DigiPen: The Game School I Went To

This post is part of My Career Series.

Here is the Chinese translation of this post.
本文之中文翻譯在此

Disclaimer: This post is all about my personal experience with DigiPen and is in no way intended to represent anyone else’s experience or opinions.

I went to DigiPen Institute of Technology to learn how to make games in 2011, and graduated last year (2014). I graduated one year earlier than my fellow classmates in the same year, because I transferred in some credits I had already earned at my previous college in Taiwan.

I have written one post about my life at DigiPen every year on a game design forum in Taiwan. Also, many of my DigiPen friends just graduated and have started their jobs in the game industry. So I thought, why not write a dedicated post about my experience at DigiPen in English on my blog?

Finding & Choosing DigiPen

When I was almost done with my bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at my first college in Taiwan, I blindly followed what most of my other peers did: looking for a master’s program in the US to advance further in academia. As I was combing through the overwhelming amount of resources on the internet over a few days, an idea deep in my mind struck me: I chose a program in Electrical Engineering because it had always been my dream to make games, and Electrical Engineering was the closest I could get in Taiwan (next to Computer Science). So why on earth was I blindly searching for a path confined within academia, just because everyone else was doing the same thing? After four years of college, I numbed my senses and got lost a little, forgetting my original dream. Hadn’t I played the Jak & Daxter trilogy and made Naughty Dog my dream company in high school? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!

So I threw away all my research on master’s programs, and simply started Googling “game school”. Several results turned up, and DigiPen was among them. I did some research and comparison on different curriculums and programs. As I learned about the vast number of various game-related courses there were, I became more and more convinced that a 2-year master’s program would not be long enough for what I wanted to learn. I ultimately chose DigiPen, which provides several 4-year undergrad programs, a learning environment exclusively for making games, and a large number of students in each year, which is a big enough pool to look for people to form a game team.

This wasn’t an easy decision to share with my parents. One stereotype about Chinese parents is unfortunately true: many Chinese parents expect successful academic progression from their kids, so they encourage – sometimes even force – kids to pursue higher degrees in academia. As far as I know, going for a second bachelor’s degree after already having earned one was unheard of in my circle. Fortunately for me, my parents are very reasonable people. After confirming with me for probably the fifth time that I was determined to do this, they finally said: “If going to this game school is really what you want, then you have our full support.” And I am forever grateful for their generous support.

DigiPen Is A Very Hard School

I will never forget the opening speech given by DigiPen’s president, Mr. Claude Comair, at the orientation.

“Look to your left. Look to your right. You won’t be seeing at least one of the people you just saw when you graduate…or not.”

This, as I learned later, is a very true statement, and he says it every year! Learning to make games at DigiPen is much more demanding than many people think. A quarter of freshmen can’t finish the first semester every year, and only about half of the students graduate on time; it’s worth mentioning, though, that some students choose to drop out because they have accepted job offers before finishing school.

Students are expected to attend classes and finish assignments just like regular college students do. However, on top of that, students need to use their own free time to work on game projects with a team. There are two game projects in the freshman year (one per semester), and one game project per year after that. Students can opt to intern at game companies instead of participating in student game projects in the final year.

Based on my experience, the things you learn from school, only account for 20% of the basic knowledge you need in the industry. What about the other 80%? You learn by forming study groups, conducting personal research and projects, attending club lectures, going to workshops, and last but not least, meeting with peers and professors. I learned about game physics and game engine architecture mostly through club lectures and research with peers.

Various Programs at DigiPen

When I started at DigiPen, there were 5 major undergrad programs, listed below. DigiPen has since added several new programs, including two sound & music programs for games.

  • Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation (RTIS)
    This is basically a standard Computer Science program, plus extra courses focusing on game technology. The name of the program was changed during my sophomore year to Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation, shortened BSCSRTIS, which is still quite a mouthful.
  • Bachelor of Science in Game Design (BSGD)
    Game design techniques, focusing more on the technical side of game design, e.g. scripting, gameplay programming.
  • Bachelor of Art in Game Design (BAGD)
    Similar to BSGD, but focusing more on the art side of game design, e.g. level design.
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
    As the name suggests, game arts.
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering (BSCE)
    Electrical engineering. Hardware stuff.

I was an RTIS student, so I have a better understanding of the RTIS program.

Environment

DigiPen is a 3-story building. On the first floor, there’s a cafeteria, some classrooms, including several bigger lecture halls, and a library (although not very large) full of books about making games (programming, art, game design, game history, you name it). You can also borrow games and various gaming hardwares from the library (for research purposes of course). On the second and third floors, there are more classrooms and the most important space of the school: the open lab.

