During my time at University I reached a point where I contemplated the value of the education I was paying for. Would the cost really be worth the end result? Are the skills and theory I am being taught really going to be relevant in the real world? What you get out of education varies greatly depending on the individual, the course and the establishment. During this article remember that I can only speak from my experiences at College and University based on the subjects that I studied, none of which were directly related to the games industry.
My post-school education consists of 5 years at College and 3 years at University. I began by studying I.T. for 2 years because I thought it was the right thing to do, however I quickly bored of the way the course was delivered. The most important thing I took away from this course was the fundamentals of assignment writing and organisation. I then enrolled on a 1 year Sound Engineering course at Burton Technical College before progressing onto their 2 year BTEC in Music Technology. The next 3 years were spent at the University of Derby studying a BSc (Hon) in Multimedia Technology and Music Production.
During my 3 years at Burton it became clear that many people had enrolled on the course to sit around play instruments all day, while disregarding any written work. Being a technical course, rather than a music course this didn’t really do them any favours and many of the students scraped a pass and didn’t progress onto University. From this point on I presumed the time wasters would have been shaken loose; much to my surprise a few still ended up in the wonderful world of University. I quickly learned how to identify the people who were wasting their time. These people rarely attended, paid little attention and completed their work at the last minute; often handing it in weeks late by taking advantage of the “extenuating circumstances” card.
College and University
Generally the first step towards specialising in a career will be at College, many people then choose to continue their specialisation at University. College and University are both very different and personally I have more fond memories of my time at College. College was my first experience of really studying something I actually had an interest in and during my time at Burton I picked up all the basics I would need to progress onto University and eventually into the games industry.
From my experience College is very lenient with regards to deadlines and quality of work, the audio courses I studied were very much a case of asking for help when you needed it. This isn’t a bad thing, it simply meant the students that did want to sit around, copy and paste information from Wikipedia and scrap a pass could do so. The students that wanted to improve their work, find out more and learn new skills were also free to do so and help was always given to them. My College had excellent facilities and tutors and constantly updated software and hardware; there was a lot of hands of time with equipment, occasional guest lecturers and days out.
I imagine University can bring a shock to a lot of students who slacked off at College but somehow managed to achieve enough points to progress further. University is very much a self guided experience; at college there was a register call and tutors would ask why you haven’t been attending, in contrast it is entirely up to the individual as to whether they attend a lecture or a lab class at University. Notes are provided by some tutors but on the whole you are expected to take in a lecture, note down any relevant points then apply that information at a later time when constructing your assignments.
After 3 years at College, being very hands on with software and hardware I almost felt like I had taken a step back during my first 2 years at University. There was not much hands on time, indeed most of the first year was pure theory, diagrams and numbers. I’m not sure how some of the students with no previous hands on experience got through this as personally I need to see practical uses of theory and diagrams for them to sink in. Imagine learning to play the guitar by simply reading sheet music and leaning the techniques but without ever picking up the instrument. After studying an awful lot of theory, hands on experience became more of a focal point during the 3rd year and with that a lot of what students had been taught over the last year or so could now be put into practice.
Learning Skill You Won’t Realise You Need
I remember feeling very agitated during one module at University; we were leaning about memory management. When I cannot apply what I am being taught to something practical I find it hard to figure out why I should be taking it in. Perhaps this was down to bad structuring of the module but essentially the lesson here is to never disregard something you might latter need.
I found it pointless to learn that 1024kb = 1mb, I found it pointless to worry about compressing a music track as an mp3 when I could keep it as a wav. I challenged the tutor on this by informing him that at home I had a 1tb external hard drive, why should I be concerned that I could save a few mb? Again, part of my problem with learning this was that we were never given a clear reason for this during the module.
Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Towards the end of the first game I worked on as an audio designer I was asked to help with memory management. Here we found that not all of the music and sound effects could fit in the game uncompressed. Some assets would have to be optimised, meaning they would have to have their quality settings adjusted to allow them to be compressed as much as possible before an obvious degradation of sound quality was apparent. Some 48 kHz assets would be converted to 22 kHz for example, while some of the larger assets might be converted from wav to mp3. All of this was necessary to ensure all of our assets could remain in the game.
Another example, a few years later when I began working on the audio for vehicles and found each vehicles engine bundle (the engine and exhaust recordings) could not exceed a given size. When certain recordings are too long they have to be compressed or chopped up into smaller assets. I have encountered situations when some of my work has exceeded the slot size by 1kb! I have then had to go back through my work and make it ever so slightly smaller in order to meet the strict size limit.
So the lesson here is that when you are being taught something you should always try and think about how it could realistically affect you. Is it really a waste of time or are there other uses for this information, are there certain situations where, yes, keeping a file under a certain size is beneficial?
