I’ve had a request for an article! The reader in question writes:
I’ve been in the game industry for almost 6 years now, about the average burn-out time I believe, and my attitude towards the commercial game industry has gone pretty much on a straight slope from “amazing” and “so much to learn” territory to where I am at now, “I can’t believe I’m working on this” and “I guess it pays the bills” land. I would love to quit my job tomorrow and work on game prototypes in my garage, but alas I believe I am going to require some intermediary step to get to that goal.
I have friend who migrated from industry to teacher, and after meeting your online persona, my interests in that direction have been doubly piqued. I am born and bred from the mod community, so self teaching and helping others to learn is part of my deeper character.
What is teaching like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities? How’s the pay? Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers? What kind of qualifications are required to teach?
I would like to give teaching some serious consideration, I believe it might give me some sort of satisfaction that has been on the decline for me for years. I hope you can find the time to shine some light on the subject for me, I know you would have some resourceful and well written advice on the subject.
I empathize with this position, especially having come from a ‘yearly grind’ style development house (I was a cog in the Tony-Hawk-a-year machine at Neversoft.) I found it to be a thankless, dreary existence, lacking any definable conclusion or sense of hope (I’m ceaselessly amazed by the stamina of the guys who have been there since day one and have continued through eight iterations of the same game.) Plainly put, working at Neversoft wore me down. I was worn down physically (I gained over thirty pounds, stopped shaving or getting haircuts, wore the same tattered rags, and rarely exercised), socially (interacting with two or fewer persons per day leads to anti-social behavior and agoraphobic tendencies), and emotionally (by the end I was having erratic mood swings and pseudo-breakdowns.) Clearly, this position was no longer tenable.
So I left Neversoft, moved to Arizona, and took up off-road mountain unicycling. This was (and continues to be) the greatest decision I’ve ever made. I’m happy, well adjusted, have lost all the weight (and then some), am fitter than I’ve ever been, live with my amazing girlfriend, and, perhaps most importantly, believe in what I’m doing. Currently, I’m working as a game designer (and artist, and programmer, and bizdev dweeb, and producer) at Flashbang Studios.
The reason for relocating to AZ was to join up with my good friends, who had recently founded Flashbang. Flashbang is our realization of the common and naïve game student dream. As in ‘once we get out of college we’re going to start a game company together it-will-be-aweshome!!!11!One!!’ Well, yes and no.
What is exciting about working at a small, independent company is the sense that I’m in the driver’s seat. If I’m working on a project, it’s my dream. I’m not toiling away in a dank quarry, hauling blocks across miles of boiling sand to build someone else’s pyramid. If you’re going to grind your life away in a masochistic profession – and make no mistake, game development is unadulterated masochism – I say to you this: make it mean something. Spend your life making meaning. Create things which excite you, which get you out of bed early in the morning and keep you up late at night. Create experiences which will set minds on fire and inspire, in turn, to create experiences for others. We all have a reason for wanting to create games and, at some level, it boils down to an experience we had playing someone else’s creation, their dream. What was that game for you? Think of that experience. Now, imagine giving that experience to someone else. There’s just no excuse for hunching over a keyboard 80 hours a week, forgoing health, hygiene, socialization, and everything else a balanced life needs, to squeeze out something you don’t believe in. A paycheck is not a paycheck. Don’t drink the Koolaid. Eject!
So, Flashbang’s original plan was to create a hit casual game which would leave us bathing in cashmonies, opening our ‘tech tree’ to interesting, innovative, physics-based projects. As it turns out, this was and is much more difficult than one might suspect. We’ve done much better picking up small contract projects (we recently did a teaching game for Cisco Systems – for their internal sales staff) and cranking them out quickly than we have spending months fretting over the minutia of our casual titles. That said, up next for us is something interesting, something truly ‘indie,’ which I’m exceedingly excited about. Anyhow, I realized quickly that Flashbang was going to need some bootstrapping, so I started looking around for teaching jobs, which is how I found the Art Institute of Phoenix.
What is teaching at the art institute like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities?
I must say, it’s been one of the most rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable experiences of my life. There is Yiddish word, naches, “pride from the accomplishment of a child or mentee” which synopsizes the feeling nicely. Many of my students have graduated and gotten awesome jobs. This fills me with a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and meaning I’ve rarely known. Two were recently hired (out of school, mind you) to work on Warhammer Online (one as character artist, no less!) There’s nothing quite like the feeling of watching them get their dream job, of having helped them on their way to that success. I think that no matter what I do or where I go, I’ll always want to be teaching.
