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I live in a pretty high-income community where teachers and parents tell you that if you ever hope to have a good income, you have to go to a good, selective college. However I'm one of the few kids at my school who has developed a love for programming software (and games on occasion), and I've never had a teacher that's even understood computers; so I'm wondering if this statement is true for this the software profession as well.

How much of a difference does attending a highly selective, generic school make when entering the software or game development profession?

I've also found that almost any and all information on software development can be found on the internet or in a book. Which makes college almost seem unnecessary.

How important is it to go to college at all when entering these professions
or starting your own software or game company?

please try and give sources of information =)
Thanks

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Can you give us some examples of what you mean by "a highly selective, generic school"? Like, are you talking about a liberal arts college? –  jhocking Feb 15 '12 at 13:17

8 Answers 8

The one thing that going to college will definitely establish is that you're capable of taking a 3 or 4 year project and sticking with it to the end. I'm not sure about the selective part - so long as they have a reasonably good reputation and teach the right kind of stuff I don't think you need to be overly concerned about that.

For programming, yes - you can learn almost everything online or in books. The danger is that you'll pick and choose the things you find interesting yourself and focus on them. There is a lot of (on the surface) boring groundwork that you need to focus on too, and some measure of more formal learning will help you discipline yourself to that.

A final advantage I can think of is that you can select to learn some topics outside of the programming sphere, which will give you a much more well-rounded experience.

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I've also found that almost any and all information on software development can be found on the internet or in a book.

This is true of almost every discipline known to mankind.

Which makes college almost seem unnecessary.

But this conclusion is not.

Information itself is only part of the answer. The other parts are:

  • Learning how to apply that information in practical situations;
  • Showing you information that you might not have realised was relevant (eg. I learned about database normalisation, radio network collision resolution, web programming, and formal proofs of correctness - all of which have proven useful in gamedev, yet few of which would be something a self-taught game programmer would seek out)
  • Repeated use of the information so that you have actually learned it, and don't need to refer back to books every 2 minutes;
  • Testing to ensure you understand the key points;
  • Getting feedback on how you have used the information to ensure you haven't misunderstood it;
  • Seeing for yourself which information is good or bad, or which is most applicable to your situation;
  • Experience of working with others towards a common goal;
  • Experience of working to deadlines;
  • Experience of having to concern yourself with the quality of your output;
  • Receiving written certification from a trusted authority that you have mastered all of the above to a recognised standard.

All that stuff is priceless. Can you get a games programming job without it? Certainly - almost anything's possible. But you will have stacked the odds against you.

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I've worked with about 50 different game programmers in the last 5 years, all of them have a bachelors in CS or Math. I can tell you that most interviewers don't care much about the exact school you went to, they care more about experience, and skills that you have. It's somewhat of a double standard, most interviewers want you to have at least a bachelor's degree, but they could really case less which school you got it from. Without a degree I would estimate that you'll miss out on more than half of your job opportunities just due to not even getting an interview. To properly cover your bases in the case where game programming doesn't work out for you, I would recommend a decent 4-year college that focuses particularly on computer science in some way, this will leave you with a degree that you can use for programming in any field. There are some colleges that offer degrees specific to game programming, however they're rarely accredited and you'll be left with a degree that makes it hard to move to non-game programming.

Apart from just the college, here's some general advice for getting into the industry. If you want to get into game programming I suggest determining which part of game programming you enjoy most and want to focus on, and spend time on that (e.g. A.I., physics, gameplay, graphics). Become an expert in that specialty, learn cutting-edge techniques, make demos and videos for a digital portfolio, and learn the languages that most companies are looking for. Also, keep in mind that most colleges you choose from will be teaching programming practices in general, not something specific to games, so you're going to have to take the initiative to apply the programming you learn to learning how it applies to games, in your spare time.

The language(s) and game engines you choose to learn will likely be based on the type of games you want to focus on. If you want to make web-based games then something like Flash, Unity (C# and Javascript), HTML5, and WebGL would be the likely choices. If you want to make AAA game titles for PC, Mac, and/or consoles then C++ is probably the most used. If you're making mobile games for platforms like Android or iPhone, C++ (iPhone), and Objective-C (iPhone), Java (Android-based devices), and Unity (iPhone and Android) are good choices.

I highly recommend looking through job listings at all kinds of gaming companies around the country, see what kinds of things they're looking for, find out what is most in demand so that you choose a specialty that is more likely to land you a job. Also be mindful of the future, technology is always changing very rapidly. The iPhone came out a little over 4 years ago, if you had just graduated from a 4-year college today the gaming industry would already be vastly different than when you had started school. Make sure you choose to learn languages and skills that will be relevant 5-10 years from now, not ones that are on their way out the door already.

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For junior candidates, the best people I've seen usually come out of game development focus institutions (Guildhall, Digipen, that kind of thing), or have done work experience type stuff on their own (mods, solo projects). A Computer Science degree doesn't really prepare anybody for the practical matters of programming games.

