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Advice for Your First Year in a Games Program

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Written By: Max Mitchelson

Edited By: Mary Joaquin


The first year of college can be difficult. Alongside newfound independence and the excitement of beginning your future comes quite a bit of work, new responsibilities, and a whole host of challenges. But foresight might save you from making some common mistakes, whether in your projects, academic career, social life, or in your plans for the future.

It may seem like a while away, but the fall semester is approaching faster than you think. Even though the pandemic has complicated college life, age-old advice still holds true. Whatever the attendance policy, in-person or remote, the EGD Collective is here to help.

We gathered advice from game design schools across the country, from faculty, students, clubs, and even internally here at EGD. With the advice below, we hope to make your first semester in a game design program easier.

Before you Arrive

The application is in, and you were accepted to your game design school of choice. Congratulations! That was no easy task, but it is just the beginning.

Before signing up for classes, dreaming of projects, or buying the necessities for your dorm room, it is time to shift your focus from consuming games to understanding how they are made.

“It's a dangerous trap to think that playing games are the equivalent to making games,” said Robert Lloyd, a professor for Game Design and Production at Drexel University, in an interview with EGD. “So a big thing I do with my new students is getting them into conversations of makers to makers so that the media they consume can ease that transition.”

Some of you may have already started making games, but if you have not, the last summer break of high school presents a great opportunity to learn the basics. Explore free game engines like the Unreal Engine or Unity. Or, if you are an artist, look into open-source tools like Blender or Krita. But if you want something more accessible, consider purchasing a game with a level editor, like Super Mario Maker 2, Dreams, or Portal 2.

At the very least, Chris Onorati, an alumnus of Digipen, recommended that you “play through some of your favorite games and start thinking of what was done well and what could be improved. The key part is answering ‘why’ questions. Why were the coins in the level placed where they were? Why was the Goomba near the pit? Were those good decisions or bad?”

But in between all of that learning, do not forget to make time to rest. Enjoy other pursuits and spend time with friends and family so that when you arrive, you are refreshed and ready to work.

And now might be a good time to save up and purchase a new desktop or laptop that can handle more intensive programs if you can afford it.

Common Mistakes for Designers and Scope Scope Scope

Of all the issues beginner designers run into, over-scoping a project is one of the most common. Almost every source we reached out to for this guide mentioned it.

“Very often, you have someone who has been dreaming of a project since they were in the single digits. That is part of what drove them to join a game development program. I don’t want them to abandon that dream, but you have to build up experience,” said Lloyd.

For any projects you make, especially before classes start, it is better to finish a short idea rather than start an epic project. Do what is possible in a small time frame with your skillset, or lack of it, taken into account.

“A good way to combat this is to make some A, B, C buckets,” said Onorati, “'A’ buckets are things that must be done, ‘Bs’ are things that would be nice to get done, and ‘C's' are a wish list of things that you know won't likely happen. Once you have all tasks listed out, think about it. Then write down a time estimate of how long you think they will take you to complete [the project].”

Not only do many beginners underestimate the scope of their project, but they also attempt to make things beyond their abilities. For your first game, begin with something simple like a platformer with no enemies before moving onto something complicated. And then do it again, adding on new ideas or polishing up an old one.

Iteration is an important facet of making games and art overall.

So much of any creative pursuit is polishing, editing, or starting over from scratch and learning from each experience. With each little idea you make, you can take what you learned and apply it to the next idea.

“Don’t be afraid of repetition,” Lloyd said. “I promise you if it took you ten hours to get to the broken stage, it will not take you ten hours to make it again.”

Finding a Good Balance

Even for game design students, college is more than just making games. It is a difficult transition from high school to college. And one of the first things to work out is a schedule.

Find a way to stay organized. Try using a planner or virtual calendar to make time for assignments, projects, and other responsibilities. Leave gaps to relax and try not to take on too many classes, work opportunities, or social obligations.

Whether it is a hyper-detailed bullet journal or Google Calendar, a loose collection of post-its on your wall, or just a whiteboard the week's due dates, have a system as simple or complex as you want.

“There are going to be all of these clubs clamoring for your attention,” said Lloyd, “and I think you should filter to protect yourself from being overstretched. But sample as much as you can. That first year should be all about experimentation. Try something, go to the club meeting.”