Posted by Javid Shamloo | Posted on September 19th, 2015 at 3:26 am
It seems that there are schools for everything these days, from traditional universities that take 4-5 years to complete to technical schools that can be finished quickly in 18 months. I have had the dubious honor of going to both of these types of schools. For people who want to make video games, they would naturally go to a school that teaches this. Schools like Digipen and Full Sail offer comprehensive degrees in Game Design and other game related areas. I have had experience with this type of school as well. I’d like to talk about it, as well as tell you the real, behind the scenes story as to how most of these game “schools” are run. The story I’m about to tell you is 100% true and personal. I’ll tell my story this week and then next week I’ll share a more generalized overview of game schools and what they do to students who graduate.
I was interested in making videogames my career since I was 12 years old. I took programming and IT classes in high school in order to one day be able to make the next Sonic or Galaga. I went to UCF and got a degree in Computer Science and a minor in Mathematics because I was told that I’d need these skills to make games. I was not told wrong and I use my math and programming skills every day on the job. When I was about to graduate from my undergrad I was talking to my advisor as to where to go next. I mentioned that I wanted to make videogames one day and her head shot up in excitement. “You’re just in luck, Javid! There’s a new graduate school in Downtown Orlando associated with UCF and the gaming industry that trains you to do just that!” She reached into a box and pulled out a pamphlet for a school called FIEA (Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy). I looked through the pamphlet, liked what I saw, and called up the school for a tour. I was met by the admissions director of the school who gave me a tour around their impressive facility. There was a game room, a big studio-like work area with students working silently at their desks, lots of conference rooms filled with game designs and art sketches…this school looked like the real deal. Then I was introduced to the head programming teacher of the school. He explained to me all the great stuff that FIEA had to offer, and all the wonderful things that I would be doing and learning there. He explained to me that the school was separated into three types of students: producers, programmers, and artists. I would be a programmer, since I came from the Computer Science program in UCF. I would work with artists and producers in teams to make games and would be taught the skills to work with them that I would need in the real videogame industry. Basically, this school would teach me all I needed to know to work in the game industry, at the fair, agreeable price of $60,000…$15,000 per semester for four semesters. Seemed a little steep, I told my parents, but what the hell. They seemed to be the real deal, and they promised they would get me a job in the game industry after I graduated. So I smiled like a dumbass, got a big, fat student loan, and signed on the dotted line, eager to start my first day of class.
The first week of class was a little weird. We were all given ID badges that would open the doors of the school. The school itself was located in Downtown Orlando next to the “bad side of town”. If we were to walk one block in the left direction, we would be in the projects and certainly in danger. So we were told not to go there. Safety was always a big deal as there were homeless people accosting us for money every day and sleeping at the bus stops every night around the school. I would drive home at 5 a.m. (more on why I was there that late later) and see 50-100 of them asleep on the street, literally on the ground. The dregs of America. Women in the school would ask to be walked to their cars, for fear of being abducted by one of these people and raped at the nearest convenient crack house. We were all given our laptops that would be used for our work there, plus a bunch of other stuff that we had to bring to school every day. My backpack was so heavy that when I put it on the passenger seat of my car every day to drive to school, it would register as a person and my car would blink to please put a seatbelt on. I would carry this backpack everywhere I went. I felt like an Egyptian laborer.
Now before I said that the first week felt weird, let me elaborate why. My programming teachers told us programmers that we would probably not get along with the artists. “They’re too weird and don’t really understand logical thinking. They’re in their own world and will not get things done when you want them too. You might have to hassle them a little.” The first few lectures had the feel of a cult initiation. In fact, I was terrified of one of the teachers, whose name I obviously won’t disclose. He walked, talked, smiled and manipulated like a cult leader. They told us that we probably wouldn’t get to release many games when we got into the industry. “Most of the stuff you do will get canceled and thrown straight into the garbage…but you’ll get paid.” They also told us that we would have absolutely no freedom in contributing to the design of the games. “Someone will tell you what to do and you’ll do it. We have focus groups and business plans that dictate the designs most of the time.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! My dream job was suddenly starting to turn into a bad nightmare.
And then the work hit.
