This post is part 1 of 5 in this comprehensive retrospective series on game development education. If you prefer the TL;DR version, you can find the epic 200+ tweet thread here. Stay tuned for the remaining posts in the coming weeks.
"Wow sounds cool! So what do you actually *do* around here?"
- Every prospective game student ever
I often reflect on how lucky I am to have settled on my dream job so early in life. Towards the end of high school, with the support and encouragement of my parents, I decided that video games were too big of an influence in my life for me to do anything but game development. And having recently graduated from one of top-ranked game development colleges in the US, I can safely say that making games is everything I’d hoped for and more. But from the outside looking in, one of the biggest questions I had about game education was what the actual day to day work consisted of.
So in this series, I went back and dug up every bit of classwork I could find from my college studies. From rough practice exercises to final projects, successes to failures, I wanted to use this series as an opportunity to pull back the curtain for potential game dev students as much as possible. And for additional context, I've also included the letter grades I received in each course. To keep this from stretching on any longer than it already is, I've only included the final drafts of each assignment (though each piece typically went through 2-3 revisions). Additionally, I'll spare you the *cough* pleasure *cough* of reading through my philosophy papers, deciphering art history doodles, and sitting through the countless group presentations I gave. Only media-based projects here. A lot of this work is quite raw and not really portfolio-ready, but hopefully by showing as many steps of my journey as possible, these posts will illustrate the general skills, tools, and concepts one might expect to learn in pursuing a degree in game development.
I would be remiss not to mention that my education was affected by countless factors that dramatically impacted my individual experience. Because so much of the work here was collaborative, the vast majority of my college experience was shaped more by the classmates I worked with than the instructors or curriculum. So where some assignments I had an overwhelmingly positive experience that led to breakthroughs in understanding new concepts or technologies, some of my peers had the complete opposite experience (and vice versa). Similarly, much of the course content and faculty has already changed so as with all game dev advice, remember that many aspects will be different for those setting off on their journeys today.
This is by no means intended as a definite account of modern gaming education, just one recent grad's perspective. I encourage any student interested in pursuing a degree in game development to carefully research each individual program so you understand what exactly all that tuition money will get you.
And !SPOILERS! for everyone eager to cut to the chase, while there are plenty of changes I would make to the program, I walked away with an overwhelmingly positive experience that has transformed my creative and artistic abilities and jumpstarted my knowledge and skills of game development. While I would never blindly recommend someone to enroll in a game education program without understanding their specific interests and goals, I would easily do it all over again given the chance.
This series is based on my experience as an undergraduate Game Art & Production (GMAP) student at Drexel University from September 2012 - June 2016. The four-year 186-credit program was broken up into 12 11-week quarters of classes and included a 6-month co-op opportunity. Our graduating class was made up of 21 students from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. We also frequently collaborated with students from animation, interactive digital media, and computer science departments.
When I first applied for the program back in 2011, they had already hit the limit for that year's number of GMAP freshman and I was turned away. So in the meantime, I went to a nearby community college for a semester and knocked out some general electives before applying again with much better luck. But because of the school's quarter system and limited class availability, I was enrolled a standard freshman despite all the credits I'd already earned (which would eventually pay off wonderfully once I had some extra time that everyone else had to spend on general electives).
And just so there's context on where all this has led for myself and other members of my class, while there's an incredibly passionate and talented indie dev scene here in Philly (<3), there aren't nearly enough local jobs for students to fill upon graduating. As such, the majority of my classmates have either taken jobs outside the games industry or continued their education in grad school. I've been unbelievably fortunate to receive support from multiple organizations within the university that have given me the means to start up my own indie studio Gossamer Games (@gossamergames) where we're currently hard at work on our debut title Sole. Much more on this later :)
So! With all that out of the way, let's get started!
Year 1 (September 2012 - June 2013)
The first year of the program was intended to build a foundation for students to quickly create compositions by focusing on (mostly) small-scale physical and digital art assignments. The core mission was to develop a solid understanding of visual techniques for creating engaging compositions and understanding the vocabulary and terminology for discussing each other's' work. Where some of the more experienced artists in the group were eager to jump into more advanced subjects right off the bat, as someone totally new to making art, this was a truly eye-opening year. We also began to develop software skills in essential digital media tools across the Autodesk and Creative Cloud suites.
The very first quarter of classes threw me right into the deep with two art production workshops, digital media studies, and a physics class. This served as ground zero for establishing a basic understanding of both physical and digital creation and introduced the horrifying concept of art critiques.
Courses: Digital Design Tools, Introductory Drawing, Overview of Digital Media, Physics for Design I
New Tools & Concepts: Photoshop / Illustrator, Drawing Techniques, Art Critiques, etc.
