While most gamers, at one time or another, have dreamed of taking the world by storm with their genius game idea, it’s typically only been dedicated self-made hobbyists and computer scientists able to make the leap into a commercial games industry job. It’s only in recent years, following an industry boom that has widely expanded gaming’s audience and shifted the medium toward more accessible mobile platforms, that game development has come to be considered by many as a serious career aspiration.
At a time when university admissions are generally on the decline, games-related degrees are soaring in popularity. Yet doubts remain, given the swell of interest in a field commonly reserved for independent enthusiasts, whether university courses in the UK are adequately equipped to prepare their students to penetrate the most rapidly changing creative industry. I spoke to developers, course leaders, and graduates around the UK to find out more.div">>
Oli Christie of Neon Play studios.
“The reality is that there aren’t as many jobs out there as there are students taking these courses,” says Oli Christie, founder of Neon Play studios in Gloucestershire. In the current job market this is hardly out of the ordinary. But with additional competition in this field from the computer scientists and the self-taught, it can prove exceptionally difficult for a graduate to find work within the games industry. It’s essential that a candidate stand out from the crowd, and consensus opinion seems to be that a degree in hand is not the best way to get noticed.“
The reality is that there aren’t as many jobs out there as there are students taking these courses.
“We need to see what a candidate can do,” says Oli. “Ultimately I look more at their portfolio of work than their CV.” The capacity for a candidate to demonstrate their ability, be it in the form of a completed game, a physics demo, or impressive artwork is held in far higher regard by studios than a qualification. Many universities recognise this emphasis on the practical, and ensure that their students do graduate with a portfolio in hand. Yet Paul Harris, Senior Producer at Firefly Studios in London, is often unimpressed. “Work created at university is ok, but it’s often quite dry or lacking in imagination. Work created in your spare time will more often than not show more flair, features, and skills not learnt on a course, and will be a lot more interesting for us to look at.”
Outright technical proficiency is apparently not enough – candidates must demonstrate a passion and work ethic that may not result from a rigidly structured course. Oli Christie enthuses about self-taught “raw talent”, while Pete Samuels, CEO of Supermassive Games in Guildford says, “One big differentiator in candidates can be a demonstration of a passion. Show us something you have made that we can experience and we can talk about to better understand your decisions in creating that experience.” Oli offers this simple conclusion: “You can have a degree, but it doesn’t mean you’re good.”div">>
Responses such as these hardly bolster the reputation of games-related degrees in the UK. However, there are a number of successful institutions that have taken the initiative to work closely with commercial studios to recognise what skills and qualities are desired, and ensure that their students are appropriately equipped. “Our challenge is to give [our students] the best chances they can have, to teach them the skills and to give them the passion,” says Dr. Chris Child, course director of the Computer Games MSc at City University London. He also independently develops and publishes the Cricket Captain game series. “What game companies want is someone who makes games as a hobby, so we encourage them to work outside of the coursework in their own time.”“
A structured course can provide the motivation to work in spare time that can be lacking in someone developing independently
The idea is for students to apply the skills learned in class to their pet projects, therefore allowing them to build a significant, original portfolio to demonstrate their individual style and skills alongside their qualification. Rather than sapping passion, the structured course provides the motivation to work in spare time that can be lacking in someone developing independently. “Working alone and going the self-taught route is possible, and it’s certainly more flexible, but it’s very easy to get lazy and procrastinate,” says Zuheb Javed, a recent graduate who now works as a Junior Programmer at Firefly Studios. “Milestones of coursework and exams help you prepare for a working environment.”
This approach is also supported by Karen Cham, Director of Digital Media at Kingston University, “We support [our students] to capitalise on their uniqueness – no one does what they do in quite the way they do it. Our graduates are therefore valuable because they are well prepared to enter this competitive arena.”
