Advice for Your First Year in a Games Program
Updated: Apr 12
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 come quite a bit of work, 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. And 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.”
Part of attending college for game design is not just the instruction but also the connection to a community of people making games. And while most suggest against looking for a side job or internship in the first year, this is the time to make connections, make friends, and build a network of people in your industry.
Participate in game jams and clubs when you have the time. Who knows, a connection might assist your future career or become a life-long friend.
Finding the balance between independent projects, work, school, extracurriculars, social outings, and personal time can be difficult, but you are not alone in that struggle. Try not to compare yourself to the students around you, and instead see what is possible for you in a routine that leaves time for a little bit of everything.
Even though you are now on your are own, you are not alone.
Most universities have a variety of resources you can take advantage of, including academic counselors, student organizations, tutors, and counseling services. Professors and faculty members can also be invaluable resources, so send an email or stop by during office hours if you want help or need to extend a deadline.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, it is likely that even by fall safety measures will still be in place. Whether they will be as strict as they now remain to be seen.
One club member from the University of Utah's Gamecraft club even suggested that freshmen consider “postponing going to school." And, instead use "all of the great resources, courses, and communities available online to hone your skills for far less money before going to school, when things are more normal.”
But if you have trouble staying motivated, or are just starting, a college program, even a virtual one, is still immensely helpful. However, if you are reading this article, most likely you have already decided, so here is some general advice we gathered from students on how to deal with virtual college life:
“Everyone here is going through the same thing, so we all understand each other. No one is having a good time, so we have to let ourselves breathe and know we are all in this together.”
“Find friends to spend your time with. It doesn't need to be face to face. I have been playing a lot with my friends from college and high school, and that helped a lot.”
“Try not to procrastinate and if you feel like it is happening, reach out to the professor and let them know you are struggling. They can help you build a better study plan to bring you back on track.”
“Discord is a great way to meet other students virtually! Also, participate in virtual game jams if you have the option.”
Thoughts for the future
When it comes to college, keep an open mind to opportunities that might lead you down a different path.
“It's important to tell new students that they don’t have to have the answers now. It [college] should be a time for exploration and a time to take risks. It's about figuring out what you don’t want to do just as much as what you want to do,” said Lloyd.
Some may even find that game design is not what they are interested in pursuing. You might be drawn to another sector of the games industry or something outside of it entirely, and there is nothing wrong with that. Lloyd stressed that even if you stick with a game design degree, the skills you learn have global applicability in a variety of industries.
But regardless of whether you end up going into games or take your skills elsewhere, Lloyd said, “Game development is not a rocket ship to fame and fortune. It is an opportunity to become a storyteller.”
Take the opportunities that come your way and search for more.
Find game jams to participate in, make your micro-projects outside of class, participate in clubs, and make friends and connections within the local gaming community. Push yourself, but recognize your limits, and take the time to rest, socialize and explore other hobbies.
Realize games are not created or released in a vacuum.
“Games are made in a community,” said Dylan McKenzie, Program Coordinator at the New York Univesity Game Center. “So make games for and with the people around you. Be humble enough to listen and learn. Be confident enough to experiment and explore what games can be. And whatever you make, do it all the way!”
The EGD Collective would like to thank all of those who assisted us in the writing of this article including, The University of Utah Gamecraft Club, Professor Robert Lloyd and Drexel University, Chris Onorati and DigiPen Institute of Technology, Dylan McKenzie, and the New York University Game Center, and the members the EGD Collective that submitted advice.
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