Digital Design Tools (A-)
Self-Portrait, Early Draft vs Final
Okay so now that you've had your fill of cringe for the day, let me explain. One of the very first class assignments I had in college was creating a vector art self-portrait in Illustrator. For someone with precisely 0 art experience, this was basically my worst nightmare. Still not sure why anyone thought this would be a good first assignment for teaching Illustrator, but I certainly learned a lot . . .
Magnum Logo, Color Version
Another early vector art assignment for learning Illustrator. The goal was to create a distinct emblem for a superhero using a letter as the main element of the composition. I remember this one actually looked much better as a line drawing than it does shaded. For some reason, I was super into gradients in my early graphic design days . . .
Vita Composite Exercise, Final Version
The Vita is one of the recurring themes you'll see in my work from these first few years. Almost nobody I knew had one so I had to find some way to talk about my favorite systems out there. This was also my first time using Photoshop and learning all about those weird square things we call pixels.
Curiosity, Titlescreen and In-Game mockups
And here's the final project for my introductory digital art course. I was tasked with making a titlescreen / logo and in-game mockup for a video game concept. This was shortly after the Curiosity Rover landing, so I came up with the idea for a Pokémon-esque monster collecting game about finding and battling bacteria on Mars. Deconstructing the Pokémon battle UI was a super insightful look at how much goes into even the most simple designs.
Introductory Drawing (B)
Practice Shapes and Plant Charcoal Drawings
One of the harder things I've done in life is find a way to muster up enough courage to walk into an introductory drawing class full of college students and try to learn how to draw while a professor quietly watched over my shoulder. As someone who had quite literally never drawn anything before, a 3-hour drawing workshop twice a week was light years out of my comfort zone.
Susan Walp, Blueberries in a Bowl with Red Cup Knife and Brick - Charcoal Translation
But thanks to a super-chill instructor who perfectly understood the anxiety and stress of learning how to make art for the first time, I actually walked away really enjoying the class. The final project was to translate another artist's oil painting into a charcoal drawing. And given my abilities at the start of the class, I couldn't be more thrilled with how much I grew as an artist over those 11 short weeks.
The second quarter continued to establish a foundation for basic art principles. The classes focused on rapid fire assignments that were designed to explore a single concept at a time. In addition to learning how to operate camera and lighting equipment, I also started dipping my toes into the world of 3D software and racked my brain trying to memorize hundreds of dates, artists, and physics equations.
Courses: Art History II, Basic Shooting & Lighting, Design I for Media, Physics for Design II, Digital Spatial Visualization
New Tools & Concepts: Camera operation, Lighting concepts, Renaissance art, composition, etc.
Basic Shooting & Lighting (A)
Practice Photography Shots
In this course, I learned the basics of photography and how to frame subjects for interesting compositions. We also studied classic cinematography to see how lighting, depth of field, and color are all used to set up cool shots. Surprisingly, the hardest part of the class was trying to beat out all my other classmates to rent out the camera / lighting equipment in time to finish the shoots.
Design for Media I (A)
Initials Composition, Early Concepts vs Final
Design I was another essential course that broke down the specific elements of visual art. This first exercise focused on how rectilinear and curvilinear lines can be blended for cool effects. And by using initials as the composition foreground, we were forced to experiment with letters as shapes instead of symbols.
Movie Frame Collage Translation
The work for this class was primarily physical so we wouldn't’t have to learn new software to practice techniques. Here, the goal was to translate one of the frames from Hitchcock's Spellbound into a physical collage of different gray scale textures. I learned a ton about perspective and vanishing points by deconstructing this shot. Also discovered the joys of cutting out and gluing together tiny pieces of super thin paper at 3am the night before it was due.
Ah yes and this . . . I don't really know what this is to be honest. Believe it was another perspective study about compositing pictures at the correct angles so they seem to be part of the environment? With some Dalí & Hitchcock thrown in there for good measure because why not.
Every night before I go to sleep I pray this picture becomes a meme. It's just too perfect. I couldn't tell you exactly where things went wrong here, but I do remember spending an absurd amount of time trying to make this thing look good. Mission accomplished?
Here's the final project for my first design class. We were tasked with making a short film or animation that focused on gray scale texture. Didn't really feel like renting out a camera and shooting, so I spent about 2 weeks figuring out the basics of Flash animation and making a simple sequence. All things considered, I think it turned out alright. Maybe not as good as my portrait translation, but that title font is truly next level.
