With six kids, five of them teenagers, I've had to give a lot of advice about how to best pursue a life-sustaining career. My mom has a Phd, my dad has his Masters, and I have a Bachelors degree, so I'm certainly no stranger to higher education. The main point I must emphasize is that the education you need is directly dependent on the jobs you wish to pursue. Game Art and Game Design are unique fields in which you generally do not need credentials to get hired.
Skill, experience, attitude, and a strong visual portfolio are the real elements that will not only get you introductions and interviews, but they are the only things that will ultimately get you hired. Not a collection of letters behind your name. With that in mind, perhaps you can imagine that pursuing a degree for game art may not be a necessity.
If you don't care to read about the cost of a college education, feel free to jump ahead to where I explain how to create a free, college-level educational plan for yourself. For those who don't understand why you would want to do such a thing, read on.
My game art degree was initially marketed to me at the cost of $45,000. That only included the course fees though, so after textbooks, software, hardware and other required materials, that amount eventually ballooned: first to $48,000, then to $50,000. Five years later, after little luck finding paid work in an industry where -- even though it is new and progressive and most of the work can be accomplished anywhere a laptop can go -- flexibility is a rare commodity and people who are unwilling to neglect their families, friends, and hobbies outside of work, and those who suffer any disability or medical problems are substantially less desirable hires, my interest and late fees have accumulated to no less than $90,000 of debt. You read that right. I owe more on my college education now than my house is worth.
Why did I? While I learned many job-required skills in college that I have since seen taught in free and low-cost tutorials online (like those at Blender Guru), the main benefit I got from my game art degree program was a structure. I knew, like you surely do, that there were plenty of free resources online -- and there are even more now than there were then -- but I didn't know where to begin or how to proceed. I didn't know the secret ingredients of what an employer would expect me to know. Going to school primarily provided me with a well thought out path to follow, with some absolute necessities included.
I'll show you how below, just please, don't mortgage your future simply for want of a structure.
Unfortunately, if you look at the game art and design course offerings for more than one school, you'll see such a wide variety among them that it becomes clear: there is no one perfect path to getting the knowledge you need to land an art job in the games industry. On top of that, colleges are forced to make you spend money to meet requirements that are unrelated to your job: core classes such as English, Government, Math and History. Yes, these core requirements help you become a more well-rounded individual, and in some cases they can be tailored by the student to be more relevant to your career aspirations. I took art history courses, argued against certain game regulations in Government, and wrote about game development in English whenever I could -- which was rare -- for example. But those lessons are not exclusively attainable through a college education.
Get on Google right now, and start searching. Look for terms like "game art degree," and "game design degree." You'll find tens, possibly hundreds of educational institutions. Pick a few, preferably schools you're familiar with, because those are the same schools your future employer will be familiar with too.
While visiting these schools' websites, explore what actual courses the top schools in your industry have to offer. Make note of the degree program names, and narrow your list to the top two or three schools whose programs appeal to you the most. My degree was a Bachelor of Science in Game Art and Design. Bachelors of Fine Arts tend to be more respected by employers in my experience, but what truly counts is the content.
Game art, game design, 3d modeling, animation, pick your poison. The nice thing about developing your own learning plan is that you're not obligated to continue if you realize midstream that your skill lies in another area. Looking back, I feel that studying art and design together did both subjects a bit of disservice, but I didn't know that I would excel at art more than design until I got some practice. Consider studying either subject separately, based on your ultimate goals.
When you've narrowed your search to one or two great programs, use your investigative skills and hunt down the associated course listings. Look for terms like course catalogue, curriculum, syllabus, degree requirements, and required courses. Most schools publish a catalogue online, where you can browse an outline of required areas of study, as well as a short description of each course. You may find separate catalogs for online and on-campus degree programs.
As an example, you can check out the Game Art degree program at Full Sail: FSUnivCampusCatalog.pdf (I'm not being paid to mention them, by the way, I just recognize the name from ads in Game Informer magazines). Starting on page 176 of this catalog, you'll find their game art program "sales pitch." A few pages down, you can find brief course descriptions and a sample schedule. This is where you start.
Using the course catalogues of your preferred schools as reference, plot out your own, individualized learning plan. Literally write down a list of the specific skills you want to learn, in the order you want to learn them. When you get confused, copy -- word for word -- the titles of courses and summaries of the concepts covered in them. Color Theory. Level Design. Perspective. Life Drawing. Write it all down. Save a screenshot if you prefer. You'll see some terms in these course descriptions that you don't understand, yet. That's your cue to dig further.
Starting with the first, most basic course, start looking up tutorials and then follow them. It's as simple as that! Read comments before you devote a lot of time to one tutorial or another, so you can skip over the duds. Practice the concepts you learn on your own, and see if you can reproduce the instructor's work. Jot down any technical terms you don't understand as you go, and make it a separate project to hunt down their definitions. Refer back to your outline from time to time, checking off your progress, and making sure that you've investigated the details and clarified any confusing terms for yourself.
Another useful component of a formal college education is getting feedback on your work. Learning how to receive and integrate constructive criticism of your art is an invaluable tool, and a necessary component to improving. Do not approach any particular subject with the attitude that you already know what you need to know, and do not maintain the attitude that you should not need to change. All good artists must evolve.
