re much more likely to increase your career prospects. You’ll be able to add new skills to your resume and LinkedIn profile. You’ll be more capable of making original portfolio pieces to put on your website (assuming you have one, of course). You'd be able to prototype games faster with your chosen game development software. Once you show off your games to the public on the Internet and at a meetup, you're bound to pique the interest of someone looking for a skilled level designer, artist, programmer, whatever. With enough hard work, focus, and determination, your chances of landing a career in video game development should become significantly higher than when you just possess a Bachelor's degree
As I said initially, getting a video game design degree doesn't guarantee you a job in video games. I myself have been out of college for more than two years and my own career has yet to take off; I sometimes find myself with feelings that my efforts won't amount to anything. But that hasn't stopped me from getting better at making video games. So you should not stop improving yourself just because your degree didn't get you into your dream job. When you continue to put effort into becoming a better game developer, you'll be able to produce something truly distinctive that would back up your education.