March 2013


This year I was invited to take part at the Game Educators’ Rant at GDC. The topic I chose was rather close to my heart, as a humanities scholar looking for a game studies / game design job who wades through faculty job ads. So here are my thoughts on how game faculty job ads tell us a lot about what is wrong with games education and the games industry in general.

I must thank Michael Mateas for inviting me to be rant in illustrious company, as well as Mia Consalvo, Jesper Juul, Michael Jakobsson, Konstantin Mitgutsch, TL Taylor, and Matt Weise for their input while writing the rant. Here’s the text.

Let me tell you a story.

A school dean hears that students like videogames and thinks “Hmm, students are very into this “video game” thing. If it didn’t exist we would have to invent it! Well, let’s get some of that student money!”

“We should have a ‘game program’. But we don’t have money for that. So let’s hire someone who can teach courses on that videogame thing and call it a program.”

After asking a few people, including his grandson, who knows everything about videogames, he posts the following ad:

Associate or Assistant Professor, Game Design

  • Requirements
    • PhD, Computer Science or similar field
    • AAA experience, having shipped a title at least.
    • Teaching experience
  • Required Skills:
    • AI Programming
    • Graphics programming
    • Physics
    • Proficiency in 3D engines (Unity, Unreal)
    • Level design
    • Experience in online games / networks / social games
    • 3D modeling, usually Maya
    • 3D animation
    • Prototyping

Job requirements include teaching 4 courses per semester, student advising, academic service, and whatever else the dean thinks appropriate. Compensation: not very good.

By the way, this ad is a conflation of some real job postings, by the way, and not much of an exaggeration.

You know who this ad wants to hire?

A unicorn.

One person who has endured both the videogame industry and gone through the pains of getting a PhD. That takes some guts.

I know plenty of people who’d be great game professors, but they see this ad and they are terrified and don’t apply. The laundry list of required skills is intimidating, when those are things that are separate specialities, particularly in the AAA industry.

But this is not the worst problem.

The position is advertised as “Game design”, because it’s what sounds cool and what the students want, when what is listed here really refers to “game programming” and “technical art”. Of the skills listed, only Level Design and Prototyping are things that a game designer usually does. There are missing things like:

There are missing things like:

  • game theory
  • systems design
  • statistics
  • puzzle design
  • storytelling
  • playtesting

The ad is also implying that all that one needs to know to design games is using technology. Which is not the point for several reasons. As I just said, the skills described are not really all game design.

First of all, there are other disciplines that are routinely left out, for example:

a) Audio Design

Why do these game ads always forget sound and music? Audio makes your game come to life! And no, slapping some mp3s from creative commons sites is not audio design.

b) Production

We need to teach production! Project management is an essential skill to have in life, and essential to videogames.

Students will make their games as they do the rest of their homework: doing things at the last minute, crunching, not getting much sleep, not testing their games, let alone iterating. The result is that when they go into the real world making games, they think that’s how you make games.

This is the source of a lot of problems in the industry: poor work / life balance, crunch and overtime are the norm, crappy games that are released because they really had so ship. There are companies that release successful games and have to close because the millions they made selling the game can’t pay the years of fooling until they got started with their game. Those developers usually make games as if they were still in their college dorms. By not teaching things like scoping, scheduling, cutting features, iterating, we’re perpetuating some of the worst vices of the videogame industry.

Requiring a computer science PhD (or related field) is a further issue. It’s really unlikely that any women will apply for this job. Today, only 13% of Computer Science graduates are female. Only 11% of game designers in the industry are women. What is worse, only 3% of programmers in the games industry are female (source) Never mind if the ad says it’s an “equal opportunity” institution–with a PhD in computer science *plus* industry experience, the final hire will probably be a man.

We need more women making games, and female instructors are a way to encourage women to enroll in game courses. The requirements in the ad are not helping to do this.

By the way, having a computer design degree does not mean you can design games. You don’t need technology to design games. You don’t have to have a computer science degree to implement videogames, although it does give you some advantage.

Here are some game designers, with plenty of teaching experience, who would make a fantastic hire for a “game design” position:

  • Coleen Macklin: Professor, Parsons The New School for Design: BFA Media Arts
  • John Sharp, Associate Professor of Games and Learning at Parsons The New School for Design: AB, MA, PhD History of Art
  • Brenda Romero, Visiting Designer at UC Santa Cruz: BS Media and Communications
  • Brian Moriarty, Professor of Practice in Game design at Worcester Polytechnic: BA English
  • Tracy Fullerton Chair, USC Interactive Media and Games Division, School of Cinematic Arts: BA, Theater Arts, English Literature; MFA, Cinematic Arts
  • Frank Lantz , Director, NYU Game Center: BFA Studio Art (Painting)
  • Eric Zimmerman, Instructor, NYU Game Center: BFA Painting, MFA Art & Technology
  • Lee Sheldon, Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: BFA, Directing (Theatre); MFA, Directing (Film).

