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Careers: A Tough Choice

EA's Matthew Jeffery on the issues facing students and graduates today.

While the videogames industry is enjoying record levels of success in terms of people playing games - as well as sales revenues - the UK, although a traditional powerhouse of games design, faces a cost problem.

With other territories offering cheaper wages and significant tax breaks more and more jobs are disappearing overseas.

At the same time, there have never been more degree courses available to students wishing to study games-related subjects - but are there enough jobs to go around?

Matthew Jeffery is the head of Electronic Arts' Global Talent Brand, and touched briefly on the subject during a session at this year's Imagina conference - here we ask him to unpack his thoughts more fully on one of the most pressing issues that will face the UK industry in the next few years.

In your Imagina session, when referring to games-related university courses available, you advised people to "choose carefully" - what did you mean by that?

I think the problem at the moment is that there are just a large number of gaming-related courses, particularly in the UK - at last count there were around 170 or 180 different courses - which means there's a huge supply of potential graduates coming into the industry.

From my perspective, the key thing for a graduate is to make sure they're ultimately employable and can get into the career option of their choice.

If you look at the gaming degrees, a lot of them have been put together quite hastily and don't prepare graduates for a career in the industry. That means they come to a company like ours and they need extra training - they're not quite ready.

So the problem is that game degrees are almost like the latest fashion accessory - all the universities are running to set them up, but the students aren't being prepared in terms of the skill sets they have.

What I look at is that the games degrees tend to be quite vocational in nature, and this has its benefits, but a lot of the students don't get to grips with the pure technical aspects and they're often found to be quite lacking in that area - which is of particular concern to us.

So what I'd tell students is to make sure to look at the success ratio of people on those courses getting jobs in the games industry.

And while there are a huge number of courses in the UK, there are also a declining number of roles for graduates to gain entry into - and that trend could continue, because obviously the investment is going to those areas which are more attractive - Montreal, Asia and so on - meaning there will be less for the UK, therefore fewer jobs for graduates.

So if you've got a huge talent supply of graduates coming into the industry with very few jobs, that's a big concern.

And my advice would be for people looking at games courses, consider what else you might be able to do if you can't get into the industry, where else you can go to.

In fact our recommendation at EA is that we prefer people to have traditional degrees, so somebody studying computer science, maths or physics and then coming into a programming role, means that they can then go off into a number of different industries and be successful.

And also we've found that those people come into the industry more up-to-speed because they're more used to thought processes, and come in and help us make hit games.

Course like English Literature and English Language, and others like that, are again great for game designers because they're teaching different thought processes and the construction of stories, etc.

So for us gaming degrees are very interesting, but if I look particularly at game design degrees, for the last 300 hires we've made at EA we've only hired three entry-level game designers. And those people haven't come from games design degrees, so that must flag up to the universities that there's a problem here if the biggest employer of graduates in the UK is not employing games design students.

If a games course student cannot get a job in the games industry, where do they get a job? It's not the most transferrable of degrees, compared to more traditional courses.

Add to that the level of debt that students generally graduate with nowadays, and it doesn't seem to be a very pretty picture?

The average debt I was reading about the other day is GBP 15-18,000 - so you've asked them to study for three or four years, come out with that level of debt, and they can't get into the industry they want to get into - that's a huge waste of talent.

Now, I understand why the universities are offering these degrees, because we see a large number of people wanting to enrol in them, and if they get big enrolment numbers it helps them with government subsidies for the university, and with the students coming in and paying their fees - or part fees where necessary.

So we're saying to professors, "Make sure your students are set up for success, and they have the skills which will give them the maximum number of career choices."

There are too many courses for the number of jobs available - not everybody is going to get a job, and that's a message we have to get out there.

On the other hand it's positive that so many people are keen about getting into the industry though?

It's a big positive, and I think we're heading into the golden era of gaming - we've got next-gen systems out in the market and well established, we've got some great games which are made in the UK such as Burnout, and Home, and GTA - so there are opportunities.

But again for entry level jobs there's going to be a huge supply, and the demand issue will come in, particularly if businesses push their investment to other countries.

But the great thing is that gaming is becoming a career of choice for a lot of people - it's exciting, it's fun, passionate people want to get in - and interestingly it's the film industry who once looked at the games industry almost as an awkward cousin and was embarrassed by it, they now look at gaming and don't see the restrictions of memory which they once saw with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox and would have limited their capabilities coming from film.

They now see next-generation machines and they can come in, work in real time online, and the great thing is it's putting you in control of the game and the characters.

People all want to get into our industry, which is a phenomenal thing, but for graduates we just want to make sure that the message is out there - choose carefully, look at the course you're studying, see where the students have gone on to after that, etc.

Do you think universities are really suited to providing education for the games industry? A great deal has happened right across the gaming space in the three years that anybody graduating this year will have spent in a degree, and institutions can't ever move quickly enough, can they?

That's the key challenge with any of the gaming degrees - the technology moves faster than sometimes the curriculum development, so what we've found with some of the degrees is that the students have been well equipped for working on the last gen machines like the PS2, and we've brought them into work on the PS3, the Xbox 360 and Wii, they've not been ready.

And adapting them has been harder compared to somebody coming in with a very broad base working from a traditional degree, with those thought processes, and we train them up.

We've talked about the UK there, what is your impression of how other countries approach the subject of education?

It's interesting - games degrees are probably one of those popular career options at the moment, so we're seeing quite a huge number in the Americas, again with a mixed bag.

I think that because of the maturity of their market some of the courses have learned and gotten themselves more up-to-speed about the needs of the games industry, and are probably a little bit more ahead of Europe in that regard.

You go the other way if you look at Asia where the industry is relatively new and in a growth cycle, so the students are coming from quite generalist backgrounds and studying traditional areas, then coming in with that passion and making a difference.

I'd probably expect to see the trend for games degrees becoming a big thing in Asia at some point as they look at what the West has done - but the message to students is the same.

Matthew Jeffery is the head of Global Talent Brand at Electronic Arts. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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