Saturday, January 29, 2011

Computer Science Vs. Game Development (or Which Degree Should I Get?)

Note: This is long, if you don't want to read it, skip to the bottom to get to the conclusion and summary.

Weekly blog post #4, go! This one has been on my todo pile for a while, so as long as I am in ranting mode, I might as well get this off of my chest. It is a problem that is highly prevalent on many game developer forums, and especially so on one I often frequent, Often, people will ask the question: "What should I do about college, is a game degree right for me?" Unfortunately, 9 times out of 10, the response is "get the 4 year degree in computer science, it makes you more marketable for non-gaming related jobs!" This answer comes almost as an automated response, as if the world has an away message posted just for this question.

As a disclaimer, please note that everything I am going to say and, for that matter, everything on this blog is my personal opinion. I am asserting that I am correct because it’s my blog and my opinion, but that does not mean that you have to agree with me. I will also preface this by stating that I have been to both a prestigious 4 year college and obtained a degree in Game Development from Full Sail, so I have experience with both sides of this argument. I have also worked several jobs, both in and out of the game development industry, so I can talk about the process of interviewing with non-gaming companies when you have a Game Development degree.

I'd like first to clarify a common misconception about game development degrees. The misconception is that game development = game design, and that game design = sprawling out some concept art, a story, a few stats, and having other people make your games. Or worse, some people believe that game development goes something like this. The position of "Idea Guy" does not exist unless you are funding the project or you are a proven developer with several successful titles under your belt. Even then, unless you are an indie or a huge name designer in the sphere of Miyamoto or Kojima, chances are you will not have full reign over the project you are designing, and that your personal game ideas will sit on the shelf, untouched until you either get enough money to fund your own project, or you learn to program and take up the reigns of creation yourself.

I don't say this to destroy anyone's hopes of being a game designer. There are more opportunities now than ever to design your own games, but they all require having a skill and being very good at that skill. So if what you are looking to do is go to school for "game design," I recommend you rethink your focus and go to school to obtain a skill that will let you -develop- games. You can specialize in programming, art, animation, sound engineering, or any array of things that float your boat, but you must have something to bring to the table or you will never even start down the path of realizing your goals and getting your dream game made.

So, what does all that have to do with the debate of Computer Science Degrees vs. Game Development Degrees? Mainly, I wanted to clarify the difference between "Development" and "Design." With a Game Development degree at any school worth its salt, you will be tasked with learning a good deal of programming, as well as many other of the technical aspects of game development. Sure, there is a little design to be had, but most good game design school focus on teaching you usable skills to bring a project from start to finish, giving you hands on experience and letting you get your hands dirty. With a Computer Science degree at most schools you will be given a battery of classes, ranging from various forms of literature to health to math to lots of computing theory. A Computer Science degree will expose you to an array of topics you may not have otherwise even thought about, though lack of specialization will leave you needing to focus heavily on doing things outside of class in order to have a greater usable skill set immediately out of college. I recommend doing things outside of class regardless of which degree you decide to obtain, so this is nothing different.

The major benefit of a Computer Science degree is -not- that it makes you more marketable to companies when it comes to getting a job. The benefit is just what I mentioned before: you get exposed to things you may not have otherwise thought about. If you are not quite certain which area of game development you might be interested in, going to a normal 4-year college and pursuing a Computer Science degree is a good way to start. Chances are that by the time you're done you may not even come out with a Computer Science degree, you may have decided that instead you like doing art more, or you may have decided that you enjoyed that one class you took in Japanese and went on to get a degree in International Business. The process of obtaining a Computer Science degree gives you the latitude to better decide what you really want to do.

And it is exactly on that point that I differentiate the two degrees, deciding what you want to do. If you know that you want to make games, that it's your one passion in life and you really don't want to do anything else, then go for the Game Development degree. You will come out with less knowledge of general things (which can honestly be picked up by reading a few books outside of class anyway), but you will come out with much more skill directly applicable to making your dreams into reality. You will also gain a hidden advantage: connections within the industry. When you are at a traditional school obtaining a Computer Science degree, you are surrounded by various types of students who all have aspirations to different careers, from making banking software to designing rockets. But when you are at a school learning game development you are surrounded by people like you, people who want to develop games for a living, who are seeking to enter your industry. A good portion of these people will succeed in getting into the industry at various companies. Some of these people will quickly rise through the ranks into positions of power at your favorite development houses. How much easier do you think it might be to get in at Bungie when you spent several years in school with the lead programmer? How much easier might it be to get your resume seen at Valve when you've done level design with someone who is already working there? Most companies hire people first by asking around internally to see if anyone knows anyone who could fill a role. During your years obtaining a Game Development degree, as you interact with your peers you are basically putting in your bid for these positions way in advance.

