Nadya Primak
I am a game designer, developer, writer, and digital artist. During the day I work on improving the functionality and user experience of websites. At night I am a multi-passionate maker with an endless list of ideas. www.nadyaprimak.com

Is a Game Development Degree Worth it?

The other day I read a fantastic write-up by Australian game development professor Brendan Keogh titled “Are games art school? How to teach game development when there are no jobs”. It was actually a written version of his presentation from his talk at GDC this year, but since the video of the talk is only accessible with a subscription, he was kind enough to make a version that anyone can read.

It’s probably one of the best articles I have read about getting a game development education and what being a game developer really means. Brendan talks about how game students come in with a misconception about how the program is meant to prepare them to get a job in the AAA game industry. The problem with that, of course, is that there are waaaaay more game development students than there are jobs in the industry.

GDC, the official game developers conference in San Francisco where Brendan gave the talk originally

I have to agree with Brendan on this point, because even in the United States where we have the vast majority of studios, there are whole swaths of the country where game development jobs are almost nonexistent. That even includes metropolitan cities like DC, where the only major studio is Bethesda, but there are at least two graduate programs that I know of offered nearby, and a lot more in the surrounding states.

The thing is, I have a bit of personal experience with the graduate programs in the area. I actually enrolled in a class at one of them, and though I met many lovely people there, at the end of the day I just didn’t feel like the return on investment was worth it for the amount of money I spent. Of course I was in a unique situation, coming from a programming background, having also already made games on my own.

American University has a graduate program and game lab in Washington, DC, but few students end up in the AAA industry

That’s the part that is trickiest, which Brendan also brings up in his article. “The students I’ve seen have the most successes as game developers—be that finding any job or be that getting some form of recognition for the games they make—are the students who act like they’re already game developers. Because they are. You don’t need a degree to be game developer. I would tell this to students regularly.” That is what I feel like I knew intuitively, perhaps because my bachelors degree was in Visual Arts, and Brendan also spends a lot of time comparing game development studies to art school.

The reason he compares the two is because, like art school, students of these disciplines often end up having to pave their own way to a career. The skills they acquire can transfer to a number of different industries. For example, a game development student might end up working as a web developer, or a project manager, or a journalist.

Bethesda is the only AAA studio in the entire DC metropolitan area

Thing is, I already had to pave my way to a career after my bachelors degree. I decided I was going to be a web developer, so I spent two years working for my Alma mater in the art media lab while teaching myself JavaScript and building a portfolio. Having paved my way once, I am not as keen on paving my way a second time. Or at least, if I must pave my way, I would prefer to do it without sinking further into debt.

Ultimately, for the reasons above, I decided it doesn’t make sense for me to pursue a graduate degree in game design and development. Reading Brendan’s article reinforced my decision, because it reminded me that if you make games, you are already a game developer, and the degree will not make you more of one. That being said, I really liked how Brendan talked about his approach in teaching a game development program, and if I lived in Australia, I might have considered taking his class.

Preview of some of Brendan Keogh’s games on itch.io

Getting students focused on making games early, and often, and looking at games that aren’t AAA quality but rather those made by indies all over the world, shifts the perspective of what game development really is and what types of people make games. His article inspired me to stop being a perfectionist and focus on making simple things and releasing them.

That is the true path to success in the game industry — start making games now. The more you make, the better you get, and the more chances you have of being recognized for what you do. Of course you will fail sometimes, and your games might be a bit trashy, but that is part of the process and part of how you grow. Oftentimes people wait until they are motivated to start a project, but the sad truth is that if you wait for motivation it might never come. The truth is that action comes first, then motivation, which leads to more action. It is a cycle, but the first step is to make a game.

This blog post is both a reflection and response to the write up by Brendan, but I still felt like I only touched the surface. If you are wondering if getting a game development degree is right for you, or if you are just curious what it is like to teach game development, I highly recommend reading it. He gets into all the nitty gritty details, with statistics and everything. You won’t regret it. Or check out his games on itch.io.

Have you graduated with a game development degree? Found an alternate path besides AAA game industry? Thinking about going indie or making alternative games? Leave your thoughts about the state of game development and education in the comments below!

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