There are other potential benefits to studying a games degree, especially depending on the institution. Kingston University boasts a postgraduate microstudio, which Karen Cham explains allows students to collaborate “in interdisciplinary teams to produce working vertical slices of complex projects, integrating next generation platforms with novel input devices such as AR drones, brain computer interface technologies etc. They are taught best practice by industry experts with whom they can then network.”“
Quite commonly a student will be working for a company, and if something becomes available they’ll recommend someone they worked with on their course.
City runs a pair of schemes to provide funding and support to students, one a Dragon’s Den style business investment program and another known as the ‘games incubator.’ “You can apply for money there, but it also offers support, such as helping you put a team together.” Dr. Child believes that a game degree creates an ongoing community that is not only productive, allowing students to collaborate and pool their expertise, but also establishes friendships and contacts that may later help them get their foot in the industry’s door. “We have a Facebook page for people to meet up and discuss jobs and prospects. Part-time and full-time students sit together in class. Quite commonly a student will be working for a company, and if something becomes available they’ll recommend someone they worked with on their course.”
As a result, taking a well-managed games degree can see graduates landing a job in the games industry very promptly. Dr. Child tells proudly of his students being snapped up by both major and smaller studios. Steve Kimbrey studied 3D Animation at the University of Hertfordshire and, after returning to complete a Masters, secured a job at Frontier Developments in Cambridge. “The sheer workload and amount of information and skills I received from my course definitely helped prepare me for the industry far better than I could’ve hoped for if I were trying to do it on my own.”div">>
Dr. Dr Chris Child, course director of the Computer Games MSc at City University London
Amongst these skills and information Steve was taught basic CV writing, interview advice, and showreel making expertise, alongside giving him the opportunity to meet and visit industry professionals. Establishing these contacts is often key to finding work in any creative industry. “We encourage them to meet people or take an internship,” says Dr. Child of his students at City. “That helps them get their foot in the door.”
There are also potential financial benefits to studying games at university. Although the courses themselves can be expensive, they leave students free to work on projects without the risks and restraints inherent in holding down a full-time job to support the hobby. “Coming straight out of university is a great time to work on something you’re really passionate about,” says Dr. Child. “If you make a lot of money and have success than that’s great, and if not you’ve still gained the experience.”“
Games-related degrees have a bit of a bad reputation in the industry.
Of course, these are only a very few examples in a field that is represented in universities across the UK. Where some have adopted this pragmatic approach to ensure that their courses consistently meet industry expectations, there’s real concern from studios that others are letting their students down. “There are shining examples [of good courses], but there are far too many failing their students, not equipping them for the realities of games development,” Pete Samuels tells me. “We’re very engaged with a number of universities which we consider to have good courses and are creating skilled craftspeople. But we also see many poor courses that have zero industry links, are not staffed by experienced practitioners, and are created without current knowledge of the technical and creative landscape of the games development community.”
This sentiment is apparently widespread. “Games-related degrees have a bit of a bad reputation in the industry,” says Paul Harris. “The feeling is that a lot of courses were invented to attract candidates, games were ‘cool’ and for many people studying them at university would be a dream come true. The problem was that often these courses presented a very general overview of the industry, without specialising in the core skills the industry demands. This is a problem for candidates as it often leaves them under-prepared for the realities of working in the industry.”
This is a major concern for Oli Christie, whose studio exclusively develops mobile and tablet games. He believes that not only are many courses too general, they are also lagging behind the rapidly evolving games industry. “Students need to specialise. You can’t be brilliant at everything. It’s almost a dereliction of duty if these universities aren’t teaching the new technologies and skills. A lot of universities are still obsessed with consoles and aren’t teaching the importance of mobile and tablet gaming that would make students highly employable.”“
Students need to specialise. You can’t be brilliant at everything.
The key to improving this, he believes, is getting universities which aren’t already to work more closely with studios, even getting them involved with assessment. “We’re trying to create relationships,” he says. “Then students can get involved in the real work.”
