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DigiPen Institute of Technology is considered one of the greatest and most popular game development schools in United States and probably in the world (it also has branches in Singapore and Spain). There’s hundreds of games being developers by small teams of dedicated students in DigiPen. Probably one of the most important examples is Narbacular Drop (2005), which later became Portal. Narbacular Drop was actually developed by DigiPen students.
We were lucky enough to talk with one of the graduates of DigiPen Liz Kirby, who’s currently working on Halo 5. She shared some of her memories of studying art in this school. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but Liz still has no regrets of staying there and getting all that knowledge, which helped her with her work.
Overall, I have great memories of DigiPen, but I will be candid when I say there were times when I was incredibly uncertain. I remember thinking, “I want to drop out, what am I doing here,” more than once while I mulled over certain aspects of the curriculum, particularly wanting to pursue environment art, but being saddled with animation classes. I’m glad I didn’t drop out in the end, very glad, but it was difficult sometimes. Not just mentally, but financially, as well. It didn’t help that working a job during such an intense curriculum was all but impossible, (I certainly tried), but that’s a whole other story.
The art program at DigiPen still has its kinks to work out, though by now they could have, as I graduated in 2012, so I don’t want to be overly critical. The way they structure the curriculum is to build from the ground up with beginner art, storytelling, film, and art history classes. No one touches Photoshop or 3D software until the second year. The first year is spent in life drawing classes and learning the basics with traditional tools, which is fantastic! Everyone should know the basic foundations of art before touching 3D. If there’s no understanding of composition, color theory, or the basic principals of design, for example, it will show through in the work.
The art program really made sure that we never stopped drawing. I’m not sure if they still do this, but before anyone even starts day one of the art program, there is an assignment that is to be completed over the summer and turned in on the first day of class: The Summer Sketchbook. Take a 200 page sketchbook and complete four drawings per page – front and back of each page. Welcome to day one!
Here’s an image of a self portrait I did before starting DigiPen in 2008, and then another I did a year into the curriculum in 2009. It just shows how often we were drawing, and just how much it really helped.
If the first year is cleared, the second and third years come in swinging with Photoshop, Maya, 3Ds MAX, Flash, Premiere, etc. It was here that I felt there were some kinks to iron out, as everything was very animation-centric, and I felt game art didn’t have as strong of a presence as it could have, but again, this could have changed, and they do offer game engine and environment art courses.
I just felt we should have spent more time in game engines because while animation and games do go together, getting everything to work in an engine, be it an animation or static game asset, is an entirely different story. Game art can’t just look pretty, it has to function and be efficient.
In senior year, everything learned in the first three years is applied to a senior project by working on a game team with programming students, an animation project with other art students, or the projects can be replaced with internships.
During senior year, there will also be a career fair where DigiPen invites representatives from local game companies and gives students a space to present their work and meet prospective employers. To prepare for this, there’s a portfolio class beforehand that helps with things like business cards, portfolio presentation, and resumes. Throughout the year, DigiPen also regularly invites companies over to give talks and meet students, which makes for great networking opportunities.
Schools in general really do provide an amazing opportunity to network. No one should expect a college degree to be a magical ticket to a job, it’s a competitive field! The most skilled person in class may not even stand a chance if they have zero visibility. Classmates, and even teachers, may one day be future co-workers – treat them well and help each other out, and hopefully they’ll do the same.
At the end of it all, though, I have no regrets about school and am glad I stuck with it. I could do without the massive student loans, but I went in not knowing a thing about art or the industry, and came out with a job and a portfolio that had enough to get me the job. I also met a lot of really great people that I still happily call my friends.