A Degree of Respect
13th Feb 2006 | 15:26
College days are the best days of your life - it's true. Where else can you sleep in your own filth until five o'clock in the evening, spend the night swigging piss-cheap pints, then run down the high street with a traffic cone on your head? It's a student's life, not a dog's (although many an undergraduate has been known to nuzzle their own testes). Of course, if you're taking a degree in Advanced Brainy-ology then your college days are not exactly a laugh a minute, so choose wisely young Padawan learner.
How about a degree course where you get to play PC games for four years? "Um, no. Students come here to make games rather than play them," explains Jim TerKeurst, game production manager at the University of Abertay, Dundee. Set straight on that matter, we were surprised to discover that games courses have proliferated across the nation like warts on a witch's hooter. What's more, they don't teach you how to play Quake deathmatch blindfolded, unfortunately.
WORK AND PLAY
The best courses prep students for the games industry - teaching design, production, and other tricks that make games tick. The work is intense, but the rewards can be plentiful. It all began at Abertay in 1998, when GTA creator Dave Jones approached his former college looking for staff. "There was a local need for developers - graduates with a knowledge of games programming, 3D/2D graphics and 3D modelling," explains Henry Fortuna, a lecturer at Abertay. "That need, combined with interest from academics at the university, kick-started the programme." Abertay's degrees in Computer Games Technology and Game Production Management are amongst Europe's finest, and the college spews its graduates into development jobs across the games industry. But when it comes to the dozens of imitators that have appeared in recent years, Fortuna is sceptical. "To be honest, some of these courses aren't hitting the mark."
Is a games degree really necessary in order to work in the industry? Svengalis like Black & White's Peter Molyneux or The Sims' Will Wright never even sniffed these types of courses when they were honing their chops, and they're not exactly stuck for work today. When Philip Oliver, from Blitz Entertainment, began bedroom programming in the early 1980s, this kind of course was unthinkable: "If you mentioned games to anyone in education they spat at you."
Mind you, those teachers laughed on the other side of their faces when Oliver sold his 'O' Level game project for 200 quid and went on to create old-school classics like Dizzy and Ghostbusters. "Back then you only had 1kb of RAM to fill, so it didn't take long before the game was finished," he chortles.
SCHOOL OF LIFE
Jason Kingsley, co-founder of Rebellion (Sniper Elite), who has a PhD in Zoology, argues that there's "no point in recruiting someone with a degree if they're not enthusiastic about the job. You have to be involved and impassioned. A degree is useful, especially for a technical post, but it's not the be all and end all."
It's a sentiment which Peter Connelly - the developer behind PC hits such as Age Of Empires, Fighter Ace, and Close Combat - can relate to. "People of serious talent will most likely succeed whatever their qualification or lack thereof, provided they are passionate about the industry. Having a qualification does not confirm future success, certainly not in the creative roles such as design, art, audio, production and dev." Dario Casali, level designer behind Half- Life 2, is an inspiration for bedroom coders the world over. While taking a business degree in England, he began pottering about with level remakes for Doom; id got wind of his skills, offered him a contract, and shortly afterwards a babyfaced Valve signed him up.
"None of the designers at Valve have any formal training in game design that I'm aware of," says Casali. "Most have honed their skills through experience and rabid dedication to their craft. Valve considers education as a primary gauge of aptitude, but it's the experience and performance on the day of the interview that are the most important criteria when we decide to hire or not."
IT'S A BIT TECHNICAL
Why then have games courses at all? Well, until recent years techy whizzkids had more of an opportunity to get a grounding in game technologies from the comfort of their homes, but today's development scene is mind-bogglingly complicated. "Graduates need to emerge from university with top-notch C++ skills, being aware of programming, physics, AI, rendering problems, and so on," says Greg Keegan, Climax's developer for games like Sudeki.
A cynic might argue that the insane amount of game courses springing up across the UK is because of money-hungry colleges who know that a popular subject guarantees mucho government funding. We would never suggest such a thing, mind. Oh no, not us, but when you're faced with a college that actually teaches David Beckham Studies, there's definitely something fishy going on. "It staggers me that some of the lecturers behind these courses will admit that they don't know much about game development," continues Blitz's Philip Oliver. "The point is, we're here, come and ask us. If somebody phoned
me and asked for advice or a review of the prospectus, we would be happy to do so, but they rarely ask." Keen to nurture young geniuses with a gift for developing, Blitz holds an annual amateur games competition through its site blitzgames.com.
COURSES FOR HORSES
Remember then, don't bother with a college that has no industry ties. Abertay has a constant stream of guest lecturers and work placement programmes, while a new BSc in Computer Games Development at Carlow IT in Ireland was created with a helping hand from physics boffins Havok, Microsoft, and Team 17 (Worms). Logitech is also clinging on to Carlow's coat-tails, hoping for a horde of graduates who can programme controllers.
A new computer game accreditation programme (www.skillset.org) should weed out traditional computer science degrees that masquerade as game development courses, reckons Climax's Greg Keegan. "Because we have an input into the accreditation process - we visit the colleges, talk to students and staff - Skillset will give the industry confidence that these courses are reaching certain standards. Hopefully after a year or two we'll see an improvement in the quality of graduates."
Without talent, cojones and a passion for programming, you can forget about a career in the games industry, degree or no degree. "The formula for success is to find what you're most interested in doing, be it art, design, writing, coding, animating, because it's a love for what you do that will propel you beyond most other job applicants," concludes Valve's Dario Casali. Of course, if you're set on a college qualification, a love for cheap ale and traffic cone hats helps too.