That said, feedback is another component of a college education that you can obtain for yourself for free. All that's required is a bit of humility and exploration. Sign up and participate in online communities where artists are allowed to submit work for critique, like DeviantArt, CGTalk and Polycount. Show your works in progress in forums where such posts are welcomed, and evaluate the feedback you receive with an open mind. Complete strangers will give you a mixed bag of critiques, and its up to you to sort out the useful from the rude. That's true, even of paid professional instructors. Don't take any one person's word as a rule, take self-appointed authorities with a grain of salt, and don't reject someone's criticism just because it stings. You can do it!
Be aware as you research your plan, many schools' landing pages are just a form for requesting information with few links. They don't want to give you their secrets for free. They want you to give them your contact information so that they can have a "student advisor" (salesman) contact you directly and encourage you to attend, and most importantly, pay. For most of us, that requires taking out massive student loans at exorbitant interest rates before we're even sure what we want to do, and then later incurring hidden fees for textbooks, software, hardware, and materials that are required whether you'll use them or not. Be careful. Recently the number of for-profit schools has skyrocketed, and many of them have earned unsavory reputations.
Not only did my school (rightfully) require the latest software (every year's new version of the full Adobe suite, at a time before subscriptions became available, and every year's new version of 3DS Max or Maya, both at 2k plus, even for student versions which you are barred from making a profit with), but I also needed hardware that was adequate to run it all. Signature student loans to the rescue! Textbooks are also a racket. Most textbooks cost upwards of $100 new, and at my school the latest version was always required, so I couldn't get discounts on used books or recoup costs through resale. My school had their own proprietary textbooks too, and their bookstore was able to bill directly to my student loan. So convenient!
My required materials package included a giant, 3' x 5' wheeled, zippered, school logo-emblazoned portfolio case, which was indeed big enough for the giant drawing tablets that were also required, but which was too unwieldy for me to ever take out of the house, and too lumpy for convenient storage. Also never used: a giant newspaper tablet; a giant tracing paper tablet; a fancy metal compass that broke (with no receipt to return it); a bottle of rubber cement; a variety of plastic swirly stencils; and a big accordion-folding, multi-level tool box with permanent dividers (that prevent the slots from holding any of the odd shaped tools) filled with art pens that were never, ever used in any of my classes. Today that toolbox is mostly empty, save for a can of spray fixative, the two dozen varieties of graphite pencils and gum erasers which I had to buy separately and actually did use in class, and a dusting brush that I also had to discover a need for and purchase myself.
I've also collaborated in teams outside of school, and believe me, it was infinitely better. In school there was cliquish behavior: people snubbing less desirable team mates, preventing them from competing at the same level. That may be reflective of the industry or not, but the little microcosm of school teams and clubs was nothing like the work-world at all. In both volunteer and professional projects, all the participants are sincerely invested, and that investment is reflected in the quality of their work and their cooperative attitude. It was just as frustrating to work on group projects in student game development as it was to do a group project in English class or Government. Those who were enthusiastic carried the team, and suffered the consequences of the least motivated among them.
Again, team experience is not something you can't obtain outside of school. Participate in game jams, whether in person or online. Search for meet-ups. Join your local IGDA chapter. Find start-ups and indie projects that need volunteers, and are willing to accept students.
One thing I absolutely did not get out of my college program was expert guidance on creating my portfolio. That may be a reflection on the quality of the school I chose, but this is one area where, no matter how you receive your education, you must do a lot of research on your own. Once you've narrowed down the particular niche of the industry you want to work in (there are tons! Check out job listings at game companies to discover those), and once you've narrowed your search down to the actual jobs at actual companies you would like to work for, check out the portfolios of professionals that already hold those jobs. Then emulate them.
When you find a portfolio that speaks to you, ask yourself why. Don't settle on the answer, "because its good." What about it is good? Is the artwork itself good? What parts did the artist actually create? The light? The environment? The textures? How much of the raw art is appealing to you, and how much is smoke and mirrors? It is possible to render a single, low poly object in a dazzling light to make it look like the best game asset in the world, and it's equally impressive if you can render actual in-game footage that looks just as good. Is the presentation good? Is the portfolio easy to navigate? Is the demo reel worth sitting through? Is the presentation pared down to the artist/designer's very best work? Can you recreate the layout in a way that showcases your own work just as well? The same advice applies whether you ultimately wish to freelance or work as an employee.
Now, as ever, the rest is up to you. A final cluster of benefits of attending college that I will mention are commitment, deadlines, and their connection to accountability. Its not a pleasant reality, but deadlines are an excellent motivator. People tend to be more accountable when they know someone is counting on them. Knowing that you've made a commitment (and even a financial investment) does a world of good too, when you hit a rough patch and have to dig deep for a reason to continue going. It's definitely possible to honor a commitment that you've made only to yourself, but you have to be sincere in that commitment to succeed. Nobody's going to give you a stern look and a lecture, and nobody's going to kick you out of the internet, if you simply fail to meet your own goals.
Perhaps though, it is time to liberate yourself from old ways of thinking. It's not healthy to resist thinking and acting for yourself, or to dodge responsibility for your own life choices. Who really wants to continue a dependent parent-child relationship with adult teachers and later, adult employers anyway? Presumably if you're reading this, you're independent, and should act like it. Now is as good a time as any to take the reigns and make a commitment to your own well being.
I hope you've gotten the impression by now that few of the benefits of college are really worth fifty thousand dollars. Formal education does give you access to some excellent teachers and conducive learning conditions, but it doesn't keep some unattainable, magical power hidden behind its expensive entry doors. There are excellent teachers offering their wares for free on the internet too. The fact remains that if you aspire to do a job or pursue a career for which college credentials are required, then some of this will not apply you, but in the game art and design fields, skill, experience, and portfolio are king.