A few months ago, I pushed for GameDev.Net to add a new forum, Breaking into the Games Industry. Overall, this has been a great place and some excellent discussion has happened there. I’ve noticed one particular trend though, and I wanted to discuss it a little bit. Basically, there’s a surprisingly large number of people who are either dubious of a degree (computer science or otherwise), or actively believe it’s not needed. This particularly eloquent fellow may have summed it up best:
sure stay in school for your deplomas, in my apionon unless you wanting to work for others its a complete wast of valuable time.
I’d like to provide some commentary, as someone who actually got a game industry job without a degree, and who just finished his degree.
Number one: Why do you deserve the job over someone who has a degree? Typically people explain how passionate they are about games, and frequently how they’ve been working on some game X. All of this entirely misses the point, and presupposes that college students aren’t doing the same exact thing. College students aren’t (necessarily) dispassionate robots. Unlike the younger kids, a lot of them have had plenty of opportunities to develop much more complete games, usually as part of a group and working with tight time constraints — all while juggling quite a lot of other work. These are critical abilities for someone who does this stuff professionally, and also indicates a base level of maturity. The non-degree people almost without fail have nothing to show but half-baked solo efforts, built slowly and poorly over the course of many months. And yes, this is partly because spite for a degree usually shows a general lack of maturity, and therefore ability on the job. Given completely equivalent scale demo projects from a high school graduate and a recent college graduate, the latter is actually vastly more impressive.
Number two: Why are you so convinced that the degree is pointless in its own right? Are you annoyed because no game could possibly have a use for database implementation theory, or natural language processing, or operating systems techniques? This is also a problem with the game school crowd. Some people seem to think that what they need is to learn how to do numerical integration and handle a graphics pipeline, and make those things run crazy fast. While those things are generally pretty useful to know, they’re nothing you wouldn’t get from a standard college education anyway. You know why? It’s because games are exactly the same as most other software. Where’s the undergraduate degree in high performance computing? In massively scalable servers and cloud computing? Those also require a variety of highly specialized skills. They simply don’t carry the pop mystique that games have. It’s actually fairly pretentious to think that a normal education isn’t good enough for game development. Ironically, it’s usually the game-development education that isn’t good enough. Josh Petrie’s On Game Schools is required reading.
And on a related note, a lot of the posts written by these people are illiterate trash. Notice how most of GameDev is not like that? English is a required skill for game development (and programming in general), so learn to write like a professional. Computer science and linguistics are quite closely related. If you’re terrible at writing, you’re probably terrible at coding too. And nobody wants to work with a person who vomits out words into an email with arbitrary spelling and grammar, either.
Number three: Game development is not a game. One disturbingly common excuse for poor grades etc is that the person hates doing irrelevant things they don’t like, but is totally into working long hours on the thing they love, game development! How many games have you finished, kiddo? (Finished = could plausibly sell it on Impulse/Steam/iTunes without being laughed at, in my book.) How many hours have you worked in the industry, on a real project? There’s a lot of pain involved in getting a twenty million dollar project out the door, to millions of people. If you couldn’t hold your own through a handful of college (or worse, high school) classes because they weren’t fun and interesting enough, you’re probably not cut out to work in game development — or almost any other skilled job in existence. Finish a game project, for real, and maybe we can talk. Oh, and you WILL be asked in your interview about why you don’t have a degree. If this excuse is the best you can come up with, you’ll be politely shown the door.
Number four: We’re in a terrible recession with high job loss rates, people! Don’t forget the practical problems, like the vast number of out of work developers with a real degree and real world experience, who badly need a job and can do much better work than you. Companies aren’t in the mood to hire someone just to try them out, and passion was never a marketable skill. The companies that didn’t already auto reject degree-less candidates before almost certainly do now. You’re trying to stand your “years of DirectX experience” as a hobbyist against people who have likely published one or more cross platform big budget titles. They probably have a friend who already works at the company who can vouch for them. Oh, and that guy is probably passionate about games too, don’t you think?
Number five: You’re just not old enough. I wasn’t, and my job performance suffered for it. So did my grades. I learned along the way, but at considerable cost to myself. An 18 year old high school graduate and a 23 year old college graduate are very different people, and it’s rare these days that a high school graduate has the kind of baseline ability and maturity to handle a corporate environment. And it turns out that the ones who almost universally consider college to be a critical part of their education. The very fact that you’ve considered otherwise tends to suggest that you probably aren’t cut out for what you are trying to do.
Are there exceptions? Of course. A few in a million DO have what it takes, without a degree. Those are lottery odds, though, and I’m not exaggerating. And from those select few who made it, it turns out that (anecdotally, mind you) they don’t recommend following the path they took. And that was before the job outlook in the US went belly-up. The bar was high when I did it, and it’s been raised much higher since. If you do manage it, more power to you. People do win the lottery. And for those of you who did it, let me know if it was worth it. As for me, I decided to get the degree after all.