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Lessons from a Full Sail Game Design Failure

[Disclaimer: Keep in mind, what I am about to divulge is my experience, my biased viewpoint, and mine alone. You may glean whatever amount of information you like from this article and then dispose of the rest. I do not take full responsibility for the article's accuracy. This is, in part, because Full Sail updates their degree programs to keep pace with the ever-changing entertainment industry. I will not include every class I took either. It is too tedious to cover and too boring to read.

If you see any errors of improper English, punctuation, and/or misspelling, please feel free to email me. I also welcome questions about this article and my experiences at Full Sail.

Bottom Line: My effort and aim, however biased, is to provide a balanced opinion, so that others considering the school can see the pros and cons of attending Full Sail more clearly. With that said, let's move on.]

The Goal, The Dream

$40,000. What would you buy with that amount of money? A new car? Put a deposit on a home? Aquire an arcade? Use it to make a few friends? Well, for me, I decided that I wanted to borrow this amount for an education in game development, my childhood dream.

Over several years I grew weary of working jobs that had little to no creative input, let alone a dead end career path. So my search began. This was during 2000, when schools specializing in game design and/or development were scarce. (Now they are popping up all over the place like a teen with pimples.) The only game development school I heard of, at that time, was the Nintendo-endorsed, Digipen; and they were on the other side of the US.

Nonetheless, I sent in the Digipen application. And sure enough, I was rejected (rightfully so, I may add). This was largely due to my 1.77 grade point average in high school. And particularly so, with my passable but poor math grades.

You see, during the last two years of high school, I didn't care. I only did enough to get by. In fact, my senior year could have been considered my "snoozing year" due to all the study halls I opted to take. Let this be a strong forewarning to all college incumbents. Do well in high school! Good grades and appropriately chosen classes will set you up for career success later on.

"Now what am I suppose to do?", I thought. So I emailed the school back. Digipen then referred me to another learning institution for which I may apply. "Full...what?", I thought as I clicked on the hyperlink. Full Sail Real World Education. Clicking my way through the flashy Flash website, I found a phone number, and opted to call them for information.

About 8 months later, and many questions answered from their congenial administration, I visited the school in Winter Park, Florida. The presentation they put on knocked my socks off! The school was unconventional, and VERY "cool"! I met some wonderfully talented individuals (not to mention some very pretty women). Of the people I met, two in particular actually worked in the gaming industry at one time. Even my usually critically reserved friend was enthused and unexpectantly gave a resounding two thumbs-up. "This is the school!" I exclaimed to myself, especially since all I needed was a high school diploma or GED (and, of course, $tudent loan$) to be accepted.

For several years, I longed for a creative educational environment outside the staunch traditionalistic, behind-the-technology-curb colleges. An environment that allowed me to be around other like-minded individuals, who wanted to make video games for a living. Little did I fully realize, at the time, Full Sail provided all of this, but I was also about to be tested like never before.

Testing One's Mettle

Full Sail, you see, runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Classes can be at anytime, on any given day. Being that this is a 15-month, Game Design and Development Associate's Degree course, they cram as much into it as they can. For example, you are given one month to learn post-algebra 2 subjects such as trigonometry, linear algebra, and geometry. And the next month you dive right into thirty days of physics using that math learned from the previous month. From the ground up, they teach you most of the C++ language and its object-oriented facilities in a 2-month span. Thereafter, you are to learn the Win32 environment and MFC in one month. If you haven't already guessed from these few examples, yes, it is intense.

My Experience

After 3-4 months of general, very fun-filled, and very easy classes based on topics such as audio, animation, video games, computers, and the internet, our class then split up into our degree specific programs. The audio students go learn audio. The animation students go learn animation, etc. You get the point.

This is where heat was on. Physics and Math was my first challenging degree specific class out of "mini-education", and my first wake up call.

Simply put, I failed.

Why? I didn't touch any algebra, let alone any advanced math for several years after graduating high school. And what you do not use, you lose. I even had forgotten, embarrassingly enough, some of the basics of algebra 1 and algebra 2. So as they were pouring on the post algebra 2 topics, I was scrambling to catch up.

In addition, I had never before taken physics. My mathematical foundation of understanding was weak. Since physics was based on the post algebra 2 math in the previous month, I hardly understood any physics concepts.

Nonetheless, I asked many questions, did my work, attended extra one-on-one lab sessions, and passed the second time through.

[Note: Full Sail, fortunately, allows you to retake any class the second time for free just as long as you graduate within the maximum time frame of the degree program. (Which is about 22.5 months max.) Point being, though this is helpful, I strongly discourage anyone from abusing this policy. More time spent here equals more money to be paid off later. Plus, you are left to make new friends as most of your old class moves on without you.]

The next class was C++. I failed twice.

Why? In high school, I took up BASIC programming out of curiosity and eventually my loving interest grew to disinterest. I never touched any programming language after that. Two months to learn C++ was a bit too speedy for me.

The C++ instructor and his lab assistants were very helpful though, exhorting me when my code was not up to snuff, and congratulating me when I finally passed.

The class that I broke myself against was Fundamentals of Windows Programming. Learning to adapt to the Win32 environment, using the Graphics Device Interface, and learning how to use Microsoft Foundations Classes in one month was a bit too thick of a cold milkshake for my mind to swallow without having a brain freeze.

While failing FWP, I realized it was time for me to count my losses, take my gains, and move on to a college that goes at a slower pace. Colleges offer a more thorough examination of computer science subjects. And that fits my perfectionistic learning style hand in glove. Figuring that I only had 1 to 2 months of "failing time" left before being kicked out of the degree program, and my apartment lease was up soon, it was a good time as any to pack up and move back home. If I was having this much of a struggle midway through the degree course, I was not likely to make it through. Upon graduation, at best, I would be just a junior "hack" programmer, not a professional ready to take on a competitive job market.

Lessons Learned and Summary

A little over a year since starting Full Sail, I find myself a smidge older, a tad wiser, and moderately more well-informed. Overall, I have found that my stay at Full Sail was worthwhile.

Though if I had the opportunity to do it again, I would have gone to college first, graduate with a bachelor's degree, then and only then specialize in game development. It would have lessened the otherwise STEEP learning curve. I put the cart before the horse, as the tried and true cliche' goes.

Summing up, I hope this article has helped you to aquire a few insightful distinctions in your educational pursuits. Full Sail is not for everyone. In fact, about half of the students or more who go through Game Design and Development drop out. Of the success stories, most have had previous programming and advanced mathematical experience either on their own or through college.

Speaking of college, I'll be paying off this $40,000 debt for a few years before I even attend another educational institution. Consider the cost vs. the likelihood in attaining the degree. And consider it well.

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