British developers are struggling to fill skilled positions - but the blame can't be laid entirely on external factors
This week's report from e-skills UK on the concerns of the nation's technology industries has focused attention once more on the recruitment challenges facing British game development studios. Uniquely among tech sector industries, it seems, game companies are finding it incredibly difficult to fill positions on their teams - a situation created by the tough requirements of working in game creation, compounded by brain drain to Canada and other such territories (where the tax breaks are greener, even if the grass isn't necessarily so) and finally rammed home by the failure of UK universities to produce the graduates the business actually needs.
That's the theory, at least. It's certainly the perspective of most people involved in recruiting for their studios, who will generally embark on a passionate rant about one, several or all of those factors at the slightest provocation. It's a bleak picture - the experienced staff leaving the country, the graduates not up to scratch and empty desks abounding at hard-pressed studios with deadlines to hit.
It's not, however, the only perspective on offer, and it's far from being the entirety of the truth. Talk to graduates, to recruiters or to experienced staff presently job-hunting, and a different picture emerges in each case. Graduates express intense frustration at the industry's insistence on having several years' experience for even junior roles. Recruiters bemoan the unrealistic expectations of graduates - and often, more quietly, suggest that their game studio clients' expectations aren't entirely grounded in reality either. Experienced staff, meanwhile, tend to hint that it's not really the lure of Canada that's most appealing, but rather the appeal of a job that will allow for a family life.
A combination of factors including pay and working conditions are conspiring to drive a great many experienced developers out of the business completely
The problem is clearly a lot more complex than it looks on the surface, and while it's easy to point the finger at external culprits - unscrupulous universities running game courses that don't give students anything remotely like the required skills to create games, or a government whose resistance to tax breaks is making it easier for overseas studios to hire experienced staff away from the UK - it's obvious that the industry needs to look to massive internal problems as well.
Two primary problems have been highlighted repeatedly over the past few years, and neither, it seems, are much closer to being solved. The first is the industry's failure to hold on to its staff, with a combination of factors including pay and working conditions conspiring to drive a great many experienced developers out of the business completely and into the more welcoming arms of other creative or technical sectors. The second is a further failure to engage with graduates - one which is compounded by the unrealistic expectations which are so commonly held by the graduates themselves.
The former of those two issues has been explored at great length by a great many commentators, but sadly, we're not a lot closer to a solution than we were a decade ago. It's a polarising debate, in which one camp argues that crunch-style working conditions are a completely normal part of any creative industry, and the other insists that crunch is simply unacceptable in a large, profitable, modern industry which pays so much lip-service to its desire to hold on to talented, experienced staff.
The problem is that both sides have a point, and the ultimate solution lies somewhere in the middle - as it usually does. Everyone can agree that the kind of ongoing, month-upon-month of crunch working which we saw at the now defunct Team Bondi was absolutely unacceptable, to the point of being exploitative and immoral - to the point, indeed, that I would be extremely wary of any publisher or developer which showed itself willing to hire the managers responsible for those disgraceful practices in future. Beyond that, though, a middle ground seems elusive.
The reality of course is that crunch is indeed a part of most creative industries; it's simply a natural part of the process which involves creating something new (which is extremely hard to fit into strict timescales) to a fixed deadline. The problem, however, is that there are still far too many publishers and developers who treat crunch working hours as their due - using employees' nights and weekends as a cushion for terrible project planning or, even worse, actually building work schedules around the expectation of weeks or months of crunch.
This is incredibly disruptive to any kind of family or personal life - and as employees hit their early to mid thirties, those things start to take on a priority that often outweighs the desire to wake up each morning and build videogames. Combine that with the attractions (for programmers in particular, but to a certain extent also for artists and other development staff) of other industries which potentially offer higher salaries and better job security, and the games business starts to seem very poor indeed at holding on to its most valuable asset - experienced staff.
Most technical industries face a gigantic gap between the material taught at university and the skills required to work at a specific company - and that's exactly how it should be, since the purpose of university is to provide a broad education
The other end of the funnel, however, isn't in much better shape. There's absolutely a huge problem with the quality of graduates who are trying to get into game development - of that, there's simply no doubt. All too many university courses purporting to qualify young people to work in the games business have been hastily thrown together by colleges eager to get bums on seats, and bear shockingly little relevance to the reality of game creation. Developers bemoan seeing job ads for junior positions being inundated with applications from programmers who don't know any C++, the de facto language of most game development, or artists who have never spent any quality time in 3DS Max or any of the other relevant packages.
Worse again is the situation with the ever-rising number of 'Game Design' degrees, most of which are little more than exercises in writing essays about landmark games and creating simple, experimental titles in Flash. There's a basic dishonesty about a Game Design degree from the outset, since they ignore the fact that although "Game Designer" sounds like a dream job, there aren't actually very many jobs available in that field and there's almost zero demand for graduates, since they often tend to be filled internally by people moving up from QA or sideways from other disciplines. (Even then, the university courses tend to rather understate the fact that the key skill required for a game designer isn't the ability to imagine a cool new weapon or feature - it's the ability to then plug the variables which that will affect into a complex spreadsheet, tinker with endless columns of numbers for balance purposes, and work competently in a scripting language to implement your ideas.)
Yet the reality is that the games business is hardly alone in this situation. Most very technical industries face a gigantic gap between the material taught at university and the skills required to work at a specific company - and that's exactly how it should be, since the purpose of university is to provide a broad education in the core principles and skills required for a specific sector, not to give vocational education for a small set of specific employers.
That, after all, is the employer's job. It's fully understood in most other sectors that you don't just hire graduates - you invest in them. You take in raw graduates with potential, with a portfolio and good enough grades to catch your eye, and then you run them through a training programme that makes them useful to you. At the end of that (although on the job training should never really end, a factor most game companies miserably forget), you treat your newly minted skilled employee well so that he sticks with you and you make back your investment.
Instead, the games business has developed a rather more unfortunate approach. For the most part, it tries not to hire graduates at all; those it does hire often end up burning out rapidly in their junior positions, with only those with remarkable ability to learn on-the-job in a difficult and rather unforgiving environment actually moving forward (sadly, moving forward to a point where ten years down the line they'll probably bail out anyway, as mentioned above).
There are exceptions to these situations, of course. There are universities which are offering brilliant courses and driving home the importance of portfolios and side-projects to their students. There are employers doing great work with their local educational institutions and investing enormous amounts of time and effort into graduate training programmes, paid internships and so on. Yet these remain the minority, despite the fact that other industries offer those things as standard - and I've even heard some development bosses opine perfectly openly that they're happy for their rivals to train up new graduates, because "we can just poach them later when they have some experience".
It's not a healthy state of affairs - not for employees, not for businesses and not for the future of the game development sector in the UK. It's not, either, a problem that's entirely unique to the UK - but at a time when the threat of a brain drain looms larger than ever, a renewed focus on how we encourage, develop, nurture and ultimately hold on to our home-grown talent pool is absolutely essential.