As for the particulars, the classes at AIPX are four hours long, which means that you really need to plan well to fill the time with content and keep the energy level high. Honestly, though, once you’ve meticulously planned a class out week by week and run it a few times it takes little effort to maintain. And if you’re teaching an art centric class it tends to boil down to a lot of one-on-one time spent helping individual students. I’ve convinced them to put all three of my classes on one day, which is something they don’t normally do (3 classes * 4 hours + travel time = 16 hour day), but which I’m very happy with. This means I can work full time on Flashbang and fun prototypes while having my bills and expenses handled in one day of teaching.
As far as responsibilities, you’re required to show up for each period of each of your classes. If you cannot make it to class on a particular day, you’re responsible for finding a substitute teacher, prepping her, and informing your academic director of the change. If you cannot find a substitute, there is a list ten tiers deep of phone numbers and contact information you must go through until you can find someone to be in your classroom during your allotted teaching time. Past that it’s up to you to decide what’s important to teach and how to teach it. You must provide students with syllabi and weekly plans, create any handouts or exercises needed for your classes, and keep detailed grading records. This ‘paper trail’ is especially important as any student can, after receiving a grade in your class, “challenge” this grade, which leads to a formal inquiry. If you can’t provide substantive proof that the grades issued in your class are the result of fastidious bookkeeping, meticulous grading, and some kind of underlying scale or system, there are problems. Essentially, you can’t arbitrarily assign grades because a student makes you feel icky. This may sound a bit daunting, but the answer is to create a “rubric” for each and every assessment you give. Here are some of my rubrics:
For the Board Game final in my Game Design class
For the ChuChuRocket assignment in my Level Design class
For playtesting Soldat maps in my Advanced Level Design class
…and a weekly plan (to be thorough):
Weely Plan for Level Design
The students are, for the most part, bright, excited, and naïve; the way we all were. Occasionally you get stinkers. Sometimes you get kids who you like personally but who you have to fail because they don’t show up or have problems getting their work done. Sometimes you have to give people A’s who you simply cannot stand on a personal level because they show up and do good work. Occasionally, someone will sit there looking at filthy tentacle porn during class (the preceding sentence contains zero hyperbole, btw.) It’s the Law of Averages, really – you’ll see the gamut, from brilliant to…not so much.
It takes a little while to get used to having the sort of responsibility one has as an instructor and to feel comfortable wielding it, but it seems very natural to me now (after two and a half years teaching.)
Hows the pay?
The pay is reasonable [email if you’re interested in exact figures – sswink (at) flashbangstudios (dot) com]. Really, it’s about how little effort goes into a class once you’ve already prepped and taught it. I barely think about my classes during the week. Some occasional grading and emails – little else. It’s not like having two jobs, it’s getting paid to hang out, help people learn, and share the experience of working in the game industry for one day each week.
Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers?
Yeah, totally. The major at all Art Institutes that carry it (there’s one in San Diego) is “Game Art and Design.” The emphasis is primarily on the art, though. Obviously, I represent the voice of design here in Phoenix, but the final output of the major is a high quality demo reel and portfolio web page, so most classes are geared towards art. I can’t speak for other AI schools, but here at AIPX we always need additional qualified instructors.
What kind of qualifications are required to teach at a place like the art institute?
Because it is required by their accrediting body, you must have a Bachelor’s or equivalent to teach at an Art Institute. This is somewhat unfortunate, honestly. Schools deny themselves the benefit of quality game instructors because of it, as many of the best and brightest simply didn’t go to college, or found it wasn’t for them. My partner at Flashbang, Matthew Wegner, an amazingly brilliant guy, dropped out of college. It simply wasn’t for him. I looked at getting him in at AI – there’s just no way to get around the accreditation thing. But, hey, you should look at the colleges in your area. They might be more open. Never know till you try. Matthew ended up teaching an online course which paid well and didn’t require he have a degree.
To sum up: I can’t recommend teaching highly enough. The extrinsic rewards, though somewhat sparse by certain standards, are far outstripped by the intrinsic rewards. Naches, ahh…
Stick around for part two: “What should I teach these people?”
..and part three: “How should I teach these people?”