Graduate school for comp sci

Currently I’m an undergraduate majoring in computer science. I enjoy programming, and I am talented (relatively speaking). I would take jobs doing it, but my passion lies in game design, not programming. I love games of all kinds, the way players interact with rules, and with each other. I love player learning and competition and interfaces, etc.

I keep being pushed by a professor at school to go to grad school after I graduate. He says I would excel, and probably qualify for a generous fellowship (I don’t know if that’s true. He says not many americans get a master’s in cs, and there is money for those who do). Either way, my question is this: If I went to grad school, could I study something closer to game design than traditional cs topics like AI, path finding, searches, etc? I don’t know a whole lot about grad school, but it seems like what I love is perhaps closer to psychology maybe? I really don’t know exactly how it works, or what sorts of topics I’d be limited to studying / being taught.

I’m not opposed to the idea of getting a master’s (even in another applicable subject), but I want it to further my interests, not just make me more money doing something I’m not as passionate about. I don’t want to get fed up with programming after 10 years and then go teach; I want to make games until I’m dead. Yes, I realize I don’t need a degree -or even a job- to do this. I make games, even if they’re mediocre at best. I want to make them professionally, and get much better at it, but I’m absolutely NOT an entrepreneur of any sort.

I apologize for the scattered brain spittle.

Speaking as someone for whom grad school was an unmitigated disaster,

Do it. It will open doors for you, and give you a chance to really gain some knowledge in a key area.

I thought most people in the field seemed to agree that a master’s in cs was pretty close to worthless? Do those game design colleges offer grad programs that are worth taking?

I just sent you a PM about our awesome (and young) game design and HCI faculty in computer engineering. Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the new hot field that kinda blends psychology with computers – it studies how people interact with technology.

I’m really excited to be a part of the department here, even if I’m not in game design. The atmosphere is excitable; the faculty love what they’re working on; the grad students are generally happy.

The only problem with grad school straight out of undergrad is the possibility of burning out. If you don’t think that applies to you, then you’ve got nothing to lose. The economy sucks right now. Go to school.

fire, thank you! We actually have an hci class in the undergrad program here, which I’m very excited to take.

I took 5 years off between high school and college. So at least for now, I don’t feel any kind of burn out. I’ll wait and see though, it’s not ruled out.

thanks again

There are a whole bunch of game design/programming masters degrees being offered now, check out Guildhall at SMU and Carnegie-Mellon, those are the two I have heard the most about (for postgrad). I have not looked at the courses themselves, just heard them spoken of within the industry, and they seem to be well-regarded by most. I do have to wonder if these courses are a bit too vocational for what you want though, I mostly hear about grads going straight into jobs in the industry. Fire’s HCI suggestion might be more up your street. Good luck!

Oooh, I want a PM too! I’m (voluntarily) unemployed because I’m burned out on my CS job after just a few years.

Me too! I’m no where near going back to school, but somewhere down the line I hope to expend my animation experience into some actual game producing.

MSCS is a big deal in the normal tech industry, somewhat less so in the gaming industry where there are so many kids entering, but even there it’s much better to have it than not. The one I got from Columbia 20 years ago was a complete waste of time academically, and I all but killed myself getting it in one year (my school had no undergraduate CS degree, so I had to take a few extra courses as a MS student), but it was worth it in terms of subsequent pay.

Sure it’s possible to get ahead with only a bachelor’s, it’s just much easier with a master’s. And there is always the chance you will learn something useful in a good program, unlikely as this may be.

However, you must expect to be paying for all or most of the degree yourself, either directly or with your own student loans, and you will be more downtrodden than all other kinds of students. In a typical program the MS students are in effect paying for the PhD student fellowships and assistantships while getting few of the random secondary benefits of the undergrads.

That’s what happened to me too. I called up my old faculty mentor at my undergrad, to whine, and he said, “What are you waiting for? You’re miserable. Go back to school.”

I’m on my 2nd year, just switched to the PhD track from the MS track, and I love it. He was totally right. :-)

I realize this makes me a huge friggin’ pedant, but there’s no dash in ‘Carnegie Mellon’.

I went to CMU, and have heard pretty good things about the Entertainment Technology Center there. I didn’t do grad school, but I worked for a research lab in the CS department at CMU for a couple years, and it’s generally a pretty well-run place full of disturbingly smart people.

Also, even in the normal tech industry I gotta admit that the first thing I think when I see an MSCS on an applicant’s resume is a mix between “Why the hell did you bother?” and “Oh, consolation prize for bombing out of the PhD?”. Unless you’re in a traditional corporate place that cares a lot about the MS for some reason, I wouldn’t bother with it at all.

I’m a software manager for a company who’s main product has Software, Electrical, Mechanical, Optical, and Systems engineers operating in concert to make a product.

