Troy Dunniway, a Game Development Dept Head at CG Spectrum, told us about teaching game design, the challenges of this profession, and explained why it is so easy to learn Unreal Engine as a novice.
Hi everyone, I’m Troy Dunniway, the creator and mentor of the Game Design Course at CG Spectrum. I’ve been designing games for almost 30 years and have shipped over 100 games on almost every platform. I spent a lot of my career at Microsoft, EA, UBISOFT, Insomniac, Disney, and many other big studios primarily as a Creative Director (Game Designer), Art Director, Executive Producer, and an Executive. I’m a jack of all trades, so I’m someone who started as an engineer, moved to be an artist, then a game designer, then a producer, and then as an executive/studio head. My main specialty is as a Creative/Project Director, where I am the one running a project's creative vision (kinda like being a Director of a movie) where I need to make sure the game is fun, but also looks great, can sell, and is somehow kept on time and on budget.
I started my career as an artist and very quickly became a game designer due to my passion for writing and my deep understanding of games back then from being a hobbyist programmer for games since I was a kid. My degrees are actually in Astrophysics and Mechanical Engineering and my father was an artist, photographer, and graphic designer, so I was taught art from a baby. I started making games back around 1992 and was lucky to work on early PC DOS, NES, and Atari platforms, so I got in before most and before the game design was a real job or even taught. I actually wrote the first book on game design back in 1999 because there weren't any books or learning material yet. The industry and schools have come a LONG way since then.
I never planned to be a game designer but fell into it. My original career plan was to design spaceships at NASA and hopefully become an Astronaut. Lucky for you all I didn’t go that path. I actually spent almost 5 years doing movie visual effects on movies like True Lies before I got into games.
I was very lucky to have a background and passion for programming, art, writing, psychology, and many other related areas while also being an uber-geek (which helps) and gamer since day one. Also, many of my personal interests and hobbies like history, sci-fi/fantasy, military (my dad was a Marine), martial arts, and other things all came together when being a game designer. I mention this because as a game designer, we often can utilize not just our schooling, but many things in our life can help us become a designer and be great at it.
Becoming a Part of CG Spectrum Team
I was very lucky to randomly meet one of the co-founders Jeff and we hit it off and within a very short time, we had a plan for how we could not just teach game design but hopefully revolutionize how it’s taught. I’ve written or contributed to 6 books on game development, have written many articles on it, lectured at all of the major conferences, and been heavily involved in trying to teach the aspiring game designers of the world for over 20 years because I was very frustrated by the state of current schools and what they were not teaching.
My experience here at CG Spectrum has been amazing. They have trusted me and given me the freedom to build what I think and hope is the best game design program out there. I also enjoy that everyone here is amazingly talented and working professionals who are all exceptional at what they do, and not just a bunch of academics, but people who really know how to make great things in real production environments.
We are officially an Unreal Academic Partner and have a number of Epic staff helping us as mentors and to develop our future curriculum. In the game design department, we majorly reworked the curriculum for 2021 and have now incorporated a full Unreal Engine training course into the game diploma program. We invested a lot of time last year into developing a wide variety of tools, blueprints, assets, and extensions to UE which will help designers focus on the fun and not have to become artists or programmers to make their own games for their portfolios. We also brought on some teaching assistants to help students with their Unreal challenges and are continuing to invest in new ways to help game designers make games with Unreal. Students will now build 2-3 game projects in Unreal for their portfolio before they graduate.
Teaching Game Design in Live Format
I’ve been streaming on CGS Live for 2 hours a week (most weeks) for over a year now. I’ve covered a range of topics such as what it is like to be a game designer, worldbuilding for games, and am now teaching how to design First Person Shooters. Some are semi-random topics that I think are complicated and could use more in-depth examples of how to do them. I’m honestly not sure where I will take the stream this year, but I’m exploring teaching some in-depth level design, quest design, writing for games, UI/UX design, and other advanced topics my course doesn’t teach (yet)!
The hardest thing about teaching live is just my lack of prep ahead of time. I wish I could spend days putting together great presentations, better examples, and such. So, I choose topics I know well and can talk about endlessly. Luckily I’m a verbose talker, so talking for that long isn’t too hard. Though, many have commented that both my live streams and course videos are usually incredibly deep and filled with lots of great information which I’ve appreciated hearing.
For those new to this field, a great stream to start with is this one on game design roles. It gives a good overview of the types of jobs out there, and which you might like to pursue.
The Organisation of the Course
The game design diploma is really a crash course in game design and teaches a lot in a very short time. Successful students need to spend 20+ hours a week on the course to get the most out of it. The course can prepare you to get a lot of different jobs in game design or other related fields.
The course now is 4 terms, 12 weeks each. The course is designed to really teach 3 primary areas: game system design, level design, and building games in Unreal. The system design section will take you from creating the idea for a game all the way to writing all of the Game Design Documents, designing the game systems, creating the vision, and everything else which you will need to understand how to make the game fun and which a team could use to build a AAA game. The level design section will take students from the idea for a level to the paper breakdown of what goes in the level, through to making 2D maps, and then white boxing and building the level in Unreal. The Unreal section of the course is designed not to teach you what every button does, like most other online courses, but is there to teach you how to really implement a game in Unreal and to give you practical hands-on experience.
