There has been much activity in the games development education sector in Ireland, both north and south of the border, in the past few years. And recently, with some of the first degree-level courses starting into their second and third years, there has been much discussion on these forums and elsewhere of the pros and cons of the various types and duration of courses, their quality, content, method of instruction – even their names, and whether they are accurate as a description of the course content or qualification or merely a cynical marketing exercise to halt the falling numbers of traditional Computer Science applicants. There are now approximately fifteen courses at third level on the island of Ireland, and a few more at second level, claiming to teach game development.
The purpose of this article is to attempt an overview of the current state of affairs, to identify the issues that games development education in Ireland is facing, both now and in the future from an industry perspective, and to, hopefully, start a dialogue with the various educational institutions involved.
Education at whatever level is a means to an end. From a student’s perspective it is a means to prepare oneself to enter the workforce armed with the relevant knowledge and prerequisites. From an employer’s perspective it is a means to source talented, knowledgeable and, to some extent, experienced, employees who will grow their company’s ability and capacity to compete in a highly competitive global marketplace. In an ideal world, the courses and tuition provided by the various colleges and universities exist to serve the needs of the industry and the economy at large.
These days, second and third level colleges are competing with each other both for research funding and for students, and at a time when the numbers of students opting to take Maths and Science-heavy courses is falling each year, this competition is constantly increasing. (The more cynical among us may be forgiven for thinking that this explains the abundance of games development courses springing up over the past three or four years. Currently, there are fifteen games-related courses on offer both north and south off the border, with another three coming on stream over the next year or so.) Some colleges have opted to offer games-related modules alongside their more traditional courses, while others have opted to build new courses from the ground up. Both are valid approaches if – and only if – the content of those courses is relevant.
So whether students and educators like it or not, one thing is clear – the industry employers set the agenda. If educators want their students to leave college or university with decent prospects of employment in the industry, they will have to engage with industry to ensure that the course curricula are both current and comprehensive enough to fulfil industry needs. If graduates want to enter the industry, they will have to measure up to employer’s expectations. It is in a student’s best long term interests to ensure that the courses they enrol in offer them the best chances of a thorough, well-rounded education.
As a member of the IGDA active in Ireland, and as potential employers of some of these graduates, it is in my and my colleagues’ interests to help make that happen. However, no industry speaks with one voice – not even the International Game Developers Association with its 10,000+ members claims to speak for the whole industry. What we, as employers and members of the industry, do speak for, is the interests of our various companies and by extension, the majority of our members. I should add that over the three years of its existence, the steering committee of the Irish chapter has had members of Havok, Vivendi Universal, Microsoft Games Studios, Demonware, Meedja, DIME, Upstart, Torc Interactive (now Instinct Technology), Nephin Games, TKO Software/Popcap and Kapooki sit on the committee and contribute in one form or another to these discussions and many others. We liaise with state and semi-state bodies on both sides of the border, VCs and shareholders, universities and colleges at second and third level in Ireland and the UK, Skillset and TIGA in the UK, industry colleagues worldwide, and on an almost daily basis we talk with, advise and interview aspiring game developers. We also help organise and run the annual Dare to be Digital game development competition for third level students, as well as participate in the Skillset Game Development initiative as well as IGDA’s own Education Curriculum Framework Special Interest Group. As such, we have seen and experienced many of the issues raised in this article at first-hand.
So with that said, let’s look now at some of the criticisms being levelled at these courses, and see what solutions are on offer.
Perhaps the single biggest criticism levelled at the current crop of courses in Ireland is the apparent re-badging of traditional media and computer science courses to include the word ‘games’ somewhere in the title, while failing to adapt the content and instruction offered to deal with real-world issues the games industry, and by extension the course graduates, face on a day-to-day basis.
Perhaps some form of industry accreditation scheme, similar to the Skillset accreditation scheme initiated last year in the UK, should be set up by IGDA Ireland to evaluate the current crop of courses. Of the forty graduate and post-graduate games development courses being offered in the UK currently, only four courses were awarded accreditation at the end of the first year by the panel which was made of industry personnel, including Sir Ian Livingstone, Creative Director from Eidos who chaired the panel and Richard Leinfellner, Executive VP of Outsourcing from EA, who is also the head judge for Dare to be Digital.
