Posted by Javid Shamloo | Posted on September 27th, 2015 at 1:43 pm
Last week I shared my personal experience with the videogame grad school that I attended. If you didn’t catch it please feel free to look at it before you read this (you can read the article here). This week I will focus on a more overarching view of how videogame schools are run and how students who graduate from them go on to do in the industry.
The videogame industry is a very popular and exciting industry to be in. It generates billions of dollars of revenue and is seen by many people as the “cool” thing to do. Advertisements for game schools on noon-time television show people playing games on a sofa, and you’d be made to assume that that’s all it takes to make videogames. Just sit there playing them all day and somehow a new one will pop out of thin air. Sadly, this is not how it’s done. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work and technical acumen to make a videogame. Not only that, but nowadays games must be made in teams. One person just doesn’t cut it anymore. There is simply way too much work that needs to be done in a modern game now for one person to handle. Even small teams have a tremendous amount of difficulty cranking a game out. These game schools don’t tell you any of those things when they entice you to join. They push all the other, more appealing factors: it’s a cool job to have; you’ll get to play games all day; being in the game industry will make you instantly rich, etc. after bullshit etc.
If you look at the tuition cost of any game school you’ll see that it’s substantially more expensive than a more traditional education. As a personal example, I paid $15,000 in tuition for one semester at FIEA…and $30,000 for my ENTIRE Masters in Computer Science degree program. Also, a lot of these schools don’t even give you accredited degrees. A Full Sail degree literally isn’t worth shit…nothing. A Master’s of Science in Computer Science makes any job interviewer cum in his pants and hire you on the spot at $45-$55 an hour, depending on your experience and how complicated the job is. There was a joke while I was at FIEA, told to us by the game recruiters who promised us jobs after we graduated (and a lot of people who did graduate didn’t get them), that if an HR person at any game company saw a résumé with Full Sail credentials on it they would laugh and toss it directly in the garbage. Nobody would bother. Even at FIEA, the people who graduated from that school went on to work on such “prestigious” games as Madden Football for the Wii, the Hannah Montana games, and one person even worked as a tools programmer for Raven on the game Wolfenstein. Outside of the gaming industry, if you were not lucky enough to get hired (which Full Sail applicants and a lot of others most of the time weren’t), you literally couldn’t do anything else with your piece of shit toilet paper degree and were left with a substantial debt to pay back to the school or some other financial aid institution. I knew a few FIEA artists who couldn’t find jobs after they graduated. One went to live with his grandmother in South Florida and fell into a deep depression. Now, with my Master’s in Computer Science, at least I have some job security. My degree holds weight. If I had to I could make a very decent living in a pinch. And remember, I paid substantially less for this degree that any student at a game school would pay for theirs.
Now some of you may be saying, “Well at least they’ll teach me exactly what I need to learn to be successful in the games industry. Most regular universities are bloated in the requirements they make you do and don’t cut to the chase.” Well, I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you strongly there. While I do agree that most American universities can be doing a lot better at teaching effectively, the problem lies in the execution, not the idea. You see regular universities make you take all sorts of classes: humanities classes, art classes, film classes, psychology classes, etc. This is not to waste your time, but to make you a well-rounded individual. Well-rounded people do much better in life and enjoy it more fully than people who are not. With game and software design especially, this is very crucial. For example, Steve Jobs got big inspiration for Apple’s software by taking calligraphy classes. And all the great game designers are modern day renaissance people. They know a lot about the world and how it works, and they use this knowledge to influence and give great creative sparks to their game designs. Miyamoto got the idea for Zelda while playing in the woods as a child, Will Wright bases many of his game designs on books that describe complex adaptive systems (SimCity, for example, takes inspiration from Jay Forrester’s book “Urban Dynamics”). Basically, making videogames is a lot more than just jamming code into a computer. A lot of these gaming schools will not give you this valuable type of perspective. Most of them are very short, around a year or two to finish. In that short amount of time you’ll be, like I was, working endlessly on bullshit you could have learned by yourself at home (more relaxed and with more time to digest it), rather than running around in circles banging your head against the wall. It just isn’t worth it. I promise you, these game schools do NOT give you the tools to succeed in the business of making games. They just give you the minimal amount of knowledge to be another cog in the AAA machine so you know just enough to pull the levers and push the buttons, but not enough to do anything of actual importance. There just isn’t enough time to do so and the environment of these games schools simply doesn’t support the transfer of this knowledge.
Ok, so thus far I’ve talked about what happens to you when you’re at these schools, but what happens when you graduate? Well, the fun doesn’t stop there! You’ll be shipped off to the fabulous resort of a shitty, dimly lit, small AAA desk where you’ll get to spend all of your time luxuriating in the horrible pain of working on a crappy game that’ll either get cancelled, shipped off as a commercial commodity that’ll easily be forgotten, or get you fired because it doesn’t sell well. One of the artists who came back to FIEA, to lecture on where he was in the videogame industry after he graduated, told us that he was working on the Hannah Montana games. His job was to get Hannah’s clothes and hair JUST right, and he had to go through many tough revisions, with the marketing people yelling at him, “Hannah’s dress is purple, not violet! Do it again!!!” One producer who graduated from FIEA told us that he was now the lead designer on Madden Wii. That game flopped so hard that it got thousands of people fired as EA Tiburon was forced to cut costs to make up for their losses and bad publicity. My programming teacher came into class late one day because he was working to help fix the debacle with the game after getting yelled at (along with a bunch of other people) over the phone from EA headquarters in California. Nobody seemed to notice this connection though. Either that or nobody wanted to say anything. Also, a lot of game schools have very nasty policies that anything you make while in school belongs to them and they even prevent teams that go to their school, and have paid handsomely to do so, from developing and releasing their games after they graduate.
Here’s the bottom line, the summary: Game schools are commercial enterprises. Their purpose is to suck up as much of your money (as well as your hopes and dreams) as they can. They don’t teach you anything about what it takes to thrive in the game industry today and in many ways are a big part of the problem as to why games are so crappy. They sell false hopes and dreams. You drink the Kool Aid and slip off into a slow quiet death, while they suck your money, time and energy like a leech whose hunger can never be filled. They take, take, and take and give almost nothing in return. I’ve written these blog posts as a way to illuminate the situation, to give you guys the real facts on what is really going on. I hope that you’ll listen to my advice and also help to spread the word. Together we can all make the gaming industry, and the games that come out of them, better and less exploitative. I know we can. It all starts with action.
If anyone has any questions for me regarding anything I’ve said in this blog post and/or the last, I will be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability. Just use the contact form on this very website, or get in touch with me on Twitter or Facebook.
I’ll talk to you guys soon. Till then, take care and stay safe!