Area 5’s Jay Frechette and game producer Erin Ali met a few years ago when they were both working their way through game design programs at different schools (Jay at The Art Institute in San Francisco, Erin at The University for Advancing Technology in Phoenix, AZ). In Splash Damage, the duo discuss their experiences — the positive, the negative, the insightful, and the just plain funny — at game design school.
Erin: On top of getting course schedules, materials, and books to prepare ourselves for the ups and downs of college classes, there was also the whole ordeal of meeting instructors. Forget about wondering how strict they were — I was just excited as hell to meet a professor who could talk shop and teach me more about the industry.
I remember my first game-design course, where my instructor introduced himself and then immediately explained to us how he’d now begin to ruin our idea of games. He said that we needed to pick them apart for how they were developed, not their entertainment value.
How did you first feel about your instructors starting out?
Jay: Back in Michigan, the closest I got to the game industry was my job at GameStop and the occasional visit to the local import shop. I couldn’t wait to meet my new instructors because I’d never really talked to someone who had actually worked on video games or movies.
A lot of other students were the same way. On the first day of each new class, we all wanted to know what they worked on and would ask for them to show us stuff. It was like a rite of passage for them to gain our attention and respect. We had one guy that worked on The Matrix game; we gave him a pretty hard time about that.
What’s the coolest project that any of your instructors worked on?
Erin: Honestly, when I think back on my professors and their backgrounds, I draw a blank on their former affiliations. Back when I was a student, there was this basic level of trust that I had in my professors — I thought that they were our professors for a reason. I think it could be that I didn’t want to know, for fear of being disappointed.
What did you do if you found out that your professor hadn’t worked on games that you’d heard of? Or games you felt were poorly designed?
Jay: It was a little disappointing if they didn’t have something amazing to show or announce, but overall I didn’t really care. I was just excited to be there.
I did start to notice the negative side of being part of a new degree program, though. Because we were some of the first students getting degrees for gaming, for many of my instructors — sure, most of them had experience making games — it was their first time teaching. Some were better than others.
Did you notice anything like that at UAT?
Erin: Definitely. Across the board at most schools that started game degrees, I think it was an experiment for the first batch of students to figure out what would be considered a “good” education. Hell, I think they’re still figuring it out.
It’s not like there’s a bar exam to get into the industry; there’s no one specific way to break into the field. Being part of this “experiment” was pretty hard, though.
I wish there was more of an introduction to what the industry is like and the jobs in the industry. By the time I realized there wasn’t just design roles and that production best suited me…I was at the end of my junior year.
Jay: I completely agree. The problem is that the industry is still young, so most of the really qualified people are busy making games! Some of my instructors were brilliant, but others seemed to just regurgitate tutorials that they found online.
One thing they all had in common was that they were all bubble-bursters; they made sure that all of us knew that just because we were getting degrees in games, that didn’t mean anyone would give us a job. If you wanted a job at Valve as an artist, you had better be making art as good as Valve’s before you could think of applying there.
Erin: Your instructors got that right, I think. At our school, it seemed as though there was more a celebration of students’ creativity than the quality of their work. Creativity is nice, but if my work looked average compared to most of the students in the university — or in the industry — where does creativity get me?
I did have this art teacher that was a no-bullshit professor. I saw her criticize piece after piece with an honesty that both hurt and nurtured students. I had become so comfortable with her style of direction that when she once told me my art was improving, I felt there was hope for me in the industry.
Once I got past the excitement of learning about this industry, things became more real, and I realized just how experimental our courses were. Instructors still might be figuring out the “how to” in teaching the eager about the industry, but there are definitely those staples that every student should know about so they have a chance in games.
Jay: Getting good feedback is crucial, and like you, I enjoyed working under the instructors that pushed me the hardest — and I produced some of my best work in those classes. I think a big challenge for game-school instructors is that the tools in the industry change at a rapid pace — we updated and added new software almost every quarter — so you run the risk of teaching things that might not be relevant down the road. As game instruction grows, it’ll also need to adapt to a changing industry.
I do have one piece of advice for students: Take an active role in your education. The people that I went to school with that are the most successful today are the students that looked beyond what was being taught in the classroom to master and stay current on the tools.