Networking with your peers and industry professionals can be just as important as gaining a qualification. In my situation I attended a lecture given by an audio programmer at Codemasters, he gave me some useful information and feedback while I was writing my dissertation. A few years later I began working at Codemasters and got in touch with him again, he showed me around the building and introduced me to the audio department. This stage of my career was extremely important as I got to know the guys I would eventually be working with, when small bits of audio work was available they already knew I’d be interested.
In some situations, networking with your peers may also prove invaluable. After all, in a few years time some of them may work in the industry, they may be able to give you a heads up for a new job role or give you a good recommendation. Several people I met at college and University are now sound or lighting engineers, some work as road crew all over the world, others build websites while others are now tutors.
Education Cannot Fully Prepare You
Enrolling on a course isn’t a free ride in which you can approach an employer and instantly expect a job. In my opinion I don’t think education can prepare you for a job in the industry, real world experience is vital. Some courses do offer sandwich years and work placement schemes (as did mine) but I still felt very underprepared when I finally arrived in the audio department. Let me elaborate. Working to deadlines while at College can be very flexible; you are already undertaking the course in your own time so effectively you can set aside as much or as little time as you like to complete an assignment for a certain deadline. If your work isn’t up to scratch you get a bad mark or are asked to work on it a little longer until you pass. In the games industry, the reality is you have a deadline in which the game must be on shelves; thousands or even millions of pounds have been spent to promote a game and its release date. If your work isn’t at the level required you have to fix it, a game cannot ship if it doesn’t work. If a game ships late or with bad graphics, game play or sound, reviewers will pick up on it and bad reviews can mean your game might not sell as well. The best-case scenario is you lose your bonus (many bonuses are in part based on achieving a good metacritic score) and have a credit on a game that has been poorly received. The worst case is the company makes redundancies or goes bust. This is an all too common scenario in this industry.
Modules are designed to be passed and a tutor will be looking to see that a student has met certain criteria. You will also be assessed on the quality of your work, artistic flair and creativity but tutors do not always have a full understanding of the area of the industry you are pursuing. A good example of this was during my final year at University; I had decided to tailor as much of my assignments as possible to be relevant to the games industry. For one particular assignment I decided to recreate the audio for several game trailers, mostly using original recorded assets and some library sounds. I received a good grade for this particular piece of work as I had made use of a lot of equipment at my disposal, showed different mic techniques, sourced library assets and completed the trailers, presenting them on a final CD complete with all my details. Essentially this was ready to hand out as a demo reel to potential employers and I was pretty pleased with the end result, backed by favourable feedback from my tutors. When I went for my first open day at a games developer, the audio lead reviewed my demo reel and picked out plenty of flaws. At the time this was a big blow, after all I thought it was pretty good and it had been well received at University. On reflection I really appreciated the feedback and took a lot from it, essentially though my tutor didn’t play computer games and wasn’t too familiar with game trailers. They would have been marking my work based on my written assignment, techniques I had used and how resourceful I had been rather than if the demo reel rivalled a professionally released game trailer.
Although there are ways around it, you generally cannot get used to working practices in the games industry without actually spending some time working in it. For instance, I can create my assets, hook them up to the games framework, along with parameters and effects then test them in a working game. This working practice cannot be achieved unless you have the build of a game in front of you, all the game related work I did at University was set to video and as a result it was linear. In a real life situation you have to think about how your assets might change based on different situations. Let’s think about a racing game, my vehicle engine needs to dynamically change based on whatever RPM the player car is currently at. It might act differently based on how much traction is on a surface or if the engine becomes damaged. The engine will have to sound different based on the camera view that the player is using, what gear the car is in or how much it has been upgraded.
The overriding factor is that a degree is almost essential if you want to work in some sort of development role in the games industry. It is a competitive industry and if you are the only person applying for a job without a degree you are immediately put at a disadvantage. QA itself is a great stepping-stone into the industry and many employees start out their career in this department. During my time in QA almost everybody I met who wanted to or eventually went on to become a developer had a degree of some sort. Education is expensive and the cost to study has risen dramatically since I was at University, nevertheless you can’t avoid the fact that graduate jobs pay better.
College and University can throw up many opportunities from networking to future freelance opportunities. Starting out at College may even make you realise that a certain industry is not for you, as I discovered when studying IT for 2 years.
The important thing to remember is to take in as much as possible and always consider how these modules, techniques and new knowledge can come in useful later on in your career. There are certainly times when I wish I had delved a littler deeper into certain modules or paid more attention during a lecture.
If you are interested in working in the games industry as an audio designer you might want to consider familiarising yourself with some audio middleware. You can download full versions of middleware for free as long as you are not using it in a professional capacity. Some of the common tools you might encounter are:
The Benefits of Education
- Learn organisation and time management
- Graduate jobs are generally better paid than non-graduate jobs
- Generally you will need a degree to work in the industry
- You will learn vital skills such as
- Memory management
- Recording techniques and the theory behind them
- Professional work experience
- A chance to network
- With other students
- With professionals in the industry