Now Im not going to rant on about courses etc, because I could be here all day.
What I will tell you is how the industry is working at the moment (at least from my perspective)
Firstly if you want a fulltime job with a games studio, its not as important to be original, but rather to be capable of model by numbers. You need to be able tow work well within poly limits, you need to be able to unwrap, texture, normal map and all the other new fangled techs.
Its highly unlikely that anyone would be considered from a potential list of candidates if they can only model low poly weapons. Its a harsh truth, but being capable of doing 1 thing really well, and simply knowing about the rest will not really cut it.
If you are going into the world of contracting, which while very lucrative is full of wannabe artists with a “Im worth it Complex”. I deal with about 100+ artists regularly on 1944. And the amount of people who contact me looking for my cash is just crazy. 99% of those people who think they can cut the mustard are simply shite. To be honest I can get that content for free from a 16 year old, and all I need do is buy him XSI or SILO 3D.
From a contracting perspective you will need clearcut rules and standards. Which you should outline directly at the start. Ensure you factor in reworking content and ensure that you know exactly how long it takes to develop something. Billing 4 hours for something and spending 20 doing it isnt exactly financially viable. Nor is billing someone 20 hours and only taking 4 hours. I have gotten to the point where I tell the artist exactly how much I am going to pay them for their services and either they do it or I find someone else. So be aware Im just a small fry in this big fish pond, I know of contractors who were screwed out of over $25,000 developing content for Unreal 3 Games, this can put a smalltime contractor out of business in a matter of moments, and they can do this simply because correct foundations and boundaries are never covered in the contract.
So you need to decide what route you will take, and then go for it. Are you a model by numbers type person, or are you creative person?
My recommendation for you is rather simple.
Go to College if you are a Model by numbers, learn the history of art, learn to appreciate all of these things, and learn enough so you are flexible enough that you can cover any potential job. Develop your demo reel with your new found appreciation, and expand/incorporate all those techniques you have studied into your daily workflow.
If you are not a Model by numbers person, well then college is a waste of time, the 4 years you spend doing an art degree could be 4 years you could be working on your portfolio, building up contacts, doing the od contract work here and there, and doing shameless self promotion. Enter the various 3D community workshops and competitions. Develop pro-bono work for unique indie games or mods, do Work for websites or even do the websites yourself. Since the people who strive to develop their skills outside of the college environment are highly driven and motivated people they have no problems learning or developing their demo reels on their own.
Obviously its all a matter of routes. I know people who have gone down both, and its really a matter of what’s the best fit. But I dont know many successful contract artists who have setup their own studios and who have gone through the college process. Simply because they were so driven to what they wanted to do that setting up their own studio after teaching themselves a finally tuned development workflow was simple in comparisson (obviously some good contacts, luck and talent helped alot :P )
At the end of the day its your demo reel and experience that will land you your contracts or your first paying job.
Choose the route that is best to you.
Anyway this is just my opinion, but given that I contract out work to such a huge number of people, and I am in contact with alot of leading artists and developers in the industry. I just thought I would share the information they have passed onto me. I personally find it strange how artists can get jobs without a degree and a self taught programmer would struggle, but thats the industry in a nutshell really. Its a funny game.
Oh and one thing about contract work, you need to be shit hot before you charge $80 per hour. On average the a really good contract artist woudl work out at around $15 – $20 per hour. That said you get what you pay for and at times it is worth paying for $80 per hour. Hopefully that may give you an idea of what the rates are, I only know of 3 contractors who I would willing allow to charge me $80 per hour. Would you honestly be that confident to match their quality.
If you want I can dig up some of the old convos about this and post links to them. Basically the above text is a summary of them.