Game grads in crisis: Why the industry is letting down new talent

Game grads in crisis: Why the industry is letting down new talent
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

September 4th 2015 at 11:45AM

Games development is more accessible than ever, but getting a foot in the studio door is getting tougher. Develop investigates why

A report conducted by Creative Skillset earlier this year revealed that just 21 per cent of people in the UK games industry have undertaken work experience prior to entering the sector.

This is lower than any other sector in creative media, which has an average of 41 per cent. The striking figures pose an important question: Is enough being done to support aspiring games professionals?

The reasons for not doing so are varied: the difficulties of providing work experience for under 18s due to UK laws; tough deadlines; office space; NDAs; and microstudios lacking the capacity to take interns.

I personally spoke to several students at this year’s Dare Protoplay in Dundee, a competition that brings teams of aspiring devs together from their respective universities to make a game – a great way of obtaining experience. While they praised Dare as a great addition to the CV should they look for work, many discussed the difficulties of obtaining studio placements. This is then confounded by the requirement for experience in many job roles.

One claimed that a classmate, upon being unable to find any work experience, or later a job in games, left for a completely different industry.

There are a few opportunities out there for people in audio, but not necessarily for making money off of or getting a full-time job.

Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish

Develop also contacted other students and graduates across the country to give us their experiences. One, who asked to remain anonymous, said that in Wales the situation is “a nightmare”, with no opportunities for work.

“A week working in a studio would have been a massive help for us as students,” he said. “It would probably be an inconvenience for the studios, though.”

Another student who studied in London, a key tech hub, said the situation there was no better.

“We were told about the importance of networking but there haven’t been many opportunities,” he said.

Another, who left studying games for an industry with more opportunities, said if more work experience had been offered, he may have been more invested in his degree. Ex-University of Abertay student Jaime Cross, who now works at Team Junkfish, said there are a few opportunities out there for people in audio, but not necessarily for making money off of or getting a full-time job.

“There are plenty of ways to build up a portfolio and show you can work in a freelance capacity – even if the rates aren’t great for some things – but your only shot at a full- time audio role here is starting your own company,” he said.

Academic initiative

Some universities have been helping to alleviate the challenge these students face. Sheffield Hallam runs its own internal studio, Steel Minions, that makes commercial games, such as the recent PS4 title PieceFall.

The university’s senior lecturer in Game Development Jacob Habgood admits it’s not easy for studios, who may find the idea of ‘carrying’ a placement student less appealing with deadlines to meet, but thinks more can be done.

“Studios need to soften their attitude a little – it has certainly paid off for Sumo,” says Habgood. “They generally take a couple of Hallam’s students every year now. A very high proportion of those students go on to be employed by Sumo when they graduate, so they must have impressed.”

Sion Lenton is a lecturer at universities including the National Film and Television School, who has also held roles at Sega and Codemasters. He says in his experience if someone shines during work experience or an internship, studios would snap them up, resulting in what’s usually a safe hire.

He admits there’s a cost to studios – such as paperwork and interviews, while also sucking up the time of staff. But the benefits can outweigh the costs.

“Anything you can do to help find that potential code ninja or the artist that can turn out any style quickly, is a bonus,” he states. “Maybe more devs need to look on it as an opportunity to safely and cheaply discover new talent as opposed to it being a chore or an impediment to their efficacy or an expense they don’t need.”

Students vs studios

While some studios do offer chances for aspiring devs to get a taste of the sector and studio life, there’s another problem.

Stats provided by Creative Skillset show that in 2014, 60 universities and colleges offered 215 undergraduate and 40 master video game courses. The most recent stats available, courtesy of the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the 2012/2013 academic year, show that 3,125 students were taking games as a subject of study.

Compare this with the 620 studios in the UK, according to TIGA, and you can see the difficulties studios face when lending experience in such a highly competitive field. Lenton says a local studio in  Leamington Spa, which houses around up to 300 staff, recently had over 1,000 applications for a dozen places. It’s a situation Creative Assembly also faces with its own placement scheme.

“The difficulty from our perspective is that there are more people interested in working here than we can fit into the studio,” says HR business partner Emma Smith. “We actively promote games as a career option via our Legacy project and other avenues where we have a platform to shout about what we do as a studio, and I believe that the majority of studios are just as proactive as we are.”

Smith adds that young devs should be looking events to get experience, and making their own apps.

The difficulty from our perspective is that there are more people interested in working here than we can fit into the studio.

Emma Smith, Creative Assembly

But not everyone can jump into indie development. Working with professionals on a live project has the potential to be invaluable, and it’s something studios don’t offer enough of.

“Work experience helps prepare people coming out of university for a proper dev environment,” says Team17 creative manager Kevin Carthew. “There should be more of it, and it’d certainly do more good than harm.

“The main difficulty is in finding people. Services like Creative Skillset’s trainee finder do help with this, but from my experience I think universities could do a little more. I’d like to see more of them proactively contact studios about working together.”

Even for those that do offer traineeships and internships, visibility is another issue. There are, of course, great initiatives by UKIE, Creative Skillset and Next Gen Skills Academy, to name a few, but more needs to be done to increase awareness.

“What studios have available to people at internship placement and work experience levels, are a little bit shrouded in mystery,” admits Jagex talent acquisition specialist John Chalkley.

“It’s common that I speak to people already in the industry that have a limited understanding of the studios even in their local area. Obviously that’s why people go to agencies when they’re looking for work because it’s hard to find a centralised resource to say these companies are offering this.”

It’s clear more effort is needed to connect students and universities with games studios, and Develop is keen to help. See our plans for a new dedicated web page for work experience placements and internships here.

The industry can do more to get more people into games. It’s time we did.