Education vs. Vocation
The Chinese Room's Dan Pinchbeck on the complex tension between learning the craft and getting a job
What is the true value of university education? In the UK, there was a time when higher education was free, but during the course of several decades the personal cost to students has crept ever upwards, while the number of graduates entering the job market each year has followed a similar trajectory. And with unemployment higher now than at any time since the mid-Nineties, the wisdom of accruing the debt necessary to secure a degree seems more fragile than ever.
Apply that context to the games industry and the situation becomes even more complicated. There are more people making more games than ever before, but the sort of companies that employ graduates in large numbers have dwindled as the economics of the business changed. In their place is a wave of smaller independent companies that, while exciting from a creative perspective, do not offer the same level of security to a young developer attempting to kick-start a career.
After eight years as a lecturer for Portsmouth university's computer games department, Dan Pinchbeck is all too familiar with the new pressures that students now face. And as the creative director of The Chinese Room he can see just where universities are getting it right, and the areas in which they are falling short.
Q: The benefits of a university education are under a lot of scrutiny right now, certainly more so than when I started my degree in 2000. Should young people seeking to enter the games industry be mindful of rising fees and unemployment when they make that decision?
DP: In some respects it comes down to what role you want to go into. If you want to be an indie, making your own stuff and self-publishing, then going to university to learn those skills is increasingly questionable.
"If you want to be an indie then going to university to learn those skills is increasingly questionable"
Universities have always been good at teaching analysis, critical thinking, pushing self-education and that kind of stuff. And, y'know, they are transferrable and useful skills, but what they're not going to do is teach you entrepreneurship. And if you want to be an indie, then entrepreneurship is fundamental to that goal. That idea of being self-teaching, self-motivating, self-evaluating.
And I may just be getting old and cynical, but they tend to be qualities that it's very, very difficult to teach, and potentially fairly innate. The people that survive and make it as indies have an instinct, I think, as much as any degree in a specific skill. That instinct has to be there, and I don't think you're going to get that from a university. You get a lot of brilliant skills, and going to university is fantastic in terms of personal development, but if you think you're going to pop out after three years knowing how to survive as an independent then you're probably going to get a bit of a kicking.
Q: It doesn't sound cynical to me. I did a film course at university, and I chose to focus on screenwriting. When I graduated I could write a good script, but what I lacked were skills around self-promotion, networking, forming contacts and that kind of thing. I didn't get a sense of the importance of all that until I was away from the academic environment.
DP: Exactly. I mean, the money has changed it, because it used to be three years to find yourself and you didn't even have to pay. Obviously, that's a much more attractive proposition.
But if you want to spend three years just burying yourself in games and come out of it with a broad knowledge of the medium, there's no question that that sort of stuff can be really useful - when you really understand what's out there, and you understand the design history. You can then go out there and say, 'What kind of game can I make that's really smart and really innovative?' and that can be very successful.
That's a very powerful skill to have, really advantageous. Whether it's £35,000's worth of advantage… I don't know.
Q: In the discussion around the Next Gen Skills initiative I talked to a lot of people who pushed for degrees in computer science over the theory-led courses. I got the impression that, to certain people, a degree in computer science and a Unity license was seen as a better start.
DP: Theory is no good without practice, and I'm quite practically driven. There is a point where it gets kind of useless to me. But I think spending time to understand why Ocarina of Time is consistently regarded as one of the best games ever made, trying to unpick and understand that - there is a definite advantage to an early-career developer being able to pull apart a game and see why it does or doesn't work. If you want to be a designer, those are critical skills.
I don't buy the idea that you just need a computer science degree, because design is a separate discipline. It's a bit like saying if you know how to put the battery in a film camera then you're a director. It's balls, and it's as arrogant to think of it from that direction as it is to think that anyone who has done a degree in game design can code their own game. The majority of games are collaborations, with the exception of a few lone developers - and most of them had help.
Q: Collaboration is one of the things that university education does help you with.
"I don't buy the idea that you just need a computer science degree, because design is a separate discipline"
DP: Absolutely, if you've got courses where you've genuinely got programmers and writers and musicians and producers all working alongside each other. And I say 'genuinely' because a lot of courses claim to have that, but when you scratch the surface they really don't - they've got a shit-load of designers all scrabbling around desperately trying to find a coder to work with.
