The Importance of a balanced Gamedev Curriculum
I'm back in my hometown for the 4th of July, procrastinating on my Altdev post, which makes for the opportune time to put up another one complaining about improving gamedev education (it's a past-time of mine). Well, maybe less whiny than some other posts I've done, this is really more advice for someone to value when choosing or building a curriculum at a university. I think I might have some insights for students, educators, and anyone else who just might be curious.
Chances are if you're an educator at a University looking to start a gamedev curriculum, you have two routes to go. One is to add game specific classes within your department, generally targeted at a specific discipline, so a computer science department adds a game programming class. The other, is to try to create inter-discipline courses, where designers, programmers, and artists can collaborate. At Michigan State University, we have both, and I'm the TA for the first class in our collaborative curriculum (which is set up a bit like a minor).
You might suspect that the collaborative environment is often the more desired, and I certainly am of that mindset. It adds much more value to an education to collaborate across disciplines on projects, because it offers opportunities that are much harder to get if you're teaching yourself. I still value discipline specific classes teaching skills like graphics or mobile game design, but like I said, those things can be self-taught much more readily than collaborative game development.
However, one issue that I know we suffer from at MSU is a lack of balance among the disciplines. The four course collaborative track has served as a foundation for our game development curriculum, and additional programming and design specific classes have sprouted up to further grow the quality of gamedev education at MSU. However, our art program has not grown at nearly the same rate. This is largely due to reluctance of the Studio Art department to encourage non-traditional mediums. The 3D art/animation classes are taught through the same department that is the home of most designers, Telecommunications. That department is contains game design, film, audio production, television, and 3D art, so you can understand why it can be difficult for a program to flourish without strong backing from tenured faculty encouraging growth. However, we know that this is an issue and are encouraging improvement, I'm just going to take the opportunity in this post to explain why I think it's so important to have a balanced curriculum.
This is something that was non-obvious to me when I was deciding where I would go to college, but if anyone asks me for advice on what to look for in a game development curriculum, this is the first thing I mention these days. I'd go so far as to say an opportunity to be in a program with at least mediocre programs for the other disciplines should have as much weight as the strength your specific discipline's department.
Projects are an important by-product of a collaborative curriculum. However, if one discipline is weak, it can be detrimental in all sorts of ways. It's hard for students to showcase their amazing artwork if the game crashes constantly from poor programming, or for programmers to showcase their work when poor design causes players to lose constantly. The fact of the matter is that students are expected to invest a considerable amount of time into these projects, it's unfortunate if they get they collapse quickly from a missing support. Not to say that working around limitations is not an important skill, but being able to create a well rounded game is important. The University should see this as a problem as well, because even if students in the stronger disciplines are succeeding, there is a vacuum of publicity potential. If educators expect to be able to attract highly motivated and talented students, they need to show that their program empowers students to make quality work. The proof is in the pudding (yes I just used that phrase).
A Lack of General Balance discourages Specialization
I encourage people to specialize their focus as soon as possible, even if they change their mind about what they want to do. This complements small team collaboration, which often creates a more generalized environment. On a small team, there might only be one or two programmers. It's entirely feasible for them to do an alright job on all of the core systems to make the game work, but when are they going to find the time to try out that cool pathfinding technique they learned about if they also have to find solutions for the fact that their artist hardly knows how to model let alone texture or animate?
Consistently weak team members creates a stressful work environment an can even shut off paths entirely for students. Why is someone going to learn to do quality game animations if the programmers repeatedly botch the animation control code? To me the best students are the ones that want to do the things that interest them most in addition to their core work. I hate to think that some might end up impeded from that if part of their team is failing to get its core work done.
I'm looking at this from the perspective of a student that has worked on some terribly balanced teams, but have also had the pleasure of working with some very talented artists at MSU, most notably the incredibly talented Marie Lazar (http://www.pixelbutterfly.com/). To be honest, the projects that I worked on at MSU that essentially had no designers or no artists, never even came close to making it into my portfolio. To me, that's more than enough evidence to emphasize the importance of finding a place to learn where you have access to collaborate with decent individuals from disciplines from beyond your own. Missing links don't go unnoticed.