Digital Spatial Visualization (A)
Vita 3D Model
And so began my long, dark journey into the world of 3D modeling. The goal of this class was to get us to poke around Maya and create a simple 3D object. Naturally I chose to use the one thing I knew I'd always have on me I case I needed a reference. It also introduced the concept of orthographics and how to prepare reference images for modeling.
And here's where things really start to ramp up. Three production-heavy classes that walked me through the basics of video editing, color theory, and 3D modeling, all at the same time. Oh and art history and math classes to make sure I got at least a few hours of sleep each week.
Courses: Art History III, Computer Graphic Imagery, Design II for Media, Introduction to Analysis I, Multimedia Timeline Design
New Tools & Concepts: Modern art history, Maya, 2D animation, After Effects
Design II for Media (B+)
Found Object Spectrums
Design II was a continuation of the lessons taught in the previous section, but primarily focused on the use of color. In this first assignment, we needed to create designs that arranged scanned objects by value and saturation.
Another found object spectrum piece where everything is sorted by hue. I remember the response to this was far less positive than the other two because the subject is much more literal and started to distract from the purpose of the exercise.
Found Object Contrast Studies
Sticking with the object collage aesthetic, these two prints explored the use of low color contrast (left) and high color contrast (right). I distinctly remember that this was the first time I'd tried to inject a bit of narrative and "meaning" into my work. The one on the right was made as a tribute to the devastating fertilizer plant explosion that had just happened in West, Texas (not too far from where I went to high school) and everyone absolutely hated the cowboy hat in the foreground. Admittedly, it doesn't add much to the composition if you don't know the intent, but hey, it meant a lot to me at the time.
Another running theme that started to crop up in my work was this fixation on car crashes. Maybe telling of the emotional direction I was headed in, but some cool ideas came out of it too. This work focused on using transparency to break up the composition.
That car crash design would eventually be used as a cover for this large physical accordion book designed to explore the effects of color gradients on mood. Here I tried to establish a visual language that told the story of this solid car weaving in and out of traffic before wrecking at the stoplight, the colors intended to reflect the emotional intensity of the actions.
Mirror's Edge Poster
One of my favorite works to come out of Design II was this awesome Mirror's Edge poster based on a beautiful screenshot from Dead End Thrills. Weird posterization aside, I still really like how this one turned out.
Super Edgy Anarchy Face
My final assignment for this class is one of those things that worked so much better in my head than it did in practice. After weeks of negative criticism and tidal waves of work from my other classes, I kinda phoned it in here and mainly focused on my other finals. But somehow (maybe out of pity?), this managed to get a better reception than most of my other work in the class so hey, what do I know?
Multimedia Timeline Design (B+)
The Wider Sun
Speaking of car crashes, here's a very uplifting animatic of me getting into one! Animated in AfterEffects, this course focused on video editing and how to properly time camera cuts. Overly-dramatic vibe and rough visuals aside, I'm still really proud of that one. Especially given the impossible amount of other work I was dealing with at the time.
Computer Graphic Imagery (B)
The big one. Very likely the hardest class I've ever taken, this course attempted to teach us how to model, UV, texture, light, and render scenes in Maya. All in 11 weeks (3-hours per week). The final project required three hero models placed around a fully textured/lit scene. I'd originally wanted to make a subway station platform, but backed out once I realized how miserable that would be while taking reference pictures. Ended up playing it "safe" and recreating a bedroom instead. This desk lamp (definitely not the Pixar one) was my first hero model.
The second hero model was this ceiling fan. Here I quickly learned just how easy it is to get caught up in the details with all those chain beads which I placed by hand.
The final hero model was this queen-sized bed. Trying to figure out how to get the blanket geometry to look like a cloth was a huge challenge. Thankfully there were a few other people struggling with the same issue so we covered basic cloth simulations to capture the organic look. Mine didn't come out great, but close enough!
And after all that work, the blood/sweat/tears that went into creating those tiny details, this is how the final render of the scene came out. AKA, what happens when you've been dangerously sleep deprived for the past 3 weeks and basically give up at the finish line while taking the final shots. Which taught me a whole lot about what my limits are and how far I can push myself before burning out. A nasty but crucial lesson for any new developer.
So that's the long version of how I spent my Freshman year of college. Game development is such an incredibly diverse field that it's hard to pick a good starting place to ease into the various subjects. This program focused on establishing a background in visual art before diving into game engines and development tools. And while I was initially frustrated at the lack of focus on explicit game studies right up front, I would eventually appreciate the early emphasis on art techniques that now play a huge role in my work today.
And there would be plenty opportunity to make games in the years to come.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon. In the meantime, follow @look_sharpe to see how I'm getting along nowadays.