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Education vs Experience from a "New Guy" in the industry.

The challenges of being new in the video game industry, and how a Master’s Degree in Video Game’s stacks up to real world experience.

Imagine this, you just finished your grad school classes, and go find the strongest students from your graduating class at school. Then you go out and start making a video game. How would you expect it to work? Obviously you would not know everything. But how much would you really know? How far would your Master’s education take you?

Well, that is precisely what is going on with my Team and I. We are working on a social impact game called The Solar Games. Here, we are going to look at Education vs. Experience. I will see how education and experience stack up and make final judgment on how to approach getting into the industry based on two recruiting standards – Education and Experience.  For each of the two categories I will discuss what I learned over the course of my education, and then discuss what I have learned through experience. At the end of each section, I will point out which area has been more valuable, and what essential things that I believe new industry producers should know.

Leadership –
This is a major component to any major new startup in business. Leaders have to be able to control team motivation, budget, time, and scope; and they have to be able to work with people in the right way and determine how best to get the most out of them.

Education: Four of my eight classes had some sort of major leadership component. This was highly stressed in my degree program (the degree was Production focused). And so, I knew how to be a leader straight out of school. The hard skills were taught, and the soft skills were trained. Every class integrated some sort of group work that forced students into leadership roles. Of course there were those students who took to Leadership naturally, filling in the role comfortably, and those who didn’t.

Experience: I discovered very quickly that applying our hard skills was much more difficult without the controlled environment that was school. Instead of having to apply policies and procedures that were pre-generated, I had to come up with my own. I had to deal with situations that do not come up when everybody is doing their best because their grade depends on it. Handling people was more of a challenge than I thought. Overall though, I felt like I handled things well, and realistically, without school, this would have been very difficult.

Winner: Education. Above all, producers need to be able to work with people. Knowing what to do in serious situations (like handling unruly employees) can be learned from just about any Leadership book at your local bookstore and is quite rare, and it is knowing how to handle your employees the rest of the time that is much more difficult. How do you keep your Team motivated? On track? Get them off tangents? Manage employees who continuously add to the scope? Control your overzealous marketing team? How do you manage virtual Team members? This list is nowhere near comprehensive but gives a glimpse into the life of what it takes to be a producer.

Project Management –
Part of every successful game project is Project Management. All aspects of Project Management are vital for video games. Running out of time and/or budget is devastating to many projects; games that do not properly plan typically fail.

Education: This was highly stressed throughout my grad degree. Controlling time, budget, scope, people, and schedule were components of many classes. One class in particular used the PMP handbook to give a very comprehensive look into the right way of managing a project.

Experience: This, like Leadership, was another situation where applying hard skills in the real world is much more difficult than in the classroom. Also, learning what parts make sense in an educational environment but do not make practical sense in real world situation. While I learned all of the right ways to do something when I can focus all of my time on project management, I quickly learned what had to be done immediately, and what could be put off (or dismissed completely) in order to keep the project running on time and budget. A side-effect of this was coming to an understanding that I was not “giving up” on what I had learned, but really applying project management to itself…meaning I had to apply project management methods to the amount of project management that I did for the project…this kept my project management on time and on budget. (OMG Project Management INCEPTION!)

Winner: Tie. Project Management knowledge is essential. What the PMP handbook teaches applies every day. Experience in knowing what to apply, when to do it, and in what regard is essential to not wasting time. Scope control, budget control, risk management, schedule management, and policies and procedures are vital skills.

Decision Making and Risk Management-
Decision making is often very difficult. I have read several Post Mortems where one simple decision that was not made in time caused a project to lose momentum or financial gain; as well as projects that made several decisions too quickly that went the wrong way or failed outright. Risk management is essentially making decisions based on project risks before the risk occurs, so that you can mitigate the effects of the risk. Having these decisions made prior to bad things happening, makes their occurrence much less severe.

Education: Everybody makes a lot of bad decisions in the beginning. This applies to nearly everybody in every new beginning. Luckily, I spent a year in grad school making a bunch of bad decisions. These decisions were mistakes that I could afford to make, and learn from. I learned that decisions should be put off for as long as possible so as to give the decision maker as much time as possible to get necessary information to answer them; but do not miss the deadline on the decision. Now obviously, the later the decision is made, the more difficult a wrong decision is to recover from, but the point is to make the right decision! I also learned that risks that are not watched carefully will quickly kill projects. Learning this valuable skill was one of the highlights of my education, without it, we would likely fail.

