Can you really learn game design?

Can you really learn game design

We live in a time when games have become a hot area in skills education. In the UK, a considerable charge led by figures such as Ian Livingstone drives for better education at school and university level to turn out graduates in game production and animation. In the US, there are several fully fledged colleges, such as DigiPen, that teach many skills to aspiring young professionals. For hefty fees, you can learn the requisite skills and often find placements in big studios.

The purpose is to help fill a need for quality staff. In the UK, the concern is that there aren’t enough great young candidates to do the required work and that this will shrink the industry. So courses fashion employable candidates with formal training and experience to help make the next Destiny. Courses thus teach games as a kind of career and get young game makers into the idea that this is primarily a production industry. And that’s where the counter-arguments start.

The first argument is about bootstraps. There are more free tools out there than ever before to teach coding, art and other disciplines. “Why,” the bootstrapper asks, “pay lots of money to learn this stuff when it’s just lying around?” He argues that the novice who throws themselves at a project will learn much more than if she goes to school, and at a fraction of the cost.

The second argument is about the value of general versus specialist education. Many programmers say they prefer graduates with computer science over game development degrees, because specialist courses are good at teaching engines, but poor at fundamentals.

The third argument is about the changing state of the industry. Games evolve and so by the time a graduate has come through and learned one set of techniques, the industry has already moved on. How are colleges to keep pace with new business models and technologies?

These arguments boil down to a lack of faith in skills education. They imply that skills are all well and good, but if you go down this route then you’ll end up taking on lots of debt and sacrificing your ambition. That’s great if you want to work in an orchestra, but not if you want to start a band. In my experience, such attitudes show a lack of familiarity with the material in many courses. A course might concentrate on art or programming, project management or design. It might be strictly skills-focused or embrace a wider brief. Some courses are aimed at neophytes, while others assume at least a baseline familiarity.

The fact is also that working on triple-A games is the ambition of many students. They’ve grown up seeing games surpass their humble roots and decided that the industry is what they want to be a part of. While being an indie is attractive, not everyone desires a career scrabbling for a living in mobile games, hoping for the next big thing.

I increasingly find myself in support of the idea that studying in a formal setting is just as valid as self-teaching, with one big exception: game design. ‘What is game design?’ is still a question that confounds many people. What a game designer does, what good game design looks like, and what’s good and bad practice are open questions. Design retains the aura of alchemy.

Students have an idea that design has something to do with writing things down or directing teams or something, but it’s never very clear. There are many books that talk about design in rounded terms. Yet there are few, if any, practicable guides for how to design better. College courses frequently struggle with this question just as much as students. Most think it’s sort of the film direction of the game industry. Or maybe screenwriting. Nobody’s entirely sure, and those definitions stack up very badly against what many working studios do.

So it’s very common to hear advice like ‘read and be good at everything’, or for design to be a second-stage career for skills practitioners. But game design is just a skill. The advantage that most game production skills have over design is that their output is tangible. Making a great model, developing a great engine or putting together an actionable budget is clear.

Great design, on the other hand, is more a matter of opinion. Because games are perceived as a nascent medium, ideology and politics frequently come into design discussion. Design sessions are rarely about good practice or smart strategies and more about philosophy. There’s little sense of ‘good’ in a conventional sense and tons of ‘good’ in a political sense. Attempts to break up this logjam (such as formalism) usually encounter heavy resistance.

So the confusion of craft with polemic causes lots of problems. Countless times I’ve encountered students, developers and teachers who are tired of the politics and just want sound tutorship.

What’s the best practice for writing out mechanics? How do you draw a wireframe? How should you design controls? How to implement social features? These are straightforward questions with pragmatic answers, but their know-how has yet to penetrate most teaching.