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Game Design Education Without a Game Design Major?

In this exclusive Gamasutra educational feature, Cornell University student and Introduction to Game Design TA Sally Huang outlines three key tips for students to get a proper game design education without a Game Design major.

Introduction

Over the past few years, the academic world finally caught on to students' growing interests in the game industry. Game design programs are burgeoning in schools across America, however, many more traditional schools have a hard time changing. Students at schools lacking a game design major find themselves at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in game design-focused programs.

Disadvantage or not, having a game industry-focused education is much more than having a game design major. Here are a few tips to help those students in more traditional program make the most of their education.

Tip 1: Find a Niche

This is probably the single most important part about being in school. Seek out those interested in game design at your school, be part of that community, and stand out. This will be the group that educates, motivates and collaborates with you as you progress. These will also be the people most likely to help you into the industry.


Graduation Hat
 

Do not underestimate the power of networking. If an industry recruiter happens to come to your school, they will want professors in relevant fields to recommend their top students. You want to make sure that those professors give out your name. If someone you know makes it into the industry and they happen to know of openings at their company, you want to make sure that you are the first person they think of.

Make sure that you get to know the faculty interested in game design. If your school is lucky enough to have a game design course, then you already have a professor as well as a community of students to look to. Otherwise, don't be afraid to ask around in various departments for professors who take interest in game design. Computer science is probably the first place to start looking. Professors specializing in AI, graphics, and human computer interaction naturally work with game-related topics in their research, but don't limit yourself. The multidisciplinary nature of game design sparks interests in fields such as information sciences, psychology, communications, art, film, electrical engineering, sociology and music.

Tip 2: Plan Your Courses

Planning your courses well not only means choosing the right courses, it also means choosing to take them at the right time.

People have this funny idea that they should wait until their senior year to take the most relevant and challenging courses so they're not in over their head when they do take it. That's actually a horrible idea. Sure, you might get a better grade, but it's not going to do anything for your non-academic future. Don't save anything for senior year. Why? The earlier you take a challenging and relevant course, the more you will have for resumes, portfolios, and interviews. But more importantly, in senior year, you will have senioritis. Seriously. You know that crazy game you and your friends have been planning since sophomore year? Make it junior year. Don't make it your last semester. Writing a game with procedurally generated levels and a neural-networked AI may be a walk in the park for you, but process of actually sitting down and starting work can require a lot of effort.

Sophomore year is the time to start your higher level courses. This will mean that by your junior and senior years, you will have the opportunity to take relevant graduate level courses, and well as independent study projects.

Without an established game design major, planning the right courses will be tricky, since you'll have to plan a game design focus around another major. Doing an independent major can resolve much of the headaches of fitting relevant electives into a slew of requirements for you major. Otherwise, strategically plan your electives so you can cover as much game related content. On the social sciences and humanities side, cognitive psychology, communications, media and society, and creative writing, especially screenwriting, would greatly compliment a game design focus. On the math and science side, consider linear algebra, differential geometry and physics. In computer science and engineering, look to basic programming, AI, computer graphics, human computer interaction, and microcontrollers. In the creative arts, explore filmmaking, digital media design, computer animation, and general CAD design would work. Do not skip out on the fields that your school is strongest in.

Without a game design program, it is essential that you take the initiative to diversify your curriculum of study. Part of taking full advantage of being at a school without a game design program is that you can take courses related to game design in its pure context, empowering you to apply these subjects to game design the way you see fit. It'll take a bit more creativity on your part, but it'll be worth it.

Maintain a good relationship with the advisors for your major. If they know you well and they know your interest, sometimes they can come up with creative ways around certain requirements, such as petitioning to replace a required course with equivalent game-related independent study. You'll be surprised at what you can get away with.

Also, consider planning a semester in junior year or early senior year where you are not taking any required courses. This way if you haven't gotten an industry internship yet, you have another shot at a time where there is way less competition. That's how I broke into the game industry. If later on you decide not to take this time for work, you'll have a fairly stress-less semester to make a game.

Tip 3: Make a Game

Make a game while you are at school. The sheer fact that you have worked in a group to make a game will be impressive to potential employers. Not to mention, if you make it into the industry, you will never have as much creative control as you will in college. Be bold. Be creative. Make something the industry hasn't seen. This is also where that community of students we talked about earlier comes in. If you found yourself a community, you already have yourself a team of motivated individuals. Make a game, make a webpage about it, and find ways show it off.

A lot of the times, actually creating a game is very much a daunting task. Don't be afraid to look to pre-made engines and source code. Two free resources to consider: GameMaker (http://www.gamemaker.nl/), which is good for the programming-shy, and GameX (http://www.rchoetzlein.com/gamex/), for the programming-saavy, but slightly lazy.

Studying game design at a school without a game design program maybe frustrating, but in the end, your education is what you make of it. It is up to you to take full advantage of what your school has to offer.

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