As you may be aware, there are numerous education programs out there for game development. What bothers me about many of these programs is the scarcity, or sometimes even lack of, group projects. The game industry is currently experiencing a wonderful renaissance in which it is once again possible for solo developers to forge successful careers creating indie and mobile titles, but a lot of students don’t necessarily sign up for game development programs with the dream of working alone. Therefore, if you’re an aspiring student who dreams of working on teams large or small, you owe it to yourself to be sure you’re getting appropriate learning experiences that exercise your social skills, including cooperation and compromise. Likewise, if you’re an educator responsible for curriculum, you owe it to your students to provide as many real-world development situations as possible.
If you find yourself in a great program that simply doesn’t offer you as many teamwork opportunities as you see fit, there is still hope for expanding your horizons. You may need to work with other students outside of classes. I assure you this is not a preposterous suggestion. Many prominent game developers have side projects, and in fact, some studios even actively encourage side or pet projects. It makes perfect sense! Each project you undertake is an opportunity to learn new insights you can apply to future projects. This is invaluable experience you won’t gain from simply learning software programs and reading about general development processes.
Starting your own group project can be challenging, but also highly rewarding if you stick with it. The first step is not to be shy. Reach out to your fellow classmates, check with relevant groups or clubs, ask your faculty if they know of other students interested in collaborating, and hit your school’s media outlets (newsletters, bulletin boards, social media, etc.) with ads seeking teammates. It may take some time, but it’s totally possible to build a team. It often helps if you set goals for your project, such as entering IGF or showcasing your game at a local event. These types of goals also include hard deadlines, ensuring your project has a definite ship date. Learning to cope with project scale and task scheduling in a group setting are important hands-on skills you are unlikely to find in your regular classes!
I realize there are a variety of reasons team projects aren’t frequently offered in your programs. In fact, many game development programs are fairly new at this point in time, meaning a lot of curriculum is still being pioneered and polished. Let’s push the envelope. One fairly straightforward way we can improve our offerings to students is by providing more opportunities for teamwork. This presents new challenges in planning and grading, but ultimately means we’re training students more relevant real-world skills! It’s not enough to simply teach students to use 3D modeling software and 3D game engines. We need to simulate the workflow involved in collaboration. Optimally, basic classes should be offered to give students a good grounding in a particular software set, followed by group project classes in which the students are now tasked with applying their software knowledge to a team production effort. (Example: 3DS Max and UDK classes lead up to team-based level design classes.) In addition to cultivating crucial social skills needed for effective work on a team, students would also have the opportunity to create larger, more polished projects than they could alone, meaning better portfolio pieces in the long run.
Overall, I think grading is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to offering team projects. In many groups, there tends to be a predictable mix of students who work their hardest and students who just skim by. My first suggestion is to stick to individual grades. This forces each student to be accountable for their own efforts, rather than falling back on a blanket grade. Additionally, upon completion, have students write a brief summary of their duties on the project and what they learned. Comparing team member accounts, as well as your own observations during class time, can be helpful in gauging specific participation.
In closing, both students and educators should be interested in academic project teams. From the student perspective, you gain social and workflow training that is absolutely critical in a collaborative field. You’ll start seeing common pitfalls and learn to overcome them. From an educator’s standpoint, you’re training more qualified students for the field, which reflects positively on your own teaching ability and your program at large. From either viewpoint, the benefits are clear. I hope to see more collaborative student projects!