Matthew Morrison recently completed a games degree, and is now working as a games tester for an online casino, a long way from his desire to work in development. He feels let down by how disconnected his course was from the reality of the industry. “Doing my degree gave me skills and knowledge that I’d otherwise not have had, however they were next to useless in terms of their understanding of what it’s like to get a job in the games industry. While the lecturers were good people, and often experts in their field, they were born of a different era. They came out of the games industry having entered decades before, when things were very different.”div">>
This severely limited how worthwhile Matthew found studying his degree. “In terms of learning how to use the tools I’d require, YouTube tutorials were more effective than any tutorial done on campus.” In fact, even though he is working outside of his desired field, Matthew counts himself lucky to have secured a games-related job within six months of graduating. “I only know of four other people who were on the same course as me who are actually working in the industry currently.”
This leads to a broader concern that, as games degrees grow in popularity, poorly-run or misguided courses will not only leave graduates struggling to find work, but could leave UK talent trailing behind the rest of the world. “I can only speak for what we see here, but we’re one of the top mobile developers in the country,” says Oli. “We’re employing guys from Hungary, Greece, Poland, which is great, those guys do brilliant work. But there’s a worrying trend emerging that the general quality in the UK isn’t there. It only takes a couple of years to fall behind.”“
Many people are choosing to take the independent route, taking advantage of a number of resources such as free online software and tutorials.
The possibility of a shortfall in the quality of graduates from games degrees means that the importance of the old guard of bedroom programmers in the UK hasn’t diminished. Many people are choosing to take the independent route, taking advantage of a number of resources such as free online software and tutorials, as well as various sources of funding. TIGA, the trade association that represents the UK games industry, provides support and resources to people in all areas of the field. The government has recently put £6m into training. These opportunities can help people to create something significant enough to make them stand out when looking for work. The problem here is that such funding is limited and, like the jobs market, subject to increasing competition. The effect of recent tax breaks for UK games is yet to be seen.
If traditional funding can’t be accessed, the behemoth that is crowd-funding is now a legitimate option for budding developers. Josh Bishop is Lead Designer at Subterranean Games, whose War of the Overworld project was one of the early successes when Kickstarter UK launched in late 2012. “I’ve grown up wanting to do this,” Josh tells me. “I never finished college. I spent my time writing mods and running a fansite and going to events instead. University just wasn’t my thing.”div">>
By being proactive about his passion, Josh was able to build a host of industry contacts that ultimately led to Peter Molyneux endorsing the War of the Overworld project. “I just introduced myself after an event. You can’t just e-mail someone and expect them to open their doors to you.” Although heavily congested these days, Josh believes that crowd-funding is a viable option for people trying to break into the industry. “If you do it properly – have a good idea, get people to like it, and talk to people for outside help – it’s easy to do well.”
Karen Cham agrees, “It’s a great idea, I love how digital media changes the world. The nature of digital media has created the potential for crowd-funding and democratised production; it’s a natural step for the games industry to be leaders in the area and not victims of change.”“
The problem as it stands is that too many universities are remaining static as the industry evolves past them.
While there is no set answer to the question of how worthwhile taking a games-related degree might be, what is abundantly clear from every viewpoint is that the games industry is changing and, in the face of fierce competition for jobs, success is found in the ability to recognise this and adapt. The potential of games degrees is enormous, opening up the possibility of working in development to a far wider range of people by offering a clear, structured path upon which to acquire the skills and passion that the industry demands.
The problem as it stands is that too many universities are remaining static as the industry evolves past them, and the result is a huge number of students not being adequately prepared for the realities of the field. Paul Harris is hopeful for the future of games degrees, “It feels like things are improving. Courses are working more with the industry to become more relevant, which can only be a good thing.” Universities are unlikely to replace the traditional routes into the industry, but the hope has to be that as they grow they can act as a conduit to nurture a far broader range of talent, and provide a bright future for games in the UK.
David Owen is a freelance writer of all sorts of nonsense. Join him @dnjowen for bland commentary and unintelligent profanity.
Are you doing a degree in video games? Have you completed one already? Or do you work in the industry and have any tips for potential graduates? Share your thoughts below.
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