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Higher Learning

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.

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Latest comments (7)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Much sense spoken by someone at the coalface.
Most of the 200ish video game related degree courses in the UK are money wasting traps for fanboys.
The Skill set approved courses are a lot better than the dross.

But you just cannot beat real on the job experience. Maybe the degrees should go to being sandwich courses with alternate semesters in academia and the real world.
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Kim Blake Senior Events & Education Co-ordinator, Blitz Games Studios9 years ago
Very good article, and congratulations on your success - long may it continue!

I'd agree up to a point about how desirable a degree is; I think artists, animators and certainly game designers can teach themselves to a very high level if they have the commitment - it's all about the quality of the demo / showreel / portfolio, after all.

I'm not so sure about programmers; I certainly think for app development you can probably do an enormous amount on your own, but for mainstream commercial development, I would have thought it would be easier to get the necessary skills via a (Skillset-accredited) course...

I wholeheartedly endorse the need for greater involvement with education at all levels though!
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Diarmuid Murphy Developer Marketing, Microsoft9 years ago
We have the exact same issue in Ireland.

IT education is key all the way up. You cannot hope to convert students to IT at 18. You need to peak their interest much earlier.
On that i think technologies like Scratch developed by MIT (i believe) is a great resource for kids to code in a spoken language format.
Add to that what Stephen Howell has done intergrating Kinect with scratch means that any kid in 2 minutes can create a simple game and put themselves in it with Kinect
check out
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Show all comments (7)
Tony Johns9 years ago
Well here are my capabilities that I would have done when I would eventually finish university, at least by 2015.

I am able to make games via the Unreal Development Kit to make 3D style games.
I am able to make 3D models using 3D Studio Max.
I am able to program in flash with Actionscript to make 2D style games.
I will someday be able to program in C++ and even C# programming language.
I will someday be able to get to program in Maya once when I get to do the Game Engines unit.

What the university that I go to does not offer is the Computer Science unit, and it does not even offer me training in using the Android Software Development Kit.
And they don't have any units that focus on programming in Java, that is still an important part in making Android applications.

They don't even teach me about industry awareness.

In my Project Management unit, I basically had to imagine myself in a videogame company having Project Management related issues, even though the unit was only focusing on IT businesses and I had to only pretend to focus on what I knew about what videogame companies had to deal with in relation to IT.

I know my university lacks other important units in relation to videogames, and then there are all those IT units that I must do that have got no relation to videogames in the first place.

But I am committed to finishing the course and when I do in 2015 I will see if there are other universities in the city of Melbourne to find out what they have in case if a game company wants me to know more before they hire me.

I will also be willing to travel by train into the city of Melbourne because I live in a country town a fair few hours away from the city.

The university I go to is only in a country town that was the only one I found that had videogame units, plus my parents did not want me to go to the big city of melbourne for university, they thought that I would get lost there.

So as you see, my family situation made my life really limited in opportunities.

And considering that I am living in Australia, these opportunities to be taught computer science units in my games course are really lacking....

I may as well see if there are any computer science units at my uni before I think of my alternative plans for the future.
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Fabio Franconeri Games Programmer, Ideaworks Game Studio9 years ago
There is just no way one can get a job in the games industry without at least a BSc these days.. self thought developers are a thing of the past.. that being said I agree that games courses are no good, the thing is that a regular computer science degree covers all that is needed for games but games courses do not cover all that is needed to be a good programmer..
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Heinz Schuller Art Director / Artist 9 years ago
I'm not sure why it would be different in the UK, but in the US game education is coming of age, with curriculum covering mobile, web, etc. many different facets of media. More schools are moving away from concentrations within Game Design programs per se, and into full game programming or art degrees.

Now, does that mean these graduates can all compete with 10-yr out-of-work veterans? Of course not. But in many ways that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I agree that Publishers (and developers) need to get more directly involved with schools, steep them in what they require, and help them set criteria for their programs. The good news is that, given the horrific state of employment within the business, many vets are coming back to the schools to help lend a realistic perspective.

These kids are our future. :)
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Christopher Mc Cann Studying BA Hons Games Design, University of Central Lancashire9 years ago
Good article and some great points following.
A lot of companies require you to have a degree and work experience, so it is difficult to obtain both by the time you graduate but not impossible. I would agree that from appearances and even some experience that some UK games courses seem like''money wasting traps for fan-boys'' but I would also say they are improving and innovating massively. Ultimately though it is down to the individual, Academic courses are what you make of them and if your passionate or driven enough you'l have a strong portfolio, great skills and maybe even some work exp ready to move into an industry position.
The games Industry and universities are working closer now to have their graduates work ready but a lot of students just do not meet them half way (speaking from my own experience) so maybe it should be asked how can you turn student fan boys (or girls)into dedicated game academics?
I think more game based information in schools is a good idea, I went straight into a games degree in a preconceived 'bubble' which only really burst when I graduated, nearly 2 years and still trying to get a games job. To work in games even if your a student, self tuition is essential and an ongoing lifestyle
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