Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 07, 2011
 
What college degree for MMORPG design?

If you are the kind of person who reads a linked article up to the footnotes, you might have noticed the following phrase at the bottom of the MMO Champion article linked to in my previous post: "Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street is the lead systems designer for World of Warcraft. The last time he used “Fig. 5” in an article, it related fish predation to estuarine hydrocarbon contamination." Google is your friend, so it appears the remark is related to this scientific paper, in which Greg Street is named in the acknowledgments as student having contributed. So it appears Ghostcrawler studied marine biology, and got a Ph.D. in that. Now having a science degree myself I'd say that any kind of scientific studies should enable you to learn how the scientific method works and apply it to game design. Nevertheless marine biology isn't necessarily the first science that comes to mind when you think of what somebody could have studied to prepare for game design.

At which point I couldn't help but wonder what college degree would be most appropriate for a career in MMORPG design. And I'm not talking about programming skills here, but rather about getting the incentives of a game right, so players are having fun without causing too many problems for other players.

One obvious candidate would be psychology. I'm reading the Psychology of Video Games Blog, but unfortunately the posts there are few and far between these days. Nevertheless I do think that psychology has a lot to say about how people behave in virtual worlds. A virtual world is a much simpler place as the real world. So if you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs for players in a virtual world, you'll notice that the lower half of the pyramid doesn't apply; there is no need for breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. And the need for safety is much diminished if even death is a just a minor temporary setback. Thus a virtual world makes for an ideal environment to study the upper levels of this hierarchy of needs, that is belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

But I do think there are other strong contenders. Behavioral economics would be a great science to explain the reaction of players to incentives. And sociology or even anthropology would provide many of the answers of how players interact in virtual communities and tribes (aka guilds). And of course there are actual colleges, usually art schools, which teach game design. I'm not quite sure how useful these degrees are, or how widely accepted.

So, if you were to hire a MMORPG designer, and you had several candidates with different backgrounds, but identical intelligence and "soft skills", what kind of degree would you be looking for?

Comments:
I wouldn't be looking for academic qualifications in the first place. I'd be looking for portfolios. Anything in the creative arts would be of interest. Completed film projects, published fiction, gallery exhibitions, stage designs. Even performance work would be of interest.

Applicants who offered only academic qualifications wouldn't even pass the paper sift stage.

And wouldn't you think someone with a PhD in Marine Biology would be able to find a better use for it than designing video games? I thought the world was supposed to be running out of fish. Get onto that, Ghostcrawler!
 
One of the "-ologies" as they'd leave you plenty of time to play MMO games...
 
If you're talking specifically degrees I think it's fairly easy from a basic level; Bachelor's in Comp Sci paired with a minor or a second major in some sort of liberal art, such as graphics design or English.
 
The genre is large enough to permit theses across several fields, including the obvious ones you mentioned like economics and psychology but don't forget things like linguistics, anthropology, marketing, sociology, business, art design, architecture, and of course history or astro-physics, depending on the genre.
 
Tobold I think you have gotten the question backwards. Instead of asking what kinf og "ologist" would be best at deigning mmorpgs games ask which kind of video game you would get from each kind of academic:

Ok we have to accept that that an Marine Biologist would design World of Warcraft I think we can allow our selves a little bit of creative license after that:

A student of literature would clearly come up with: Lord of the Rings Online

While a media studies student would come up with DC Universe online.

A mechanical engineer clearly designed Minecraft

Rumour has it that an economist designed EVE online but I can reveal that it was actually a criminologist.

A student of sexual behavior designed Second Life

and perhaps most appropriately of all Anarchy Online (at least in its initial release version) was clearly designed by an Anarchist who rejected all forms of organisation and planning.
 
I'd disagree with Bhagpuss - creative endeavors like film projects or fiction is the wrong end to start in for game design.

You got writers for the story, you got artists for the vision, but that's not Ghostcrawler's area. You'd need both an understanding of human beings (so psychology, anthropology) and an understanding of maths, specifically statistics, and also of complex systems. Some kind of science degree, but I'm not sure what.

Preferably you'd want someone with a background in one of those two areas but some knowledge of the other.
 
I'm trying to figure out how having a PHd in marine biology makes you less qualified than no education or experience. Frankly, knowing what Ghostcrawler studied is a rather large anomaly in the any industry - he has the job, and has kept it for many years. That's as much as you would know for any other position, company, industry, or even the other WoW designers.

Someone is welcome to prove me wrong by naming one other WoW designer and what their degree is in - without Googling, like many of us already knew GC was a marine biologist.

Without knowing what everyone else's background is, picking on his background is meaningless. I don't even think it has merits knowing the backgrounds of designers and producers at my own company, and I bet that's a lot more information than most of these posts have.

Making it a requirement that they be computer/technically related also seems like a terrible mistake. Especially in a company with the size, fame, and glory of Blizzard, on a giant project like WoW, you're going to be dripping with the best and the brightest software engineers available. To add something to the team, you should likely be different.
 
