This proliferation of potential instruction is nothing if not overwhelming to the new and passionate game development apprentice. And with colleges offering programs left and right, for premium prices, the sharks are circling. But who are they?
Westwood College isn't alone, but it certainly - for good or ill - has become one of the most visible players in the small college instruction niche. I spoke with Sean Lynott, Career Development advisor for Westwood's game development programs (of which there are two: Game Art and Design and Game Software Development), about what Westwood had to offer.
Remote instruction programs such as those offered by Westwood and California-based Cerra Coso College offer students a variety of general skill classes (particularly in areas of 3-D animation and programming) as well as practical instruction on the compilation of competitive portfolios, working professionally in teams and planning one's career. With no need to generalize about theory, these colleges can directly address the vocational needs of their students, preparing them for a work environment in a way that major universities often consider "beneath" them.
In addition to the low cost of enrollment, community and small colleges offer practicality and skill focus. But are they delivering the best education possible? The primary criticism of these programs has been their lack of connection with actual game development - criticism also levied at larger universities, which suffer a catch-22: Upscale universities require all of their professors to have Ph.D.s, but with few exceptions, there are no Ph.D.s for game development, and even if there were, you wouldn't commonly see a practicing developer carrying one.
The bugbear, ultimately, is in the instruction of game design. While game art and game programming are distinct specializations with their own manifold quirks and details, it is possible to be a phenomenal artist and never work on games; it is possible to be a genius caliber programmer and never code gameplay. It is not, however, possible to be a game designer without making games. The notion is patently absurd. Yet this is exactly what many private college instructors - and even, in some cases, faculty at major universities - are claiming they can do.
So what about the voice of experience? Lynott agreed that the only true test of an instruction program was the success of its students, and programs like Westwood's, he said, were too young yet to have encountered those tests. But through technology and industry connections, Westwood is doing its best to maximize opportunity for its students, including negotiating with major developers for internship programs and bringing in professional developers to speak to their classes.
Through use of the same technology the online colleges use to instruct their students - in Westwood's case, Adobe's Breeze software - the Career Development department arranges sessions where the students can watch an instructor's computer actions remotely while listening to a lecture delivered over online audio. At the end of the session, they participate in a conference call with the speaker for Q&A. Recently, Westwood arranged for IGDA Executive Director Jason Della Rocca to speak to their game dev classes.
"The students seemed quite engaged and had a lot of good questions," Della Rocca said. While he felt there was no real substitute for live instruction, he said Westwood's technology and the tools used by colleges like it potentially gave students access to industry experts even larger universities might never see. In addition to bringing in industry notables, Westwood is also organizing an advisory board composed of game development professionals to review their programs - a step a number of universities are taking and a feature prospective students would do well to watch for and request in their own programs.