Innovate while you're young. This is the best time to create something totally revolutionary. We can't do it in industry. Experimental game designs will only arise from college students.
It's amazing how loud this line of thought has gotten. IGDA folks loudly proclaim it. Developers, apparently forgetful, whine about it. There was even a recent GDC speech on the whole thing by Jason Rocca that went out and pretty much proclaimed that the time for wacky, innovative design and development is in college.
It's a pretty nice picture. You're not in the job market. You're supposed to experiment, to try new things, to learn stuff! Why shouldn't colleges be a festering hive of life for game design? Well, I think the whole notion is a bit full of it. It lacks perspective.
Let's look at other mediums, shall we? Think for a second. How many books written by undergraduate students can you recall reading? How many movies, if you've watched one at all, struck you with their innovation and skillful story telling that made you go 'this is good'? If you can think of five, you can think of a good deal more than I can. It usually doesn't happen. It doesn't happen, and for good reasons. In high school, we're not really taught the skills to do these sorts of things. With the possible exception of artists and writers, even the basics aren't really taught. Now, perhaps one day this will change, but most people go to the starting level of college to get an education AND skills. That's right. They aren't going there with skills. They don't have experience, wisdom, and usually not even training. Whether they have creativity or not, they simply don't have the skills necessary to make good usage of it. Yes, one out of ten or twenty thousand comes there with the skills, not going right into industry. Those rare souls do exist. But that's not quite enough.
I don't know what schools these folks look at, but I can only really speak of my own. Here, I can think of one person who came in and managed to produce a functional game within the first year of their studies. That person worked with a bunch of older students to do so and failed utterly on their first attempt. Dozens and dozens attempted it, but all of them failed miserably. Most who try it in their second, third, and fourth years fail as well. First year there, I walked around the game development final presentations. There were some creative and fun games there. Not innovative, for the most part, but fun. The students in the course were, as a general rule, seniors or grad students with four to six years of studies behind them. The games were wholly two dimensional and, in fact, half of them didn't work or only had one level. These were talented and creative workers spending three to four months working on it and the best they could do is a couple of levels. It's not shameful though. It's one of the primary problems with this whole 'innovate at the college level' idea. Most folks don't have time to make good, experimental game developments there. They may jot out a design plan, sure, but many of them are getting their serious skill or design training there. This means they are, for the large part of their college careers, simply not in a good place for it. Why are most games there clones, they ask? Well, instead of turning it back and asking why most games out there period are clones, why not simply note that some of the best ways to learn things is imitation. When you sit down in an engineering class, they'll have you build dozens of things that were already built and built better by others. The point isn't to build something new, the point is to practice on the fundamentals, to learn how things are constructed. Without that foundation, working to create real innovation is impractical and improbable.
This is entirely without considering the two other real detriments to innovation at the college level. The first is the most obvious one; time, or the lack thereof. If you're doing a game development project with a school, it's usually a three month one. Maybe six if it's a particularly fancy school, but that's the exception. Can you make a good game in that time? Certainly. Can you make anything innovative and good on the scale that those outside of the school or potential employers will care? Almost certainly not. There's a reason most game companies will shy away from even a nine month development cycle with workers working at least fourty a week. Even back in earlier eras, this wasn't enough to fly competitively. Three months? You can make a cool prototype. A few levels. Some tools and stuff. You can learn a lot in three months, but you can't really take an idea and bring it to fruition. So, most aren't going to try. Why waste energy on stretching yourself to your limits in a scenario that's really built against producing something worthy of it? Save it for the business world and fight for a chance there. And on the side? Well, sure, technically you could do it on the side, though spending 30-60 hours a week on classwork can be just as prohibitive as having a full-time job. It's not really a point in favor of innovation coming from the college level. The second is a matter of pride. Most designers want to have the chance to market what they're making. When you make something under a school course, it's usually set that the school has ownership of it and what comes out of it. It's a bit quirky, but it's part of the general system. The students usually know this and go "I'll save my really creative idea for when I can sell it". They're not wrong either, even if it doesn't happen that way.
Anyhow, those are the main reasons to dispel the notion that college is going to be a bed of innovation for game design. The point is that we can't just point our fingers down there and excuse developing up top at the industry level. That's where it needs to happen. It is where we have the experience, the know-how, the wisdom, and the tools to make things better for the industry. Waiting on hot-shot kid cowboys is about as lazy and stupid as we can get. When you want a masterpiece, you go to a master, not an apprentice. This isn't to say those at college shouldn't try their wacky ideas. Heck, Takahashi did it with Katamari Damacy as I hear it, which probably validates the statements enough to overwhelm my rhetoric, even if his was an extremely rare and special case. But for every Takahashi, there are many, many more whom we'll never hear of. You simply can't rely on it. If innovation can't happen in the industry, and I don't believe that, then the industry needs to change. Growing reliant on picking up a few choice creative geniuses is not a healthy move.