Experience: This is an area where school really did a fantastic job, especially in the area of Risk Management. However, the consensus on decision making is probably up in the air right now. My current project (The Solar Games) is not finished and we are not at a point where we can look back and see where we made the biggest mistakes. At the moment, the Team feels confident that we are heading in the right direction. Also we have received positive feedback from the people who have seen what we are working on.

Winner: Education. Every producer needs to know how to make decisions, and when to make them. Also, knowing that making a decision too early, or too late is usually bad. Understanding risk management and how to use it is absolutely essential for every member of every game team.

Marketing:
Marketing is way more important than I ever realized. The more time I spend working with our marketing people, and the more time I work to spread the news about our game, the more I realize how far behind we really are. Getting the news out there is hard. Not only are we competing with people who are small teams just like us, but we are competing with all the big dogs with huge budgets.

Education: We did have one class that was specifically geared toward marketing. The class was awesome, taught by a huge veteran in the industry- Susan Gold. But, one class can only cover so much. And so this is a major component where things were not covered anywhere near enough to get us to understand everything that it takes to get a game to the masses.

Experience: I learn something new about this every day. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, Facebook, email, and try to keep up with everything relevant to our game (games, solar power, Haiti, the environment, racing games, Kickstarter successes and failures etc). Our goal is to get people talking about us (and keep them talking about us), reaching out to our major target audiences, putting together press releases, media kits, marketing kits, and overall just trying to converse and network with as many people as possible. We have one guy who is leading our marketing team, and he (Phillip Mullinax) is a rockstar in helping us stay on the right track.

Winner: Experience. There is so much to know about marketing. First, as a small game studio, you have to be on the ball when it comes to social media marketing. This means getting connected to as many people as possible and staying connected. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest…everything you can. Figure out your target audiences, and prioritize them. Figure out which is the easiest to connect with, and which is the largest. From there, make a plan to get connected with them. Network with as many people as possible, this means go and make friends in the industry so you can mutually help each other! Never forget that if you do not help others, they will not help you!

Funding:
As a new startup, getting funding is absolutely essential. As a game company or studio, without funding you have nothing.

Education: While funding was never specifically taught, we did get hard lessons on pitching, talking in front of people, setting expectations, and talking about the right things to the right people. In several classes there were some discussions on how this was done, but it almost seemed like this was not a priority…although it probably should have been.

Experience: While learning to speak in front of people is a very valuable skill, getting funding is so much bigger than just talking about your project. My project The Solar Games will be launching a Kickstarter campaign in the next three weeks. What we have learned about getting a campaign or ‘pitch’ together is way more than any of us could have ever expected. This is a skill that I believe should be a core component of any gaming education.

Winner: Experience. First and foremost, it is very important to figure out what is the best solution to funding for your specific project. Investors, Kickstarter, your parents, sell your idea…there are many other ways. This involves understanding your project, and why you are doing it. Many people make games simply to make more games. Secondly, how much money do you need? Here, planning and budgeting is vital. You have to know the scope of your game, and what features you can give up to maintain the vision of the game, so that you can ask for the least amount of money possible. Then, make a plan to go out and obtain the funding that you require…edit your plan…and then execute it. Lastly, never ask for less money (or time) than it will take to finish your game…you do not want to get funding and then not be able to deliver.

*Note* obviously this does not include all of the relevant topics. However, it does (in my opinion) cover the vital ones to being a producer…which is the career I went to school for. Also, this will keep this blog from becoming too long.

Conclusion.
Based on a review of what I just wrote, I realize that my education does not stack up the way I would like. I spent a year getting my masters (and as an ‘A’ student). I would assume that my education would have carried me further. While it did “get me through the door” it did not carry me much past it. I cannot say that my degree was not worth it, and cannot say that my instruction was poor. What I can say is that it did not have nearly enough breadth and width. Some topics were covered exceptionally well, while others were quite poor, and still some were completely missed.

I cannot give critique, without offering some suggestions. So here goes… My education should have contained far more experience actually making games. And BIG games, large projects that reach out beyond the scope of “platformer with dull physics mechanic #349”... Large worlds, complicated mechanics, LOTS of assets, large teams, inexperienced developers, lazy artists, simulated budgets, random changes made by the project stakeholders, etc. These games should have had things that would have made the projects challenging, and life-like.

Of course, I can only speak about my school (and would love to hear about other’s experiences or thoughts). I hope that any professors, administrators, or people who will eventually go into teaching will carry my experience with them, so as to bring in a more prepared generation of game makers.

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