To be a Games Designer

My Story Of Getting A University Degree in Game Design

Back in 2004 I was a fresh college graduate and I was looking to go to University. I was looking at the usual courses to further my qualifications until I became aware that a career in computer games could await me. With this catalyst and the internet at my disposal I started to look for courses. I found a few B.A. courses for computer games design so I started to apply.

I applied to Teesside University and was hoping I would get in. I had already been to Southampton University for a open day but I was doubtful I would be accepted as when they asked for my drawing portfolio, all gave them was a blank stare. That’s the first thing I hadn’t realised, you needed to know how to draw.

Now when I say draw I don’t mean you need to draw a perfect circle or computer game character first time. What you had to have was a firm command of the basics. Perspective, horizon lines, anatomy; a understanding of any or all of these would have been a great help to me before I started University. At this point whilst I was creative, everything I had produced was made using the computer. My strengths lay in multimedia and Photoshop was the closet I had been to drawing. Blissfully unaware of this fact I was accepted onto the course because I had enough UCAS points.

Off I went to Middlesbrough alone, ready to start my degree. I met new friends, joined some clubs and got down to some studying. The first year was challenging but fun. There was a wide range of modules and I felt like this was the course for me. Most of the time the course was focused on bringing everyone’s skill level up to decent standard. The 3D modeling modules were very basic but a eye opener of what was to come. Drawing classes were arranged and lectures given, basics of Game design principles were taught and sessions in level design delivered. At this point I felt out of my depth, which was a feeling I would become familiar with through-out my degree, but I was still having fun.

You won't even be allowed near the room where this equipment is kept. Its only used for promotional pics.

Before we knew it, the end of year rolled around and we were given our end of year project. When we were presented with the brief we all thought the lecturer was joking. We were expected to produce a 3D model of a famous castle. The problem was that the level of skill was needed for project was vastly different from the lessons we had received. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be in the same boat as me. Lots of my fellow students expressed concern that what was covered in the lectures and labs were light years different from what was expected of us in terms of skill and an individuals production ability. After we had finished bitching we all got down to some hard work and everyone got their project in. We all had a nice break before returning for the next year.

We were greeted by our course leader (the one in charge of our 3D lessons) with a rousing speech about how we were the worst year of students he had ever taught. Apparently no one had lived up to the standards he had for us. And we were expected to do better. 2nd year was spent trying many different areas such as character design, environment modelling, texturing and group documentation of a game production. This year the whole course was generally more orientated towards production timeliness and working methods of game studios.

Group work became much more important in this year and this is how I found out one important life lesson. Don’t work with your friends or people you live with.

Let me explain, when someone lets you down in a group task it looks bad on the whole group. Lectures, managers, bosses etc don’t care that a important part of your team has not completed his tasks because he just bought Dead Space 2 and hasn’t come out of his room for three days. Additionally you can’t really threaten your friend who is working with you on a educational project with anything really. You can’t kick them off the team, you can’t replace them, the only thing you can effectively do is try to bribe them & there’s no guarantee that will work either. This causes stress for at least yourself if not the whole group.

Now on the flip side of that could you imagine getting pressure from your friend to make a deadline? What if your mate came down hard on you about not getting your work on time? Could you keep a straight face and not take the piss out of him later when out for a few drinks? The answer is usually no, also your friend will probably become less of a friend the more they do this to you. Now don’t get me wrong, you will become friends with people you work with, however you will have met through one thing in common. You were hired to do work because you are professional, hard working and you are appreciated for it. Your friendship will stem from the trust you have in the other persons abilities, then you will get to know them as a person and like them even more. The other way round is just not ideal for group work except (in my opinion anyway) in very rare circumstances.

You will find a fair amount of D&D clubs at uni, to be fair these are probably gona be the most creative people on your course

So end of the second year and the end of year projects were much harder however most people did well and got what we believed were good results. Start of the 3rd year and the course leader again gave us the you better buck up your ideas speech again. At that point everyone came to a consensus of “he just says that so we will try harder each year”, boy were we wrong.

The same as last time the workload increased dramatically. Dissertations were planned and a lot of people aimed very high. Mistake! I ,being one of them, planned a very elaborate animation of a dystopic environment. It was to have a spaceship flying around, alien weed growing and a mysterious missing population which had left evidence of a very strange yet sudden extinction. There was much more however my dissertation tutor managed to rein me back in. I should of listened to him more, when I got around to starting my dissertation I was just swamped. There was very little going out and getting drunk this year. Schedules were made and stuck too, not very rock and roll but very real life.

