The skills shortage in the UK games industry -- and elsewhere -- is putting a spotlight on how the sector can nurture talent for the future. At the same time, we are seeing a huge shift in working patterns, with studios and educational institutions adopting remote, flexible and hybrid working.
These issues will be addressed at the Games Education Summit, which kicks off tomorrow, and here we discuss some of those points with the speakers.
There has been criticism in the past of studios not engaging well enough with Higher and Further Education institutions, and of universities not preparing students properly for a career in games. How have things changed over the past couple of years?
Rick Gibson, BGI: When we ran the first GamesEd Summit in 2019, we saw some feisty debates between educators and studios as competing demands clashed. But the summit is designed to build bridges and since then we've seen real change as studios and educators increased their collaboration. We like to showcase innovation, including from smaller studios, and I was particularly impressed last year with how Fabrik Games and Bolton University worked so closely together to redesign the curriculum and review students' portfolios. Not so small now, but Fabrik shows how any studio can think long term about pathways for talent into their team.
Philip Oliver, Panivox: The impact of COVID basically put everything on hiatus. Adjusting to the impact of the pandemic became all-consuming for both educators and studios, so for a while any perceived lack of engagement from either will have been exaggerated. Educators, for example, needed to focus on delivering courses while staying safe, while studios had to enable everyone to work from home with all the technical and logistical equipment requirements that entailed, not to mention the impact on recruitment.
For at least 18 months we missed the traditional 'milk round', where studios would visit the colleges and universities, or attend events, to meet the best undergraduate and graduate talent.
Plus, it's fundamentally more challenging to hire graduates into full-time positions in a remote environment -- studios switched their focus to experienced professionals who are easier to onboard remotely and don't need mentoring.
Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift: It's improved -- but I'm sure there's a lot of progress still to be made in both areas. I think the pandemic opened up/forced opportunities for studios to interact without the need for physical visits. This helps, but quality facetime/feedback with students is better than virtual appearances.
Universities have made some strides in recent years, and some are far better than others. But there's no doubt that UK universities still produce a lot of students on 'Games' courses that are not equipped with the right skills to start jobs in the games industry. So, unless we start to offer different courses, this won't change any time soon. More games engineering courses, more technical art, more actual games development projects being made by students. There are some great examples of courses that produce higher percentages of students that are 'games industry ready' -- would be great if we could emulate these.
"People are attracted to the perceived glamour of working in video games, but it often comes down to salary at the end of the day"Philip Oliver, Panivox
Peter Howell, University of Portsmouth: While there have always been studios that have excellent outreach teams, this seems to have become a much larger part of many studios' activities over the past few years (from our perspective as educators). Studios offering placement and internship programmes are more common but also other types of outreach and engagement activities, such as guest speaking (for both staff and student audiences), engagement in course and curriculum development ensuring teaching is informed by industry standards and industry needs, and providing live briefs for students to work on as part of their course, all help to enhance the industry-readiness of students.
Additionally, accreditation of games courses via schemes such as TIGA Accreditation help to give students, parents, and industry confidence that graduates will be entering the workforce with the skills, knowledge, and mindset needed to hit the ground running.
Many of the UK's biggest studios and service companies have strong and impressive ties with universities. For smaller studios reading -- who may not have large HR and talent teams -- what can they do to help invest in the games industry's future talent?
Joe Brammer, Bulkhead Studios: Smaller studios can afford to be more candid and direct with students. We can offer more control and creative freedom than larger studios. The smaller developers should be looking to find creatives who want to soar.
When we visit a university or college, we aren't looking for the best piece of work, we're looking at the people. Who made this? How long have they been doing it? Why did they choose to do this course? The reality is that most students are ineffective as developers when they join the industry... But that doesn't mean they can't very, very quickly start making a huge impact if used in the right way.
Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy: We are an industry of SMEs and it is key that their challenges and opportunities are recognised; they should be a huge part of the solution to skills gaps and shortages. They can get involved with organisations like NextGen; we have levels of engagement to suit all from a seat on our Employer Steering Group, being part of a Trailblazer group who develop apprenticeships, something both ourselves and Into Games are involved in, or take part in direct engagement through outreach such as delivering masterclasses. We pay for the latter as we appreciate that the time and thought that goes into their delivery needs to be reflected.
Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift: The easiest way is to engage with initiatives like Gradsingames, Into Games, maybe UKIE Student events. These initiatives and events should have the reach and the audience you need without the need for the cost and logistical nightmare that comes with doing things on your own.
Remote working and learning have been a necessity for much of the past couple of years. What have been the challenges for studios and education in managing this?
Liz Prince, Amiqus: The games industry, like every other sector, was forced to adopt remote working when the UK first went into lockdown back in 2020. We are a highly innovative tech industry, so from that perspective, we adapted swiftly.
But, outside of these logistical issues, the key challenges were staff wellbeing, keeping teams connected and onboarding new staff. Some studios already had flexible working options in place for staff. But teams still regularly met up in person, and -- certainly -- very few companies had recruited and onboarded new employees virtually.
After some initial uncertainty, studios needed to continue expanding -- with the games industry booming during lockdowns, they very quickly adapted. HR and Talent Acquisition teams quickly learnt how to complete the interview process virtually, onboard them in the same way, and then provide mentoring for new team members.
At the same time, we saw some brilliant initiatives to keep staff connected -- and, yes, not just virtual quizzes. I think we are all still processing those events during lockdown, but the whole industry should be proud of how it adapted, how studios continued to grow their headcounts, and keep staff connected and motivated during that very difficult time.
Joe Brammer, Bulkhead Studios: The biggest challenge studios face is keeping a sense of camaraderie, collaboration and teamwork going when you're not sitting in the same room as your team. Games are made by teams not individuals, and with remote working putting a barrier between your team, it was a real struggle keeping our candid and honest approach when you're not socializing with your teammates every day.
"Remote work experience has really taken off, and opportunities for remote working have opened up engagement with studios that would have been out of reach"Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy
I think most studios took the same approach when the first lockdown reared its head -- send everyone home, but try to keep working as if you're in the office. We tried it that way the first time round too, and it doesn't really work, especially if you have a hybrid situation where some are in the office and some aren't.
Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy: For education, a key factor has been access to the appropriate tools needed for online learning -- we can easily take for granted that everyone has their own laptop -- this sadly has turned out not to be the case and tech deprivation has been exposed as a huge issue. I don't think it would be a surprise to hear that mental health and engagement has suffered. We are currently working with Mind Fitness to explore training and development workshops that we can roll out to the NextGen colleges and tutors to tackle this.
There have also been some silver linings when delivering learning remotely, such as students being able to access some amazing masterclasses from our wonderful industry that wouldn't have been possible in person. The idea of remote work experience has also really taken off, and opportunities for remote working have opened up engagement with studios and organisations that would otherwise have been out of reach.
Particularly in the context of wellbeing, there has been much discussion about the negatives of remote working/learning, but have there been any benefits/positives? And how could they be applied to practices going forward?
Liz Prince, Amiqus: Games professionals have very much changed their attitudes towards what they want from their working environment since the lockdowns and remote working for all. At Amiqus, we carried out research late last year which revealed that individuals enjoyed many benefits when working from home -- from practical things like commuting costs and time being reduced, to personal things such as being able to spend more time with family and friends.
At the same time, people have relocated to be closer to family, or to enjoy a better work/life balance. And have continued to successfully carry out their work, despite being remote from their studios.
Going forward, the desire for a better work/life balance remains, and job candidates are demanding more flexibility from their working conditions. Forward-thinking studios have recognised this and are offering just that -- from fully remote and flexible working, to even embracing the four-day week.
And for those companies still on the fence about flexible working, it's worth noting that 82% of respondents to our survey said that their productivity levels remained the same -- or increased -- while working from home.
Joe Brammer, Bulkhead Studios: The splits between negatives and positives really come down to individuals and their circumstances. One approach doesn't fit all perfectly. For some, there is a huge benefit to their mental state if they can cut their commute time out of their life, giving them more time to do housework, pick their kids up from school, walk the dog... It's really around what each person values and how they want to spend their time.
Going forward, keeping that in mind for working practices is a must. With that in mind, the only viable solutions currently out there are a flexible or hybrid model -- either allowing people to work wherever they want at any given time or set days in office and remote.
"We don't produce enough highly skilled individuals. Those we do aren't always equipped to showcase their talent. Other industries also seek their skills - and often pay more"Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift
Peter Howell, University of Portsmouth: The general acceptance and now well-established infrastructure for remote meetings, conferences, and other types of events means that national and international engagement and collaboration becomes potentially much easier. Of course, much of the games industry already works across countries and across time zones, but this isn't something that historically graduates would be particularly well-prepared for.
