SHOULD YOU GO TO GAME SCHOOL? THOUGHTS FROM A RECENT GRADUATE

I recently graduated from one of the top video game schools in the country, so I thought I’d share my experience- the good, and the bad.

The program I went through was a graduate degree in art, which emphasized 3D modeling for video games. The school has a range of undergraduate programs that mostly focus on various professions in the games industry, and two graduate programs. I chose the graduate program purely because I already had an undergraduate degree, and didn’t want to pay for four more years of school.  

WHAT DID I LEARN?

Since my program was for artists, I learned various subjects geared for making game art. I took classes in character design, anatomy, 3D modeling: hard surface and organic, texturing, lighting and rendering, and character sculpting. There were electives available in rigging, technical art, and VFX. As someone who wanted to be an environment artist, classes were a little too character-focused for my liking, but I still learned a lot. The program has since made an effort to offer more diverse classes including environment art, but when I was a student it was mostly a character design program and I was the rebel doing something different.

We were taught various programs, but the powerhouse was Autodesk Maya. We modeled in Maya, textured in Maya, and rendered in Maya. My 3D modeling instructor was particularly rigid- everything absolutely had to be in Maya. Other instructors were more flexible- while Maya was the program they taught, as long as your homework and projects were completed and filled all requirements, they usually didn’t care what programs you used to complete the job. I ended up teaching myself Substance Designer and Painter, and then rendered everything in Unreal Engine when instructors allowed me. The image you see in the beginning of this article was one of those cases- a texturing class where Maya and Photoshop were taught, but I wanted to bring my work to current industry standards.

By the time I left, the school was slowly bringing itself more up to date- with the help of new instructors that were dedicated to keeping up with the industry. There was a new digital sculpting instructor who taught his students to use Substance to texture their character models, and Keyshot for rendering. The graduate program added a required class that introduced various game engines to students their first semester; something I had been urging them to do since I started my thesis and discovered what a game changer being able to use an engine was.

As a graduate program, I was able to choose whatever I wanted for my thesis and learn things related to that. I chose to do a thesis where the end product would be a 3D environment, and in the process taught myself Unreal Engine, environment design, and PBR texturing. The school at the time lacked instructors knowledgeable in these subjects, so I was mostly on my own- they have now hired adjunct instructors who know Unreal and environment modeling, but it was too late to be helpful for me. Even with the lack of professional help, I managed to learn quite a lot on my own and the structure provided by the program was good at keeping me on track.

While my thesis was an amazing learning experience, and I was proud of my work at the time, I have since taken most of my work off the internet and hidden it shamefully away. Why? Because, objectively, it was a terrible 3D environment. It was my first 3D environment, and it shows. As an experiment, it was great- but it makes for an awful portfolio piece. I had no idea what I was doing, and neither did any of my instructors or thesis committee members. In the year since I’ve graduated, I have kept learning and improving and with more familiarity in environment modeling I can see everything I did wrong in my thesis. Maybe someday I’ll re-model it, but for now it will sit in a secret corner of my hard drive away from judging eyes.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE? 

So, how was it? Overall, I’d say I had a positive experience. Through my time there, I met many great friends, learned things I never thought I would, and grew tremendously as an artist.

However, there were definitely quite a few things that detracted from the experience. First and foremost, the program I entered was new; it was only on its third year when I started. They were still working out kinks in the curriculum, finding instructors, and figuring out what they wanted to do with the program. Needless to say, my first year was kind of a mess. Enrollment was low due to exacting and oddly specific entrance standards, and it was a struggle just to get the Dean of the college to allow electives to run because the number of students in my program was technically under the minimum enrollment for a class to be approved and scheduled. The classes that did run sometimes were taught by whatever warm body they could find, and not by an instructor who was knowledgeable in the subject. They were in the middle of transitioning from one program director to another, and each had very different ideas of what the program should be. By the end of my first year, I was frustrated: I felt almost scammed; that they tricked me into this program with promises of great classes, and then when I attended it was like they hadn’t even finished putting it together yet.

Luckily, my second year was completely different. The new director was amazing at fixing the glaring problems rampant in the program, and actually listened to feedback from the students. The new year brought in full enrollment, since the new director tweaked enrollment standards to allow a more diverse skill set for successful applicants. There were still issues with a lack of competent instructors, but overall the program was greatly improved and I was satisfied.

For what was supposed to be a two-year program, I ended up staying three years and I’m glad I did. Since my first year was such a train-wreck, if I had graduated on time my opinion of the program would probably be much more negative and I would have left the school mostly unprepared for trying to find a job. The improvements from the second year continued into my third year, with more competent instructors being added to the faculty that I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t taken an extra year. Of all my time there, my last year was the one in which I learned the most and gained almost all of my skills that would help me get a job in the industry.

By the time I finished my thesis and graduated, the program was completely different. They had a new, well-rounded curriculum, some decent instructors, and consistent enrollment. Though my time there was disjointed, I was still glad I went.

So, what exactly did I like about my time at game school? I’d say the number-one benefit of going to a school instead of learning on my own was the people. I made friends, but more importantly, I networked: classmates, game team partners, instructors, and guest lecturers all were valuable resources I could use once I graduated to get recommendations for jobs and advice for finding work. So far, every single job interview I’ve had was because of one of these connections. Breaking into an entry level job in this industry is notoriously difficult, especially so for artists, and I doubt I could do it without the connections I made at school.

 

WAS IT WORTH IT?

While I had an overall positive experience, I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure if it was worth it or not. For most of the people who have gone through the same program, it takes about a year of trying before anyone finds a job- sometimes more. I graduated almost a year ago, and while I’ve had generally positive feedback from employers and several interviews, I’m still looking for work. This is mostly due to a lack of entry-level jobs available, and not the fault of my school: almost every job I see posted wants 5+ years of experience, often also requiring shipped AAA titles, so my application gets chucked in the trash as soon as they see I have none- before anyone even looks at my portfolio. The few job interviews I have managed to get through my connections at school, I had to compete with hundreds of applicants. Every single rejection I’ve received that actually came with a reason was because of “not enough experience”. So, I plug along, continuing to work on my portfolio and applying to jobs with the hopes that someone out there will give me a chance.

Now, don’t let this necessarily discourage you. The job placement rate for the more programming-centric degrees at my school was much better, and all of the programmers I knew through working on game teams found work fairly quickly. To my knowledge, it was mostly artists that struggled to find work for so long after graduating.

To sum things up, here are the major pros/cons from my time going to a game school:

PROS:

  • Networking
  • School resources: career services, internship fairs, workshops
  • Learning from industry professionals
  • Game teams
  • Degree (some studios require degrees these days)

CONS

  • Cost
  • Incompetent instructors
  • Out-of-touch administration
  • New program growing pains
  • Lack of available entry-level jobs after graduation (for artists)

In conclusion, I’m glad I went to the school I did even though it hasn’t gotten me a job yet. Though it had its problems, I graduated with knowledge and connections I wouldn’t have otherwise. If you’re thinking of applying to a game school, my advice is to weigh your options carefully and do your research- find a school that’s right for you, your goals, and your budget.

 

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