"Entrepreneurialism is the new get-a-job-as-a-games-tester"
Brian Baglow talks about what's needed to democratise games recruitment
The good news is that the UK's games industry is growing. The bad news is that it doesn't seem to be growing up quite as quickly. The other bad news is that it doesn't seem like the news is getting out there, or that anyone's paying attention.
The games sector is expanding and evolving more quickly than ever. There are an increasing number of dedicated games degrees and courses being offered at colleges and universities throughout the British Isles. Combined with the low barriers to entry offered by online, mobile, casual and social games, more and more people are realising they can develop and publish games directly. Entrepreneurialism is the new get-a-job-as-a-games-tester.
This is very exciting. It gives the media opportunities to shout about the creative economy and knowledge industries (alongside excoriating games for violent content, increasing childhood obesity and isolating players from the rest of the population). The industry bodies can state confidently to government and other industries, that Britain's games sector is doing pretty well, thank you very much.
And it is. More or less. Lots of companies, lots and lots of games. Loads of events and revenue projections that make everybody bar the global arms industry jealous. We're all SO busy. There are new projects to be getting on with, new games to play, new devices on the market (VR! It's the future!!) Furious activity everywhere you look and lots of sleek infographics showing the world is our oyster.
Which is where the enquiring mind normally stops. Everything's grand. OK, discoverability may be a problem and free-to-play is clearly evil, but on the whole, it's smashing. Thanks again.
However, the games sector is not an area which suffers from a huge amount of research. At least not in some areas. The games we get, we analyse those quite a bit (but not to design by analytics, that would be dreadful,) but the way the industry actually works, how people get into games, who those people are, what their jobs are, how they grown and learn... those tend to be far less interesting than the games.
" The games sector we know and love is not famous for it's professional, people-focused approach"
That's a problem. The games sector we know and love is not famous for it's professional, people-focused approach. The only time anyone tends to think about these issues are when we see another miserable revelation about poor business practices, insane crunch time expectations, mass redundancies, or when another major studio spectacularly implodes.
The focus on the technical and creative skills required by the industry still seem to take priority over everything else. The fact that developers now have to know more about publishing, distribution, marketing, analytics, social media, finance and all of the skills required to run a sustainable business are somehow supposed to be picked up along the way. There's YouTube, there's Amazon, consider yourself trained...
Which made the recently released results for Creative Skillset's Workforce Survey all the more interesting. The organisation supports skills and training across all of the UK's creative industries - film, TV, animation, visual effects, fashion and textiles - even games.
Towards the end of last year Creative Skillset carried out its annual survey of the people working within the creative industries. They got a great response from the games sector, with more people than ever taking the time to answer questions about their career.
"Despite the growing availability of tools which put game creation in the hands of young people, despite the increasing awareness that making games can be an actual career, the sector is not getting the wide and varied and eclectic workforce we might wish for"
The survey shows that for all of the growth, the number of graduates, the new studios and games, the actual games industry isn't operating as well as we probably should be. The people within the industry are not getting the opportunities they might.
Despite the growing availability of tools which put game creation in the hands of young people, despite the increasing awareness that making games can be an actual (and awesome) career, the sector is not getting the wide and varied and eclectic workforce we might wish for (or actually need).
First the good news. Over 86 per cent of the people who responded to the survey are graduates. We're a talented, or at least well educated bunch. 49 per cent of the respondents were creative media graduates. With the growing number of games courses, that number is likely to rise significantly in the near future.
How are people getting into the games business? According to the survey, it may be who you know. Over half of the people who responded to the survey found their job through 'informal recruitment methods'. So while an impressive CV may be nice to have, could it possibly be that networking and a delight in beer are still the crucial elements to finding a job in the games world?
Who's working in games? The survey threw up some very interesting - and in some cases worrying - responses. Yes, we're talking diversity.
The survey found that the proportion of people with disabilities in the UK's games sector has remained static at 6 per cent, less than half that of the UK working population (11 per cent). 12 per cent of respondents attended an independent/fee-paying school (versus 7 per cent for the UK population). 5 per cent of the workforce identified themselves as LGBT (versus 6 per cent for the UK population).
"Who's working in games? The survey threw up some very interesting - and in some cases worrying - responses. Yes, we're talking diversity"
That's not brilliant.
We've known the games industry has issues with diversity for some time now. The industry started out with a reputation for being something of a boys club and being honest, the last year hasn't really done anything to address that. The wails of outrage when something - anything - happens which makes games a little more diverse (like Fifa introducing women's clubs in the game) are now wearily familiar. The attacks and abuse heaped upon women in the industry who create, write about, or even play games have ensured the sector will be treated as toxic and isolated from the rest of the creative industries, just as we have the opportunity to show all of the other sectors just how interactive media can revolutionise their output.
