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Designing Better Designers...
by Jon Brown on 06/30/10 09:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Fifteen years ago I entered the video games business as a tester. Back then that was a fairly standard way to break into the industry. You didn't need qualifications or a specific talent, you just had to like games and not be an idiot. And if you showed willing you could be anything, I know producers, designers, programmer and artists who took this route.
Games specific courses were thin on the ground in those days and my experience of graduates from them wasn't really very encouraging - it seemed that both artists and programmers were much better off getting a degree that gave them a good general appreciation of their discipline, rather than one that supposedly catered to our needs as an industry. With solid degrees under them they could learn quickly on the job, cutting their teeth in the white heat of 14 hour days. It was better to get new recruits that had no delusions of game making knowledge, because it took a few wasted months to beat this out of them.
So, for a long time, I looked down on these courses. Of course, I never really knew what I was talking about when it came to either art or coding, I was judging from a ridiculous position. After being a tester for about a million years I moved into design, which is where I always wanted to be.
While I learned my trade through a cornucopia of mistakes, the system began to disgorge graduates from game design courses. Now I knew what I was talking about, and I didn't have much respect for these degrees. Not that some of the graduates weren't good, they were, but they were good in spite of the course they'd attended.
Times have changed though, the courses have changed and I've changed. Somewhere along the line I grew up and realised that the best thing to do, if I didn't like the results of these courses, was to be more active and say something about it to the people that run them, rather than ranting to any unfortunate who would listen.
Last week I was invited, along with two of my bosses from Sidhe (Tyrone McAuley and Andy Satterthwaite), to Victoria University, here in Wellington. We were there to see five game prototypes that had been made by cross functional teams, bringing together computer science students and design students. And we were all very impressed. I can only speak for myself, but I was also mightily relieved.
The reason the three of us were invited along was because we had given the lecturers some pointers on how we thought they should structure the course. In the process of this advice we also wholeheartedly volunteered ourselves to give a presentation each on how to make a game in five weeks. It was during my presentation that I first used the term Hinterland of Fail but didn't really feel I got the point across, hence my post on the subject.
The demos that these students created were excellent, there is no other word for it. What they produced in a few weeks was well beyond my expectations and if any of the students are less than very proud then they're way too hard on themselves. It's impossible to say if any of this was down to the involvement of me and my colleagues, I expect they're just bright kids who think long and work hard.
But I'm glad I wasn't sat on the sidelines simply commenting on the results like I used to. The time it took me to prepare and give a presentation was negligible in comparison to the potential benefits, because who doesn't want graduates that know a thing or two, who can think for themselves, who act well under pressure and, just as importantly, know their current limits.
These courses will continue to proliferate and if you're an experienced game developer then they need your help. Don't criticise the results, get your oar in and make them better.

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[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Chan Chun Phang
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@Bob dillan

The problem (and point) is that there is no good education because the good designers aren't fixing the system. Don't criticize Transformers, teach the new ones how to design a good game without copying.

Thomas Grove
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@Bob Dillan: I'm impressed that you were impressed by Bayonetta, and very unimpressed that you think it is a copy of God of War vs the child of Devil May Cry.

Thomas Grove
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@Bob Dillan: I'm impressed that you were impressed by Bayonetta, and unimpressed that you think it is a copy of God of War vs the child of Devil May Cry.

Nathan Addison
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Well, Mr. Brown, I appreciate the insight. Designers such as yourself have a pretty interesting take on Game Design's current school of thought. You veterans have a wealth of wisdom for this industry that our next generation craves. I know that together we get better at our craft and contributing constructive points of view pushes us along.

It makes me wonder why game designers have waited so long to place their knowledge into eager students? Think about it; games have been around since man began and have been such a crucial building block of our culture, yet there has never been a well thought out approach to game design until the pass few decades.

As far as being a particular field of design we have never had "greats" who have shared their wisdom to make this discipline better. Architectural, business, automotive, fashion, industrial, music and the like for centuries have all had veterans willing to instill their craft into the next generation but nowhere do you read about the school of thought that comes from game design. Games like poker, chess, mancala, checkers, backgammon, baseball, and soccer didn't just create themselves; someone was willing to design them over the years to make a better experience for the players. Kinda makes me wonder why game designers who focus on board and card games haven't stepped up as much as they could these last 200 years. Sure would be a boon to the entire game industry if we all had a way to organize our thoughts and constructively pass it down to the next generation.

Anyways, I'm done with my rant. Nice train of thought, Mr. Brown.

Miles Boylan
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The thing with university courses I've found is that the tutors come out of the industry and then teach what they've been taught. This all all well and good, the problems come when the tutors have been teaching for a number of years and still believe that what they came out of the industry with is totally relevant when we know how fast technology evolves and how techniques change. A tutor on the course I took told a student not ever bother learning 3D sculpting programs like Zbrush or mudbox as "they are never used in the industry". Obviously this doesn't account for all Games Design courses but personally I've had to learn how to use most programs or techniques myself through online tutorials, but because I've learned things that said tutors aren't aware of I'd get no credit for it whilst the uni takes all the glory by showing off work that they didn't actually teach.