These people are top of the crop, they are the people that people go to GDC to listen to and learn from. One of them is in part of the advisory committee of the Game Education Summit at GDC.

None of these people would be qualified for the “game design” position in the ad. Only of one them has a PhD, and only a couple have worked in AAA.

Colleen Macklin and John Sharp, in their GDC Education Summit keynote, stated that games and play are liberal arts. But the ad is chasing away people who have a background in art and the humanities. Videogames are not only the result of technology, they are a human activity. You need to understand humans, as well as computers, to make videogames. There are of course some computer scientists who are also game designers and artists (Michael Mateas at UCSC, Andy Nealen at NYU Poly, Fox Harrell and Nick Montfort at MIT).

But the list of qualifications and skills does not mention any skills or qualifications that have anything to do with art. You know how we can prove that games are art? By having actual artists to teach game design, artists and humanists to groom students to be creative and innovative by understanding games as an artistic expression.

So these are all the implications of that job ad that our friend the school dean posted because he wanted to have a “videogame program” and make some profit from it.

Since he will not find a unicorn, he’ll hire whoever can convince him he’s adequately qualified. Chances are the teacher will do his best, struggle with little resources, and teach something half-decent with in the constraits.

The students keep signing up for courses, the dean will just keep one or two overworked instructors and say they have a “game program.” This is not the games education that we want.

The dean is old and senile, so we have to tell him that game education can be more things than a “game program.” One can have games courses that are part of the curriculum, as a way to introduce games. It can be in the department of computer science, or literature, or history of art, or sociology. Just find what fits in your curriculum, to expand and enrich it rather than just cashing in.

For example, the previous ad can be presented as a “Game Programming” position in computer science. That’s fine! (although the skills should be preferred rather than required)

If the goal is to hire someone to teach game design, here’s another job ad that gets it right. It is also based on actual postings.

Game Design Professor

  • Preferred Requirements
    • Terminal degree (PhD or MFA)
    • Creative leadership
    • Track record of shipped games (commercial / academic / non-profit; digital or non-digital)
    • An artistic track record or background
  • Preferred Skills:
    • Game theory
    • Systems design
    • Statistics
    • Level design
    • Puzzle design
    • Storytelling
    • Playtesting
    • Prototyping (paper and digital)

If the dean wants a game program, then the school has to make a real investment, not a cheap cash in. Two teachers are not a games program, it’s two very overworked people.

A program needs the equivalent of an RPG party, professors with complementary knowledge, so they can teach production, art, audio. The party should also include someone from game studies who can teach students learn to think critically about their work, relate games to other game forms, appreciate the beauty of the medium.

And, hey, if the deans throws in some incentives for these professors to do research, they can even bring in grant money. How about that?

There are many ways to create a game curriculum, but the exclusive focus on technology is a mistake. Plus thinking that one or two people make a program is a mistake. Overworked teachers can only teach students to be overworked themselves. A team of teachers tells students that one needs to work together to make games, and provides different perspectives on what games are and what they coud. Otherwise, we are teaching students work themselves to death making games rather than making games as a way of life.

Whoever programmed PAX East and San Francisco GDC back-to-back on opposite sides of the US deserves a special place in hell, as far as Boston devs (particularly indies are concerned). I’m part of the crazy bunch who is hanging out at both; I should get extra points for speaking at both.

This Saturday I’ll be on a panel at PAX East on Narrative Design, in the company of wonderful gentlemen: Austin Grossman, Matthew Weise, Ricardo Bare, Chris Dahlen, Chris Avellone. According to Austin, I’m there to provide the MIT gravitas. But we’re there really to chat about narrative in games and have fun.

In San Francisco, I’ve been given the chance to rant at the Game Education Summit, which is the last talk / panel of the summit. What I’ll be ranting about is a surprise; once it’s done, I’ll post it right here on the blog.

If you are at either of those events, feel free to come by and say hi!

My bag is well stocked with vitamins, soothing tea for my throat and hand disinfectant. The next week is going to be intense.

William Goldman said of the film industry: “Nobody knows anything.” The games industry, in its cinema envy, is taking that to heart. This is painfully evident when we hear about the tortuous process of production of failed games. Even the successful ones  are painful to make, if one trusts the postmortems of videogames in industry publications.

The leaked information on why Aliens: Colonial Marines is a trainwreck is an example of the kind of unhealthy, stupid practices that are too common in the industry. The moral of the story is that, if there’s anything that budding game developers should learn is basic, healthy production habits: iteration, scoping, scheduling, communicating, and learning what the different relevant aspects of production are. Game curricula are too focused on technical aspects to remember that games are made by humans for humans. (There are many other things I need to complain about game curricula, but I will just focus on this one thing today.)

