It looks like all those college game degrees are starting to gain some respect from the industry. Students are now graduating from some of these programs and making immediate marks on the industry, with Portal being only the most obvious example.
With that many students in these programs, you need to stand out from the rest. The best way to do that is to enter college already knowing the basic skills. That way you can get the most out of college, honing your skills rather than learning them new. You can also start making games even before your classmates. The best students understand that they need to do far more than the basics, and they work like mad in their spare time perfecting their portfolios, making mods, meeting pros and more.
Having your teachers work on an existing foundation instead of having to build even that makes a dramatic difference. Students who begin with a decent skill set are not bored. Instead they get to dig deeper into the subject matter than do their peers. The following list shows some of the main skills and accomplishments students should have before they hit college. I recommend that you try your hands at all of these and focus on the ones that most click with you.
- Build a web site. This is such a basic skill right now that I don’t think anyone should be allowed to graduate high school without having built a web site. Of course, in ten years it will probably be a completely outmoded skill only used by weirdoes and dinosaurs, but right now it is an integral part of society. Free software: CoffeeCup, PageBreeze, Bluefish.
- Play a wide variety of games. Most of the students I met had a favorite game that served as the catalyst for them wanting to make their own. However, far too often that game, and ones quite like it, were the only ones they really knew. This really handicaps developers later, as they miss valuable lessons other types teach. Free game sources: Kongregate, ArmorGames, Portal.wecreatestuff.com
- Learn teamwork. The lone coder working in the basement is much less common now than in the 1980s, and even most of those have someone else supplying art, testing and so on. Learning how to work with other people is one of the key skills good game developers have, and no time is too early to start. By the way, having tried both team sports and roleplaying games, I prefer D&D and Fading Suns (blatant plug) for developing my teamwork skills.
- Put together a computer. Well, at least swap out a video card or something. I am still amazed at the number of students I saw who had never opened their computer and really had no idea how it functioned. Yes, I once set fire to a modem card this way, but it was a learning experience.