Ubi Soft, a very large video game company from the People’s Republic of French, is opening a studio in Ontario. A year before i heard the announcement, i attended an interactiveontario event called GameON: Finance, which focuses on the money stuff in the video game industry. The conference was attended by reps from the various Ontario colleges that ran, or planned to run, video game curriculum. Numerous times during the conference, i heard the same ego stroke: Ontario has such wonderful colleges and such an amazing output of students ready to work in the industry.
Hearing this made me feel icky – kinda like when you play with your belly button too much. My own personal experience, in the Ontario college system as a student, around the Ontario college system as an employer, and through the Ontario college system as an industry advisor, is that the system is not good. A little bird told me that as they were planning to come to Ontario, Ubi Soft conducted a study to determine the quality of Ontario education as it pertains to the video game industry. Their findings? Also not good. It’s nice to be vindicated, if only through hearsay.
Briefly, these are my Monet-like impressions from my various flirtations with Ontario academia:
As a Student
i took a compressed, shotgun course in 3D art and animation in a windowless strip mall in North York, a Toronto suburb. Entrance requirements were a laugh (something about drawing that turtle or the pirate from the As-Seen-on-TV cartooning course.) Plagiarism was rampant, and the instructors were too careless/clueless to mete out the appropriate punishment. The school had a co-op placement program, but only enough connections to place three students – the rest of us were on our own. One girl took a placement at her uncle’s trucking company. i took my placement at an elementary school.
A week after my placement ended, i returned to the campus to use the editing equipment to cut my demo reel so that i could apply for work. i had plane tickets to Florida to attend the SIGGraph convention the following week; rumour had it there was a 3D animation job fair at the show. Halfway through my edit, the school kicked me out of the editing room because i was no longer a student. i remember tearfully begging the campus president to let me finish the reel, which she begrudgingly allowed.
That marked the last time i shed a tear for THAT place.
As an Employer
While i was working at a broadcaster as a video game developer (more through pure luck than ability, in the early days), it became apparent from around 2003 onward that Flash developers were in high demand. i watched as the managers tried,and failed, to find well-qualified vector artists and Actionscript programmers to fill full-time positions in the Interactive department. Job searches would go on for months, and would incorporate job sites like Monster, as well as headhunters large and small.
When i started my own company, Untold Entertainment, many years later, the situation hadn’t changed. The question was raised: why aren’t Ontario colleges pumping out any grads who are able to use Flash in a production environment?
As an Advisor
i happily accepted various invitations to sit on the advisory panels for colleges who were either currently running, or thinking about running, video game-related programs. There is a government mandate stating that colleges and Universities must receive the blessings and buy-in of a certain number of industry representatives before they can create, or continue, a program. i have advised Sherry & Dan’s College, Purim College, Blunder College and the Hervé Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, some more intimately and actively than others.
“Intimate and Active 4”, my new DVD, is coming out this fall
Most of these colleges are running art-centric courses where the students learn to use 2D and 3D software to create game assets. Some schools teach level design. Many use Unreal Engine. Most schools have, as the final program output, an Unreal Engine walk-through of a first-person shooter level. All of these levels look exactly the same. They all take place in a dank dungeon, and the character always holds an implausible gun.
Is it just me, or is anyone else getting unbelievably tired of this gritty industrial aesthetic? (level by Simon Halliday)
If Flash is on any curriculum in this province, you’ll find it in one of these art-centric programs. Flash is being taught in one or two courses to primarily console- and first-person shooter-obsessed high school grads who aren’t interested in programming, and who just want to model robo-babes with huge bazookas in 3D Studio MAX. The trouble is that there is a marked scarcity of robo-babe-modelling jobs in this province, or in any other. By my count, Ontario is pumping out a few hundred grads from these programs every four months.
Artists and Code Seldom Mix
Artists don’t take kindly to learning code. People who want to code go into Computer Science programs and take programming courses. And since Flash is largely derided in “real” programming circles as being a baby program, or not a “serious” programming pursuit, by and large it’s not being taught to programmers. It’s taught to artists in one or two courses, and they could care less about it. They mostly just want to survive the Flash course with a passing mark and move on to the fun visual stuff.
“Math,” quoth Barbie, “is hard.”
My recommendation to Ontario colleges is to teach more Flash – to seriously teach it, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought or relegating it an anomalous blip in the program. Granted as a veteran Flash developer, i’m biased, but my rationale is sound:
- If you teach kids to be a cog in a wheel, there need to be enough wheels to support that. Since there simply aren’t enough wheels – console studios – to go around in Ontario (or in the entire country for that matter), the fundamental fabric of these college programs is flawed.
- Upon leaving school, wheel cogs require a large-ish organization of specially-skilled practitioners in order to function. A 3D modeler can’t do much with his 3D models unless there’s a group of skilled C++ or C# programmers and lighters and riggers and texture artists and producers and project managers to utilize his work.
- People trained properly in a high-level program like Flash, which combines artwork, animation, sound and code, can operate and even thrive as a 1- or 2-man operation. They can complete projects, take contracts, and earn money.
- Currently, there is a high demand for Flash developers. This demand has only increased with the popularity of social games on Facebook, which are most often built in Flash. The demand for Flash developers has seldom cooled in the ten years i’ve been making games in this industry. If Ontario colleges had tapped into that vein, they would have been pumping out useful graduates for a decade or more by now.
- Flash is food. That’s the message i repeat time and again to Ontario colleges. But they don’t listen.
Know Your Place
i sat on a Purim College advisory panel discussion, laying out this case for them. i pleaded with them to increase the prevalence of Flash in their program, and even suggested it become a separate stream (so that they could compare the vocational viability of 3D grads vs. Flash/rich media grads). The response from Purim, and other colleges, was that since Flash accounts for such a small segment of the video game industry, their Flash offering would likewise be proportionately small.
But here’s the deal, Ontario: you do not represent the whole of the video game industry. Like Flash and the 2D web game/rich media scene, you too represent a small portion of the industry. We do not have the investor culture of Silicon Valley, so it’s quite difficult to raise the capital required to build huge-budget console games here. It’s not nearly as difficult to turn Ontario into the go-to province for Flash-based social gaming. We could truly train people in programs like Flash and pump out focused, skilled developers. We could turn the ship around in a matter of a few years, and have a much higher success rate for our grads. Will Flash still be viable in a few years? i think so. And if not Flash, other high-level software will be – software that combines art, animation, sound and code. Programs like Scratch, GameMaker, and Unity3D might fit the bill.
Teaching college students to be a cog in a wheel that doesn’t exist in your province is begging poor outcomes for Ontario: under/unemployment, brain drain, and bubble-bursting due to market saturation. How much longer will Ontario colleges be able to lure people to video game programs as the province fills up with unemployed would-be 3D game artists?
Ontario’s colleges are teaching students how to operate the engines in the lower deck of a large commercial fishing boat that brings in net-fulls of tuna with each million-dollar catch. Instead. they should be giving students a fishing rod. Flash is that fishing rod.
Prof Like Me
In the next chapter of this saga, i go undercover as a college instructor to find out what’s wrong with the Ontario college system from the inside. Get excited: i’ll probably be wearing a fake moustache.