Conclusion / Summary:
Do what you want to do. If you want to develop games, pursue your passion. There's no reason to go get a degree in psychology if you want to be a texture artist. There's no reason to go get a general degree in Computer Science when what you want to do is game programming. The biggest rationalization for Computer Science over Game Development is fear of commitment and fear of failure. If you want to be a game developer, go get the game development degree. Period. If you want to be a computer animator, go get the Computer Animation degree. Period. If you are not sure what you want to do in life, go get the Computer Science degree, not because it makes you more marketable, but because it leaves you with time and experience to figure out what it is you want to do, and that will make you more marketable.

Anyhow, this has been a pretty long post and I could go on for days about it. Maybe if anyone has further questions or there's enough interest I will continue this conversation. Till then, I will see you next post! As always, leave a comment or two, let me know what you think.

Friday, January 21, 2011

FFXIII-2. Squeenix, why?

You know what, I'm not even going to say it. I'll let the folks over at Elder-Geek say it for me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Clothing in Games - Part 2 (or, Maintaining Immersion in Your World)

Last time, we took a look at a few jarring examples of clothing in gaming gone wrong. Examples in which the characters presented are dressed in a manner that is totally ridiculous for the situation and world which we are supposed to believe they inhabit. This time, I intended to talk about the flip-side of the coin, being games that use clothing to good effect, but it's not just the clothing that makes the game, there is a much greater issue to be had. Let's discuss.

The proper use of clothing, props, and other visuals in a story does not necessarily cause the player to become more immersed in the world presented, nor does it make a game better in and of itself. What it does do, however, is provide a sensible basis for the world on which the story can build. That's a bit of a mouthful, but what I am getting at is that in keeping most things in your game constrained to the theme of your world, you become free to do ridiculous things here and there without breaking the sense of believability. Hideo Kojima and his team do this very well with the Metal Gear series.

The world of Metal Gear is based on the real world, so from this they have a very strict definition of what is "realistic" within the realm of their game, and they do well to stick to it... most of the time. And it is that "most of the time" that makes the ridiculous events in the game actually seem feasible. In the world of Metal Gear, you follow the story of Snake, a member of a special ops group known as Fox Hound. Throughout his journey, he meets with several people who are believably in various military factions, following orders from a chain of command, being equipped for battle, and generally acting like one would believe members of a high-pressure high-secrecy military group might act. Again, the game is based in the real world, so the weapons and gear you obtain have no basis in magic, they are generally real-world things that one might expect real world soldiers to carry. Even the history of the game is based on real world history.

But just as we're getting used to the fact that everything is based on real-life technology and situations, the game throws us small curve-balls here and there. For example, in MGS2, we encounter Vamp, a seemingly immortal opponent who is believed to be some sort of Vampire. But as the game is so steeped in reality, we as players cannot accept him being a vampire, and neither can the characters in game. He remains over-the-top, yet gains an air of mystery rather than breaking our immersion. If every enemy we'd faced up to that point in the game were also over-the-top, we would have totally dismissed this character as just another crazy enemy in this crazy world, and have lost the chance to become more involved in the world of Metal Gear.

Let's take a look at this principle in a very different area of entertainment, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. Or more specifically, the music video for his song Smooth Criminal. The same principle for "realism" and immersion applies in any story being told, not just in video games. In the world of dancing 30's mobsters Michael Jackson portrays in this music video, the world is quickly set up as one in which we see that everyone in this night club can get down, and dancing is the main method of movement for everyone in the world.

For the most part, MJ takes care to show off only his dancing skills, with a bit of aversion to special effects. It's impressive, but not because of tricky camera work and post processing. It's impressive just because the man is skilled. But he doesn't completely avoid special effects. Like I said, grounding your story in what is real for your world doesn't increase immersion on its own, but it sets you up to be able to bend the rules of your world without removing your player, or in this case, viewer, from your world. Seen in the picture here, MJ grabs a cue ball and smashes it into dust with one hand. This is ridiculous, but he doesn't focus on it and the scene quickly moves on. The viewer goes "wow, he's strong" and keeps on watching.

So the video continues, mostly grounded in reality for the world of dancing mobsters with a few special effects here and there, until we get to the point that this video is most famous for. The Lean. If you are old enough to remember this music video, chances are you have probably attempted this dance move at some point in your life. Pretty much every dance move MJ has done in the video to this point has been realistically possible. Difficult, sure, but he did it and it was humanly feasible. So when suddenly he and a bunch of other people decide they feel like being at a 45 degree angle, the whole world goes "Whoa, how did he do that?" We are slightly skeptical of its possibility, but we think "everything else has been real... maybe it is actually possible to do that?"

