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Opening Doors

Blitz's Kim Blake on what the studio's Open Days have to offer.

In this guest editorial, Kim Blake of Blitz Games explains the idea behind the studio's Open Days initiative and what's on offer for both students and lecturers.

Millions of kids love playing videogames, and for many the idea of getting paid to make them is a dream. So why is there a shortage of talented development staff?

Here at Blitz, we believe that the problem is that wannabe game creators aren't getting taught the skills the industry requires. This isn't a problem we can solve overnight, but it must be addressed if we're to ensure the long term growth and success for our industry.

Over the years we've come up with many initiatives designed to engage the next generation of employees such as GameON - our careers advice service, which can be accessed via the Blitz Games website. We've also given lectures in schools and at universities, and worked with Skillset to improve the content of degree courses.

One of our most important initiatives is the Blitz Open Days program, which is designed to help us encourage and educate the games creators of tomorrow.

It's built around the idea that students learn so much more by getting to go behind the scenes, and by meeting and talking to the people who actually make games. They get the opportunity to ask any questions they want, and learn about the commercial realities of game development as well as the technical challenges.

It's not just a surprising and enlightening experience for the attendees - Blitz gets to see what students are learning and what they're missing out on with the current teaching programmes.

We had a huge number of applications for the first Blitz Open Days, which were held last summer. In fact, so many people wanted to attend that we had to ask for samples of work from prospective candidates - and even then it was tough to whittle the numbers down.

It was very gratifying that students and lecturers were prepared to travel from all over the country to attend the Open Days. De Montfort University, UCE and the University of Birmingham and Staffordshire were all well represented by lecturers, while most of the students came from De Montfort, Lincoln, Hull, University of Wales Newport and Southampton Solent.

At the Open Days, we focus on three main areas. Firstly, the importance of solid, core skills to underpin each chosen discipline. A course which attempts to cover all aspects of game development probably won't leave enough time in the curriculum for students to become highly skilled in any specific area. Of course, it's important to gain an understanding of the entire development process - but that alone won't get you a job.

Secondly, we discuss the soft skills that developers need. It's important to have excellent drawing or maths skills, but you've also got to have good verbal and written communication skills. This means you'll be able to handle constructive criticism and have an awareness of the roles your fellow team members are performing, plus how they work together to create the finished game. No one is going to hire a prima donna - no matter how good their work is - because teamwork is the core of development.

Finally, we offer guidance on how to apply for jobs within the games industry. Presentation is hugely important, so work must be shown professionally with relevant information clearly laid out - and only the best work should be showcased. We show some examples of work to give students an idea of what we want to see - and what we don't!

It's important to think carefully about the studio you want to work for and tailor your application accordingly. For example, if the studio specialises in racing games, there's little point sending in sketches of orcs! You might need to put more effort in, but that's the kind of dedication the studio will be looking for.

Over and above all this, one of our senior developers from each discipline - animation, programming, design et cetera - gives an overview of what their job involves. They explain what a typical day for someone in their field is like, and how this might vary depending on the position in the product cycle.

These mini-presentations are delivered in the morning, and are followed by a studio tour in the first part of the afternoon. Students then get a chance to sit down with the senior developer relevant to their discipline, ask detailed questions and perhaps even get feedback on their portfolio.

It's important that we communicate how many different jobs there are in the games industry - and not just in the development sector. We also discuss career path progression and specialisations; for example, within programming there's engine programming, tools programming, gameplay, effects, AI... And students may not be aware of all these, although they're all crucial to development studios.

To complement the information we supply on the day we also guide students to other career resources, such as GameON and the Skillset website, which has plenty of content about job roles and degree courses.

After last year's Open Days, we received some fantastic feedback from both lecturers ("Proves that the games industry is an enjoyable, rewarding and legitimate career") and students ("Today has been extremely informative and fun - I've been given a strong sense of what the job entails and hope to return!").

It was interesting to hear the students' thoughts on how their courses measured up compared to what they'd learned on the day. Encouragingly, a significant percentage thought their course was ticking the right boxes. However, the majority of students said their course was "only partly" succeeding in preparing them well for a career in the games industry - and the majority of lecturers agreed.

The Open Days gave Blitz some interesting and useful insights from both the lecturers and the students who might one day become our employees. In fact, two of last year's attendees are already working for us!

We're already gearing up for this year's Open Days, which are set to take place in March and April - to register, visit the Blitz Games website.

There's no denying that at present, there's a mismatch between the skills companies need and the skills that are being taught by educational establishments - this is true of many industries, not just games.

Of course, there are some excellent games-related courses out there, but not enough. It's up to us as an industry to work with educators and advise them on the skills we need from our future employees - and the Blitz Open Days initiative is, we hope, a great first step towards achieving this goal.

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