I receive a lot of questions about what kind of school or program I would recommend for students seeking to get into the game industry. There are basically three paths that you can follow in this regard:
1. Standard four-year colleges
Most four-year colleges offer standard degrees that are applicable to game development. The obvious example is a Computer Science degree if you want to be a game programmer. Many four year colleges are also starting to offer concentrations or specializations related to game development.
A four year degree from a standard college is still the preferred degree by most companies because these programs are based on accredited, standardized programs of study. Even better, attending a college in your home state will cost you significantly less that any other educational option.
2. Technical colleges
Technical colleges are intended to provide practical education on a specific subject in a short amount of time. The rise in popularity of game related careers has inspired many of these colleges to offer game related programs.
The jury is still out on the usefulness of technical degrees since they aren't generally regarded as highly as a standard, four-year degree. The main advantage of a technical college is that the program is focused and can generally be completed in two years or less. However, you will probably pay more to go to a technical college than a four-year institution.
3. Specialty colleges
You can think of specialty colleges as super-technical colleges. A few of these have made a name for themselves (DigiPen and Full Sail come to mind) as premier colleges in the field of game development. They offer stringent, focused programs of study with an emphasis on the student completing a "real world" game-related project by graduation.
Like technical colleges, a degree from a specialty college may still hold a certain stigma when compared to a traditional four-year degree. Critics of such colleges question how much students can really learn in these hyper-accelerated programs. Proponents argue that this kind of time-pressure mimics the real-world of game development and prepares the student for the work environment. Specialty schools are also typically the most expensive choice
So which type of college is right for you?
The quick answer is that you should attend the type of college that you can afford and that meets your learning style and situation.
If money is the major consideration, then try to find a four-year college in your own state that offers a traditional degree that meets your goals. If you can find a program that also offers a concentration or specialization in game development, then that's even better.
However, different people have different learning styles, and some people just can't fathom spending four years to earn a degree. The general education required to achieve a traditional degree is sometimes perceived as wasted time that could be spent learning their true love: game development. For such people, a specialty school might be the answer, especially if that school offers a standard degree. For example, students who graduate from Full Sail's game development program do so with an accredited four-year degree. "General ed" courses such as history and psychology are custom designed to be relevant to games, making even them easier to swallow!
Finally, let's say you already have a full-time job and/or family that makes it impossible for you to attend a full-time college or specialty school. In this situation, a technical program might be the ticket. Most technical colleges adapt their program to working students, often including large, online components that can be completed according to the student's schedule.
Remember: for most employer's the real question isn't where you went to school but what you know. I have personally worked with programmers from all three types of schools. In every situation, the programmers had excellent skills.
When it boils down to it, it is the student more than the school that may determine the effectiveness of the education. You literally get out of your education what you are willing to put into it.
There is one more important point to make on this issue: Not all game design courses are created equal! Some programs try to provide a general course of study that touches on all aspects of game development: design, art, and programing. Others focus on one aspect of game development such as design, art, or programing. Contrary to the scenario presented by some advertisements, most careers in the game industry are specialized. This means that you should specialize to. Before you enroll in any program, you should know which area you want to specialize in, and then chose a program that focuses on that area.
That's it for this post. In my next post I will go into detail about one specialty college that I am intimately familiar with! Come back next time to see why!
P.S. The Princeton Review just completed a report on the top fifty game design schools. You can read their report at http://www.princetonreview.com/top-fifty-undergraduate-game-design.aspx.