I recently read a blog post by Daniel Sefton on Gamasutra (originally from #altdevblogaday) about why university is the best place to start a games company.
As a current (almost finished) university student who has been involved in a startup with a group of friends from my course, I can absolutely attest to the general idea that is being pushed by Sefton. However I think that the advice and steps he’s described in the post don’t get at some of the real issues and benefits of why this is a good thing to do.
Lets face it: very few people want to be a cog in the machine of a company. Very few people attend university and get a degree with the intention of getting stuck in a dead-end job. The industry still needs innovation and trailblazers and theres plenty of room to do so. There are, and have been, some interesting machinations in the industry of recent times, not least being the rise of the mobile platforms as well as general accessibility to industry-standard technology to distribute games on a multitude of platforms. Crowdfunding is taking off, and several big companies (namely Sony and Bungie) run programs to help fund indie developers. Never before has there been a time as good as now for indies to have their chance at both success and fame. And as a university student, you can be in prime position to start taking up these opportunities.
Despite the fact that very few people attend universities to get stuck in boring jobs, I’ve found that not many people work hard enough to make their goals a reality. The analogy that Sefton makes is absolutely correct: “University is like a cheesecake. The degree you get is the biscuit at the bottom, and you have to fill in the cream and toppings yourself. With no cream or toppings, it’s a dry experience with a cog-in-the-works outcome.”
University will give you the bare-basics of what you need to know to get through the course. But to truly succeed and make something of yourself, you have to do much more. And those team experiences, development pitfalls, release management, quality assurance and everything in between are very rarely things that a university subject will teach you.
While it may be true that a university is like “one big ass games company”, the fact is that not many people are driven enough to achieve anything during their time there. Its no coincidence that the dozen-or-so of us that formed Pub Games were amongst the highest achieving students at university as well as the ones who had engaged in our chosen disciplines outside of university. These sort of social groups tend to naturally form – the high achieving and motivated students tend to gravitate towards each other after a little while. Aim high and be motivated early on and you’ll find that things can and usually will fall into place further into your course. If you find that your friends don’t have the talent or motivation, then perhaps its time to find new friends.
Not every university will have dev kits, or software licensing, or people from all disciplines. But a vast majority will have lecturers and mentors that care about being there and care about teaching their students. If they can’t help you directly, they’ll generally point you in the direction of someone that can. One lecturer in particular at my university has been invaluable to us over the past few years. I believe they are very good at identifying the driven students and will almost always go out of their way to offer advice and assisstance wherever they can. This is an amazing resource that you should use wisely, as good lecturers and professors can help you become not only a better developer, but a better person.
Perhaps the most important element Sefton missed in his post is the issue of failure. No one likes to talk about it, but its a very real thing to deal with in our industry. Being a university student is the best time to try and fail. A lot of people still live at home with parents, or they have someone else supporting them. Not a massive amount of money has to go into forming a company initially (as Sefton pointed out, you don’t even need to incorporate until you get serious), so if things go pear-shaped, not much has been lost. And the most important thing is that you’ve given it a crack and you have the experience. Even failure can teach you plenty of lessons that can only be helpful down the track.
Theres no doubt that sacrifices have to be made in order to be successful, and its especially hard during your late teens and early 20s. I couldn’t even begin to list the sacrifices I’ve made during the past 6 years developing NightFall, Age of Chivalry and now my involvement with Pub Games. But the experience I’ve gained so far has been invaluable and once we have our first game on the market, its going to be a great feeling of achievement. There’s nothing like seeing your own design come to life right in front of your eyes, having people play it, smile and compliment you on a job well done. With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, your hard work has paid off and its an incredible feeling. And most importantly, its been done with a group of friends you love being around and working with.