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Can I Learn Game Design Online? Interview with Professors

“Something that I’ve been noticing as we’ve been working remotely which has been a big advantage is that some of the work we do isn’t necessarily good to be done in person. It’s great to be with others for creativity to collaborate and then have all those pieces come of it. But the work itself, like working in Unity and checking into source control and someone else checking out to collaborate on, is actually very adaptable to a distributed team.”

Dave Culyba, Assistant Teaching Professor, Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University

Game design is a booming industry. Dublin-based research firm Research and Markets released its “Global Gaming Industry: Growth, Trends and Forecast 2020-2025” report in April this year, which forecasted several trends for the industry.

For one, the global gaming market was valued at $151.6 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach over $256.9 billion by 2026—a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.2 percent over the period. Enhancing gamers’ experiences, launching and rewriting codes for diverse consoles and platforms—particularly in emerging economies—are a key target during this period for major game design companies.

Furthermore, following the outbreak of COVID-19, a March 2020 survey shows video gamers in the U.S. spent 45 percent more time playing video games during quarantine compared to the previous period. The increase in the first-time download of Twitch after the pandemic in March reached 14 percent in the U.S. and jumped to 41 percent in Italy.

So clearly, gaming is a growing industry with plenty of demand and career opportunities. But are there any things students seeking to learn game design online should expect, as compared to studying the subject in-person?

Game design is a digital industry by nature. In theory, moving classes online should significantly impact students’ ability to study game design, as many industry professionals in computer science also grow their knowledge through online courses.

We talked to professors teaching online classes in the fallout of the pandemic to find out about what learning game design online means for students’ classroom, internship, and career opportunities, as well as how they can get the most from their experiences.

Meet the Professors: Dave Culyba and Jesse Schell

Dave Culyba

Dave Culyba
Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University

Dave Culyba is an assistant teaching professor of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He teaches classes for students going into careers in creative entertainment technology, often related to video game design, but also relevant to theme parks and other entertainment design. He also is one of the core members of Carnegie Mellon’s Alice research team that is working to create software to help teach students how to program. Additionally, he’s an active participant in game jams and was the co-organizer of the “Now I Get It!” jam.

Culyba has BS in computer science and a master’s in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He has prior experience working at Electronic Arts as part of the team that created the computer game Spore. He was also a co-founder of the startup Interbots, which worked on combining robotics and apps to create both entertainment and therapeutic experiences for kids.

Jesse Schell

Jesse Schell
Entertainment and Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University

Jesse Schell is a distinguished professor in the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. In his role, he advises students in their research projects and teaches classes in game design and building virtual roles. He is also the CEO of Schell Games, the largest gaming studio in Pennsylvania. Formerly, Schell was the Chairman of the International Game Developers Association and is the author of the award-winning book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. In 2004, MIT’s Technology Review magazine named him one of the world’s “Top 100 Young Innovators.”

Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon, Jesse was the Creative Director of the Walt Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, where he worked and played for seven years as a designer, programmer, and manager on several projects for Disney theme parks and DisneyQuest, as well as Toontown Online, the first massively multiplayer game for kids.

Q&A with Professor Culyba and Professor Schell How have you adapted your classes to support remote learning?

Professor Schell: The game design class which was lecture-based and requires mostly independent work didn’t need to change a lot. The most challenging part was playtesting your games and being able to have other people try them out. This had to change a little bit.

What we found that worked was students designing games that could be play-tested online. And it actually served as a very interesting creative constraint because it got people thinking in ways they wouldn’t normally think. So it brought some creativity that wasn’t there before and one thing that surprised me was I feel like in the online environment there was more teamwork than normal because it is easier for people to get together whereas normally in real life you’ve got to get to the same place—you’ve got to schedule a time and here we didn’t have those restraints. So that actually worked fairly well.

What we have not done yet is take the building virtual worlds class completely online, which we’re going to try this fall. And there are definitely some challenges for that, so we’ll experiment and see how that goes.

We’ll be using the Unity game manager as the basis and we’re still deciding about exactly what platforms we’re going to use. We know there will be some amount of virtual reality (VR) headsets, probably Oculus, used for some of the course. And that is one question to tackle because normally we have hardware available at the school for the students. Now we have to figure out what parts we need: do we have enough of these? Can we get these to the students and have them work with it?

So, one of the biggest challenges this semester will be working with custom hardware. But that doesn’t bother us because that’s a pretty good simulation of something that happens a lot in the game industry.

In the industry, not everybody always has the hardware that they want or need. If you’re working, for example, on a console game, you don’t always have it right in front of you. A lot of times you’ve got to work on a PC version of it and you have a limited number of development kits in the studio, which you don’t always get access to.