The open lab consists of a big open space with tables and hundreds of computers. Students can use these computers to work on their assignments and game projects. Most game teams would stake out team spaces and use them throughout a game project cycle. In my first two years at DigiPen, I went to school at 9 in the morning and left around 11 at night almost every day. When I wasn’t in a class, I would be sitting in my team space, working on assignments, game projects, or conducting research. Good times.

Game Projects

Game projects account for special “game credits”. Throughout each project cycle, students have real milestones (Engine Proof, Prototype, First Playable, Alpha, Beta, and Gold), just like the industry. Upon each milestone, DigiPen’s game professors gather and sit through milestone presentations by every single team, usually non-stop throughout a couple days. Presentations are scored, and projects are also rated based on completion of Technical Certification Requirements (TCRs) and Design Certification Requirements (DCRs), all based on common industry standards.

These are very solid practices for presentation skills. During my first milestone presentation, I was so nervous that I sweated and trembled ridiculously. During my last presentation, not to brag, I was as calm as a pro.

We also learned to scope our games, as well as making the hard decision of cutting features before milestones.

In order to let students get a better taste of the industry, students are allowed to jump from one team to another; on the other hand, teams can hire or fire students. Students also have the option to go solo. If the game professors decide that a student has spent too much time without a team or a solo project, they can fail the student for game credits. A game team can also fail game credits if their game ends up incomplete.

A typical student game team consists of programmers from the RTIS program, a couple game designers from the BSGD or BAGD programs, some artists from the BFA program, and a producer. Producers have weekly meetings with game professors to learn production skills and discuss progress on the game projects.

Game teams can schedule a “team-on-one” with one of the game professors. A team-on-one is a 4-hour session with a professor, where everyone sits down, eats snacks, and talks about the game project casually. This is sort of like a reality check for the game project and a good chance to fix communication problems within the team, utilizing various team exercises. After every session, I always felt like my mind had been refreshed and my motivation rebooted.

Clubs

Unlike ordinary colleges, most of the clubs at DigiPen are either about playing games or making games: Board Game Club, Shooting Game Club, Fighting Game Club, Game Graphics Club, Game Physics Club, Game Engine Architecture Club, etc.

Among them is a special club called the Playtesting Club. They hold playtesting sessions twice a week in the afternoon, setting up games on the computers in the open lab. Game teams can participate by putting up their games and let other students play. Playtesting sessions are valuable time spent in getting precious feedback on your game from fellow classmates. By the way, you can get a voucher for a free entree from the cafeteria if you playtest three games. Why wouldn’t you participate?

Integration with Industry

DigiPen has a very tight relationship with the game industry. Many of the faculty are industry veterans; some are still in the industry and teaching at DigiPen part-time.

Spring breaks and fall breaks are always aligned with the Game Developer Conference (GDC) and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), so students and faculty are free to attend these important industry events.

I cannot stress enough the importance of attending GDC. You can make professional connections there, and it is a great place for job hunting. My current job at Naughty Dog would not have been possible had I not run into Naughty Dog’s recruiter at GDC in 2013. I also wrote down some GDC social tips; if you’re interested, you can check them out here and here.

Career First

If there’s one thing at DigiPen that is more important than preparing students for the industry, it is putting them into the industry. This is a general consensus among faculty. A student’s opportunity to break into the industry takes top priority.

For instance, my on-site interview with Naughty Dog coincided with a midterm. My professor thought the interview was much more important than her midterm, so she let me go to the interview and take the midterm another day without penalty. I also missed some other classes that day, and all professors were totally fine with it.

Career Services Center

In my opinion, the Career Services Center is one of the best resources DigiPen provides.

You can schedule a meeting with a dedicated professional at the center. During the meeting, you can discuss how to write your resume, design your website and business cards, practice interviews, and so much more. I went to over 20 meetings before I finalized my resume, personal website, and business cards.

When I had my phone interviews with Naughty Dog, they kindly let me borrow a meeting room. They also helped me draft a very professional-looking turn-down letter to a Microsoft offer I received.

Almost every week, the Career Services Center would invite a game company over to the school’s biggest lecture hall for a “company day”. They would talk about the company and what they look for in job applicants. Sometimes, companies even hold interviews right on-campus!

