How to support the next generation of game developers
Game development requires a diverse range of skills and experience, but is the industry doing everything it can to equip graduates for life after university?
Paul Durrant, founder of state-funded talent development programme Tranzfuser, recently wrote an article for GamesIndustry.biz calling for a radical rethink on how we educate future game developers.
He argued that many students are leaving university without an adequate portfolio of completed work, and are lacking in business, teamwork, and project management experience.
This sentiment was broadly reflected by graduates on the Tranzfuser programme, who attended this year's EGX to display their games to the public. With only ten weeks to prepare a functional game, and with a cash prize of £25,000 on offer for the winning teams, part of the idea behind Tranzfuser is for graduates to fill in those gaps in their skillset.
Jemma Parkin, team leader at Foxtrot 203, said her course with Futureworks in Manchester didn't fully prepare her for the world after university. It was only after spending ten weeks on the Tranzfuser project that she felt confident looking for studio jobs.
The same can be said for the members of A Loaded Teaspoon, three of whom did joint honours in creative writing and game design at Brunel University. Obviously, a joint honours leaves graduates spread thin in certain areas, but diversification of skills is essential if the industry wants to continue to make interesting games. "We have a smaller portfolio of games," said narrative game designer Joseph Juson. "But we have other skills that helped us get onto Tranzfuser."
Juson's teammate Milly Gunn noted that one such skill is cultural sensitivity, something graduates don't learn from programming or design courses alone, developed more through the humanities and creative arts.
Programmer and designer Sean Shortreed was at the show with Giant Games and its Tranzfuser project, Beware of the Dark. Shortreed originally studied at Manchester Metropolitan but finished without much of a portfolio to speak of and hadn't been taught C++. Since then he's attended Sheffield Hallam to study for MSc in Games Software Development, learnt advanced programming languages, and was given the opportunity to see projects through to completion. He also spent a year in industry as part of his course, which he suggested was something every student should do.
"I worked for an outsourcing company creating software for opticians, but it was based in Unity with C#," he said. "I feel as mismanaged as it was, this let me learn more, as I was able to take charge more and learn a lot of what not to do."
Looking at the graduates' experience, and that of Shortreed in particular - an undergraduate degree, postgraduate degree, time spent working in the industry, and participation in Tranzfuser - it becomes painfully clear how difficult it can be for some students to break into the industry.
The issue lies in part with the breadth of skills required. While larger studios aren't necessarily looking for candidates with business acumen, they are looking for portfolios, project management, and teamwork. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, Paul Durrant expanded on this issue and what can be done about it.
At the UK Games Fund, he and his colleagues are looking for long term solutions. They have submitted a bid to build a 140 room stay-and-work field centre, with a public showcase space for graduates and final year students to develop and finish projects.
"If you think about the music industry equivalent, how sometimes bands go away to residential recording studios to work on an album, and that's still quite common," he said. "It's not about making people work crazy hours or exploiting them, it's about giving people creative freedom to stay and work in the same space.
"We're thinking quite radically about how you address this at postgraduate level, or even as final year projects in the summer for students to come together and do this thing in a structured way but without academic overheads essentially."
This approach has grown out of an environment where, only six years ago, the Next Gen report cast serious doubt over the relevance of game development course curricula to the industry. The report conceded that, although there was a massive oversubscription of graduates compared to the number of jobs, it was primarily the curriculum and quality of teaching that resulted in the poor performance.
The report noted that 42% of video games design graduates, "now realise that their course lacked industry relevant skills (compared with only half that proportion of video games programming graduates)."
Furthermore, it found that only 12% of graduates from specialist game development courses found work within six months and that, "most video games graduates are not up to scratch."
"If British graduates are to compete, higher education must continue to adapt."
But that situation has improved since then, thanks in part to TIGA accredited courses. The trade body produced a report earlier this month detailing the success of its 17 accredited courses, which paints a much more positive picture of education than that of six years ago. Common features of the TIGA accredited courses include the essentials of vocational focus, portfolio development, and strong ties with the industry.
"I'm very positive about UK higher education. I think it does a good job overall and certainly the games courses we've looked at are extremely good," said TIGA CEO Richard Wilson. "When we do our surveys about the key factors holding back the UK games industry, and we do this fairly regularly, skills haven't been at the top of that list for some time."
