Saturday, August 09, 2008

my notes from the game education summit 2008

Report on the Game Education Summit, June, 2008, Southern Methodist University/The Guidhall, Dallas, Texas

Next year's conference 6/25-26 (Thursday and Friday), Dallas

I thought this was a good conference that other people involved with the game major should attend. It was small so you could talk to lots of people.. There were folks from lots of schools, not just big research-oriented universities. And there were a variety of folks from industry. Lots of those people are at the Game Developer Conference (GDC) of course but it's huge and there is less time or opportunity to just chat. Student work (from the GuildHall - SMU's graduate game design program) was demonstrated/playtested so you can see what other folks are up to, which is important as we ramp our program up. Everyone was positive about game majors in general. Hopefully we can take a more active role – be on panels, show some work – in the future.

Below are the summary notes from the conference. They're not organized based on day of the conference or panel, but more around big topics that seemed important to me.


* Game player base is changing – more women, older people, families playing together
* People want new experiences, emphasis on story telling
* People want shorter games that they can get in and out of and still have a good experience. Theyre are many more choices of games so quality becomes more important as way to stand out in the clutter (there are 10,000 games on yahoo).
* Industry is varied. It's not just consoles and AAA titles (block busters). It's games for mobile phones web games for casual players, free-to-play MMOs, Facebook games, serious games, simulations. Companies want interactive bits for web ads and they want advertising games. They want games for employee training. A few games can make money on yahoo games and beng distributed on the web (wiiware, xbox live arcade, ps home...). Students need to think about making games for all these different platforms and publishers to help them get their first job.
* Game development is as complex as movie making. It's also expensive – AAA titles have budget s of $40-55 million. Teams can be 100+ people. Lots of work is outsourced. And lots of games get cancelled along the way – industry afraid of risking their big investments on not-sure-things. So have to be prepared to put in a year or two of work on a game only to see it cancelled.
* Industry is changing. There are more layers of management. New development methods like agile and scrum are becoming widespread as a way to reduce project time and costs. Students need to know project management skills, project scheduling, how companies react to changing market data.
* Quality of life in the industry is getting better - slowly. More employees have families that they want to spend time with . There's still wicked crunch periods and some studios are better than others. But at least people are talking about it now. IGDA is focusing on it. EA was threatened with a suit so they've made changes and that trickled over to other publishers.
* Pre-production planning is more important now, again as a way of reducing costs. Everyone involved has to agree on the game concept and have shared expectations so work doesn't have to be redone. Team has to share the big picture. And everyone on the team has to have experience with making changes on the fly, communicating changes, managing the time line.
* Many game publishers have people who make contact with colleges – we're not on their radar yet and probably not for a few years – but they have speakers and sponsor contests – so we need to get on their mailing lists if nothing else. The university contact people also help get ideas from the colleges for development (there's money). Sony has a new program to get development kits and hardware (ps2s and psp's) into schools to train new programmers (not for research) because they need more specialized engineer type programmers


* Industry sending mixed messages – industry wants college graduates that they hire to be credible talented professional, smart people, driven, result oriented, experience with teamwork, passionate about games, customer focused want to learn, have the skills they need not expecting specific tech skills or industry experience for some of their entry level jobs, say school shouldn't teach just tools or vocational skills, want students to know the concepts behind the tools so they can be flexible and deal with changing tools in the future, they want big thinkers who are broadly educated,, that they want innovative thinkers (and they really do need them), want strong team players, want people who can push game design ideas to new limits, want people who can take crappy jobs and make them special, want people with a broad range of experience and skills, want people to be good communicators, but they're interviewing about tools and skills – they want it all but the thing to remember is that you have to have strong tech skills to even be considered (everybody needs to program or at least be able to use a computer scripting language). This means that our students need experience or at least exposure to game engines, content creation tools (3d modeling, audio editing, 2d graphics for texturing and 2d game art) and C++ is the language of choice right now. Students should be flexible high quality generalists. If you go out as a specialist you have to be the absolute best in the business.
* Interdisciplinary programs are good but someone has to be in charge (someone = some department) to make curriculum changes, make decisions about tenure, and to pay the bills
* To get credibility in industry you need to produce students who do good work (important to put student work up on the web for industry and potential students to see), to get credibility in the academy professors need to do research and get published
* Admit more students than you want because many will drop out after first year – programming is hard, design is hard, being creative is hard
* Have to be prepared to change the curriculum periodically (frequently) to keep up with changes in the industry. Not sure we have to change whole classes, just lots of new topics to include, examples to show.
* Programs could sponsor contests – give students regionally/nationally outlet to get their work reviewed and seen for their portfolios, could have a faculty category to give them an outlet for peer reviewed creative work
* Look for real world clients to sponsor class work, internship projects – these make better protfolio projects and give students more experience with real clients (some students might decide they don't want to do game design and better to do it early than after graduation)
* Game programs do more than just make you a game developer – make you a better consumer of games, better game journalist, better political leader because you realize you can't criticize all games because of violence of a few. You learn how to communicate with technical and non-technical people. You learn about 3d scene building, audio design, lighting design – all transferable skills
* Need to network with industry – send faculty to professional conferences, talk go local developers. More networking = more internships and jobs for graduates. That's just like every program at the Park School I have a feeling.
* Other schools have found that as their game students take classes in other departments and do game related project for those professors, then those professors and departments get more aware of and sometimes interested in participating in the game program.