And that's the point. Everything else has been "real," so our willingness to believe something that is ridiculous is increased. All of the stuff up to that point didn't so much serve to increase your immersion in the world as it did to simply keep you from becoming no longer immersed. There's nothing particular interesting about things that blend in with the rest of the world, but they don't take you out of it either. Then, when a curveball like being able to lean to an extreme angle is thrown, it doesn't make you go "that was ridiculous! Who even does that!?"

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Game developers, when you are writing your story and populating your world, please try to mitigate how much of it is ridiculous. There's power in modesty. Simplicity doesn't engage people off the bat, but it allows them to be sucked in and tricked into believing all kinds of crazy things are possible. So next time you want to make every character and enemy in your game ridiculous, stop and think of what kind of impact you are having on your world and the player's experience. As developers, we're already immersed in our game worlds, because they are our game worlds, but others need a bit of help getting there. Don't be afraid to tone it down in general so that you can ratchet up the craziness here and there. Anyhow, that's my two cents. Leave me a comment or two below.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Clothing in Games - Part 1

It's 2011! As many of you may have noticed, things have been extremely quiet around these parts for almost half a year now. I have been extremely busy helping to finish up a project for a game studio located out in Illinois, as well as adjusting to life with a new addition to the family. That's right, I'm a daddy now! Things have finally calmed down a bit, so I can start making regular updates. Let's get right into it then, shall we?

I want to take this update and do something a little different than my usual tech update, I'm going to take this time to rant on a topic that has been bothering me for quite some time in the gaming industry: Clothing. The topic of hyper-sexualization in video games has been discussed almost to death. We've all heard the arguments of Laura Croft (Tomb Raider) and her seeming counterpart in this argument, Alex Vance (Half-Life 2), and that's all well and good, but that's not quite the angle I'm talking about here. What I am talking about is the realistic use of clothing for whatever flavor of "realistic" the game in question may represent. If your game is about barbarians fighting in some medieval fantasy universe, then chainmail bikinis and hulking male leads are completely okay within the context of your universe. No, what irks me and ruins my immersion in a game is when a character's clothing is completely ridiculous even within the context of the world provided.

This is seen far more often with female characters, especially in the MMO space, than it is with male characters. I was browsing the other day and ran into some art by Mr. David Rapoza ( that got me thinking about this whole topic. Lets take a look.

Here we have your standard MMO-flavored male magician of some sort. They come in many varieties, but in general, a male magician in an MMO will have light clothing and be equipped with an item or two to aid them in battle, as one might expect from a magician. This style of clothing would fit in nicely with whatever fantasy world this magician happens to be part of. Pants, boots, gauntlets, and I'm sure he'd dawn a cape should the need arise to travel long distance or through harsh climates. All terrain mage, ready for battle.

In the other corner, we have your standard MMO-flavored female magician. While her clothing may be loosely similar in design to that of the male magician if you are considering only style and material (what little material there is), one could hardly say that this is any kind of way to go into battle. While it may be nice for guys to look at, it totally does not fit into the game world, unless we are playing a game where all female mages also double as ladies of the night. By looking at the male magician, we know that this world is not lacking in cloth material with which to cover oneself, so what's the deal here? Does the Mage Guild have a dress-code requiring all female mages to dress in as little clothing as possible? Is someone playing a prank on her, having stolen the rest of her outfit?

Let's take a look at another example. Here we have a soldier, covered head to toe in armor. This guy is seriously ready for whatever battles await him. Full plated armor, shield, sword, and helmet, he's pretty much what you would expect from a knight in any medieval fantasy. Better not get in his way, he's ready to mess you up.

And then... wait, what? I guess one could technically say there's a sword, shield, and some kind of armor, kind of. This clothing serves no purpose at all, unless she is constantly bombarded by enemies who can do nothing but swing straight down from overhead, and even then wouldn't a helmet at least be nice?

To my fellow game developers: I have done extensive research over many years and I have learned one very interesting thing: Women wear clothing too. I know, shocking, but it's true. I am in no way asserting that all games are this way, but game after game that I play has a world where all male characters and fat people (yes, we seem to stick fat women in the same category as men) are dressed sensibly to the world around them. Why can we not apply this to everyone? Is the female form too tempting for artists to cover it up modestly? Are our games so marketing and executive driven that we absolutely have to make sure that no moderately attractive person in the game is dressed in a manner that makes sense in their environment? Or are we as an industry so childish that we are still saying "Boobies, they are for the 'mature' crowd," defining "mature" as "almost naked" rather than "sensible and deep." Just a thought, really. Leave a comment or two for me in the comments section.