Built on a Foundation of Code – Game Edu Rant
COO & Game Designer, Loot Drop
GDC Game Education Rant 2011
[This talk speaks to the educators of entry-level game designers looking for a gig in the industry, not to experienced designers who already have their foot in the door.]
2009 was an interesting year for me. I left my job as the chair of a game design and game art program and returned to the game industry that I’d worked in since 1981. It was an interesting and eye-opening transition for me.
During this time, game design programs popped up all over the place. Last time I bothered to look for the number, there were over 400 such programs across the world offering some type of degree or certificate in game design. I was, in fact, chairing one of them.
Since that time, and having watched a flotilla of resumes fall off my desk unqualified, I’ve come to an understanding I wish I’d had then. That understanding is this: Game design programs must be firmly rooted in a foundation of code. And when I say “foundation of code,” I do not mean a program which includes a few coding courses to give students merely a taste, like Intro to C++ or Beginning Flash or Java 101. What I mean is that students – prior to their entry into the program or as a condition of their graduation from it – are proficient coders who can make and have made their own games.
- Game art programs facilitate proficiency in the tools of the trade – 3DS Max, Photoshop, Maya or ZBrush
- Level design programs facilitate proficiency in Unreal
- Animation students work in Flash, After Effects or Maya
So, why then do we consider it acceptable to send game design students out into the wild without the tools of their trade? The tool of our trade, the tool that makes things realized, is code. We would not send art students out with pencils or level design students out with graph paper renderings of unrealized levels, but somehow, we find it acceptable – even common – to send game design students out with board games and design docs. This has to stop. We owe the students more.
The absolute best programs, I believe, put students through the same level of coding as a comp science degree or expect that they have that knowledge beforehand. This is, I know, a tall order, but such a program is a dream, and I would actually be interested in hiring its students.
Unfortunately, many programs – if not the great majority of game design programs – mislead their students into believing they will get game design jobs when they graduate, and that is simply not true. Handed a skillset of theory and bolstered with a pile of design docs and non-digital games, these students head out into the world and, with rare exception, are cast out into two separate entry-level piles – those who can code and those who cannot. The only saving grace are those with internships. There is a separate pile for them.
At this point, many of you are thinking that you do not need code to design games. That is, in fact, true.
You do not need code to design games.
There are many jobs in game design – from system design to narrative design to puzzle design – which don’t actually require coding. In fact, I am just learning how to code. But, wow, how times have changed. With 30 games behind me, I can get away with this. Were I fresh out of school? I’d have a shockingly hard time getting hired. Without code, without games, students are effectively saying, “I’ve not actually made a game digitally, but I am asking you to trust that I can.” Why would I when there are 10 students here who know how to code and can illustrate their passion with proof? Look, their resumes are right here!
Naturally, some students point to design docs or non-digital games to prove their prowess. This will no longer do – a design doc shows one thing only – that you can write a design document. There are countless ways for a game design to go wrong, and what matters is not your ability to think of an idea, but your ability to execute on that idea and bring it to life. Code is how a digital game is realized. Without it – and no matter how you represent it – you have only an idea for a game and 100 possible ways it can go wrong. The true art of game design is not in the idea, but in its implementation and the ability, dedication and determination to carry it through to the end while finding that nugget of fun. I have seen – and ignored – countless resumes with bulky design documents in favor of those who have actual running games.
What about board games, then? These games show a completed design, and as some of you may know, I have designed a good number of them. However, board game knowledge doesn’t show ability to design anything but board games. I wouldn’t presume my work on hard core RPGs makes me a fit for the FPS space, and I have watched a good many traditional game designers struggle with their new digs in the social space. Game design for a medium or a platform is a specialization like any other. While I certainly think making games and prototypes non-digitally is an excellent idea, for those hoping to enter the video game industry, it cannot be a substitute for code. It cannot be all you do.
There is an obvious hole here, perhaps several. What of the student who works with a coder? He or she is a lucky student indeed, and having finished a game, she is ahead of most, with or without code. However, if I could get her to my desk, I’d point at the folders I have set up for game design applicants and show her the competition. I have a pile of resumes from students who are solid designers and coders, and other things being equal, a solid designer who is just a solid designer is going to lose, because the field is that competitive and because there are that many talented students out there. From a purely practical standpoint, students need something extra to be competitive. The students who can code will more easily adapt to scripting, to UI work, to XML tables and other small tasks I need them to do.
Toward a Better Curriculum
Game design is the low-hanging fruit on an otherwise tech-heavy tree and thousands of students want in. It requires no specific software be installed and no academic body requires its professor have specialized training. I think we can do better by our students, and this is the kind of program I whole-heartedly support:
- A solid and substantial foundation of code upon which the students build throughout their career.
- Regular practice of design, iteration and execution
- An appreciation of game design history
Code is the tool of our trade, and we owe it to students to teach them. The programs that do not do this are lost.