29 March 2017

Game Development: The Student Restriction

While I was preparing to go to MIGS 2016 I heard that the mention of a student project causes an immediate wave of eye-rolling and disinterest. This trend, I've been told, extends to GDC and further to industry developers in general. As a student, this is disheartening to hear since I want to discuss aspects of the industry with those actually in it. However, at the same time, from a student producer perspective this doesn't come as a surprise to me.

A big part of this I feel is the amount of time in general a student has to dedicate to a project. Every student has several obligations that they decide to commit time towards. I separate these into two categories; school and general activities. The school related activities are something unique to student projects, while general related ones are something every studio deals with. Yet general activities do not impact a studio developer's time commitment while both school and general activities affect a student's time commitment.

The basis for this is that studios are jobs and as a result the developers are contractually obligated to work on the project. A common inclusion into this is a mandatory regular schedule with around eight hours of work a day at the studio. During that time employees are expected to work together with their co-workers towards the game. This means that on a daily basis, studio developers are working for multiple hours and in close proximity to one another. Students do not get either of these privileges that studio developers come to expect. This results in a smaller pool of time to commit to a project which is reinforced by the school system itself.

Here is where we start entering the second aspect of student troubles; the student mindset. For most students, when they arrive in a college they have been in a school environment for their entire life about 18 years on average. As a result, an assumption can be made that they primarily focus on the grade they receive rather than getting fulfilment out of a project. A main aspect for going to college is to get away from your home and to figure out who you truly are. This effect is compounded by the time commitment since they are more likely to stretch themselves over a number of activities. As a result students tend to only dedicate the minimum amount of work to get a good grade.

At Champlain College that minimum amount of "work" is typically defined for them in the class syllabus; eight hours minimum per week. While this slightly encourages the students to do the work, it also has a potential limiting factor in how much time they dedicate to the project. With the student mindset, commitments and limited time available combine so students have trouble finding the time to work on the project, let alone meet their goals. Even senior team members at Champlain College tend to have the mindset where they only need to work eight hours a week. This results in a drastically smaller level of commitment and man hours on the typical student project compared to a studio project. Additionally, projects only last a semester at most, around four months, which totals around 128 hours of work per student on a project.

This is further compounded through the teachers in the other classes the student is taking. They may take a class with a teacher who perceives their class as what the student needs to be focusing on. Believing this, the teacher assigns the class a large amount of homework and strictly grades on the work they have submitted. Thus, the student is required to spend more time on the class to receive a better grade, since good grades tend to be a goal for most students. As a result, there are a number of limitations that constrain the level of polish student projects can obtain.

At a studio, you can reliably meet and talk about the project every day which makes progress much more likely to happen. Students have to plan just to see each other in person. With larger and larger teams this becomes more and more difficult. And, as any project manager knows, time spent face to face is drastically the best use of time on a project. Items become easier to communicate and can be addressed and solved much more reliably. Projects with students have dramatically less face time, and as a result ideas are limited in how far they can be developed.

But I don't think student projects aren't doomed, far from it, they just need to take the above into account when working on a project. Students need to realize that their games can't and won't ever reach the levels a studio project can get to. They need to learn to scale back their ideas, lower their expectations, and manage themselves in a way tailored to specific projects. As the project manager for student projects this is a primary concern of mine going into Capstone.

One way I am aiming to do this is to reinforce the concept of a game which has the potential to be big but only needs a small minimum viable product. A good example of this would be the couch game Overcooked. This game is a simple concept with several stations that need to be completed in order to continue, but can be expanded nearly infinitely. An ideal student game has this type of structure and the basis of the game can be completed within the first week or two of the class. From then on we would be honing the game and testing it to find the fun in the minimum viable product.

Now it's easy to say that but the main difficulty here would be making sure that the students still have agency on the product. Each discipline needs to have their own reason for working on the game even though we start so small. In this sense, during conception meetings I will encourage team members to express their appeals and dislikes on the idea early and often. I will also need to be sure to bring up any concerns that I may have with the concept in terms of the aforementioned minimum viable product and expandability. However, this is only in the conception phase and during later parts of production I would need to reinforce this notion.

With this article I hope you've gained some insights into the difference in ability of student and studio game development. Students have a much more limited amount of time compared to their studio counterparts, and as a result need to keep this in mind early on in their projects. I plan to keep this in mind when meeting with my own team next semester, and will be sure to discuss this with them throughout the project.

Thank you for reading.