Screw Degrees! Right?

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.


6 thoughts on “Screw Degrees! Right?

  1. I don’t work in the gaming industry but I am a programmer for a living. I have a degree. I don’t use 90% of what I learned in my day to day job. That being said though, my degree taught me a lot more.

    Most of the early introductory classes didn’t teach me anything. I already knew the syntax of all the languages I was introduced to. It was until “Data Structures” that I really started to learn anything. “Programming Languages” was another class that was really interesting to me and I even managed to get a job inventing a language and interpreter for a local company.

    It definitely made more mature on as you stated. I know how to manage myself much better than I would have coming out of high school. Also, when those 10% of situations do roll around where I have to extend myself, I know how to go about doing that.

  2. Definitely agree. I didn’t get my degree because I felt like I was going to get anything out of my education (though I did), I got it so that I could make sure I could get a JOB.

    It’s the same reason why I will always recommend a general computer science degree over a specialized game programming degree – they’ll both teach you some of the skills you need to learn how to code games, but you’ll get a whole lot more (in terms of education AND marketability) out of the computer science degree.

  3. I think perhaps another aspect to consider is that not everything is about jobs or making money. Sometimes people want to learn about creating something for fun/artistic reasons.

    I worked in a job closely related to the games industry for a while, in the process I saw the sort of jobs people have in the games industry.

    In the end I left, for the reason that making a game as part of a company is nothing like writing a hobby project.

    Despite greatly enjoying creating games, I found doing it for a job was not the right thing for me. Leaving the industry was probably one of the best decisions I have made(of course for a number of reasons also).

    When you work for a company you only get a very small amount of input into what the finished product will be and your work is only a small part. In such a context artistic input is limited(no matter which member of the team you are).

  4. I guess my post was not very clear. What I was saying is that it is probably important to ask the question “Is a career in the game industry what you really want?” when someone asks if they need a computer science degree.

    I would guess that in a lot of cases where they are hesitant, it isnt what they really want. At least if they were to understand the nature of the job. In retrospect it was not what I wanted.

  5. Well, I was a wise-ass teen who knew everything about computers and programming, decided to do the degree just for the student life (which was already a good reason for doing it), I got my degree, and today I am very happy to say that if it was not for the degree, I would not have gotten the jobs or positions I did. Yes I want to write Games, but remember, it might be your dream, it’s not necessarily going to be your life…

  6. Well, I’m 18, going on 19, and I’ve just finished my A-Levels (Equal to high-school in the states), and I chose to forgo going to university to get a comp sci degree, and instead have landed myself a job working as a junior developer with a major international IT company. I fully intend to one day study at university and get a computer science degree. With the way the economy is right now, many graduates are having a hard time finding a job, and I feel getting experience as a developer is far more important to my future career. And it’s true many developers who never got a degree are worse for not knowing many basic, underpinning ideas about computer science – but you must remember that just as many graduates will forget what they learned during the course of their degree once they begin working, especially those who never programmed prior to starting their course. Those with a little bit of experience under their belt and then choose to study will always get the most out of their education. Your comment about not being mature enough at 18 to work in a corporate environment is simply ridiculous, you’re not mature enough to work until you’ve actually worked, age has nothing to do with it. IMHO the best way to be a good programmer is to READ about programming, at least enough to learn something new every other day. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree or if you just went straight into work – if you choose to stop learning at any point in your career, even the brightest uni students will turn out to be a mediocre programmer at best. Although the practice you gain during a degree course I have no doubt is far more interesting and practical than anything you would do in the office, much like the drinking games.

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