They promptly split us up into groups and began what they termed, “prototype rounds”. Each group would consist of 2-3 producers, 2-3 artists and one, read one, programmer (since there weren’t many of us at the school…not many people can program well enough to make the shit AAA studios release today I guess). During my first prototype round, I caught the flu and had to stay home for a couple of days. My group went beserk! Where was the programmer!? They somehow got my phone number and called me two to three times a day, seeing if I was better yet. I told them to be patient as I needed time to heal but there was no time for patience they said! The prototype was due in a week! I was a little better but still pretty sick when I went back in to school. I was met with exasperated tones by everyone in my group. Everyone else was farther along with their prototype than we were, and I needed to get to work! Now, I should state that assignments at FIEA were always done in a rushed manner. This is precisely because the teachers gave us ¼ the time needed to properly complete the assignments. So what would you do? Take uppers, energy drinks and coffee, don’t sleep for two weeks, and get it done. This was the first time in my life that I bought and took caffeine pills. As I stated before, I would always leave school very late: 5, 6, even 7 in the morning. I would go home and sleep for 3-5 hours, then wake up, pick up some fast food and eat it on the way to my 9 a.m. programming class, where they were teaching us the basics of C, stuff I already knew but still had to be tested on and attend lectures for or else I would be failed. It should be noted that only 2 of the 10 programmers had programmed in anything but Java and Python: me and another programmer who, before he came to FIEA, ALREADY worked at Ubisoft developing Beyond Good and Evil 2. WHY he was at FIEA I never totally found out, but they gave him a full scholarship to be there.
So that was the way it went. They never really taught us how to work together in groups (as I was promised). They just kicked us all in a room together and had us figure it out. I had one producer who would leave early to go home and sleep with his girlfriend. This was because she couldn’t fall asleep without holding his hand, he said. Well, at least someone in our group is well rested, I thought. Other producers would go out to bars all night (we were in Downtown Orlando after all and all the bars were walking distance away). Then, after an all-night drink-a-thon, they would drunkenly stumble to my desk, put their grubby hands on my computer screen, and slobber, “Hey, whaddya doin’? Are ya gettin’ everything done!? Hurray up!” All the producers, and some of the programmers, bought nerf guns, which they would then proceed to have wars with right in the middle of the work area, shooting nerf darts that would stick to my computer screen and had to be pried off. I ended up getting so sick of that, plus the fact that there weren’t any windows in the school (so they could keep us jailed and dumb) and the lights were turned down so low that I could barely see where I was walking most of the time, that I avoided my tiny desk entirely and used one of the conference rooms where there was a lot more space and light, but still no windows.
I would hear things when I was at the school. One of the producers said, “Programmers don’t matter as much as they think…they’re just gonna end up doing what the fuck I say!” Another producer said, “Bro, I wanna fuck the admissions director and this artist chick.” In fact, one of the producers had an affair with the admissions director to the dismay of his wife. They ended up getting divorced in the last semester of FIEA. One of my groups had a producer who was unresponsive; he didn’t talk to me for the entire two week prototyping session. I later found out that he was developing a flash version of the game I was creating because he didn’t believe I could finish all my programming and Maya work (yes, they had all they programmers learn fucking Maya) and complete the prototype on time. I talked to the “cult leader” teacher about this, as well as the fact that there was entirely too much work to be done and could I please get some advice to get me through it all. He said, “I don’t know what you’re gonna do Javid. It seems everyone, including me, is disappointed with you. I don’t know how you’re gonna bounce back from this. Your reputation might be ruined.” Now it should be noted that I was not doing poorly at all, I was getting all my assignments done (while not getting any sleep) and was receiving A’s and B’s in all my classes. To top all this off, the producer who circumvented me and made the flash game demanded 5 minutes of our 10 minute presentation time to show his “game”. He did and we got marked off for it because the teacher really wanted to see what me and the artists did.