More than anything else, what you should be able to get at university is access to expertise, through the people who teach the courses who've been in the industry and who understand the medium. So you can try and fail and learn the craft before you actually start applying it. It's a much safer place.
Where you could make a counter argument is coming out of university £35,000 in debt when you might have made three or four games in that period - and learned how not to make games as much as how to make games. But if you did go straight into development, you could burn through £35,000 in no time making a game that'll sink without trace, leaving you even more screwed financially.
What it comes down to, every single time, is the quality of the games courses. And there are still far too many bad ones out there.
Q: You were at Portsmouth university as a lecturer. We've talked about how computer science alone is not enough, but to what degree do the more theoretical courses recognise its importance?
DP: I think most of them do. It comes down to the historical arts and science split. It's really hard to get computer science lecturers and design lecturers in the same room talking the same language - they have fundamentally different worldviews a lot of the time. One of the things that games offer education generally is that it is the medium, more than any other, that recognises that this stuff is the same thing, and you should be talking to each other. If the games industry can manage to have designers and engineers talking to each other and working together, then that should be replicable in academia.
But what that takes is a generational change. Once we have more courses primarily run by people who come from the industry, rather than people that drifted in sideways from another academic discipline, then that will change things.
Q: One big change in the last five to ten years is the availability of cheap, accessible tools and engines - Game Maker, Unity, Twine, the list is pretty long. To varying degrees, they take some emphasis away from the need to specialise in programming.
DP: Coding always needs to be taught outside of those engines. It's very seductive for design students to think, 'I don't need to know about code because this engine does it all for me.' But that means you can only ever operate in the confines of that engine. Those tools should be stepping stones, and if you're serious about it you probably ought to be thinking at a slightly deeper level than that.
"The blunt reality of the situation is that there's a lot of really shite games courses out there that are taking students' money"
It also depends on the spread of the course. When we were teaching our game art students they weren't thinking about indie stuff. They wanted to go to big studios, where you need really high-end skills; you need to be incredibly technically advanced just to get a look in. There's a potential schism there, going forward, because if you're a designer the key thing is to get your idea out and implemented as painlessly as possible, and the indie scene has traditionally done quite well in that without going to high-end technology. But most game artists want to produce the best possible, next-gen, beautiful art they can.
Q: I don't suppose most artists train for three years to work with 8-bit graphics.
DP: Yeah, why would you want to do that? And if you're a coder, you're driven by elegant solutions to complex challenges and, again, are they going to work in the easiest possible edge of the medium? There's something between the drive towards indie design - where people just want their idea and they don't want to be reliant on anyone else - and other games industry disciplines, where they want to feel like they've stretched every skill they've got.
Q: But that's the rub, isn't it? The games industry hasn't so much shrunk as it has atomised. Bigger studios have been replaced by smaller ones, sometimes as small as two or three people. It seems to me that the view of a university education is still as the best possible route to employment, but I'm not sure to what degree that exists for graduates from games courses these days.
DP: I haven't been teaching for about 18 months, but when I was we got a lot of emails from, y'know, right from kids just starting secondary school all the way to people starting university: 'What can we do? How do we make it in the games industry?' And what we always said, every single time, was you've got to be making games. And you've got to be finishing games.
When we're recruiting [at The Chinese Room] the first thing we look at is whether they've shipped anything, even if it's just a mod. The second thing we look at is portfolios and practical examples, because it's comparatively easy to start a game and it's incredibly fucking difficult to finish one. I don't want to see a piecemeal, scattergun portfolio; I want to see finished work, even from a university graduate. If you're not coming out of your games course with a really, really strong portfolio and examples of finished work you've wasted your three years and all of the money you've sunk into it. You will not get a job. Any responsible university course must constantly push its students towards finishing projects.
Q: We run a Career Fair every year at the EG Expo, and I have been frequently terrified at the level of focus and achievement expected of graduates by employers in the games industry. The decline in number of solid, full-time positions has really increased the pressure.