We need to be doing more to attract people from different backgrounds, whether socially, ethnically or whatever their gender or sexuality. Tools for creating games are more available than they've ever been. Schools and colleges are introducing coding and even game development to curriculums. It should be a lot simpler to build a diverse workforce than it seems to be.
Why is this? Digging into the rest of the survey throws up a few possibilities...
Routes into the industry don't seem to be keeping pace with the number of studios and roles on offer. Fewer than 1 per cent of the games workforce came into the industry through an apprenticeship. This has never been a major focus for the games sector. We have fewer large companies with the infrastructure to offer the sort of support and experience an apprenticeship requires. Smaller games companies now tend to focus on smaller, shorter projects and have much smaller management teams, so would find it difficult to work with an apprenticeship scheme.
"as the number of graduates continues to grow, alongside the number of studios, the debate over skilled employees and the quality and value of the degrees they have continues. Games apprenticeships could be of immense value"
However, as the number of graduates continues to grow, alongside the number of studios, the debate over skilled employees and the quality and value of the degrees they have continues. Games apprenticeships could be of immense value. A number of other creative industries are already offering more structured apprenticeship routes into the key roles the sector requires.
Several organisations and institutions are already looking at apprenticeships, specifically for the UK's games sector. Both the rather awesome Next Gen Skills Academy and equally excellent Norwich University of the Arts are actively working to introduce apprentices to games companies.
Another issue seems to be the reality of the games industry as a proper career. Like diversity, this issue only really gets any sort of media coverage when it goes horribly wrong. The games industry can offer an amazing 'real job'. Thousands of people around the world have worked successfully in gaming for decades, yet we're still fighting to convince people that it can be a proper business.
Again, the survey throws up a few tantalising hints as to why this might be. Alongside the informal routes into the industry, the games industry isn't famous for it's structured career path, job roles or routes for advancement. Skills and training are an issue. Any training which is received tends to be entirely on-the-job. Retraining for a new role or continuing personal development to give staff new skills seems to be something of an afterthought. Less than half of all the people who responded to the survey had received any sort of training in the previous 12 months. Over half of those working within companies said they had experienced barriers to training. This was actually more common than freelancers, where 42 per cent said they'd experienced barriers, or problems accessing training. So even a proper 'job' might not be the best thing for your career...?
Finally, the question of how much value the industry places on the work it carries out may be an issue. A third of those in the survey indicated that they had carried out unpaid work within the games sector. As a former freelancer and contractor, I can confirm that this is a widespread problem, even when working for the largest companies. We love your work, we just won't pay you for it.
"The games sector is still a comparatively young industry. It differs from the other screen sectors - though not as much as people within the games industry imagine"
Where does this leave us? None of the issues highlighted by the survey are insoluble, or point to an industry in deep crisis (apart from the bullying, abuse and harassment. That sucks, full stop). The games sector is still a comparatively young industry. It differs from the other screen sectors - though not as much as people within the games industry imagine. If we suffer from anything it's from a lack of structure and a degree of indifference or sometimes even contempt for the business elements of the, umm, business...
It's a fast moving sector. Constantly driven forward by technology. New platforms open up new business models, distribution channels, game experiences and revenue streams. Anyone working in the UK's games sector is likely to be working primarily with mobile, tablet, online, casual, social and emerging devices. Studios have shrunk, budgets likewise. The difference between the large AAA console studios and the indie micro studios of 1-5 people is growing ever larger. So the industry has a huge range of roles and skills to cater for.
We don't have the equivalent of the major organisations in film or television, such as PACT, BECTU - or even Equity, which outline job roles, pay scales, skills, training and routes into and through their industries. We're a younger, cooler and more rapidly evolving industry. Yet we do have support. We do have people fighting to make things better and offer the sort of support and structure that will allow the games sector to grow and evolve and help the industry thrive. Creative Skillset, UKIE, NESTA, BAFTA, Next Gen Skills Academy, DCMS, Innovate UK, UKTI, Scottish Enterprise, Creative England, Creative Scotland and a whole host of other organisations are already actively involved in supporting the games sector in a wide variety of ways. Training, apprenticeships, course accreditation, funding, advocacy, education... it's almost like being a proper grown-up industry.
It's easy to overlook the issues facing the games sector itself. It's easy to shrug and say that we can only employ the people who come to us, or that our staff get the training they need. We are a young industry. We are growing and evolving. We are (slowly) getting better. It'll sort itself out anyway.
The games sector is no longer the isolated and insular little industry it once was. Interactive media is fundamentally changing every aspect of the creative industries. The rest of the creative world is going to need us, need our skills and our creativity and experience in creating entirely new types of entertainment. The amount of interest and thirst for knowledge from the other sectors has grown incredibly in the last few years. Combine that with the ongoing evolution within the games sector itself - the new devices and capabilities, the new distribution channels and business models - it's clear that we need to find new ways to work, new ways to stay on the cutting edge and build the sort of new experiences the rest of the world is going to want.
We're growing. More quickly than ever. We need to ensure we grow up at the same time.