Making games is hard. Making huge AAA titles involving hundreds of people and where a lot of money is at stake must be a nightmare. The problem is that game development, big or small, still makes very stupid mistakes. Common sense turns out to be the least common of senses in game production.

Gearbox dropped Aliens: Colonial Marines on the lap of TimeGate, who thought they had to complete a game but ended up having to make the game from scratch. It’s one of those situations in which the developer has to deal with somebody else’s mess. TimeGate was in a pickle. As I read through the article, however, I saw how the developers themselves were wringing a thick noose around their own necks with every decision.

aliens-colonial-marines-wallpaper-in-hd

If you’re not prepared, the realities of production will devour you.

The first red flag in the postmortem is that they immediately put some of the blame on the narrative designers, who changed the script and that forced level designers to scrap whole levels. First of all, the fact that they were working on a narrative game should have triggered off all the alarms in production, because content can spiral out of control very soon and very fast. It is also sad that some people call themselves narrative designers if they are only doing writing. Narrative design is a new discipline, which we’re defining as we go, but if there’s something that should be clear by now is that the writers should have worked with the level designers side by side. It does not sound like communication between writing and design was clear either, which is a serious production issue. It is as bad to design a game and then call the writer to stick a story on top of it as to write a script for a game and then ask levels designers to overhaul what they want. Narrative design bridges both writing and design, but it does not seem that it was really happening in spite of people working under that title at the company.

A bigger red flag is when TimeGate compares their work ethic with Gearbox’s: they’re all about shipping, while Gearbox does “work, work, work, iterate, iterate.” The deadline that they were given was surely unrealistic and the amount of work was probably insane, because that’s how the AAA games industry rolls. What I don’t understand is what they mean by “working to ship.” I believe Gearbox also ships games (and pretty successful ones for that matter). The fact that they had limited time does not mean that they did not have room for some iteration. If you don’t iterate you’re not designing a game. In fact, TimeGate should have been iterating, since they said they had to change the game when the script changed. Isn’t that an opportunity to iterate? Did they really scrap their work and start over?

Which takes me to what is probably the pinnacle of dumb practices that was the final undoing of the game. While producing the demo, someone in power told the developer (publishers? external producers?) “Don’t worry about performance, just make it awesome”, which is the kind of vague, meaningless direction that sounds like a knell to any game. (This is why educators must teach our students to communicate sophisticated ideas in a clear, constructive way.) The developer then went on to make an awesome demo which astounded everyone but wasn’t playable, plus it needed the kind of computer they use at NASA instead of the PC that you can buy at the store. This is the complete opposite of a philosophy that aims at “shipping the game.” It seems that it didn’t even occur to them that they had to fit the game in a disk. “Scoping” does not seem to be have been a word in their vocabulary. If you have limited time, you try to figure out how much you can get done, which will still be over-ambitious, then cut, and then cut some more.

Then they had to spend a lot of time shrinking it and re-doing their work (rather than iterating) to be able to ship it somehow. Then, oh surprise, they run out of time, and Sega, the publisher, refused to give them any more time because they had been waiting for their game six years. Their philosophy of “working to ship” then became cobbling together a game and putting the sorry result on a disk.

The sad thing is that the story of Aliens: Colonial Marines is all too common. I know of plenty of successful games that went to similarly dysfunctional production woes. Thing is, nobody seems to learn their lesson, and this keeps happening. Hey, we shipped, so it’s okay.

Of course it’s easy for me to say these things from outside and in hindsight. It’s difficult to see what the problems may be when you’re mired in the middle of production. The games I’ve worked on are way smaller and not as technically complex. But we also worked under insane constraints: 8 1/2 weeks to make a game with students who had not make a game before, and then most of your team would get on a plane and go on with their lives. We also made mistakes, we learned from them, and we tried not to repeat them again. We’re all figuring it out, making games big or small; the difference is how willing we are to be self-critical and to admit we may be wrong.

The Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco tells us that future game developers, the same that are attending our schools, need to learn basic production practices, from understanding what narrative design means to clear communication, iteration and scoping. Students have the room to make mistakes, and teachers should help them think about what worked and what didn’t, not just give a grade to the final result. Some of us are working really hard to emphasize the human factors in making games. But the whole team needs to know these practices: the publishers and producers seem to be the most at fault here, but the whole team needs to understand these practices. Bad production habits lead to wasted effort and talent, as well as to insane crunch and eventual burnout. As educators, we should teach students not only healthier practices, but also to reflect on the process of game making. Technologies will change a lot really fast, but humans tend to repeat their mistakes.