A Masters in CS isn’t a big winner for me, because the cross-functional background needed to operate effectively in this environment isn’t really taught anywhere. Some of my people have CS degrees, some Computer Engineering degrees, some EE. Those of my engineers that came from more traditional backgrounds had a lot of fun stuff to learn when confronted with a motor attached to a lens and given the task to “develop software to make it focus properly”.

If you really want to pursue a career as a game designer, then getting a MSCS won’t help you at all. Unless you are planning to apply as a programmer and then somehow manage to get on to the design team.

There is a couple posts around here that people said they want to get into to game industry as a designer, not sure what school to go or what to do. The easiest way to get a job as a designer is learn the tools! Whether is Unreal/WarEdit/Radiant/etc. Get it, Play around with it, Make levels. If you trying to apply as a game designer, most of the jobs nowadays ask for 3+ years of experience in the industry, your best entry is a level designer/Scripter which requires you to be familiar with the tools.

The best way to show someone that you can make a fun game is by presenting a level you made.

Even at work, when we present an idea for a level, instead writing a long design paper on each event, we just submit a 1-2 page event list, and demonstrate the prototype in the actual game editor.

And those English classes were clearly a waste of time.

Thanks for the replies. It’s stuff I’ve heard a dozen times, but needed to hear again. I sometimes lose perspective when talking to advisors and just going to classes all day.

If you want to hired into the game industry there are three pretty important things:

  1. Who you know.
  2. Portfolio(this applies across the board, an impressive demo is huge).
  3. Experience.

Now if you think a masters program might give you an edge on your portfolio I would go for it, however consider it carefully.

The other thing you might want to ask yourself is if you really want to get into the game industry. I just got done working a 100+ hour week to get a demo out the door this weekend and will probably go back to working 60 hours a week or more until we ship. That is not abnormal, combined with around 30%(or more) lower pay for programmers it’s something you should seriously consider. Even more so if you want to have a family somewhere down the line.

Yes, you going to have those 100+ weeks unless you are one of those casual studios.

Usually crunchs last 3-4 months, but after the game ships, the studio I’m at gives us 3-4 weeks of paid vacation, plus research work(play any games) for a month or afterwards. Most of the development you aren’t in a crunch, it’s usually during the deadline.

An aside re crunching.

It has to be understood that crunches are a perversity of the games industry that are almost incomprehensible in their sheer inanity.

On the one hand, crunching points out an abysmal failure in project planning and management, and on the other hand it points to a disastrous lack of valuation of creative work.

It’s one thing if the principals in some tiny group jointly decide they need to work themselves that hard because they have deliberately committed to a stupid deadline or to too small a budget. That’s fine, I suppose, if that’s what they want to do – if it’s really what they want to do.

It’s another thing when some producer calls a project team together and tells a bunch of people who could be making double their salaries working in any other programming sector “you’re going to have to crunch”.

The unstated subtext is either: “you’re going to have to crunch because I utterly screwed up the project plan” or still worse “you’re going to have to crunch because we planned it that way, not having the slightest regard for your dignity or common sense.”

IMO, the appropriate response to either of those situations is “I quit”. That is a much better form of sacrifice than actually crunching, as it will hopefully lead management to realize that they will have to mend their ways – and meanwhile you can look for a job that makes some slight amount of sense.

Overtime is not unusual in other programming sector or in the business world at large, but game-industry-style crunching is really unheard of, especially considering the pathetic salaries, lack of overtime, and the likelihood that any given game project or studio will fail, regardless of crunching.

I honestly don’t understand why people let this kind of thing happen to them. It’s not just that mythical “love of the work” thing, there is a masochistic subculture that seems to prize this kind of sacrifice even when its fundamentally stupid.

Phew. Maybe some time I’ll tell you what I really think…

Somehow I missed this, reading through your original message. The first part of this statement is clearly untrue; MSCS is a popular master’s program throughout the country, and it is common amongst “professional” programmers outside the games industry.

Maybe the professor means to decry the number of foreign students at his university, which would be rather embarrassing if that’s what he meant – it would be worse if there were none, as that would indicate the intellectual poverty of the university – but that is neither here nor there with respect to the popularity of the degree.

I tend to doubt the second statement as well. As I have already mentioned, in my experience fellowship money goes almost exclusively to doctoral students and not to master’s students; however I suppose it is possibly correct with regard to that particular school.

In my group at the last company for which I worked, everyone had MS CS except me. I got stuck with all sorts of crap-work usually reserved for interns (bug hunting, retarded bug fixes, sitting in on meetings in which the MS CS folk get to make design decisions).

It was crunch time for about 9 of the 12 months I was there, gradually getting worse.

And this wasn’t a game-industry job. It’s just the CS industry.

Of course, YMMV. But that job was one of the reasons I went back to grad school – I was sick of getting overlooked because I was the only BS.