Colleges and universities should not market traditional Computer Science courses as games development courses, unless they are tailoring their offering appropriately. They should not badge general media, audio, art and animation courses as games development courses, without taking into account the peculiarities of real time interaction. Nor should they design their game development curriculum around their existing course content & lecturers, e.g. teaching lots of networking and databases on a games dev course because that’s what their particular college has always taught and their networking lecturer knows the area inside and out. All that’s well and good but colleges should tailor the content to suit the course, not the other way around.
One college in Ireland used to teach a lot of hardcore or pure AI, and when it came time to have their new games course validated it was pointed out to them by two of the three external validators (both of whom had games industry experience) that there was a huge amount of irrelevant material on the course, that AI in games is as much about artificial stupidity as it is about artificial intelligence as, generally speaking, doing good AI is relatively easy, but dumbing it down enough to make it fun for the player is actually pretty hard – and of course doing it in real time is even harder still. They didn’t alter that part of the course as much as they should have and now, a few years into the degree, some of their more savvy students are complaining about the material.
Lack of industry consultation in designing course content
Colleges looking to start teaching games development should get local industry input into the curriculum. The industry is not a massive one in Ireland, I admit (see more on this below), but there are more than enough people with industry experience who would be only too happy to review or help design your curriculum to ensure its relevance. Contacting some of the bigger companies abroad is good too, but unless you are educating your students solely for emigration, I would strongly advise some local industry participation.
If you get stuck, you can contact IGDA Ireland and we’ll gladly help. We have already consulted both formally and informally on at least four of the courses being offered, and the all three of the new courses coming on-stream.
The Curriculum Framework from the IGDA Education Committee is a conceptual guide for designing game-related educational programs, and is available free of charge from the IGDA website. This is not a single, detailed curriculum, but a modular framework outlining at a high level the core topics and practical skills required to make and study games. Although games and game development is still a relatively young area of study, the range of topics is already vast and no single curriculum could hope to cover them all.
The IGDA Curriculum Framework covers six main areas:
- Critical Game Studies
- Game Design
- Game Programming
- Audio Visual Design & Production
- Game Production
- The Business of Games
As the framework document itself says:
“As a practical document, the Framework is designed to assist educators and students on a variety of levels – from the creation of individual courses to the development of full degree programs, within a single department or across several. It is also a guide for students creating individualized courses of study at institutions without game-related majors.”
As the framework makes clear, there is no one way to design a games development course, no ‘silver bullet’. The framework offers itself as a menu from which the various institutions can select and adapt appropriate aspects of the framework to their particular educational needs and institutional contexts.
Game developer, Steve Rabin, has written an excellent book based on the IGDA’s framework, entitled, Introduction to Game Development (Charles River Media, 2005). The book follows the Framework’s structure and each chapter is authored by developers with real world experience and knowledge. At nearly a thousand pages, it’s a mammoth tome packed with practical insight and advice for anyone setting up and running a games-related course.
The IGDA’s Curriculum Framework is not a catch-all solution, and is no substitute for local industry expertise, but it does provide a pretty comprehensive overview to the breadth of games development topics all the same.
Lack of industry-experienced lecturers delivering the courses
Colleges should get industry experienced lecturers to teach courses or invite industry figures to give talks and workshops.
Of the current crop of courses on offer at time of writing (September ’06) no degree or master’s level games development course in Ireland is presented by industry experienced personnel. One college is currently advertising for lecturers with experience, and one of the new courses due to come on-stream in the next twelve to eighteen months will have some of its modules presented by a former games developer, but that’s it.
At least, invite industry speakers to provide guest lectures and workshops. Again, IGDA Ireland can help match you with appropriate speakers, both from local and international developers.
