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How can universities better support the UK games industry

Games development teams discuss five ways in which UK educators can help the games industry

The relationship between the games industry and games educators has become strained in places.

At the Games Education Summit last month, representatives from studios openly discussed how Central European education institutions are creating more valuable graduates than those in the UK.

In our last feature from the event, we revealed ways in which the games business can better support UK universities in being more successful. Now, in the counter to that piece, we will reveal the five ways universities can better prepare their students for life in the video games industry.

1. Unity and Unreal are great. But teach your students C++

Dr. Jacob Habgood of Sheffield Hallam University had concerns about the over-reliance of Unity and Unreal in games education.

"Unity is fantastic," he said. "It's insane to write a game engine from scratch. We use it in game-based learning, and game-based learning will greatly suffer without them. Likewise, Unreal is awesome. You get real AAA employment skills out there from working with Unreal.

"But it's difficult, even with our track record, to convince students to use this really hard C++ game engine, compared with Unity and Unreal that do so much for them."

Multiple studios stressed the importance of knowing C++, with Codemasters and Playground Games saying it's essential for students to understand before applying for roles.

Habgood also said that Unity and Unreal lull students into a false sense of security. He observed that, out of the 100 universities producing games for PlayStation, only two institutions have actually created a publishable project -- including his own. And he feels this is because his University teaches C++.

"When you use C++ engine, a lot of the difficulty curve is up front," he said. "With Unity, it is very easy to make a 50% complete game, but as you move towards the end the difficulty increases exponentially. The last 10% of shipping a game is 90% of the work. So when students use Unity, it lulls them into a false sense of security."

"If you want to work in the games industry, you need to pull your finger out and do stuff. That means doing your own personal portfolio."

Meg Daintith, Codemasters

2. Prioritise portfolios over grades

When asked what employers value the most -- great grades or a great portfolio -- Epic's Mike Gamble responded with: "Portfolio, every time."

In fact, that was the consensus across every studio that attended the Games Education Summit. Rare producer Melissa Jo-Knox said that grades are the last thing that the studio looks at when hiring. Meanwhile, Creative Assembly's Emma Smith talked up the value of both.

"We often see people who have done well with the course, but haven't got anything practical to show for it," she said. "If you can come out with a grade and a great portfolio, then you'll stand the best chance. It's proof of taking something on board and then applying it.

"There needs to be a move away from the meritocracy, that someone with a first from a red-brick university is better than someone who doesn't. But that's not the case. Not everybody is able to go to university, and people will find a way to be practical and make their own games."

Meg Daintith from Codemasters added: "If you want to work in the games industry, you need to pull your finger out and do stuff. That means doing your own personal portfolio."

This is often easier in courses that offer project-based learning, which are built around making an entire game over the course of three years -- and in some cases even releasing and publishing that game commercially. However, this is hard to manage with the current education system, and those courses are only offered by a few universities.

Ultimately, the industry encouraged universities to do what they can to help students, especially those that may not have the time to simultaneously study and pull together a personal portfolio. In these instances, the message from the business was to prioritise the portfolio.

However, Norwich University's Dr Sharon Tolaini-Sage felt the debate over grades versus portfolios isn't helpful.

"There's this false binary between grades and portfolios," she explained. "These things aren't separate, and we are not separate. We want students to enter the industry with the best possible chance for success."

"A soft skill that sometimes graduates lack is to take critique and feedback and not take it personally"

Karen McLoughlin, Sumo Digital

3. Teach soft skills

One of the biggest challenges for students coming out of university and entering the world of employment is knowing how to communicate, engage and even handle an interview. As Epic's Mike Gamble noted: "Game development students are not the most socially aware people, typically."

"It is various things," said Karen McLoughlin from Sumo Digital. "Communication is a massive thing, time management, team working... a soft skill that sometimes graduates lack is to take critique and feedback and not take it personally. Game development is about iteration and improvement, and sometimes graduates take things a bit too personally."

Codemasters' Daintith added: "Interview practice is absolutely key. If you do nothing else at the end of your university course, that would be absolutely invaluable."

A major way to improve soft skills -- particularly around communication -- is sending students out on internships, although currently the feedback from education is that there aren't enough placements or internships available.

However, encouraging and promoting game jams can make a big difference, as these can also help students develop softer skills.

4. Host conferences, attend games events and suggest online communities

Connected to the soft skills element was a suggestion that universities would be well served introducing their students to online communities where students can interact with the business and meet new people -- or even setting up their own communities. Epic's Mike Gamble noted that some of the more successful universities even host their own conferences and game jams.

A number of universities also attend local industry events. Our own GamesIndustry.biz Career Fairs (which takes place at EGX and EGX Rezzed) was called out as a place to send students, by those in both higher and further education.

5. Consider moving placements to the end of the course

Another debate from the Games Education Summit focused on placements and internships. The message from educators was simple: the games development community needs to offer more placements for their students to go on.

Some studios, however, said the fear with placement years is that -- after 12 months -- they can lose that potential employee to a rival. The way placements currently work in the UK is that a student would do two years at university, go on a placement for a year, then come back and complete the final year of their course.

Some studios argued that they would be able to offer more placement opportunities if the placement happened after their three-year course had ended.

"It makes placements easier to justify, because you can hire them after a period," says Codemasters' Daintith. "It is still a graduate hire. They're still at university, they're still looked after in that regard. They can feel both worlds as an individual. It's about smoothing the transition from work to university."

Sumo's Karen McLoughlin added: "Even with the year we have to wait, most of our students leave us with an offer once they finish their course."

For our eight ways that the games industry can work better with UK educators, click here.

GamesIndustry.biz was a media partner for the Games Education Summit, which took place at the National Videogame Arcade in Sheffield.

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