One of the best parts of the game design (and other) courses at CG Spectrum is that we have incredible mentors who meet with you weekly to help you through the entire process. All of our mentors are working professionals and most work at major studios on some of the biggest games being made. We try hard to show you how real developers work and not just some academic theories which are not applicable in the real world.
Even though we are more focused on teaching students how to get a job at a big studio and work on PC/Console titles, we also help students learn how to make games for Indie studios, Mobile Games, and use Unity 3D if they prefer.
The Benefits of Unreal Engine
We actually started by teaching Unity 3D, but we found the initial learning curve for Unreal is much easier for game design students who are often not technical or only slightly technical in their current skills. Unity is good if you know how it works and has some experience, but was much harder for students to just get something up and running fast. The problem with game design is that it is a job where you need to know a lot about a lot, but as a student, you haven’t built technical skills yet, and making games can be impossibly hard for most to do alone. Many schools need to teach their game designers how to code and create art so that they can make a game on their own. Unless you are an indie, you probably won’t need to be an expert in everything. Unreal with its blueprints system especially was a much easier system to get students into.
At CG Spectrum, we have helped new game designers get into using Unreal much easier and faster by developing a framework that is a series of modules and assets for game designers to rapidly get started, along with a series of tutorials. So, while the base Unreal Engine is fairly easy to figure out, we have made it much easier by giving you all the art assets, animations, effects, sounds, blueprints, AI, and game systems you will need to build some popular game genres like shooters even easier than the default Unreal engine allows for.
So, if you are a game designer who has no experience making art or writing code, with a little blueprint and scripting practice, you can get some pretty awesome games up and running on your own much easier than you could on your own. If you have a strong technical background (math, scripting languages, and programming) it will definitely even be much easier for you, but even game designers who come from a more art and less technical background can successfully make games using UE4 and our Framework.
Remember, that when you are new to the industry, you will (probably) not have any shipped titles or experience for your resume to get you a job straight out of school. A student's portfolio will be their primary way of getting their first job. The game industry is all about what you can do and what you have done lately as the industry changes so fast. Just learning the Unreal Engine is not enough to get you a job as a game designer. Anyone can learn a tool. The job as a game designer is a million times harder than just using a tool, so while we teach you how to use Unreal, we recognize that it’s just a tool, and it will change again very soon. Students need strong portfolios and an understanding of concepts to be successful in getting their first job.
Challenges of Learning Game Design
Game design is hard because it is so incredibly broad and often requires deep knowledge in a million areas. You need to be a lifelong learner to be a successful designer as almost every project will be different and have some new things you need to learn. The industry and technology move very fast, but this usually isn’t hard to adapt to. What is hardest is trying to make a game fun which is very subjective and trying to do it within a team, with limited resources, and a million restrictions make it very hard. You have to be able to be flexible and constantly adapt to changes. Many people get overwhelmed by the sheer number of subjects you might (eventually) need to know as a game designer. Some of it is foundational, but every platform, every genre, every business model, and every game has new rules you need to figure out, explore and push the limits of. The industry is also hyper-competitive, and gamers have a lot of choices, so figuring out how to make your game stand out and make people want to buy it and keep playing it is definitely an art form.
Everyone is different, so the skills one person struggles with can be totally different for another. The most common area game design students struggle with is their technical knowledge. While you don’t need to be an engineer and program in C, you need to ideally have strong technical skills in scripting and understanding how the technical side of Unreal or your engine works and know how to find solutions to your problems.
The other skills many game design students and game designers often struggle with surprisingly are their soft skills. Game designers are constantly writing documents, making presentations, talking through ideas, brainstorming, presenting to executives, or communicating with their team, and many struggle with this. You usually must be a social butterfly to be a successful designer and an excellent communicator or it will lead to problems. Soft skills are harder to teach and are something some just will never be super comfortable with.
The most important thing, and most abstract however is to learn how to make a game fun as a game designer, so focusing on that and not getting distracted by learning to program, to make art, to write stories, to communicate and the other thousands of skills you will want to have someday is tough. Stay focused! I’m still learning daily after almost 30 years of this, and loving every minute of it.
If you are in high school or even in early college and thinking about becoming a game designer, I would encourage you to figure out what you like and are good at. Everyone is different, and you need to focus on what you are best at, while also trying to learn the things you hate. A really solid general foundation in a wide assortment of topics might sound cliche but will help you the most as a game designer. Take classes in math/science, programming (C & C++ if you can or even Java), scripting (Python, Lua, C# and Unrealscript), art (2D drawing, and 3D modeling if you can), writing, psychology, computer technologies and really all GE topics will be surprisingly handy for most designers.
For kids aspiring to build games, there are a number of ways to learn concepts without diving into Unreal or a full game engine if that is intimidating. You can start by building things in Minecraft, then move to Roblox, and then to the new Manticore Core Game Engine (it’s built on Unreal). Then look into game modding and try to build some levels or such for some existing games you like which support mods. There’s a number of existing games which also let you build stuff within them.
I’d also encourage you to install the Unreal Engine (or another game engine) and either enroll in a game design school or use YouTube to begin building games as soon as you can.
And don’t forget to play a lot of games and watch my live streams weekly!