* good classes - behavioral psychology (how to reward people in the game to keep them playing, get them to buy the game or the upgrade), broad liberal arts background so they can make games that will “change the world”, research skills so you can give some depth to the game content and make it look authentic (one speaker had to learn how WWI airplanes flew for a game), communication skills, be able to give and receive feedback, Speakers encouraged students to be passionate about something outside of games and learn how to do it/more about it – made you more interesting person, could be content for a game, could give you entree to a new industry that needs games. Need experience with excel, gantt charts, scheduling software, bug trackers, asset management software
* Need to be able to look at games analytically - what makes a game special, how games fit into the larger cultural picture,
* Be life-long learners because you never know what you're going to need to deal with in the future
* Teamwork - how to work in groups bigger than 2 people
* How to deal with ambiguity, self-reflection, know how to debug and refine, Schools need to give experience with crunch time – move the due date up or add a requirement near the end. Experience the stress now rather than fall apart once you get a job.
* If possible get experience with large code bases (mod existing games).
* Need to know what all the people involved in making a game do generally, know some of the tools they use so you can help out where needed (especially as a new hire – be flexible).
* Students need to be encouraged to take leadership roles – on class projects, in student groups, on mod projects – with all the groups and sub groups and teams in game development, going to need to be able to leadership. Students have to take initiative to enter their games in competitions.
* Things that get asked at interviews – companies want to see that you care about making games but also they you have a life and hobbies, they want to see that you have the skills they need so they'll give you tests, going to ask you what's your favorite game (some applicants – the ones who are not ever going to get hired) can't come up with any), going to ask what games you're playing now and what you like about them and what you'd change. To prepare for interview you should play games made by this studio and be ready to talk about them critically (not fan boy gushing)
* Have to have portfolios – portfolio has to help you stand out (because there are a lot of people applying for these jobs). Class projects aren't enough – need some independent projects as well, or internship projects (you could create a game for a group as an internship (they're a real client with demands and time limits so it's a good model of how you'll work in the future). Could work on mod projects – again shows you can work in a group on a real project and get something finished and out the door. Be specific about what part of the game/project you were responsible for – the industry is used to group projects – they want to know what you did. If you did scripts you could include a video of the scene where the script is used and then describe in text what's going on and what your script did. If you're an artist then be sure to include models of organic things because they're hard to do correctly – they'll show off your skills. Include design documents in the portfolio for games you worked on (say if you wrote the design doc or some part of it). Layout matters – highlight your strengths (be honest about your strengths and weaknesses). Be sure any code you include is documented. Talk about how your game was playtested and how you changed to use the results. Put pics of what you're most proud of – even if it's a well-lit corner of a room that you worked on. They all suggested making games – lots of games – board games, card games, video games, levels before you graduate
* Need to manage student expectations – most people not going to work on AAA titles, the industry is very broad and their experiences should be too, new hires should expect to be doing a lot of scut work the first couple of years – not going to be hired to be the lead of anything. Not many designers getting hired right out of undergrad programs either.


* Maybe we need to make up a list of recommended electives to take outside their outside minor
* The way i see the junior and senior classes they're to help the students create things that would go in their portfolios
* Some programs have 2d design in the freshman year – but I'd really like students to get their programming skills started, get an exposure to design basics in the freshman year and then jump into game making the other 3 years.
* I think we can build in the exposure to project management, excel, asset management software – CS uses asset management already; I've found an online gantt chart maker that we're going to start using in the freshman year. Our program website hoster has bug tracking software that I'm going to check out. Once the program is going the freshmen will be the quality assurance group for the sophomores, the sophomores for the juniors and the juniors for the seniors – they get experience game testing, bug report writing, and they see what kinds of games they will be expected to make (and to be better than) in the future.
* I like the idea of a game contest for students and faculty. We're kind of neutral ground right now since we're not competing with them or their students yet. But that kind of contest might be easier to get started once we have more students to help with it, once we have contacts with some game making companies and developers.
* I think we can give them experience with variety of games through assignments especially the first 2 years. Then we give them focused experience (genres, tools) in the last 2 years.
* Overall – we're in better shape then some programs – more buy in from more departments, more people agreeing on the general direction for the program. Other programs had folks fighting over tenure direction and hiring and pay. Maybe because we have a few resources to start with instead of taking resources from existing programs. Though that's not exactly completely true since the video folks think we're taking resources (faculty line) from them.

Ideas from conversations and stray thoughts I had

* I really want to research the idea of fun with people from across the campus. What's fun, how do we make something fun, how do people react when they're having fun, what's been fun historically or across cultures and what explains the differences/changes, how do you separate the concept of fun from the concept of play. Many games are supposed to be fun (even when they're being educational or trying to sell you something), so we need to look at hit. Industry doesn't have tine or the people. Fun is part of an even bigger topic – immersion and flow. I was thinking small group, get together, produce working papers, maybe a special journal issue or a conference presentation.
* Maybe we should invite grad students from Cornell (and maybe some of the other regional schools) to come do presentations, workshops about videogames

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