Learning to design games at university: US interviews

Plus: discover how students can attend mobile conference PG Connects for free!

Learning to design games at university: US interviews

The gaming world is rapidly changing. As mobile platforms are quickly catching up to their console counterparts, and VR makes itself a permanent fixture in the gaming landscape, the future of gaming looms bright and large, but also uncertain.

New generations of game developers are tasked with adapting to that change.

Some developers enter the industry from other tech fields, some are self-taught, and some graduate from tailor-made game design courses. Ahead of our latest PG Connects and VR Connects events in San Francisco this month, we investigated two educational establishments in California offering game design qualifications.

We talked to two professors, one from SAE Expression College and one from University of California - Santa Cruz, about their successful game development degree programs and the challenges involved in teaching for today's gaming markets (and introduce an offer for US students to attend PGC and VRC for free)...

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  • SAE Expression College

    SAE Expression College logo

    SAE Expression College, Emeryville, CA

    Mick Mancuso, Program Chair, Game Development Program and Game Art and Design Program

    SAE Expression College offers two bachelor’s degrees in the field, one in Game Art and Design, and another in Game Development. Students study an array of subjects, from math to psychology to 3D modelling. All of that culminates in a senior game development project.

    Mick Mancuso helms the game programs. SAE is a largely vocational school, and as such, most students are looking to get into work making games immediately upon graduation. The Game Art and Design program focuses on both 3D and 2D modelling for games on PC and tablet. Students focus on creating a polished game that uses the skills they learn in class.

    These student projects include a wide array of genres, such as 2D sidescrollers, puzzle games, adventure games, and many more. The most popular platforms are PC and mobile games, which are created using popular engines like Unreal, Unity, and Gamemaker Pro.

    Art and Design students have graduated to become 3D artists and dart producers. The Game Development program is still fresh, with no graduates as of yet, but the first class is expected to find work as designers, producers, and coders.

    "It is a disservice to our students to prepare them for a shrinking market."

    The fledgling nature of their development program reflects a recent shift in growing with the industry. SAE is currently phasing out their Game Art program in favor of the Game Development focus to provide students with a broader set of skills to meet the needs of the industry. However, SAE is also trying to protect Game Art students from a shrinking market stateside. Manusco explains:

    “The employment outlook for pure artists has changed over the last five years. More and more art is being outsourced, usually out of the country. We feel that it is a disservice to our students to prepare them for a shrinking market.”

    The up and coming development program will feature art, but also expands into coding, audio, and group game development projects that walk students through the entire game development process, from creating a concept to the final build while learning valuable lessons in teamwork.

    While some opportunities in games are fading out, Mancuso is still excited about game design and its applications in other areas. “Students are exposed to everything from architecture to narrative to color theory to statistics to game theory. It is the ultimate in a general education,” he says. “More and more industries are coming to the conclusion that the skills learned by game designers are applicable to their fields.”

    However, Mancuso looks further into the future as well. “The nature of what a game is is constantly changing - expanding into new technologies and exploiting new ways of looking at the world,” he posits. “Games have always been on the cutting edge of the computer revolution, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.”

  • University of California

    University of California logo

    University of California - Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA
    Michael John, Professor of Computational Media, Director of Center for Games and Playable Media

    The University of California - Santa Cruz offers two Bachelor's degrees in game design and media, as well as a Master’s of Science in Games and Playable Media. These programs provide students with courses in discrete math and programming, alongside more multidisciplinary courses including video games as visual art and history.

    Michael John, Chair and Professor of Computational Media, as well as the Director of the Center for Games and Playable Media at UCSC works largely with Master’s Degree students looking to work in games. Students pursuing a professional track make games to practice production methods, learn industry standards and tools, and acquaint themselves with emerging technology like VR. More research-focused students, on the other hand, have been branching out into AI.

    Generally speaking, though, students are the most curious about the latest up and coming hardware and software in the industry. “Students here are like students everywhere in that they want to do something new and exciting,” John says. “Right now the HTC Vive is probably the most popular platform, but that will change too.”

    John is happy to say that almost all graduates have found work in the industry. In the other programs though, some students study games to launch commercial careers in other fields. He notes: "You'll find banana slugs (the familiar name for UCSC alumni) all over the games industry, from AAA studios to funky indie art games. There has been a games program here for eleven years now, so that's a lot of alumni. Most recently, my own students have found a lot of work in VR studios. It seems like the VR studios are most in need of employees with fresh eyes and fresh ideas, and the students have done really well there.”

    Of course, UCSC’s game’s department is also changing to meet the times. The university is home to some of the best researchers in games, giving students access to cutting edge technology. The department has most recently made the shift to VR and AR technologies. In the Master’s program alone, three out of five capstone projects are on VR. Michael John is excited to see what the students will come up with in terms of emerging tech. “This Summer, we're going to be doing some experiments with microcontrollers and Internet-of-Things devices,” he says.

    "There's not enough work in the industry for the number of students being trained in development."

    With that said, John maintains a realistic vision of the industry. It’s difficult to break into game development, especially with the number of students pursuing degrees in the field: “I think it's important that we stop thinking of game design education - including in higher education - as training for jobs in game development,” he tells us. “This might sound funny considering the fact that that's what I do, but the reality is that there is not enough work in the games industry for the number of students being trained in game development.”

    With that said, John doesn’t believe that we shouldn’t be teaching game development in schools either. He sees game design education following a richer, multi-disciplinary path. “I think that the skills and especially the deep understanding of how computing and media intersect that comes with making games, will be vital to all kinds of future applications, especially as computational automation becomes ubiquitous (or even 'ambient'). In other words I am a sincere believer that making games is a great form of education, regardless of a student's goals.”

  • The future starts here

    The future starts here logo

    Despite differing focus areas, both professors agree that now’s the time to be studying up on game design.

    Manusco feels that a degree in game design will make students more competitive, giving them the necessary skills they need to thrive in a competitive industry. At the same time, a degree in video games endows students the tools they need to explore other areas in programming.

    “The processes and techniques in the game industry have become attractive to many endeavors that are not part of the gaming community, including Serious Games, and research into AI, UI and UX,” Manusco explains. “I expect that pure research into electronic games will become more and more important in MS, MFA and PHD programs as well.”

    “For me it has to do with the fact that computers are becoming so much a part of our lives now and computer games are and have always been at the deepest mesh point of computers and humans,” Michael John reflects. “Games in many ways are a way of understanding and even predicting how we will interact with computers going into the future. I think it's very difficult to be a game designer and not also be a futurist. Studying games is a powerful tool for understanding our future as technologists and as culture.”


    On June 27th and 28th at Bespoke in San Francisco, our own Steel Media conference will bring together the whole mobile and VR game dev ecosystem. And up to 20 students and their tutor from any college or university can get in for free! Yep, that's right.

    The event features a genuine industry cross-section: from indie developers to CEOs of top multinational publishers, as well as platforms, tool makers, investors, media, and more. We’d love to invite students to learn from the experts who’ll speak across 12 conference tracks, benefit from experiencing a large exhibition with games to play and demo, and network with the biggest names from the biggest companies.

    We can offer students free passes for Day 2 (June 28th). Please complete this online form or contact this email to confirm and we will send you the link to register.

    If you want to come for both days, we'll give a 20% discount for a full conference student ticket. Please note: both offers relate to students aged 18 and over. Looking forward to hearing from you.