The school holds various workshops, some designed for current events. For instance, most DigiPen students are quite shy; in one of my years at DigiPen, a few weeks before GDC, where people get socialized and make connections with people from the industry, they invited some people from the industry and held a miniature mixer to let students practice having conversations with professional game developers. Every now and then, they also hold workshops focusing on self-presentation, helping students understand how to appear more professional with their social skills, resumes, websites, business cards. I really learned a lot of great tips from these workshops, including how to tailor resumes to specific companies, and what to look out during interviews.

I recently learned that the school has started officially offering classes dedicated to professional communication taught by Sonia Michaels, including everything from resumes to business cards to professional networking and, of course, conference behavior.

The Career Services Center is also responsible for DigiPen’s annual career fair, which is famous for being quite different from regular colleges. Instead of having students walking around company booths, students set up booths and recruiters walk around to hunt for prospective hires. It is not uncommon for a student to end up with multiple job offers after the career fair.

The placement rate of the RTIS program in the past four years ranges from 84% to 90%, i.e. at least 8 out of 10 RTIS students graduated with a job offer already in hand in the past four years.

The End

These are the things I have to say about DigiPen off the top of my head.

I’ll end with a list of my friends from DigiPen who recently graduated and got jobs, in case you would like to follow them.

About Allen Chou

Physics / Graphics / Procedural Animation / Visuals
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18 Responses to DigiPen: The Game School I Went To

  1. Madt says:

    Thanks for the insight post! I’m currently torn between choosing BSGD or RTIS. On one hand, I want to get achieve a future as a game designer, yet on the other hand I assume you need technical skills to start a career in the game industry. Drawing from your personal experience, are there any major differences between these courses?

  2. Michael Basilisk says:

    Great Post! So what was the most difficult part of studying in Digipen? Attending to classes, assignments, working on the team project (First two sound rather simple) or the whole pack of them is what makes it difficult? I personally want to attend to BSGD and I am not afraid of challenge but I haven’t experienced something similar to this yet.

    • Allen Chou says:

      It really depends on how hard you want to push yourself. It’s possible to graduate with little effort (e.g. making borderline acceptable game projects without investing much time in personal research and career preparation), but you wouldn’t learn much and would be wasting tuition that way. The school has a lot of great resources and one should make the most use out of them.

      • Michael Basilisk says:

        You are right. Another question: is free time enough for working on personal projects or all the time goes to college?

        • cjcat2266 says:

          How much free time you have for personal projects depends on how much time you want to put into school projects. I generally find people able to have enough time for both, plus some occasional leisure time over weekends. Time management is a crucial skill in general.

          • Michael Basilisk says:

            Thanks a lot for your feedback. One last question: Some people say that computer science program is weak overall and that program is way more oriented on video games development (which would be nothing bad for me personally). So is that true?

          • Allen Chou says:

            DigiPen’s CS program is basically the same as other schools. There are only one or two CS classes that are game-oriented (e.g. game implementation techniques). The rest are really no different from regular CS classes. DigiPen’s CS professors are passionate and very good at teaching. I’ve seen many peers transform from fresh high school grads with zero CS knowledge to expert programmers upon graduation, getting offers from big tech and game companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Bungie, and Blizzard. So yeah, I suspect that whoever said that DigiPen’s CS program is weak didn’t really go to DigiPen or didn’t wade far enough into the water to appreciate the CS program. Still, as mentioned in the post, even with great teachers, you’d still be only learning 20% of what you really need to enter the industry from school (I believe this is the case for colleges in general). The other 80% can only be acquired through investing your own time in personal research and hard work.

          • Michael Basilisk says:

            Thank you for all of the valuable information.

  3. Alex Bismuth says:

    Hey there, I’ve been hesitating between the BAGD and the BSGD. Any advice? It seems like a lot of the teams didn’t have many members (if any) from the BAGD, so I just wanted your take on it

  4. Xusi Hu says:

    Hi, I was wondering if digipen is a place for people who want to work in the game industry but know little about coding and computer science or if it is strictly for those who are already good programmers. I want to apply to digipen as it has many good reviews but I am only just starting learning to code and such.

    • Allen Chou says:

      No, you do not need to have any experience. Lots of fresh high school grads with zero experience go to DigiPen and then enter the game industry just fine.

  5. Todor says:

    Hello, what is the cost of the education at DigiPen for the 4 year bachelors degree?

  6. I want to note, Claude Comair had the same speech ready for me… in 2000. He’s been doing it for even longer too. PS, isn’t he just awesome? 😀

  7. Gene Ognibene says:

    This is a really great synopsis of life at Digipen. Congratulations on your continued success.

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