I'm trying to figure out how having a PHd in marine biology makes you less qualified than no education or experience.

Where did anybody claim that?
 
seems to me MMOs could do with some behavioural psychologists. They might have some idea of the implications of features.
 
Sorry, that was supposed to be 'unknown', and I didn't catch it in my proof reading.

I also forgot to answer your question. I don't think there is a best background, much less best degree, for designers. I generally agree with the phsycologist/sociologist/applied economics, but each of those are pretty broad in themselves let alone groupped together.
 
Having been in the video game industry for 5 or 6 years I know a lot of designers. Some are good, many are bad. Those that are bad are bad because they believe a knowledge and love of video games will make them a good designer. Nobody believes that loving video games makes a good video game programmer. That's because programming is less art than science: you can run your program and it either works or doesn't. Game designs are more subjective, and so fall harder on the art side of the equation. And as with any art, there are a million garage-sale oil paintings for every virtuoso piece in a museum. You fail a lot while getting good.

Game design is a learned skill and you learn by failing. Unfortunately for most game designers, getting a game to a point where it can be judged worthy or not is a multimillion dollar effort. That is an expensive course of study.

This is why I believe it is vital for any aspiring game designer to study computer science, and learn how to program their own games. Go look at TIGSource and you will see a hundred examples of great games designed by people who had a good idea and coded them up themselves. If you can design and code your own games, your mistakes are cheaper, you learn faster, and you can build a portfolio from your successes.

Last thought: I work in Hollywood. For every ten-thousand two-bit screenwriters hacking away at Starbucks on their Macbooks, there is one finished movie in a theater. That's because writers can't film stuff; they write. Then you have the guys who went to film school and know how to run a camera. When Christopher Nolan has a cool idea for a movie he MAKES A MOVIE, because he can wield both a typewriter and a camera.

Computer science is film school for game designers. Learn how to make your ideas happen, then try them out.
 
@Lighstagazi

Off the top of my head Mike Morhaime has schooling as a lawyer.
 
"So, if you were to hire a MMORPG designer, and you had several candidates with different backgrounds, but identical intelligence and "soft skills", what kind of degree would you be looking for?"

"Play is the highest form of research" according to Albert Einstein.

So the main aspect I woud be investigating is their experience as gamers (what make them tick, how they observe other gamers, what problem they saw, what solutions they propose and how to evaluate its success or failure) and previous experience in the industry if any. I wouldn't really look at their degrees, as video games can't really be understood without experimenting them (a little like sex?). The video games industry is kind of the university in the same time, that's were the labs are, developers are the one who can tinker with the variables on purpose.

I found this paper which relate to my experience as a gamer:

"This led Steinkuehler to a fascinating and provocative conclusion: Videogames are becoming the new hotbed of scientific thinking for kids today.
This makes sense if you think about it for a second. After all, what is science? It's a technique for uncovering the hidden rules that govern the world. And videogames are simulated worlds that kids are constantly trying to master. Lineage and World of Warcraft aren't "real" world, of course, but they are consistent -- the behavior of the environment and the creatures in it are governed by hidden and generally unchanging rules, encoded by the game designers. In the process of learning a game, gamers try to deduce those rules."
Steinkuehler reports in a research paper -- "Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds" (.pdf)
http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/commentary/games/2008/09/gamesfrontiers_0908

That said WoW in many areas punishes personal experimentation and learning (cost/trip to trainer to tinker with your talent tree, regents to change glyphs, repair cost for raid wipes, ...) which strongly promotes cookies cutters (EJ builds, YouTube strats...) and doesn't lead to learning much unfortunately.

Also, for an important part, WoW isn't really a game but more a tedious work "badly" gamified (rare interesting decisions to make, gives extrinsic rewards versus intrinsic, Skinner boxe design). It surprises me how many similarities I find with the current debate on the "bad" gamification of the real world:
http://gamification-research.org/2011/05/richard-bartle-on-gamification-too-much-of-a-good-thing/
 
Hmmm, I can think of several disciplines that would make for decent candidates:

An economics graduate, as already suggested, should understand incentives and not be surprised that if you give people uber gear for being in PvP, win or lose, then you get a lot of folks AFK in PvP zones.

A historian, because those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, and besides you might get some better worldbuilding than generic Disney fantasy world #265,743.

An engineer - that is, someone with a proper BEng/MEng degree that includes practical work experience would be ideal (ueah, that's my education). Engineers learn how to build redundancy and fault tolerance into systems, they understand when that's good/close enough for practical purposes, and they understand how complex systems get and howe tinkering can screw them up. It's no surprise that Ghostcrawler isn't an engineer.
 
@grinderrobot

I understand what you mean from the point of view of the designer applying for a job. And it's certainly a lot more than just "the love of games". Certainly they will have to be computer literate, and not afraid of Excel. The ability to prototype or create your own full indie games would help to acquire those skills. Tobolds question was framed with already having (or not) those "soft skills" though.