"The market is flooded, and if you go in with an 'If I build it they will come' attitude you're going to sink without a trace"
DP: When the university courses are being assessed - the body is called QAA, I think - QAA doesn't recognise that we ship these games, that our students have made this stuff. They're using academic benchmarks, and so there's a problem where courses have to be organised around those academic benchmarks. It's good for students to do those, but they aren't the things that are going to help them develop good portfolios. So actually the academic and the vocational things are going in different directions.
Q: It sounds like the vocational aspects are more important given the current job market.
DP: Maybe it's like the people that I know who went to film school. They had two choices: go to film school and learn how to make films, or go to university and learn how to study films. Maybe we're expecting universities to do something that other media have said, 'You know what, those things don't coexist.' If you want that, maybe you need the equivalent of film school or drama school for games, which is all vocational and isn't academic.
Q: When I talk to indie developers and younger developers, the common complaint isn't that it's hard to make a game. In fact, it's probably easier to make a game than ever before, because the tools are accessible and the marketplaces are open. The hard bit is what comes after that: marketing, promotion, and other concerns that are more vocational than academic. Are universities responding to that context?
DP: At Portsmouth they did teach a lot of practical skills, to help students develop at least some instinct around marketing and business. And because there's an increasing number of smaller studios, being able to go in and say you understand how the market works does end up being… well, it's not an expectation from a coder or an artist, exactly, but going into that interview and showing you understand that when you make any kind of art asset it's about making the best asset you can within a reasonable timeframe, and showing an understanding of the economics of production. That's really, really attractive.
We're 13 people, and we took on a junior - well, he's not a junior any more - a guy called Rich Court who's an amazing artist. And one of the most impressive things about him is that he can come in and say, 'I've got X amount of time to produce Y amount of assets', and he pitches the quality into the middle of that. That makes him attractive to us as a small studio, because we don't need to have multiple layers of management to control those things.
Q: And that's more important all the time, I would imagine.
DP: It's starting to be fundamental. In the indie scene the bubble is starting to burst, and we're starting to see the crunch back. The market is flooded, and if you go in with an 'If I build it they will come' attitude to your game, you're going to sink without a trace.
That's important, but it's also important to recognise that's a specialism. Expecting a programmer to be a business person is just as naive as expecting a business person to be a programmer. There are people who can do both, but we need to value them as specialisms, and teach them as specialisms as well.
Q: I wonder how this discussion might come across, because while I made no real use of my degree…
DP: [Laughs] Join the club.
Q: Exactly, but going to university rounded me as a person, it empowered me and taught me how to collaborate and all these other relatively nebulous but very important qualities. I don't regret a single day or hour of the time I spent there at all.
"That's something universities could do more of: How do we transfer student projects into the professional environment?"
DP: The thing that's changed, and the thing we're still grappling with both in the industry and in academia, is that your degree used to be the thing that would be the indicator of your quality: 'They've got a degree, so they're a safer hire.' That just doesn't exist in games. So, yeah, do a degree; it's an amazing thing to do, but if you should be aware that it's not enough [on its own].
And the other thing that's important - the blunt reality of the situation - is that there's a lot of really, really shite games courses out there that are taking students' money and not giving them the education that they should do. I really hope that with things like Skillset and the new initiatives they'll lean heavily on those universities who went, 'Hey, there's a load of money to be made out of games. If we set up a games course we will attract students to it.'
That's not good enough. When they say, 'We've got industry links,' sit there and go, 'Alright, who are they then?' Whether it's employment rates or business startup rates, anyone who wants to go to university to do games absolutely needs to look at that.
Q: In your experience, were students aware that there were fewer studios who could employ large numbers of people? Did you see an upswing in the number of students who were starting out with going indie in mind?
DP: With designers and coders, definitely. What was happening more as I was leaving was there were more clusters and small teams of students coming together in their final years to work together, and then trying to transfer that out post-graduation. That's something universities could do more of: How do we transfer student projects into the professional environment?
Q: That almost sounds like a startup incubator.
DP: Yeah. Making sure they get access to lawyers, accountants. That could be how to give university courses their value back. We're not just going to provide you with these skills, we're also going to provide an on-ramp into sustainability as a business. There can't be enough work done in that direction.