Is a degree in games the best way into the industry?
The number of students studying game-related subjects in the UK has doubled in just a few years; while some established courses are great, students still need to be cautious about their choices
It's no secret that the videogames industry has a fairly significant skills gap; many of the industry's biggest firms have spent years pushing for education policies in general - and third-level qualifications in particular - that would help to supply the very specific skill sets required for videogame creation. It's no exaggeration to say that the ability to find skilled staff is an existential issue for game studios; with tight deadlines and budgets the norm, many studios would be plunged into crisis by an inability to fill key positions with qualified staff.
As such, the figures released by the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency over the past few weeks showing the boom in the number of people studying game-development related courses is unquestionably welcome on some levels. HESA's figures divide these courses into game design and game graphics, with each of them more than doubling the number of students enrolled over the past three years or so. The largest growth, though only marginally so, was in game design, which grew 129% between 2014/15 and 2016/17.
Some of the courses that have sprung up to meet demand are not accredited by any industry body and, bluntly, aren't teaching their students the skills they'd need to actually work at a game developer
With Brexit looming ever closer and little clarity yet on how the process for hiring skilled workers from Europe will work after the end of the transition period, the prospect of having a large skilled workforce available within the UK is good news for the industry. However, a strong note of caution is also required - both for the industry and, perhaps more importantly, for the students enrolled in, or thinking about embarking on, these courses.
TIGA boss Richard Wilson hinted towards one issue earlier this week, when he made a statement on the HESA figures that highlighted TIGA's accreditation scheme for courses - the subtext being that some of the courses that have sprung up to meet this demand are not accredited by any industry body and, bluntly, aren't teaching their students the skills they'd need to actually work at a game developer.
That's a pretty serious issue, especially given how expensive university in the UK has become in recent years. For the games industry, it means that people who are keen and enthusiastic about working in this sector are being given lacking or entirely inappropriate skills, which only serves to deepen the skills gap many companies face. For the prospective graduates, it's a much more personal disaster; a degree they've spent three or four years working towards may turn out to be utterly worthless once they graduate.
In this regard, the fact that game design is the most rapidly growing field of study is a red flag; in countless conversations with developers over the years, design - while undoubtedly important and indeed worthy of study and research in its own right - has never, to my recollection, come up as being a role they struggle to hire for. Code, art, animation and a host of other technical roles, absolutely; but the career paths for graduates in game design without an impressive battery of technical skills under their belts seem very narrow and limited indeed.
This is far from being an issue that's limited to the United Kingdom, of course; the explosion in third-level education focused on game creation is an international phenomenon, and the quality and relevance of programs on offer ranges from the superb to the scandalously awful. A handful of programs are more humanities-oriented, focusing on games as a creative artform - these are incredibly valuable and worthwhile in their own right, but discussing them is beyond the scope of this article. Here I'm focusing instead on the vocational-type programs, which make up the vast, vast majority of game-related third level programs; programs which are promoted to their students on the promise, explicit or implicit, that they will prepare them for a career as a game creator.
With so many new courses popping up, data on career paths of previous graduates is often limited or, in some cases, non-existent
The Princeton Review published findings on these programs recently, and its findings do show that there are some excellent institutions running great programs; graduates from game programs at the University of Southern California and New York University, to name the top two in the report, will no doubt have little trouble finding their way into good industry roles. Travel further down the list, however, and the value of what's being offered gets a little more murky. By far the most valuable indicator for a potential student (and indeed for a potential employer of a new graduate) is data on the career paths of previous graduates; with so many new courses popping up, however, this data is often limited or, in some cases, non-existent.
This is an important consideration for any young person who wants to work in the games sector (which is in itself a fine plan, given the ongoing and sustained growth in the sector) and views a course like this as a stepping stone on the way. One thing that's all too often absent from discussions about game courses is the observation I've heard from a great many developers over the years; that in fact, more general-purpose university programs can often be more valuable on a resume than a game-specific program.
With careful choice of the right subjects and courses, more general degrees like computer science or animation can be a better springboard for a career - and moreover, they give graduates opportunities beyond the horizon of the games industry, should they choose to look elsewhere. This might not be a popular place to say it, but given the technical complexity and high degree of skill involved, game development roles are generally woefully underpaid; getting a more general grounding in programming, art, animation or any other field gives a graduate options if the day comes when the joy of working on videogames starts to give way to the ennui of earning half the salary of compatriots doing similar work elsewhere.
That being said, the direct path which a game-specific degree offers is understandably enormously appealing to some students - and there's no doubt that the specific skills you'll pick up on a good course of this kind can be enormously beneficial (you won't learn much about Unity on a general computer science course, and art and animation programs often won't teach you in-depth about technical issues like controlling polygon counts in your models). The proliferation of these courses truly is good news in general; but as so many new ones spring up, with so little information available on their outcomes and the relevance of the skills they're teaching, caveat emptor must be the watchword for students dreaming of a career in games.