At the very least, try to ensure that your lecturers delivering these courses appreciate, if not have an actual interest in, the games themselves. Two lecturers, partly responsible for delivering what I currently think is one of the better courses in the country, told me they have no interest in games whatsoever, and one of them actually has an active dislike for the area, considering them a waste of time! I’ve often wondered what it would be like to sit in on one of their classes, wondered what kind of education I would be receiving.
The film courses set up a few years ago in the UK had it as a requirement that they be taught by industry-experienced personnel, who were contractually obligated to keep up with developments in their area.
Failing to change course content to keep pace with industry
Keep the course content relevant. Modify the curriculum regularly, at least every two years, or face being left behind teaching redundant material. It is not enough to review the IGDA’s Curriculum Framework, nor is it enough to liaise with developer’s at the courses inception and then never look at it again. New developments in business, technology, art, audio and production arise every few months in the games industry, and courses have no choice but to keep pace if they wish to remain competitive.
Failure to liaise with industry to offer work placements
Students should be encouraged to get summer jobs or work placements in industry, even if the college doesn’t offer them as part of the main course. Contact local games developers and see if they are interested in offering short and medium placements to students.
Every college offering games development should put at least one team into Dare to be Digital every year – it’s an amazing opportunity for students to get some experience of real world games development alongside industry mentors, as well as providing an opportunity for networking with local and international developers. Outside of actual work in the industry, there is no better way than Dare to be Digital for aspiring games developers to get a feel for games development as a profession.
Too many short (e.g. certificate and diploma) courses
A controversial one, this, but we have to face facts. Certificate and diploma courses of one to two years duration offering experience of all aspects of game development (production, business, art, audio, design and programming) are only useful for those who are re-training after a spell in industry or who have already completed a degree or post-grad qualification. While they can provide a useful overview of the various disciplines, there is just not sufficient time on these courses to offer insight past the superficial into any of the topics they offer.
This view has nothing to do with the quality of instruction offered by the host institution, subject to the prior stated caveat regarding industry experienced tutors and lecturers. Quite simply no one is going to offer you a job in one of those disciplines if that is your only qualification and/or experience of the industry. This is not only a personal opinion, but the opinion of every developer (read: employer) I have spoken to on this subject, both here and abroad. The industry committee responsible for the Skillset review and accreditation process in the UK refused to look at any of these courses for those reasons.
Failure to include team-based projects throughout the course duration
All colleges should make their games development course work project and team-based so that graduating students have a substantial portfolio to draw on to illustrate their capabilities, and have experience of working in and with teams.
In one sense, games development education is closer to Arts education than Science education, in that, students course work should ideally be portfolio-based than purely knowledge-based.
Too many courses simply do not offer enough practical projects to their students, and worse – many of the projects they do offer are by individuals, rather than by teams. In the real world, your students will rarely if ever be doing projects on their own. Like film, successful games development is the result of a huge effort by a dedicated team, and one of the problems employers have with graduate employees is how long it takes them to integrate into existing teams. Again, the annual Dare to be Digital competition (sponsored and organised in Ireland by the Digital Hub, Belfast City Council, NESTA and IGDA Ireland) can be of enormous benefit to wannabe games developers.
The Industry in Ireland
Many might argue that the games industry in Ireland is quite small, and they would be right. But even a cursory survey of the game development landscape here shows that at twenty two companies, not only is it the biggest it has ever been, but it is growing at a rate of 5 or 6% a year. Consider that three or four years ago the following companies did not exist: Nephin Games, Selatra, Gmedia, Vyro Games, DIME, Frantic Games, BitRabbit, Gamelocalisation.net. Many of these companies have formed global partnerships and have growing international reputations. Needless to say, if the Irish industry is to flourish, these and similar companies will need a frequent influx of talented graduates over the coming years.
So what exactly is the industry looking for from its potential graduate applicants?
Below I present, in no particular order, a number of qualities that are desirable in a candidate for a job in the games industry. There’s nothing here that is specific to the industry in Ireland, nor is there anything specific to a given functional area, i.e. programming, art, business, etc.
