Neon Play MD Oli Christie argues the industry should be incentivised to boost developer skills
Last week might well go down as a defining moment for the games industry. The announcement by the Government that the ICT curriculum will be reorientated in favour of computer science and programming is a testament to the excellent work done by Next Gen report authors Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope and the many people and companies who have got behind the Next Gen Skills campaign.
Breaking through the many layers of Government bureaucracy and getting policy-makers to actually listen is a battle in and of itself. As Livingstone himself has already indicated, and will no doubt reiterate in the coming weeks and months, this is a momentous shift in policy but the real work starts now as industry figureheads and policy-makers come together to shape the future of the computer science curriculum in our schools.
Unlike the games industry tax debate, which is a sector specific issue, improving the relevancy of the skills we are teaching younger generations is something that affects the future of the creative industries and a large section of the workforce. Reforming the education and skills sector will not only lead to growth in the already successful UK games industry but it will equip school leavers and graduates of all disciplines with core ICT skills that will serve as a solid foundation for jobs in any sector that relies on computing and technology - be it engineering, the financial services or design. As we transition into the knowledge economy, it's becoming a needs-must situation.
All the developers I have worked with are self-taught and cannot speak highly enough of the virtues of work placements
Convincing the Government - and in particular the previously sceptical Department of Education - to change its position on computer science education in schools is a great start to this campaign and gives the industry something to work toward. We need an adaptable education system that can provide a programme of computer science that is more capable of keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the hi-tech and gaming industries. But what about the students who are currently languishing in video games education at university?
Just a quick chat with any of the developers and designers at Neon Play confirms what most have known for quite some time; video games courses are not teaching students adequately in the skills required to get a job in the industry. One of our developers' complaints about his computer games programming course was that they never did enough actual programming - it was only through a work placement year at a games company that he learnt programming languages that are considered games industry standards. Similarly, one of our games artists, who studied for a BA Hons in Design for Interactive Media, talks about lecturers knowing substantially less about the field of study than the students and a 3D modelling teacher, for instance, who was learning the practice himself the day before teaching each class. Hardly an education fitting of expensive tuition fees.
And what happens when students leave university? Many are faced with studios that are reluctant to take on graduates lacking in significant work place experience and, due to the overall lack of skilled graduates, the chance of finding a junior position at a games studio is decreasing. At Neon Play, we've had student or graduate developers interviewing for positions with really poor portfolios. Some will show us a prototype game, others have created only a YouTube video concept but if they want to work in the games sector, we would expect them to at least have made a complete game.
I hate to say it but, at this moment in time, I seriously question whether a three year university course is of any real benefit for a career in this industry. Sure, it demonstrates an ability to commit to a course of study but it's not where most developers and designers are learning their trade. All the developers I have worked with are self-taught and cannot speak highly enough of the virtues of work placements.
I wonder, too, how many colleges and universities are adapting their courses to include mobile games and app development modules despite it being a growing industry to which lots of students will be looking for employment when they graduate this summer or next. Faced with a lack of iPhone programmers on the market, we approached our local college in Cirencester and helped advise the content to teach programming students on BTEC, IT and A Level courses how to build iPhone apps and games. We're also looking to welcome into the fold proactive and talented students by offering work experience and placements which might, further down the road, lead to jobs. Six of our current staff started on work placements/trials as a way of proving their talent before we offered them a job. But we believe that placements are a two-way street, with the student being able to offer real skills that are of use to the studio.
Given the testimonies of many studying IT or video games courses at schools, colleges and universities, it's understandable that studios are reluctant to take on under-skilled graduates. My advice to any aspiring developer would be to beg, steal and borrow to gain valuable work experience and for industry - where possible - to provide a helping hand. The Next Gen Skills campaign has opened the door for industry to play an important part in shaping education and skills development, the products of which games companies will come to rely on for future success. More must be done to incentivise industry to work with local schools, colleges and universities to give young developers work experience opportunities and to encourage a passion for games development. If this does not happen, the existing pool of talented games developers will begin to dry up and we will be unable to sustain our growing industry.
More must be done to incentivise industry to work with local schools, colleges and universities to give young developers work experience opportunities
Culture minister Ed Vaizey gave a good indication of how the Government views the future potential of the games industry when he said that 'the ability to build an app was now seen by young people as a "sexy" thing to do, as well as being a useful way of contributing to the British economy. Recognising the importance of the games industry to the success of the British economy is a crucial step in encouraging the widespread political will needed to significantly alter the curriculum and hopefully, at some point, implement the TIGA endorsed tax breaks that will help the UK games industry compete more equally on the global stage.
Mobile gaming is a valuable stream of revenue for large games studios but it is also an area of the industry that - due to its relatively low production costs - can be a perfect entry point for start-up developers and companies. Neon Play had the good fortune to enter the industry as it was taking flight and through hard work, a good sense of timing and an element of luck that any company needs (Paper Glider was the 10 billionth download from the Apple App Store), it has been able to grow alongside the booming market. We started as a two-man operation but in just 20 months we have recruited a further 14 staff, including developers and designers, to our Cirencester studio. With nearly 30 million downloads worldwide I think that we have demonstrated how successful a small, independent mobile games studio can be.
Despite the continuing success of mobile games and apps firms, TIGA's end of year statement reported on some of the more worrying incidents to impact the UK games industry in 2011. Bizarre Creations' closure led to the loss of a staggering 200 jobs; Square Enix's decision to open a new studio in Canada instead of Britain means that 150 potential jobs will not materialise in the UK and TIGA continues to warn of a 'brain drain' as developers move to countries whose studios benefit from generous tax breaks.
It's clear that something must be done to halt the exodus of talent and if we are to continue to produce world-class products it is important that developers are nurtured from a young age. The introduction of computer science in schools gives us all hope for the future but incentivising studios to offer work experience to talented students and adopting more of the recommendations laid out by the Next Gen report will go a long way to securing the success of the UK games industry.