So you’re thinking of becoming a games developer in one of the numerous fields that go into creating a game. Awesome. So you’re pondering going to university to study at one of the many, and growing in number, campuses that offer a course in Games Design, Art, Programming or a similarly named course.
Fantastic. But what should you know about the university you are applying to? Gathered here is some advice that will hopefully land you on the best course available to you.
What do you want to be?
This first one is fairly obvious, but with the amount of students I have seen transferring between courses it seems not everyone may have thought this through entirely when filling out those long-winded forms. Google is your friend, find out about the various roles and find the role that fits you. As mentioned in the introduction, a lot of the various roles can be boiled down to a simple trio of Art, Design and Programming, with sub categories cropping up within each of these (Games Designer, Level Designer, Sound Designer, etc.)
There are, of course, other areas in games development such as a QA position (Testing) or even roles like producer, but from my experience universities tend to cater towards those three, as they are essentially the largest volume of the industry.
What does the University have to offer?
There are several things you need to ask of wherever it is you are applying to, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, you will be paying a lot of money to study there, so for the sake of a wise investment it is worth your while to ask as much as you can. But what do you ask?
Ask about the course:
What variety of courses do they teach, and how flexible is it to transfer between them? I mentioned learning all you can about the role you want to take, so let loose the dogs of war and go towards studying that, but it’s likely you’re human, and as such mistakes are going to happen, and once you are involved in the course you may find “I thought I wanted to do programming, but design is much more an area I want to be involved in”
How long has the course been run at this campus? What facilities does the university have specifically for this course? What about the lecturers; how long have they been in their roles, and have they come from the games industry? That last one is something I have found very important, as the most useful lecturers I have had, and the ones I have learned most from, have been the ones who have worked in the industry, as they are able to offer you insight into how things are actually done out there in the real world.
Ask about their connections:
If lecturers have come from a development studio, or students have graduated and moved into positions within the industry, there will be contacts and this is a very good thing for a university to have. As an example, the university I went to were personally invited to a day at Codemasters, in which we…oh yeah, I signed an NDA…moving onto the point, whilst we were there, the senior members of the studio were taking notes, and as such came back to the university with a list of people they had noticed potential in. If you have read about applying for a job within the games industry, you will know that the first job is the hardest as you are without experience and without contacts, however, an event like this is a huge boost for your reputation with the studio and an excellent foot in the door.
My expectation is that those universities based in the same town as, or at least near to, major developers will have the closest links to them, however, this isn’t based on anything I have witnessed, so the safest course of action is to research it yourself, and get out and ask the questions yourself.
Okay, so you have chosen your course, chosen your University, packed up, moved out and got your learning going on. What now?
When it comes to applying for a job, it is unlikely any recruiter is going to want to hear you speak with the impression that you “did your time” in education. However, if you can say that you were student president, course representative, leader of an extra curricular group or even founder of one, then you have gone from being one of the many, one of the dozens of CVs that they will sift through day in and out, to one of the few that makes them sit up and take notice.
Don’t be afraid to get involved outside of university too, there are plenty of avenues. Work on a mod, or two, or twelve; however many you have time for. Get a summer job working as a tester, or some other game related job. Write reviews. Do podcasts. Create a blog (that people actually read). Whatever it takes to show any potential employer that you are passionate about what you do.
Think About Your Portfolio & CV
During your time on your chosen course, you will begin to amass work you’re proud of, as well as work from outside your course. This needs to be collected together in some form, with an emphasis on accessibility for the recruiters. Putting your work on a website is a popular method, as there are many sites to display your portfolio, some free, others for a price. There are advantages and disadvantages either way, as a website you own yourself and have paid for looks more professional, but as a poor student, a free website will allow for more booze and M&Ms.
Think about other ways to collate your work too, maybe put it on a DVD to send out, maybe customise a USB pen drive with your work on it or maybe have demonstratable work on a laptop to show to the hopeful employers. The goal is getting your work into the lap of someone who will one day pay you money for your creativity, so by all means go nuts here, often you will have one shot, and you need to impress.
For a student with no experience, the idea of putting together a games-focused CV can be a daunting one. What can you put? Will they care about your 5 years at Asda? Should I exaggerate the work I’ve done to give the impression I know what I’m talking about? Well, that one is clearly going to land you in hot water. Don’t lie on your CV, if you stacked shelves, don’t say “an experienced manager of retail’s supply and demand, with key focus on replenishment objectives.”
Be honest, summarise your work into skills that are transferable; you worked on a team, communication and interaction with management, etc. Make sure to let them know how your university trained you, what software are you familiar with? What were key modules you took, and what grades did you achieve? Did you have a dissertation, if so, what did you investigate? Employers will want to know those details, and if it goes to an interview stage, they are highly likely to want to talk about it.
Hopefully this information has been helpful to at least one person, as I know I could have done with something like this when I was a wee nipper starting out my drinking design career back in fresher’s week.
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