The truth about institutions

This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 4, released in July 2006

So, off to a tertiary institution? Studying for your future? Excited about the opportunities in professional game-making that your studies will present? Well, know now that there’s another side to going to university, something that’s overlooked by a lot of students. You’re going to be surrounded by tons of interesting people while you’re studying, and if you don’t use that time to make contacts and learn about things “not in your field”, you’re missing a big opportunity to get ahead as a game creator.

How does one go about learning, though? Well, one of the best ways to get to know different people is to take elective courses that are totally off your “stream”. If you’re careful and study your university handbooks, you’ll be able to get credit for them no matter how strange they might be. A good way to decide if something is as interesting as it sounds is to spend a bit of time exploring exotic-sounding classes in first year, once you’re settled in it’s really easy to just sit in on a couple of lectures. If the course is interesting, relevant to you or has types people that you know you’re going to need to involve yourself with during your working life, sign up for it next year.

Here are a couple of ideas for things that you might be able to use to strengthen your CV and network at the same time. You should always keep a hard-copy of your contacts and how / why you know this person and what they can do.

Art / design courses

If you want to make games, you’re going to need art resources. Making friends with the arty students can lead to some of them wanting to help you with your games and providing graphics that you would never be able to do.

You don’t have to do hectic art classes either, most universities offer “lighter” courses such as Visual Communication or Semiotics. While they can be very strange to a technically-minded BSc student, learning the theory behind perception or how colours define emotions can be very useful and immediately applicable in your games. At the very least, you’ll have some understanding of how to talk to artists in their own language afterwards – never underestimate the importance of good communication!

I’ve got a short-list of contacts from my design classes that I send work to every once in a while when people ask me for business cards or logos. They’re all keen to work with me on games and I send them playable versions of what I’m messing with every once in a while. One of them even likes GM because she can change the graphics without having to code.

Nanyang Technological University School of Art, Design & Media

The same goes for music classes, but typically those are much harder for “lay-listeners” to understand. I’d suggest getting to know some of the design students and hanging around in the “art” areas of campus for a while. You’ll meet the musicians eventually…

Business / marketing courses

If you’re planning to do it alone and start up a company to build games, knowing all the little things you need to do to incorporate and understand how investment works can be invaluable.

You should be able to find entrepreneurship courses without too much difficulty and they’ll probably fit into your coursestructure quite well. Once again, they’ll be a bit simpler than your tech-minded CS courses, but it’s a different method of thinking. Once you’ve got an understanding of business, you’ll know if it’s something you can do or if you’ll need to get a partner to run the business side of things. The people in these courses can be valuable if you have questions later when you start up.

The dark art of marketing is a driving force behind the success or failure of games these days. Getting into a couple of marketing courses will give you useful contacts if you need marketing help, plus you can continue with it through to second-year level to give you an edge – if you’re built to withstand the lovely task of manipulating people all day, of course!

English courses

Not only are some English modules excellent for helping you develop that story-writing side of yourself, there’s also a whole lot of information about the publishing industry that can be learned here. Yes, the basic principles of publishing are the same for books, music and games, so a good publishing course will equip you to deal with publishers on a much better footing.

Personally, I’d recommend getting to know the publishing / English students through the first-year art modules you take, they’ll probably be in those. Then once they start talking about things that interest you, start sitting in on the odd lecture.

Psychology courses

A little bit of psych can be really useful in helping you decide how to invoke powerful emotions with your games. Unfortunately most 1st year psych modules are very low level, but if you feel that you’re learning something applicable, go for it.

Usability and Human-Computer-Interaction courses: Most informatics faculties will have a few courses dedicated to these fields. In the gaming sphere, the most important person you’re ever going to interact with is your user – the person playing your game. Any techniques and skills you can learn to make their experience better will translate into success later, even if you’re simply a programmer…

While these courses are most useful for aspiring game designers, learning the ins and outs of usability will make your code better and less error-prone, despite what the hardcore CompSci guys say about it. Trust me. Being able to make a piece of software fun and understanding WHY it’s fun will serve you in good stead.

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Regular courses

Most CS degrees will have you doing at least some maths. Go to it and work hard; you can do ok without it, but knowing your algebra makes graphics coding much, much easier. Trying to understand AI without combinations, permutations and some calculus will break your head.

Don’t run away from the physics course. It’s not as hard as you think, provided you keep working on it every week… It’ll help you out in the days of physics cards and emergent gameplay.

There are tons of other courses which might prove useful. Remember that you need to sit down and decide what you should focus on and what not. Your degree will try to push you towards certain things, but remember that this is all for you to use – get the most out of everything you can.