I recently got this question from Jim, regarding his son’s game development career:
I don’t know Jim and I don’t know his son. But this question resonated with me in a big way. Not only because his son is about to make an important life decision that will tangibly impact his future. But also because I, myself, dropped out of school during my 3rd year of college and have been reflecting on that decision ever since. (That was back in 1995, so I’ve had ample time to think it over.)
So here are my thoughts on whether Jim’s son (or anybody else – maybe even you?) should or should not drop out of college and “go it alone” before starting a career as a professional game developer.
Let’s cut to the chase
For the “too-long-didn’t-read” folks out there, I’ll answer the question right up front: No, I don’t think you should drop of out school and learn game development on your own.
But if you’re already about to drop out, you’ll probably need more convincing. So here are my top 5 tangible, real-world reasons why it’s better to tough it out and finish your degree instead of dropping out of college.
Legit Reason #1: College makes you do things you don’t want to do
That’s right: College makes you learn things you don’t want to learn. You might also have to do projects you don’t want to do, with people you don’t what to do them with.
That might sound like a reason in favor of dropping out. Why spend your time and money developing skills you’re not interested in, and learning things you don’t care about?
Because those experiences are preparing you for the Real World of game development. Maybe doing a hundred advanced math problems isn’t your idea of a fun Sunday afternoon? Well, the Real World doesn’t care whether you like math. If your game job someday requires you to work with 3D matrix transformations, you’d better understand it – whether you like it or not.
Forcing you to get outside of your comfort zone. Making you learn skills you can’t imagine you’d possibly ever use. Testing the limits of your performance on a hot Thursday afternoon when you’ve been up all night studying (or not studying). Like a Navy SEAL bootcamp, these things aren’t particularly fun – but they’re preparing you for a successful career.
Legit Reason #2: Game development is teamwork, and you don’t learn teamwork by yourself
If you want to learn how to program video games, you can certainly do that on your own. There are numerous online courses, videos, and books that will teach you everything you need to know about programming languages, compilers, optimization, development tools, and so on.
But what you can’t learn on your own, is how to work on a team. How to handle interpersonal conflict. How to step up and be a leader, how to encourage a struggling coworker, or how to crack down on a straggler that’s not pulling his own weight.
What if you get put onto a team with a bunch of weirdos? Bummer, but that’s another part of Real Life. You don’t always get to pick who you work with, so being forced to learn how to get along with (or at least tolerate) people that are different than you, is a critical life skill.
You won’t learn that stuff through on online course, or reading books, or starting your own one-person indie studio. But you will learn it by completing a degree at a top game development school, because team projects and collaboration are built into the program – whether you like it or not. (And that’s a good thing.)
Legit Reason #3: College helps you build industry connections that you desperately need
Speaking of teamwork – you know those people from the team-based projects at school? Those people will go on to get jobs in the game industry, and they’ll become your #1 most powerful resource for landing a good job at a good game company.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking. In other words, “who you know” is as important (or more important) than “what you know.”
The problem is that when you’re new in the job market, you don’t have a professional network. That makes it difficult to get hired. That’s why you always hear horror stories about people sending dozens of resumes and never getting a call – those people don’t have a network to leverage.
But when you attend a degree program, you naturally start building your network in 3 key ways:
- You meet recruiters and hiring managers from game companies, through school-sponsored “company days,” portfolio reviews, and guest lectures
- You get introductions and references from instructors, career counselors, and other advisors
- Your peers at school become your own private network of “industry connections” as they start landing jobs in the industry after graduation
Here’s another little secret: Universities are “graded” on how fast their graduating students get hired, and on how much they pull in for their annual salaries. So most schools actively help you meet industry professionals that might want to hire you when you graduate. Be sure to take advantage.
Legit Reason #4: College coursework builds your portfolio and your resume
As a hiring manager, one of the most important things I looked for in entry-level applicants was a past record of GSD. (Getting sh*t done.) And the best way to know whether an applicant can GDS is to look at their portfolio.
Have they created a few little games that I can play? Have they programmed a variety of game systems, and can they show me a demo or a video of their systems in action to prove they are capable of “learn-build-improve?”
Whether it’s art, a design document, a shader demo, or a fully-playable experience, you’d better have a fleshed-out portfolio if you want to stand out from the 200 other entry-level young people competing for the same job.
College is full of assignments, and many of those assignments result in something you can add to your portfolio. So if you finish college, there’s one thing you’re sure to end up with besides a degree: A great-looking pile of proof that you’re exactly kind of superstar that a game company can’t afford to pass up.
Legit Reason #5: College helps you outsource your willpower
But, you don’t need college to build your portfolio – couldn’t you just build a portfolio on your own?
Sure, you might be able to. Many people do. But if you’re like most people on the planet and you don’t have a never-ending supply of self-motivaton and willpower, then college does a pretty awesome job of holding you accountable and motivating you to GSD. Even when you’re just not feelin’ it.
I think of it as “outsourcing” your willpower. You may not have the energy and self-motivation to finish a tough game demo on a sunny weekend when you’d rather be outside with your friends. But if it’s due on Monday and you’ll fail class without it? That’s usually motivation enough to get it done.
And you’ll be glad you did: Cha-ching! Another portfolio piece, thanks to outsourced motivation.
But Jason, plenty of famous people dropped out of college and went on to kick ass
Out here in Seattle, people like to talk about the famous tech-superheroes that dropped out of college and went on to start world-famous billion-dollar companies: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs – the list goes on. “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
The short (and slightly flippant) answer is this: You’re not Mark Zuckerberg.
Is that a cop out? No. Those famous college drop-outs are an example of “selection bias.” It’s easy to look at successful people that dropped out and think “See? I can drop out and become a tech millionaire too,” because you never hear about the thousands of other college dropouts that are scraping, struggling, and wishing they would have finished school. (And never became billionaires.)
Gates and his buddies had the perfect blend of smarts, connections, talent, and extraordinarily rare good luck. Even if you’re as smart and talented as Zuckerberg, don’t leave your future in the hands of Lady Luck. Make your own luck.
Those sound like good reasons to stay in school. What if I drop out anyway?
If you drop out anyway, maybe you’ll be okay. Lots of people never even start college, let alone drop out. You probably won’t end up living out of a shopping cart downtown with “I won’t lie, I need the money for beer” scrawled on a scrap of cardboard.
But it’s a Big Life Decision, so don’t take it lightly and don’t leave it to chance. Weigh the real-world impacts, and try to separate your emotions from the objective reality. Because the objective reality is this:
- Finishing school can help you get a better job, faster, by building your portfolio and your professional network
- Finishing school can help you be more successful in your career, by requiring you to learn and build skill areas you wouldn’t develop on your own
- Graduating with a degree takes a lot of the “luck” out of starting a successful career – not to mention, many entry-level jobs require it
One last bit of perspective
In the Big Adventure that is your life, the time it takes to get a degree is, frankly, a drop in the ocean. When you’re 20 years old it feels like it will take FOR EVAR to get through school, and just about anything can seem more interesting than taking yet another semester.
But trust me – it goes quickly. School is the first step in your career as a professional game developer, but it’s also the shortest. Tough it out, and reap the rewards. You’ll be glad you did.
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