I went to a traditional 4 year institute to get my education in Game Design (Michigan State University, in fact), and I never once doubted that my choice to do so was the right one. I’ve always believed that you don’t go to college to get a job, you go to college to learn life skills that will help you coexist with your fellow human beings for the next 60-80 years, and hopefully find something you’re interested in enough to dedicate your life to.
Having said that, there are some very important things that cross over between what I could have learned at college and what I am having to play “catch up” on now to teach myself to make myself a better Designer.Foreword
When I was at college, I heavily studied two key areas: Media and Communication. Most of my required credits were in Media (as a Telecommunication major) and almost all of my electives came from different communication classes — two foreign languages, linguistics, writing, etc. At the time of this writing I am adept at communicating ideas to my peers and knowing how to develop those ideas into games, but I also have a clear vision on less developed areas of my Design arsenal, and how they are holding me back currently.
I write this with the aspiring game design student in mind. No game design program at any university is all-encompassing and I still strongly believe that you should go to college and study something you enjoy, not something that will get you a better job. But, if you’re sitting around flicking through your college’s class offerings wondering what to fill your schedule with, this bit of hindsight might help you decide…
10. Creative Writing
For a long time, I wanted to write novels. Someday, I will. But there’s a very clear difference between wanting to write and having the technical skills to write compelling works (fiction or not). Creative writing isn’t the most important part of a designer’s job, nor is it the most interesting, but knowing how to architect a plot chart will help you immensely when plotting the flow of your game. Varying levels of intensity throughout play and having just enough resolution to make the player feel satisfied won’t make or break your game, but your players will love you for them.
For some games, knowing psychology will help you craft the player’s experience and push them toward the emotional states you want them to be in. Likewise, being able to guess how a player is going to react when confronted by a really creepy boss and what buttons to push to make the boss even creepier is another good tool you can use to generate that key emotional state that makes your game stand out in their memory for a long time.
Knowing what markets well and how to ‘spin’ your features as something awesome will bring in new audiences and improve your games. It also gives you a lot of perspective on the industry, when you wonder “What makes people buy that?“ Then, the question becomes “Can I add a feature like that to my games to draw in more people?”
Not programming-type-of-logic, but cold hard deductive reasoning. Thinking through your game mechanics with deductive reasoning will help you in an objective sense, as it leaves no room for “They should figure this out, right?” You’ll see immediately where confusion can be caused because there will be gaps in the logic. Then, all you need to do is figure out how to fill in that gap, and your gameplay will be smooth as silk.
Like it or not, social games are here to stay. Future games are going to improve social connectivity and multiplayer more and more, so knowing how people interact and how groups of people act is going to be critical in the future. This is especially true as the gaming population has been steadily maturing, and new technologies are bringing in different crowds than we have entertained in the past.
Philosophy, in many ways, is the odd man out in this list. I don’t believe it should directly impact the way you design games, although you can certainly embed philosophy in your game to make it richer. However, the study of philosophy changes the way you think about the world and the way things connect and interact. In many ways, seeking fun, enjoyment, and richness are cornerstones of both philosophy and game design alike.
4. Project Planning
I actually took a number of classes on this at Uni, but I feel like all of them were inadequate. That isn’t to say that they weren’t valuable classes that taught me how to manage time, schedules, and resources more effectively. They were really good, in that regard. But planning a game design differs quite a bit from planning other media and projects because of the nature of the beast. It’s a media form like film, but it’s also a technical pursuit like software engineering, an artistic pursuit like animation, and a sales pursuit like retail. Unlike these other products, the level of uncertainty is much higher and even in a AAA, well-oiled development machine you often see multi-million dollar representations of mediocrity. I’m not sure anyone has quite ‘cracked the code’ on the most effective way to plan game projects yet, and new hardware platforms, distribution methods, and monetization models have only contributed to the volatility of project cycles.
Another odd topic here, perhaps, but Religion is a poorly-addressed topic for games. I’m a little jealous of the works of film and literature that have been able to take a long, mature look at religion and the role religion has to play in society. Given the interactivity of story in games and the slow trend towards more mature stories in games, I would expect that this will become a very valid topic for game developers, spawning new mechanics and game genres altogether. This is also one of the best things, in my opinion, to study in a classroom, with a stern professor that takes a no-nonsense, objective approach.
2. Stress Management
I actually don’t know why this isn’t a required course at all universities for all fields of study. The game industry seems more prone to stress in some regards, you can cite any number of reasons — volatility in project development, underfunding, tight schedules, extensive overtime…the list goes on and on. Over time, stress is a major problem in our lives, causing impacting our judgement, happiness, health, and social skills. I don’t even know where to start on managing stress except ‘work through it’ — a mentality that causes even more stress later. In short, if you care at all about your life outside of work, figure out how to manage your stress levels.
1. Technical Writing
Technical writing is the majority of work done by a designer. Unfortunately, it’s also taught in dry, bland ways at Universities — usually given via a book of “APA Guidelines” and pages of essays. Interestingly enough, essays aren’t actually technical writing — they are opinion pieces. I can’t honestly say that essays are good outside of High Schools, where they are only useful as structured writing formats to improve fundamental writing skills. This is something I’ve had to teach myself through template and example documentation and it’s been a long road uphill to unlearn some of the positive harm of the ‘essay mentality’.