Because I aimed high I essentially had a half finished practical side of the project when it came time to hand it in. It showed lots of creativity and potential but would of probably been better if I presented a project that was well rounded finished and I could present in confidence. When it came time to present it to a panel of judges being exhausted and unsure about the final facts and figures of my project it didn’t help the presentation. I was glad when I got out of there but I did feel a little low.

At this point we were looking at possible roles in the industries reading articles about what was to be expected of us in junior positions and trying to get a portfolio of work together. Then I came across this article. It was a sharp wake up call I needed to hear before I threw myself into a career of computer games. As I was thinking about what position I would apply for I started to think back over my three years about which field/expertise had given me the most happiness. At this point I was starting my portfolio, producing work in Flash, a bit of front end development and general multimedia work. Before I knew it I was done and I released the most fun I had was in the multimedia aspects of my course.

That played on my mind more and more as I sent off lots of different applications for game designer roles. Around this time we got our results and I had passed! I was happy, I was on a high looking back at what I had personally accomplished and was thoroughly into applying for jobs at that point. Soon I started receiving replies back from game companies and I became a little concerned. The general response was, “We are interested in you, but could you show your use of more modern texturing & modelling techniques.”

I asked some of my friends in the same situation about what feedback they were receiving and they said that they were getting the same results. That’s when the penny dropped, what we had been taught was inferior and out of date compared to were the games industry was headed. So much made sense, in almost every modelling & 3D based module we were taking, we were informed (by the same course leader) that we would be the “last” year to be doing this type of project. I was pissed off, but this made me realise something else.

I had not even bothered to check out who was running the course, their credentials, what gaming studios they had worked in, when was the last time they worked in the industry absolutely nothing. At this point I had no one to blame apart from myself, it was my choice of course, University and module type.

Lol wat? Is that even a console controller or just a really big usb hub

So If your thinking of enrolling into a computer games based course please don’t make the same mistake as me, research the course thoroughly. Check who the course leader is, what their portfolio is, what previous students have said (outside of the literature the University/College gives you). After all the person your placing your trust in educating you is just that, a person.

A example of what I mean happened to a friend of mine and I was there to witness it. He handed in a report to one of the lectures and got a poor mark for his work. He looked over the feedback he had received about why his report scored so low and went to see the lecturer. He caught up with him after a lecture one day and asked him about his report. He asked him to look at the report again because the mark seemed too low for the work he did. My friend kept pressuring the lecturer to remark it and eventually he did, 2 days later he got the report back. It went up two grades and the lecturer apologised along the lines of there was a lot of reports to mark, the line “sorry I don’t read them all the way through” was also used. At this point he was no longer a magical imparter of wisdom in my eyes and just a bloke who worked in a Games studio at some point and that’s all lecturers really are.

At the end of the day (it gets dark) its your debt and your degree, only you are going to push yourself to do better and whilst you are learning on a course you should also be learning outside of it. No one knows everything and you shouldn’t be happy with learning the bare minimum to pass the exam, project or course.

Of the people I know from Uni that have jobs in the computer games field, the degree we share was just the start of a tougher period of learning for them. A lot of people that were on my course after graduating said they weren’t going to follow a carer in games anymore, I made that decision and am happy that I had a backup plan. As time went on I realised that my backup had always made me happy and was something that didn’t seem like work. I continued with it and it steered me into the job I have today where I’m very happy.

Now there are lots of Universities offering Computer Games courses, but the Industry is even tougher to break into. If you want to take a degree in computer games I advise you ask your self these questions first.

  • Can you or do you like to draw?
  • Do I want to devote myself to a career where my pastime I enjoy will become my day job, which will remove all the magic of computer games and replace it with cold hard facts about the industry.
  • Do I want a £15,000 debt (on time of writing) before I even have a Job
  • I’m I prepared to work in a industry that is famous for treating its junior workforce terribly.
  • I’m I actually talented at this. I say this because I wasn’t talented at computer game design and no game studio is going to hire a lack luster programmer or designer when for the same money they can get the most talented.
This is just my experience and you should not be put off if this is what you really want to do, just get the most out of it and don’t think that degree equals job, well at least not in the Computer Games world anyway.
Thanks for listening Children!