By continuing with an appropriately blended, hybrid approach to teaching, there is a great opportunity to develop graduates that are ready to work in a variety of different contexts, whether that is a co-located office environment or a geographically wide-spread team working asynchronously across different time zones. That preparedness can only be a benefit to the future games industry workforce.
We know that there is a skills shortage in games generally, but which are the most 'hard-to-hire' disciplines currently?
Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy: I don't think there will be any surprises for anyone in the industry, but programming, technical art, leadership and management skills are the ones that come up most often. Mid and senior roles are where we seem to have the most open heads and are the hardest roles to fill.
Philip Oliver, Panivox: Good programmers are really hard to find right now, especially those with back-end server expertise -- and if you do find the talent it's expensive, as the same skills are in high demand across different industries. It's not the most exciting or creative element of game development, but it's an essential part.
We've been lucky enough to pick up a server-side programmer who used to work for one of the failed energy companies -- and I expect a lot of other companies, in the games industry and other sectors, have been doing the same.
Games, however, is an attractive industry to work in, so for some roles people will often choose a studio rather than a bank offering the same position. Companies like banks just tend to have deeper pockets if money is a factor, which it often is.
Why are these particular roles difficult to fill?
Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy: The short answer is demand. The games industry continues to grow year on year and there's increasing competition from other creative industries. We share many of the same skills requirements with content producers like animation and VFX, plus there's competition for visualisation skills in industries such as engineering and manufacturing. Brexit has played a part, as has the lack of training to support the movement of employees into a lead role.
"By continuing with a hybrid approach to teaching, there is a great opportunity to develop graduates that are ready to work in a variety of different contexts"Peter Howell, University of Portsmouth
Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift: In general, we just don't produce enough highly skilled individuals in these areas. Those we do produce aren't always equipped with the correct portfolios to showcase their talent. And other industries also seek their skills -- and pay more on salaries.
What can the industry and education to do help resolve this -- and the skills shortage in general?
Philip Oliver, Panivox: The answer to this question is the reason we have GamesEd2022 -- educators not only need to understand where the skills shortages are now, but also predict where they will be in future, so that we can all work together to create the best courses for solving those issues.
I think it's also important to reassure undergraduates that there will be a job at the end of their course. Of course, many universities and colleges already spend a lot of time doing this, but I think there's room for using stats and data to demonstrate employability. For example, a course might have a 75% placement success rate, but what the student might not know is if there's already an oversupply of Unity programmers. Students need more help to choose whether a field is right for them, regardless of university/course. Meta data across fields / disciplines now and with futures projections need to be easily available to students in Senior schools to help them determine which direction to aim.
Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift: Universities could maybe amend courses, learn from those that are producing a higher proportion of students that are able to make the leap from student to professional developer.
And the industry should feedback, give time and manpower to Academics so they can understand how the industry works, where the skills fit into the pipeline of games development.
What can we do to stop existing or future talent being attracted to other sectors?
Marcia Deakin, Next Gen Skills Academy: First thing, we need to do is understand why people are leaving or choosing rival sectors. Is it pay? Is it an image issue? Is it a lack of awareness of the careers and opportunities available? Are we reaching a big enough audience? Are we missing out on talent that is harder to reach? Working together I am confident that as an industry can answer these questions and make the changes needed to meet the skills challenges of the future.
Philip Oliver, Panivox: People are attracted to the perceived glamour of working in games, but it often comes down to salary at the end of the day. Covid has made the recruitment process slightly harder for indie studios -- they often count on offering a creative environment and camaraderie to attract and retain staff, but that element has broken down a bit as so many positions have moved to remote working.
Indies can't offer the wider benefits packages and job security that the larger studios (and larger companies in other sectors) can do to make up the difference. That said, personal passion for playing and then making games is a big soft factor for carving out a successful career in games, though for some people that could become a bit of a busman's holiday.
Ian Goodall, Aardvark Swift: Salaries ultimately need to be higher in certain areas (particularly Code), flexible options for working, plus clearly defined career development paths (L+D plans).
Games Education Summit 2022 takes place on April 21 and 22 at Sheffield Hallam University. For tickets and more information, click here.