Based on TIGA's report, however, you could argue it's bit of a mixed bag. The number of graduates securing jobs in the industry range from as low as 26% with the BSc Hons in Computer Games Design at Staffordshire, to 80% with a BSc Hons in Games Technology from University of West England. Overall, Staffordshire University graduates are the most employable, with 67% of graduates from one of the university's seven programmes in 2014/15 finding employment in the videogame industry.
Of course, these numbers jump up when graduates take jobs outside of the industry, but that does little to dismiss Paul Durant's suggestion that it's time for a rethink; a notion only supported by Ukie's recent State of Play report, which found that 87% of games businesses hired international talent because UK candidates lacked the relevant skills or experience. This was highest in programming, where 18.5% were EU workers and 21% were from outside the EU. In art, it was 14.1% and 10.1% respectively.
Wilson argues it's not strictly down to a skills deficit, though. "It partly indicates that sometimes you can't get the people you want in the UK," he said. "But sometimes it's valuable getting hold of and recruiting people from overseas, because of course they bring other dimensions, other qualities, to the process of games development."
Durrant suggested that the high standard of the UK games industry makes it more competitive for British graduates.
"European games and arts graduates are going to be excited to come and work for the companies we've got," he said. "So some of it is just employers looking for the best wherever they come from."
If British graduates are to compete, higher education must continue to adapt. Wrexham Glyndŵr is an unlikely leader when it comes to shaping the future of games development courses. Speaking at the GamesIndustry.Biz Career Fair, senior lecturer Nathan Roberts outlined the ways in which he and colleague Richard Hebblewhite have redesigned the curriculum.
"Over the years we've taken our expertise of the game industry and modified the course to be more in line with the typical production pipeline found within the development of games," he said. "We've removed all exams and put a focus on portfolio work, with a clear emphasis on understanding the business goals associated with games and controlling development with the methodology SCRUM, which is integrated throughout."
"We've removed all exams and put a focus on portfolio work, with a clear emphasis on understanding the business goals associated with games."Nathan Robert, senior lecturer at Wrexham Glyndŵr
Each year the university hosts its own expo, Level Up, and actively encourages students to seek industry placements. Roberts, who has a background working with the NHS and prison service, pushes students towards demonstrating the wider value of games with their work, such as VR experiences to help disabled people with exercise.
In the second year students are encouraged to form their own company identity, which will see them through to graduation and beyond. It's clearly a winning formula, with Wrexham Glyndŵr boasting 100% student satisfaction and graduates feeling confident about their skills. For example, Joshua Payne, who went to EGX for Tranzfuser with his team Ethereal Games UK, said he left university with a decent portfolio and a wealth of experience ranging from VR development to business and project management.
Pearson College London's Escape Studios presents a great example in this respect by working with industry partners to design and develop a range of undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses in visual effects, game art, animation, and motion graphics. The institution works alongside an advisory board of professionals that feed back information about what the industry needs from its graduates.
Forming closer relationships with developers is without a doubt the one consistent point which crops up when talking to anyone about how universities can better equip students for a career after graduation.
But building connections isn't necessarily easy, and even if universities are able to use these links to put students in placements, there is no guarantee it will be a worthwhile experience.
"You might go to work with a large developer and end up making the tea more than anything else, or you might get put on a fantastic project where you can really learn," said Durrant. "I just don't think you can nail the consistency."
The UK Games Fund has been trying to find a way around this inconsistency through community building. As a non-profit community interest company, it doesn't ask for returns on investment or loan repayments. Instead it simply asks the 70 or so companies it has funded to feed their skills and support back into the community. It has started off small but positive, and as the fund invests in more studios the capacity will snowball
Comparing the state of the union today with the 2011 Next Gen report, it's clear there is a proactive change for the better. Innovation is what this industry does after all. But in order to provide the best possible education, with a diverse workforce of graduates who possess the myriad skills that are so essential for a job in games development, studios and universities need to form an unshakeable alliance. They need to provide students with the opportunities for growth outside of academia, and develop a more robust and relevant curriculum for the continuing health of the industry.