- Knowledge of development & production in a real world environment
- Be specialists (or aspiring specialists) to some degree in their chosen field – programming, art, audio, design, production or business
- A flexible and professional attitude
- Has some passion for the industry
- Has an ability to integrate into an existing development team in a fast-paced environment
- A portfolio of examples
- A general knowledge of industry – the issues & opportunities
- A realistic expectations of salary & benefits
Conversely, the opposite of this list is exactly what the industry doesn’t want in its new employees. With the possible exception of passion, I would argue that it should be possible to find all of these attributes in a good, well rounded games development course. If I was an aspiring game developer looking for a solid, well-rounded games development education, these are what I would be looking out for in a course.
So with all of that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to finish off this article by trying to come up with a set of criteria against which to review the current and future crop of games development courses, to provide some sort of measuring stick for students and aspiring developers. It is by no means definitive, and not every course would have to tick every box, but it is a start.
Here it is:
- Has industry consultation at inception – incl. both consultation of the IGDA Curriculum Framework, as well as local industry input
- Has ongoing local industry consultation
- Has industry-experienced lecturers and/or regular, frequent visits by games developers
- Willing to review and change course content to keep pace with industry
Has up to date hardware & software
- Provides opportunities for lots of team-based projects – either by making their courses project-based, or by encouraging IGDA or independent game development clubs and/or actively encouraging and supporting Dare to be Digital participation
- Encourages and actively supports participation in competitions like Dare to be Digital
Where possible, colleges should also offer industry work placements, visits to local game studios, etc. Students should also review the IGDA Curriculum Framework, and will then be in a position themselves to better assess course content and its relevance to them. If in doubt, consult a local games developer or post a query on the Education forums at www.gamedevelopers.ie.
It should be pointed out that Ireland is not alone in the difficulties we are having with games development education. Many industry commentators in the UK, US and Canada have voiced similar concerns. Recent articles in industry magazines (Develop in the UK; Game Developer magazine in the US) this year have highlighted the growing industry disenchantment with many of the courses on offer.
This article is not intended as a college or games development course bashing rant, but instead, aimed to present an overview of the good, the bad and the ugly of what is currently out there. It takes time for new courses to settle down, for lecturers to get their heads around all of the material, some of it very new to them, and figure out how best to introduce it into the curriculum. I know from talking to many industry colleagues that I am not alone in wishing I was able to recommend many of the Irish games development courses to aspiring students rather than encourage them to go to the UK and attend one of the more established courses there. It is in all of our interests for this to happen sooner, rather than later.
- IGDA site – http://www.igda.org ]
- Breaking In – http://www.igda.org/breakingin/ & http://www.igda.org/Forums/forumdisplay.php?forumid=44
- Education forums – http://www.igda.org/Forums/forumdisplay.php?&forumid=43
- Curriculum Framework – http://www.igda.org/academia/curriculum_framework.php
- Skillset – http://www.skillset.org/games/
- Games Career Guide – http://www.gamecareerguide.com
- Tom Sloper’s ‘How to Choose a School’ article – http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/258/how_to_choose_a_school.php ]
- Game dev courses in Ireland – http://www.gamedevelopers.ie/courses/
- Game dev courses worldwide – http://www.gamecareerguide.com/schools/
- Games Career Guide from Game Developer mag – https://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/store.php?item_id=564&category=7&book=
- Get into Games annual supplement free with Edge magazine (usually October issue)
- Dare to be Digital competition – http://www.daretobedigital.co.uk/
Tony Kelly is an Executive Producer with Nephin Games in Galway, and has held similar positions in the games industry with Intel and Instinct Technology (formerly Torc Interactive), developing both serious and commercial games. He founded and is current chapter co-ordinator of IGDA Ireland, and is a contributor to the IGDA’s Production, Mobile and Education SIGs where he is currently helping draft the new version of the Curriculum Framework. He is a judge and mentor in both the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland heats of the annual Dare to be Digital competition. He has consulted on games development curricula for a number of the Irish games development courses, and has previously helped assess and validate some of the other courses. Eventually he plans to leave the world of commercial games production behind and teach games development at third level.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to author a response (of any length) to this feature please contact aphra [at] gamedevelopers [dot] ie