On My Time at Digipen
Jimmy here, I had a thought to talk about Digipen Institute of Technology, my alma mater, because I'm feeling nostalgic.
For those who don't know, Digipen Institute of Technology is a school that offers degrees in Art, Music, Design, Computer Science, and Engineering; largely focused on games, but many students have gone on to other industries. Digipen students are considered to be highly skilled and battle-proven for whatever job they take on, and are respected within the game industry in particular. That's not to toot my own horn, the numbers from their website confirm that, I don't know any fellow graduates that aren't enjoying some modicum of career success.
My time at Digipen was marked with incredible highs, with periods of depressing lows, and I thought that, perhaps, people might be interested in what my experience was like on the inside. Perhaps you, dear reader, are a prospective student, or a parent, or just a bored person with time to kill. I hope to answer any lingering questions you may have about the school that aren't clear from their website.
The short version: I enjoyed my time at Digipen, I am thankful for the opportunities that the school provided me, while also giving me a world-class education. From my last visit, Digipen has fixed many of the complaints I had with them upon graduating, showing me that they care for their student body.
The longer version: From here on out, this will be largely focused on the Computer Science program, because that's the track I went on. The reason I chose this path was that I figured that I could cover game design as a soft skill while I learned how to code like a professional, there was no other reason for this choice.
Having been a dedicated student during my time in high school, I had no shortage of options of where to go to college. My mother and I would argue constantly on where my future was going, because I wanted to make video games, having been inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time since age 8, but she wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer. My mother also suggested that I wrestle for the Army through West Point, but that was a non-option for me, I had no interest in the Army.
Thing was, I had known since I saw an ad in Nintendo Power, and the respect that the school garnered on gamedev.net forums, that I would go to Digipen. My mother wasn't the only one I had to argue with, there were also my teachers, my friends, and my wrestling coach, who was like a second father to me.
Ever had the feeling of being abandoned by someone you've known for close to a decade? That's what happened with my wrestling coach after I announced I would be chasing my dream of making video games, instead of wrestling. This is a topic for another day, I think, as Cricket has plot lines that reference this moment in my life.
In my mind, I knew that giving in to other people's demands would be giving up my dream and that I'd regret that for the rest of my life, so I didn't compromise. Did I lose some people's respect? Maybe. Probably.
Once I was accepted to Digipen, I saved up money via a summer job on a farm, and I polished up the programming skills I had taught myself since I was 13, I was planning to be at the top of my class from the first day. I walked into class on the first day, definitely NOT the top of my class, and met people from various walks of life, many of them still friends of mine to this day.
Shout outs to Alex, Rob, Tony, Joel, Dan, Mike, Logan, and Greg. You guys made me feel a lot less alone, and I can't thank you all enough for that.
"Look to your left, and now your right, only one of you will graduate" said Claude, the owner of Digipen on my first day of school, he wasn't wrong. I learned during my time at Digipen that people will take various paths in life to success, and to not begrudge others for going a different way. A lot of the people I met at Digipen ended up leaving without a degree, either due to lost passion, or stress. I advise that if you wanna go to Digipen, do not go in half-heartedly, else you will be chewed up, metaphorically speaking.
No amount of preparation will adequately prepare you for Digipen. The sheer workload will force you to get your 10k hours during your time here. From the very start, you will be hit with what seems like endless homework, with difficult assignments that'll test the limits of your knowledge. Even worse, it sometimes feels like classes coordinate to hit you all at once with assignments. The subjects you will study during your time will cover Math, Physics, AI, Graphics, Databases, Data Structures, among others, with the material starting to pull concepts from other classes in order to dive even further.
Once you learn how to code, the basics of C/C++, I HIGHLY advise that you understand data structures inside and out, you will need this knowledge for your job way past Digipen, seriously. Basic knowledge of data structures, and which apply where will improve your code and performance an immeasurable amount.
Oftentimes, the lectures aren't enough to cover all the material, and this is where Digipen really shines: the staff are always willing to help you. Don't be afraid to ask your professor for assistance on a project, they want to help you and set you on the path to success, I think I learned the most from one on one conversations with my professors. The homework that you stress over prepares you for the real test: the projects.
Digipen projects are the bread and butter of the school, it's not uncommon for student projects to be featured at large industry events, such as the Independent Games Festival. Professors will often acknowledge that the projects take priority, and will make room for students who are in a period of crunch. As a student, you should also prioritize your projects, as they will get you noticed and are incredible resume builders.
When you're done with homework for the day, you move onto your project with your team, there's no time for a break. You and your team are expected to make your own game engine, make your own art, and everything else, from scratch. Teacher attention tends to be given to teams with the most impressive engines, as the gameplay can get on the... experimental side.
There's a legitimate sense of coopetition in Digipen, you are working to make a better game than the other teams while being willing to offer words of encouragement and assistance when asked because you are all just trying to survive.
At the end of the year, on top of finals and report cards, students are expected to deliver their project in some state of completeness, and it's kinda like an awards show, with glitz and glam, it's a really fun time. Games aren't always scored on how fun they are, they are also scored on technical prowess, this allows for students to experiment with weird mechanics to see if they are fun, it's a great system that allows for failure in that area.
Something to know: the 2nd and 3rd years are the hardest, with the tightest workload.
During the summers, I advise that you find work to keep the bills at bay unless you have rich parents. Redmond is expensive, but there are plenty of job opportunities in the area that pay decently well. I worked at Nintendo's testing department during the summers while I was at Digipen, and while it was a boring job, it paid well, and it got my foot in the door for other opportunities later.
Overall, it was a great experience. While difficult, I learned a lot and developed a few successful projects with my friends. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I am thankful for my time at Digipen, and while I have criticisms, many have been addressed over time by the school. If you know that games are what you wanna be a part of and that passion is burning, as mine still is, then Digipen just might be for you.