So it’s a pretty good analogy to the way things work when you work on cutting edge hardware and learning to deal with that. Have you seen a difference in students’ learning experience in remote learning? How did you support studying video game design online versus in-person?

Professor Culyba: We did. Especially in spring, when we had to move completely to remote learning as fast as we could. We saw little things, like some students when their internet connection at home wasn’t that great would cause problems. And these issues showed up later when they were struggling. So there were some minor things like that.

And we had some bigger challenges. I know in my elective course I had students really struggling—especially students like undergrads who are taking multiple courses. All the courses start to intersect on what they were asking of students, on top of experiencing displacement from their dorms.

The disruption of students needing to go home to live with family was also really palpable. A campus environment is designed to be supportive of work and study, whereas a home environment can provide a bunch of different distractions and stressors. So it’s really hard on the student to balance that.

Our master’s programs students are older and live in apartments, so there’s a level of independence that comes with that which is helpful. However, international students had both the stress of work and what may be happening back with their family.

And so we basically brought in support for the students. One of the things that we found that was really helpful is that we’re a program that is rooted in professional teamwork. And so the idea of talking the team through how to facilitate meetings—the communication process and milestones—was what we already do. We talk through that in person and now we are talking through it in a remote sense. So it actually fits pretty well with remote work and learning.

Something that I’ve been noticing as we’ve been working remotely which has been a big advantage is that some of the work we do isn’t necessarily good to be done in person. It’s great to be with others for creativity to collaborate and then have all those pieces come of it. But the work itself, like working in Unity and checking into source control and someone else checking out to collaborate on, is actually very adaptable to a distributed team.

We looked at what industry does, like what game companies were doing, and how they were pivoting to remote teams. So we used this to support our students in the same way. I went in with a colleague to make a checklist, which is a pretty detailed spreadsheet looking at things and told students as a team to sit down and go through the list:

  • What are your time zones?
  • Double-check everyone’s internet connection.
  • Write down and confirm everyone’s home computer setup.
  • Does anyone need anything?
  • Take stock of everyone’s capabilities.
  • Confirm that you can make the build you were working on.
  • Double-check the technology.

And I did my best to support students and be flexible, like recording lectures. And a lot of my project work was very asynchronous, so students could sort of work on it themselves, even within their teams. I also adapted a lot of office hours to be online with screen-sharing and things like that. Have you seen any impact from the move to distance learning on students’ internship and career opportunities?

Professor Schell: I think it’s a challenging situation for students looking for internships now because taking on interns always presents a certain level of risk for a company taking them on. The company has to spend time and energy trying to get this person up to speed and it might work and it might not.

It’s a kind of a high commitment endeavor and interns will have a lot of questions and they need a lot of help. And trying to bring interns onto a team online is tricky because now all of that communication you could normally have in person is kind of filtered through this online situation.

At first, we at Schell Games were kind of backing off on internships a little bit because there was already enough to deal with in moving all operations to remote settings. Other companies had to deal with that as well. So, I know there was a big hit on interns this past year.

But I think people are getting past that now and are starting to experiment with the idea of, “Okay, how can we go about it in the right way to bring interns on board?”

Something very important for anybody who’s applying for internships or jobs at this point is to be able to show if you’ve done some level of online projects or online classwork in college. That’s going to be an important aspect of your interview because people are going to need you to be able to show that you know how to work online with a team and that you know how to take initiative about the things that are important.

So it’s an odd situation that the students who choose to come to do a hybrid program or go online are going to have some advantage—especially if this situation goes on for a while. Do you have any recommendations for teachers and students in game design on how students can get the most out of their online learning experience?

Professor Culyba: So the thing that I found helpful is the mindset of approaching it like there’s a reality in which going 100 percent remote has aspects that just kind of suck. And there’s a truth to that.

But I think trying to look at it not as how do we deal with this bad thing, but more how do we approach the technology and the space? And how can we turn it into an advantage—finding those moments where there are some things about it that are better than it was than a classroom setting? How can this be a space where you have the advantage?

First, make sure students have the equipment they need. And then everyone being at a computer means that you can facilitate new forms of collaboration. So students can work together on a shared Google document and that can be used as a way to collaborate and explore new ways to brainstorm and be creative. The remote scenario just enables different possibilities.

For example, my colleague, Professor Brenda Bakker Harger, who teaches improvisational acting has been discovering exciting ways to do that over Zoom. So it’s important to find that mindset in thinking: where are some unexpected advantages? I think within game development, there’s a nice advantage for that, which is especially true for digital game development.

Game development is work that already exists in a digital space. And so adapting it to remote work itself kind of works. And now there are ways of looking at just how do you leverage the social learning experience through remote? And we’ve been pleasantly surprised that there are places in there that are exciting for that.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.