In my experience, going to those kinds of schools is going to be more of a detriment than anything else. Getting into an MIT or the like might show something of value, and might put you higher up on the resume-responding priority than somebody who went somewhere else, but any good hiring process is going to weed out people who program like mathematicians (i.e. poorly).

On top of that, game programming is historically lower paying than other software engineering positions, so getting a really expensive degree really isn't worth it.

The benefit of going to those prestigious colleges is not the value of the degree itself, but the connections you make with smart and wealthy people. If you're not using that to your advantage, then you're kind of wasting the whole point.

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You seem to have misspoke and ended up with a confusing opening to your answer. First you say "the best people I've seen usually come out of game development focus institutions" and then you say "going to those kinds of schools is going to be more of a detriment". What did you mean to convey? –  jhocking Feb 15 '12 at 13:12
    
"those kinds of schools" meaning "highly selective colleges" the OP suggested. –  Tetrad Feb 15 '12 at 17:20

This so much depends on so many things that there simply can't be a definite answer. Some communities value college more than others, and college costs more in some places than others.

Others have covered a lot of ground, but I'll give my couple cents.

Even if games is all you'll ever want to make, get a real education. What you study doesn't matter at all. Don't take comp sci if it isn't what you really want. You can study anything at all and get into games, as long as you have the drive to make games. In fact, having a medical, social psychology, history, philosophy or just about any unrelated degree combined with experience in programming might give you a better base for making games than your generic "game industry" school.

The world really needs more cross-dicipline people.

And to top this off, let's say you do end up making games, and find yourself in a situation not too uncommon, that it's not all that you expected it to be. Finding a "real job" with a "game" degree is bound to be more difficult than getting a "game" job using a "real degree".

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This answer is practically a sales pitch for my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon: a school that's near the top of several disciplines, including but not limited to computer science, and which happens to have a strong games focused department. –  jhocking Feb 15 '12 at 13:21

My perspective: I'm a student at NYU, been heavily involved in game development since sophomore year, worked on several projects, and I'm graduating from university this semester.

Fundamentally, successful people will be successful. There's no getting around that. If you have a shiny CS degree and 4.0 GPA from UC Berkeley, you may still get passed on for a game programming job by someone from Some Lesser Institution Of Learning(TM) if they're able to demonstrate strength in the skills and knowledge required for a position--especially if they have a cool playable portfolio. People in other industries may be impressed by where you got your degree from, but it seems like game people care less about it on average.

I'm attending one o'them debt monster "selective" colleges. I feel if I had gone to a less prestigious university back in my hometown, I still would have learned fundamentally the same things. However, what I'm really paying for is connections and opportunities that I might not be able to get at another school. Of course, all schools have opportunities and connections, they just have different types of opportunities and connections.

For example, I'm loving it in NYC, but large game studios tend not to last long here. I'd like to work at a large game studio to get some experience working on AAA games. This may have been easier had I been going to school in a location with those kind of studios around. Similarly, since NYC is obsessed with tech startups, I've been immersed in that environment. The location in which you study can influence the paths you take.

Of course you could always skip school and just move to an ideal location. But then you've gotta figure out rent and find a job right away, and maybe you still need to spend time building your portfolio and doing your independent study. It's doable, but college kinda puts you in this not-really-adult world where you can put a few of the real world concerns away for a bit while you learn.

TL;DR Location matters. Don't be lazy. Also, college is great!

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Take this with a grain of salt, i'm nobody to be saying this like it's a fact. Also, i don't understand what do you mean by sources, try looking at job offers, see what they want.

A generic college is going to teach you little to nothing about making games, however it'll teach you all the "boring" parts that you'll need to be good at making games, this means math, operating systems, databases, low level programming, algorithms, software engineering, amontst others. The way i treat my college is, i'll take a bit from every part of the industry, but i'll devote my free time to what i think is going to make me good at what i love, which is making games. You should be a part of an open source project, or working on your own projects. For me, college is just an extra 4 years of alot of free time to do my own research. A degree doesn't hurt, but i rarely hear a story where a degree makes or breaks the deal, you usualy take tests and do interviews, there are dropouts in the industry that are great coders and designers, but this shouldn't be an excuse to anybody. The game industry takes a specific kind of a person and people who do recruiting know it.

If you're ever unsure, look at job offers on gamasutra and other sites. There's plenty of different jobs that require different skills.

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I quickly dropped out of college and started making games after high school. That played a big role in getting my first job as a programmer where I did a lot of UI work. I grew that job as much as I felt I could, and began making a considerable amount of money there. I've since started working on mobile games on my own, building on the knowledge I've earned along the way.

My story might sound successful to some, and to others it might not. Whether I should have gone (or still should go) back to college is for the gods to decide. I will say this, though: it's my drive and passion that have allowed me to succeed as well as I have. I'm firmly of the opinion that in this industry, you can get by without higher education so long as you have a relentless thirst to grow and learn.

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