Surviving in a post-Brexit world is going to be hard undertaking for the British games industry. It increasingly relies on talent sourced from across the European Union, so afford this next statement with the gravity it deserves: colleges and universities across the UK are falling painfully short of supplying the British games industry with the talent it requires to remain competitive.
I'm most definitely not alone in holding such a view but, before you scroll headlong down into the comments, let me add a bit of context. Eight years ago I graduated from Warwickshire College after studying Media and Game Design. A few years after that, I graduated from the University of Derby and set up my own studio, now working on multiple action games under the wing of Square Enix.
Bulkhead Interactive had, until very recently, been entirely dependent on students. We originally started the company because studios out there hiring graduate artists were especially few and far between. Fast forward to 2019, however, and how times have changed. In that time, our experience has entirely flipped, from being the only studio attending student events on the hunt for fresh talent through to sitting at a tiny table next to the likes of Rockstar and Playground Games. The UK's big hitters now head to these events en masse, but -- in my experience at least -- many are left wanting.
"Far too few courses fully equip their students with the skillset Bulkhead and scores of other British studios need"
Though interest in the games industry is as high as it has ever been, far too few courses fully equip their students with the skillset both Bulkhead and scores of other British studios need from fresh starters. In short, the system is failing, and -- whether Brexit comes to pass or not -- it's about time the UK games industry got its house in order.
In my experience, it's rarely the fault of lecturers. Generally they spend around three quarters of their time wrapped in red tape, watching as a head of department in an increasingly arbitrary position writes off gaming as child's play and, crucially, not a real industry. Without pointing the finger at anyone in particular, the perception -- and, in some cases, experience -- I have of these folks is of grey haired individuals peering into dark and dank seminar rooms, as their inner monologue scoffs, "they're just playing games."
However, according to Andrew Brazier, the games development course lead at Warwickshire College, that take may be a trifle unfair. "It is in fact the management who are often behind the drive to create new games courses as they are such a growth area and recruit well," he told me. "It is true, however, that some courses are a mish-mash of bits from existing programmes bundled together and rebranded as a games degree."
According to Brazier, this approach is unlikely to change any time soon as, in his view, colleges and universities are, "under immense financial pressure and need to recruit students."
He continued: "Education providers need to work harder to make sure that their courses are developed with industry support, they promote them to the right students, and they continually work with employers to ensure the curriculum stays relevant. This needs a fluid exchange of information between educators and industry to ensure we're equipping students with the right skills and abilities and can adapt to ever-changing requirements."
However, while Brazier and I may be on the same page when it comes to reforming the system, it's unlikely the people who have the power to force that change -- the aforementioned management -- will see these words. When we at Bulkhead visit universities, the second we see that the students have just one screen to work on, we can practically smell the disrespect from the department higher ups. Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise -- you don't need a degree to work out that kitting out a classroom with the equipment needed to adequately teach a games course costs significantly more than, say, English or Maths -- but the end result remains the same.
To fix this, I believe that we need to engage with the universities more. By that, I don't mean head over for a talk once in a blue moon, where you take them through one of your big hits from the past or tell them how "tough and competitive" the industry is. Because, in reality, right now it's easier than it has ever been for students to get into the industry because everyone wants them.
"For anything to change talented studios must reach out to local universities and commit to helping them consistently"
Indeed, according to Brazier, this spirit of cooperation has to extend way beyond the odd presentation in front of pre-grads. "Good communication is key," he said. "Centralising information for educational institutions, like Blitz Academy -- rest in peace -- did, and more recently Creative Assembly do through their excellent Legacy programme, could help reduce the amount of requests for support or information that studios must constantly receive from educational establishments."
"Unfortunately, not many developers have the time or resources to dedicate someone to education liaison and outreach, which means that requests can understandably go unanswered, or information received from two people at the same studio can be wildly different. The recent GamesED conference went some way to providing a more centralised source of updated information for educators, but there's still a long way to go."
For Bulkhead, our engagement plan revolves around running a club at our local university. We are offering to send our art director to the university once a week to run a two hour session where we give everyone a real brief to work from, while being on hand to help review the work and directly engage with the students -- students we hope can one day come and work for our company. We hope to be able to spot promising students in their first year, which are already great, and which ones... well, to be frank, don't have what it takes.
For now, however, this plan remains a pipe-dream. Though we have it set in place, for whatever reason it just hasn't been pushed through by our local university. As a result, we haven't been able to implement it.
Back to square one
Even if our approach had been implemented at this point, however, the structure is not without issues: once it enters the university machine, it will more than likely fall apart. Our local university in Derby -- my alma mater, no less -- has shifted focus to research and PHDs; something I regard as a rather feeble attempt to hold a place in the national rankings for research. Such ambition, in my view, comes at the expense of producing classes of students stacked with ability, ready to begin the next phase of their career education: on the job itself.
For anything to change long term it's going to take talented studios reaching out to their local universities and committing to helping them consistently. Each university will have its own issues, regional strains, and its own red tape. For us in Derby, we're always welcomed as industry professionals, but if we and the lecturers attempt to further our plans to collaborate beyond a quick talk and end of year review, we're stumped. They have their own internal battles to fight in a system that's under pressure, all the way from primary education right up to university level.
Something has to change, and after speaking to other studios facing similar challenges to us, we want to be at the front of the pack finding out exactly what.
If any universities are interested in collaborating with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.