But when making an MMO, which are traditionally made in relatively large teams, I wouldn't value a one-man-team nearly as highly. We're allowed to specialize in this scenario, and the applicants are all equally qualified technically. I'd want someone with life experience outside of programming, as I'm not expecting any dearth of that viewpoint experience in the rest of the team.
 
@Valkrysa

That might fit the description I asked for literally, though I'm not sure I really buy the president of the company as a game designer - did you know this when his role was still designer instead of management?

I'm also not able to verify that he has any schooling, or that he's a designer. All I can find is that he had a fraternity, suggesting post secondary of some sort, and that he finished highschool. Compare this to Greg Street who's wikipedia page declares exactly where and what he went to school for.

Heck, even though one site stated that he "still maintains a design presence in all of Blizzard's titles," I'm not able to find anything where he's actually credited as a designer. StarCraft BW for example labels him as both a producer and a programmer, but no designer credit.

He has producer credits on older titles, and maybe they didn't differentiate back then. And he does have a "level design" credit for Starcraft 64, though I'm not really sure that fits the discussion (for both experience and what it is). And to be certain, I double checked Greg Street, who is credited as a Game Designer on WotLK, for example.

Credits checked against http://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,1023/. I checked every title in his list, and when asked for platform I defaulted to Windows/DOS/SNES, in that order. I did not check competing versions of credits for the same title, though I did check different versions on the same platform. Eg: WC3:ROC and WC3:ROC CE were both checked.

I hope my effort shows my good faith that I am trying to prove you right. I genuinely don't think he cuts it.
 
As a person who hires PhDs for technical endeavors I would say that a PhD in Marine Biology would be attractive for game design.

In consumer oriented technology you want a smart person who can think outside the box and bring a unique perspective to traditional problems.

A marine biologist who knows how to design in large software projects fits the bill in my experience.

Other PhD's/MDs degrees I would look for technical software design:

Meteorology
Particle Physics (String Theorist is best)
Physical Chemistry
Microbiology
Genetics
Medicine (someone who quits after 3 year med and did not do internship)
Architecture
Operations Research
Economics (especially in Econometrics)
Electrical/Computer Engineer (ding ding great software designers... and can fix your PC during meetings!)

and after GC Marine Biology (although I have never hired one)

but to tweak a few noses I do have some PhD's I never hire:
Straight Biology (these are MD wanna be's and love to talk not do)
Business (love to talk not do)
Psychology (er no)
Liberal Arts (love to talk and bring drama)
Finance (ya kidding right...)
Physics (strange I know but had zero success on them doing computer stuff)
Computer Science (if you have a PhD it's because you could not get a steady job with BS/MS)
Any other type of Engineer besides CE/EE (mostly car industry or other sunset industry rejects)

the list goes on but if you follow a theme the PhD's I hire are ones who have probably used computers to solve problems in their field of study.

Example: Meteorology - plenty of work doing atmospheric modeling using computers, Cool background to bring into a software team.
 
Ancient history, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, tribes etc. Or maybe mythology.
 
A lot of people underestimate degrees unrelated to game design. What happens if you hire a bunch of people who are skilled in what you THINK they need, like behavioral psychology, computer science, and basic programming? You end up with a rather bland game that caters to the primitive parts of our minds.

If you're going to hire a bunch of people to make a game, it helps if they spent a lot of time on something that ISN'T a game, otherwise you risk ending up with a regurgitation from last year.

So on one hand you could make an assassin game that's a clone of any of the ones out now, like the thief or MGS series. But what if you hire a designer who spent four years studying bats? Why, now your game has something others don't: echolocation as a method of finding your way around dark rooms, instead of relying on pure sight. (To be fair, MGS has something similar already.)

Degrees also serve another purpose: proving that a person can complete a long-term task that requires lots of dedication. And that skill isn't restricted to "useful" degrees. Even someone who spent four years studying efficient design of coolers has it.
 
Geologists, for their ability to infer huge amounts of knowledge from only the smallest amount of direct evidence.
Maybe they could discover what the silent majority actually want.
 
Intriguing post, fascinating answers!

Sorry I can't contribute much myself; after having read the thread, I'd go:
- strong background in applied computer science (players may not see it, but the limitations of what's realistically feasible are important)
- behavioral psychology.
 
I'd try to hire a "typical casual gamer" with the rare ability to reflect on himself ...
 
While not for MMOs any more than any other type of RPG, I've encountered a lot of theater majors in the game development field. Personally, as a polyglot and individual who grew up with parents in the publishing industry, I've become a Comparative Literature major and I find that deconstructing stories to their base forms and getting at the heart of narratives has interesting applications in the world of game WRITING and story design, but maybe not so much for things like class, mechanics or encounter design.
 
This College! posting, completely usefull...
 
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