Is it Worth Going to Game Design School?

Spread the love

The article below was originally published some time ago and now remains online as an informational resource and archive.

Indie game development is at an exciting point at present. A vast array of educational material is available online to help the budding game designer learn how to make games without necessarily going to school for game design and/or programming, making it much easier for individuals without formal training in game development to produce their own games or content, express their own ideas, and even earn money from what they produce.

Notes In “is it worth going to game design school“, “game design” is used in the general sense to mean learn ‘any aspect’ of game development, rather than specifically ‘game design’ – game designers are typically responsible for mapping out a games overall story, features, mechanics and behaviours making it a multidisciplinary role. Bear this in mind looking for a school/subject of study.

This then begs the question as to whether its worth going to school for game design, programming or general development; is it really worth it when there’s so much informative content accessible online, and often freely. Does higher-level schooling really make a difference any more.

IMPORTANT: furthering a level of education by going to school, college or University irrespective as to whether that’s for ‘game design’ (game development) or not, is a serious decision with some equally serious financial implications. The Reader is encouraged to do their utmost ‘due-diligence’ and/or seek professional advice, where available, through appropriate career agencies or other suitable channels.

Do you need to go to school?

The need to go to school (college or University) to learn about game design, programming or other relevant game development discipline is generally predicated on two conditions;

  1. Teaching the user something they did not know.
  2. Doing so in a formal environment.

Considering a career in the Games Industry then, someone with the desire but otherwise lacking in the requisite knowledge or skills might go school to learn, guided by a tutor in a formal environment, what they need to become a proficient C+ video game programmer for example, whereas someone already versed in C+ (as already applied to their current occupation video game programming at “X” game studio) might not. Of the two, school would be appropriate and of greater benefit to the first person, but a slightly more complicated decision for the latter because, whilst they may already possess a certain level of skill or knowledge, it’s likely not in an appropriate field. This person would then need to ask at least two additional questions. Would going to school;

  1. Add something new to what they already knew.
  2. Appropriately develop the skills and knowledge they already have.

If the answer is “yes”, then they too would benefit from the additional time spent in the formal environment of school.

At face value then, asking the question simply from a “skills and knowledge” point of view, for the most part, pushes both the beginner and intermediate student towards the answer being “yes“, they should go to ‘game design’ school.

Time spent learning

One of the big advantages of schooling for anything related to game design and production is its formal nature. In other words, the fact that between two and four years are spent dedicated solely to a particular subject (to continue the analogy from about, learning more about ‘video game programming’ for example), effort can be properly guided, focused and learnt within a shorter time-frame than might otherwise be done independently. This can be significantly adventitious when applied to the core skills generally needed for game development and production.

Note: although formal schooling does focus on particular subjects to completion, the nature of ‘design’ and/or ‘development’, i.e. ‘problem solving’, means the designer (game maker) never truly finishes what may be completed as a degree or formal educational program because the application of knowledge and skill is in constant flux, the game student is always learning and applying acquired skills.

Going to school then is largely determined by the need to gain certain types, aspects, or levels of skill or knowledge that might not otherwise be available to the budding Game Designer within a given (relatively short) time frame; if it were felt that type of formal environment suited the persons learning style then it makes perfectly good sense to take advantage of that approach.

What type of schooling

Once the decision to ‘learn’ has been made, next it needs to be determined where or how that is to be done. There are generally two options;

  1. Going to an actual bricks-and-mortar establishment.
  2. Enrolling in an appropriate online course.

Looked at specifically from an informational point of view, both approaches are equivalent. In other words neither necessarily offers an advantage over the other in terms of what is taught, i.e. the information itself, they differ only in how that is done. What this means is that whilst both approaches could be teaching the exact same course material, bricks and mortar is typically more formal and instructional (the individual is ‘taught‘), whereas online learning tends to be more informal and requires students be more self-reliant (the individual ‘learns‘).

Note: the amount of time a person is able to dedicate to either approach is often the differentiating factor between the two as the former tends to require a certain degree of dedication over the latter – this is not to say that one or the other is better, it simply means they cater to different life, teaching and learning styles rather than necessarily being selectively advantageous or not.