Here’s a really interesting story of something that happened to me at FIEA: I was put in a group to make a very interesting puzzle prototype where the player could move parts of the world around to create platforms that could then be used to jump to new destinations or block off and redirect enemies so the main character would take no damage. Now for this prototype I was lucky enough to be working with another programmer, the Spanish Ubisoft guy I mentioned earlier. It was determined that we had enough manpower in our group to do more with this prototype that could usually be accomplished. I mentioned that I’d like to try to make the game work with WiiMote controls. My group looked at me cautiously. No one had ever attempted anything like this at FIEA and innovation was frowned upon in an environment like this…but they said I could try it, provided I finished the other work that needed to be done, of course. I was elated, I worked for days and nights, figuring out the WiiMote’s API and programming with it for our game. I was almost done, but I was having one little issue. Everything was ready to go, but I had just one little problem that I couldn’t solve. Everyone ran me down, students AND teachers, “Stop wasting your time. You don’t need to be doing this. We need your help doing more important work like writing XML files.” But no, I told myself, I refused to quit. This was the most, and only, interesting thing that I had gotten to do at FIEA and I wasn’t gonna give it up now. Though everyone was telling me no and then proceeded to harass me, I wouldn’t give up. The night before the prototype was to be shown I figured out the problem! I spent all night finishing up and the next day, in front of 150 people, I stood proud with a WiiMote in one hand, the nunchuck in the other, and played our game. Everyone was shocked!
And so it continued. In one of my last groups the artists didn’t give me any art assets at all, and I had to find programmer art to fill everything in. The prototype ended up looking horrible and I was steadily becoming more and more insane coming to this type of environment every day. I talked to my father about this. I was talking to my father a lot now about all the horrible experiences I was having at FIEA and the toll it was taking on me. He told me to quit. But I couldn’t just quit, I told him. There were still groups that needed my help! I couldn’t just tell them to fuck off and move on! The cult had me, at least part way. I agreed to quit the school but stay till the end of the semester to help the groups that I was put under, as well as anyone else that needed my help. One day another programmer came up to me with a help request. He wanted to know how I did something on another one of my prototypes, something special that I figured out that he could use for his group’s prototype now. I told him I would be glad to help him and to give me a time when I could show him how everything worked. He never got back to me. This is what happened: FIEA had a big repository where everyone’s work was stored. There was really no security on it so anyone could go and look at anyone else’s projects and prototypes. What this guy did was go into my files, steal my code, and change it a little for his game (he also stole some sound code from me for another project he had to do). That game ended up winning the best game award at FIEA, and I got no credit for it. True story.
I told the admissions adviser at FIEA that I was not planning to return for the next semester. She said, “Oh, so you don’t want to make games anymore?” I told her I did. She gave me the most puzzled and disgusted face, as if I wouldn’t be able to survive without FIEA. This all was before the big indie games revolution, of course. I also talked to my programming teacher, the same one who at the beginning, before I entered the school, told me all the wonderful things FIEA would do for me. I told him how disappointed I was with the way the school was run and the way things had turned out with my experience. I told him that we weren’t being taught enough, and were being worked like slaves. He agreed, telling me that the school should be longer. “But then we’d have to charge more”, he said, “Instead of $60,000 we’d have to charge $100,000, even $150,000, and nobody would pay for that.” I then told him that even if I did stay, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere they would place me. You see, EA Tiburon is located in Orlando. They make all the sports games, the Madden’s, College Football’s, etc. Their working environment was just like FIEA’s, hell on earth. But I would be earning a measly $40,000 a year…but would get a great discount on all the EA titles I could buy. Plus, I could play in their ball pit and have access to their cereal bar too! I wanted none of this. I told him so and he replied, “Well then just get out. It’s obvious this industry isn’t for you.” I sulked my head low and left. The next day, he ended up giving a “graduate course assignment” where all the programmers were to do 30 hours of research on a topic so they could learn more while they were at FIEA. Then they were to write a research paper and turn it in by the end of the third semester. Too little too late, I thought. And besides, how much research could you do with 30 hours anyways?
So at the end of the day what did I end up getting from FIEA? $15,000 in debt, medical exhaustion, a whole lotta people pissed off at me, and my hopes and dreams severely damaged. Oh, and I got two awards from the school: the prototype I did with the WiiMote won best user interface and another game I was tasked with won best innovation. I got some candy and a fake WiiMote full of mints as my reward. I quietly put all my stuff into a box, turned in my computer and key card, and left. On my way out, the “cult leader” teacher called me into his office. He told me that I was an exceptional programmer with lots of promise. He was sorry to see me go but told me that if I ever needed anything to give him a call. I haven’t seen or talked to him since.
That was my experience at FIEA. I hope this has helped you to see how videogame schools, this one at least, are run. Now you may think that all of them are not this way and you’re absolutely right…some of them are worse. Next week I’ll discuss these schools in a more general sense, give a more objective insight into how they’re run, and go over what they do to the students who graduate from them.
Till then my friends, take care and stay safe!