I believe that games design courses are an awesome way for people interested in the subject to get involved but I feel there needs to be some kind of teaching courses for design tutors that have been out of the industry for, say, at least 6-7 years, even more so for the ones that aren't actually interested in games and just so happened to of find a way into the industry via toy design or something semi-relevant at some point during their career. If tutor's knowledge is out of date then I hold little hope for their students that don't go out and learn new things off their own back and in turn, dread to see the quality of games in the future.

Eric Carr
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I find that most game "design" courses are too packed with other stuff like Art and learning specific software. There tends to be very little design work in most of them.

@Nathan : I think that we don't share for the most part stems from the fact that game design, as a discipline, is reasonably new. Your examples of sports are all games that evolved over time. There was nobody that sat down and starting working out the rules for chess or checkers or baseball. Building a new game from scratch is a modern invention I think.

Add to that the concept that Game Design doesn't really mean too much. We're not at a point where we can create a fun game system consistently. There is no "right" way, and the best tool we have is prototyping. I've found that the best design courses that I ever took, involved teaching the guidelines of what a game *should* be, and how to avoid fatal errors in design.

What surprises me is that there aren't more opportunities for interns, or maybe even apprenticeships in the industry. I mean, classes are great, but nothing can teach the way a project with deadlines can.

Jon Brown
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@ Mr Addison a lot of the old classics, like chess, backgammon and poker have evolved over a protracted amount of time, with rule sets being survival of the fittest affairs. But you are right, there's extensive game design thought out there which can be traced to specific people which hasn't been properly captured or passed on.

Jon Brown
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@miles I agree, there needs to be a system by which courses and lecturers are tested. Even game design moves on, although at a much slower pace than the tech - I am thankful for this most of the time. For anyone who is on a course of any kind these days I would suggest two things:

1. Keep reading Gamasutra to find out what you actually might need to know about.

2. Hassle your lecturers to provide teaching that reflects what the industry needs from you. Remember, you are a customer, you are paying for a service and if the service isn't giving you what you need then you must complain.

Jon Brown
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@ Eric - You're so right about some courses and the amount of stuff they teach that isn't really design. I know they do this to give the students options further down the line but it's not like History students are taught a bit of lathe work, just in case. I expect this approach comes from a peculiar worry that the games industry might, all of a sudden, just go away.

JeanLuke Parshall
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@Eric Carr

There is a plethora of Internships and jobs that only go out to friends and some that are made especially for friends. Networking skills students develop early on trying to get those precious internships before even mudding their boots on the field of battle are essential tools for future development. The early develop of that critical skill set may not develop in internships or apprenticeships that are more readily available.

-Very late night semi-tangential, Semi-Information/ramblings (yes that is a disclaimer) more meant for students.

If your a student like me it is always good to get in on as many gatherings as possible. I learn a lot just listening to rants and what not of the developers who attend my local development meetings. Developers really like to share what they do. Most everyone enjoys talking about the things they enjoy doing right? The problem I think is that they tend to only share amongst themselves letting the new blood fight their way in as a right of passage. I hear a good deal of developers speak of "doing the leg work we all had to do." With far of dreamy looks of romanticism. Not to say it isn't a good practice, you can certainly learn a great deal from that leg work…

I have great teachers who worked in the industry and have a great many contacts they bribe in for lectures fairly frequently. They provide great information, and even more so when lured away form the door when their lecture is done. Even with all that great information Exposing Yourself to industry events, independent projects, and sponsored projects like the 48 global game jam I participated in last year, a priceless experience that was. Mind staying up for 48 hours working with a big red digital clock counting down to your deadline is draining but so worth it. Anyway, great teachers and “in the know” industry professionals are wonderful fountains of information and wisdom. However to really bring home ideas your courses and interactions with the industry. You have to apply them in real situations “With a Team!” Being a person people want to work with is a must. You do not have to be the end all modeler, concept artist or what have you to be a game developer but you had better be really personable and willing to learn. You can be the best modeler in the world but if you act that way, you will not likely get a job.

Demitrius Pennebaker
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I'm interested in reading more about your Hinterland of Fail concept, but your link appears to be broken. Would you please post an accurate link?

Jon Brown
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Link to 'New Ideas and the Hinterland of Fail' now fixed. Sorry about the break, many thanks to Demitrius for pointing that out. I hate broken links, sorry to be part of the internet's second biggest problem.

Shekhar Gyanwali
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The way I experience as a student is, they are two different types of student, one: who love this industry, and want to do something, second: who want to make good money and they choose this industry.

SO, everybody knows which one can learn and teach better.

teacher(one)+student(one)=pushing the limits (they knows how to stay up to date.)

one+two=not too bad (they knows if you give instruction)

two+two=sucks (they may create another "GUN HEAD")

David Serrano
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Applause to all who share knowledge with the next generation. But designer knowledge is not the problem with the game industry. The problem is the complete lack of vision along with the greed of the 3 or 4 giant publishers who now dominate almost all of the market. Design schools could start producing visionary designers in droves and it wouldn't matter. As long as the senior management of these publishers are in charge, there will be no outlet for creativity or vision in game design. Something has to change soon before it's too late.