Does going to school guaranty a job

Obviously going to school, college or University is all about there being a job at the end of it, preferably in the chosen field of study (game design/development in this instance). So does school, and any qualifications earned, guaranty a job? The simple, and Real World™ answer is, “no”, going to school and getting a degree does not guaranty employment, but it certainly helps those making the decisions do so in the persons favour because its often taken to mean the ex-student, and now potential employee, has the appropriate faculties to dedicate themselves to a single subject or task for an extended period which, whilst not a skill in of itself, is a valuable commodity for prospective employers to see nonetheless.

Note: game development studios can spend the better part of four years on individual game projects which has a direct correlation to the time and dedication it takes to earn a degree. Employers tend to naturally show preference in this regard.

Before considering further education then, it makes sense to investigate job, employment or work opportunities in the field, if it appears a certain level of saturation is manifest – one job being applied to by dozens or as many as hundreds of individuals – then choice of subject and where study occurs is a reasonably important consideration.

Note: choose a school in a town or city where a number of game studios are located for instance – this may then minimises any additional ‘costs’ that might otherwise be incurred job hunting whilst in transition from school to job. Also of import in this regard is the time it takes to acquire the additional knowledge, although certain jobs may be available going into school they may not be on exit.

What are employers looking for

In the Real World™ again, it boils down to their simply wanting to know prospective employees are capable of doing what is asked of them. The problem with schooling generally is that Education or certification in of themselves does not show or prove this, only results do. If, at the end of a college course, the individual has a reasonable collection of competent work showing suitable application of knowledge learnt, that would be more adventitious for graduating students than the certification on its own. In other words, students are encouraged to use the relatively safe environment of school to produce as much, and as high quality, work as is possible.

Note: the formal environment of school can be taken advantage of in other ways; it might allow students the ability to supplement their studies with experience building employment via internships or other forms of hands-on learning within the industry whilst they study to compensate for study short comings, a particularly useful means of gaining entrance into the games industry.

How much does game design school cost?

In terms of materials and other ancillary necessities, the costs of going to school generally, and not just to learn game design, programming or other related subject, depends upon where the person studies and the type of course being studied. Generally speaking prospective students have a number of option available, each with it’s own Pros and Cons. They are;

  • An accredited school or college.
  • A non-accredited school or college.
  • Online courses.
  • Informal or casual learning.

All things being equal, from an academic point of view, going to a fully accredited school or college is the better option, although much more likely to incur greater cost – averaging $30,000/pa for Private University or $9,000 for Public/State college (for UK study course fees are capped £9000/pa)[1] – although their qualifications tend to be more broadly recognised by the games Industry (specifically) and other Institutions, which might justify the cost to the prospective student. By comparison the cost of going to an un-accredited school is often much lower, typically 20% – 50% lower, however their programs, qualifications or certification may not be as widely recognised (it’s crucial this be checked before taking this option).

Note: [1] Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, 1974-75 to 2014-15, Selected Years (USA) [source]. Cost of UK study tuition fees (UK) [source].

IMPORTANT: costs and fees generally relate to course or tuition only, residency services etc. are often supplemental based on requirement or availability.

In contrast online or informal learning is often found to be the most cost effective solution to learning new skills. Programs can be as little as $100 or less for an individual ‘tutorial unit’, to $10,000 or above for full courses and associated materials that may or may not include one-to-one tutoring etc. Although informal or causal learning can be structured in a similar way to formal schooling, the student is often learning at their own convenience (or based on a more informal timed meeting structure).

Generally speaking then, costs differ based on several factors not necessarily indicative of quality – course depth, whether supplementary materials are included, library access, computer lab use, extra-curricular work groups, equipment hire, residential halls for on-site study, tutor or mentor access, etc. It’s important therefore to engage in thorough due diligence, comparing costs against itemised listings to uncover the most cost-effective option for the student based on what they want from study and how they want to use it afterwards.

The Cost of going to school

Whilst the costs attributed to going to school may seem immediately affordable in the short term, the prospective student should consider this relative to potential mid to longer term consequences. In other words depending on the amount paid or due on student fees, there may be differing levels of carry-over into real life in terms of paying for (repayment of) loans and other monetary encumbrances. A top college over the course of 4 years for example, might cost the best part of $120,000 (c.£75,000). If this is partially, or fully, a loan (debt) serious thought needs to be given to how it is to be repaid and what, if any, affects doing so might have on other obligations later in life – if the average game artists salary when starting out is less than $48,000, how would a debt amounting to $120,000 fit into long term earnings and the ability to do other things; mortgage repayments, cost of children, cars, holiday etc.

Note: be wary of ‘deferment’ or ‘capped’ repayment schemes as these do not let the debtor off the hook but set in place conditions of repayment that might appear better at face value, but over time may ‘cost’ more.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the Games Industry’s 2 – 4 year hire and fire employment cycle makes it relatively unstable compared to other professions; game studios often divest themselves of employees after project completion to offset initial looses against company profits; or may shut down outright, restarting with completely new hires. Knowledge of this matters because it affects earnings stability, something of a prerequisite for debts or loans of significance.

Note: in the four years it takes to work on a game whilst employed at a Studio, an artist might earn $192,000 USD, or c. $4000 month, which is split between rent, utilities, vehicle repayments, transport costs to/from work, various types of Insurance, taxes where applicable. In other words, when deciding to take on a significant amount of debt before being employed some significant financial planning needs to be done to include contingencies because, and this is a point often overlooked, the agency owning the debt owns whatever collateral was put up as guaranty until it has been paid off, in other words the students parents, significant’s, family or friends potentially loosing out if the student defaults is any way.


For those at the very beginning of their careers as game designers, programmers etc., or individuals wanting to expand on, or into other areas of game development, formal schooling will be of more use than to those already in possession of a reasonable level of skill or knowledge in a given field; the more of this there is the less likely formal schooling will be of benefit- largely, it has to be said, because increased knowledge in the field of game making tends to imply a person has already spent time in the games industry developing games or participating in activities that likely have the person several rungs up the skill and experience ladder, even if that’s just through amateur or community based projects.

And this speaks to a point about the game development generally; the games industry is one largely comprising individuals whom have gained their XP (experience points) through hands on project development, usually within communities editing particular games (modding). And it’s these people, ‘what’ and ‘who’, college graduates are really competing with for jobs within the games industry – individuals that, whilst not formally educated, will have, in the four years it takes to acquire a degree in video game programming for example, practical hands-on experience actually making and selling games.

To sum up, when asking “Game Design School, is it worth it?” consider the following, at the very least, before making a decision; don’t consider it a “need” unless there really is a “need”, certainly when contextualised with the above information. In other words going for the sake of going might not be quite as beneficial as it may seem.

  • “Can I afford to go to College?” (up front fees, tuition, on-campus lodging etc.)
  • “Can I afford to pay for college?” (load repayment, additional debt)
  • “Is School, College or University the only place to learn what I need to know?”
  • “Can I still learn what I need, gain experience in my own time and work?”
  • “Will going to College guaranty a job? (risk factor)”

Additional Resources to Help

Networking & Contacts

A unique advantage of going to College or University for game design study is the networking that naturally occurs between students, faculty etc. This often results in outcomes that are very difficult to replicate through online channels – engaging in face-to-face creative study in a low-risk environment, with like-minded individuals, is a proverbial hot-bed of potential – many a game project or business start-up has origins in such environments, so whilst a person may not exit further education with any strong production biases or indeed, qualifications, the potential for establishing something of more meaning during the two, three or four years study that can be carried over into ‘Real Life ™’ are far greater than might otherwise be had visiting and interacting with unknown individuals on forums or online communities. Whilst this possibility is not expressly tied to fields of study, it is worth considering as a positive benefit to pursuing game design at college or university.

[last updated Dec 2015]

Spread the love